Figuring Yourself Out

The first step to getting hired is to understand what you want and what you bring to the table.

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Let's get this thing started.

The first step isn't to go out and find 10,000 job postings or build a tool for auto-spamming your resume to anyone who mentions "job" on Twitter (though that would be interesting). Before any concrete action occurs, you need to figure yourself out.

We're not running a hippie drum circle here — this is important stuff. If you go blazing forward without knowing what you want and what you have, there are bound to be miscommunications and wasted time. That's why, before starting anything else, you need to think about:

  1. Where you are now
  2. Where you want to be
  3. What you bring to the table
  4. What you need to work on

Once you've figured these things out, you'll be in a fine place to move forward. This is an important step because it will help you zero in on the right job.

If we asked you right now "what does your ideal job look like?" and you started out with a shrug and said "I don't know... anything, really...", that's the wrong answer. It's a recipe for sounding wishy-washy in interviews and wasting time chasing opportunities and you don't really want anyway. Figuring out how to prioritize job opportunities starts with knowing yourself.

Where You Are Now

Take an inventory of where in your life you are right now. Maybe you're young and can live off Ramen noodles or maybe you've got a family and the switch into web development comes with the added burden of a mortgage and the college fund. This is about determining your non-negotiable needs.

Some things to ask yourself:

  • Why do I need a job?
  • What kind of salary level do I need?
  • What kind of job security do I need?
  • Is earning money or learning skills the most important aspect of a job?
  • How desperate am I to get a job right now?
  • What might prevent me from accepting a job offer (e.g. geography)?

Hopefully these questions will help you figure out the hard lines which would invalidate a potential job. Just based on the answers above, you'll probably be able to eliminate multiple unproductive paths which might otherwise seem attractive (e.g. looking for jobs that won't pay what you need or are outside your necessary geography).

Where You Want to Be

Once you've figured out your needs, you can think ahead to what you want. These will be important for differentiating between attractive jobs and unattractive jobs. Again, if you go out guns blazing without really thinking about these things first, you're guaranteed to waste time. It will take an hour at most to really ponder what matters to you.

Questions to ask yourself (and write down!):

  • Why do I want a job in web development?
  • What kind of career path do I want to have?
  • Do I want to work in a developer-led organization (vs sales- or business-led)?
  • Do I prefer working in a team environment or remotely?
  • Do I like working long hours / weekends or 9-6?
  • Is the work more important than the people?
  • Do I have to care about the product I'm building?
  • Do I have to care about the technologies I'm using?
  • Do I prefer an "easy" work environment or one where I'm constantly pushed?
  • Do I want "creature comfort" incentives like free food and beer at the office?
  • Do I have to enjoy my work or can I power through a crappy job?

After doing this, you should have a clearer (if not actually "clear") idea of what might constitute an "ideal" job. If you save these questions, they will also be a good basis for what you might ask a potential interviewer to determine if their company is a good fit.

Prioritizing Needs and Wants

Once you've asked yourself these questions, it's time to rank them. Be honest. No one's watching to see if you say the "right" things. If you're more interested in the money than the product, that's important to know.

The output of this exercise should be a list that contains every single one of your "Must-have" criteria and your top-5 ranked "Nice-to-have" criteria.

Your Assets and Liabilities

The hardest part of this is turning the lens deeper into yourself. What do you bring to the table?

If you're early in your career (which you probably are), you'll have to work hard to distinguish yourself from the flood of unqualified candidates out there. You need to strike the line between being honest with yourself and not selling yourself short.

Everyone, especially if you're just starting out, feels unqualified. That's natural, so don't worry about it. This is about figuring out your strengths and weaknesses so you can tailor your story to play to your strengths and honestly address your weaknesses.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How hungry am I?
  • How good am I at building back end code (if you have experience)?
  • How good am I at putting together front ends (if you have experience)?
  • Can I solve really technical problems like brain teasers and algorithms?
  • Have I built projects that display a good range of skills?
  • Do I know people who can recommend me?
  • Am I a good people person who builds relationships easily?
  • Do I portray an aura of confidence or act shy?
  • Do I tend to undersell myself and my capabilities?
  • Do I have a broad level of general tech knowledge?
  • Am I very familiar with a particular technical or industry vertical? (Usually career switchers have one)
  • Do I tend to procrastinate or do I just get things done?
  • Do I wait to ask for help or do I go out and find the answer on my own?
  • Do I lean in to challenges or avoid them?
  • What are some really difficult problems I've solved before?
  • Are you desperate to get a job?
  • When you're stumped by a problem, do you panic?

Applying without much experience means you need to fill in your weak spots and emphasize your strengths. For almost everyone, your biggest strength will be hunger and ability to learn. But companies have heard that story before, so you'll have to tie in other strengths that you can to make your story compelling.

Make note of your top 5 strengths and your top 3 weaknesses. The strengths will form the basis of your personal narrative and the weaknesses should be something you work to address. You probably can't "fix" all your weaknesses but acknowledging them can help you to illuminate blind spots in interviews and to weed out potential positions which will be poor fits (e.g. client-facing roles for a devoted introvert).

A quick note -- there is a difference between hunger for opportunity and desperation. Hunger is about seeking reward (which you can do when you're in a comfortable situation and optimizing opportunities) and desperation is about avoiding failure (which occurs when you absolutely MUST have that job). Do whatever it takes to not sound desperate, even if you are. At some point in this process, you'll probably feel desperate. Learn to pull yourself together again, or hide it well while you take the next step anyway.

Know Your Ideal Job

In the realm of User Experience research, they rely heavily on user "Personas" which identify specific users of the company's products. This is because it is far more useful to think about building a product for "Rebecca Smith, 24, from Atlanta, GA who finished two years at the local community college, works in a beauty salon and collects vintage handbags" instead of "Early-20's women" or something equally broad. Our focus is remarkably improved when we think about specific people and not generalities.

The same is true for jobs! If you have a general idea that you "want a job where you can learn", you aren't thinking with the necessary level of specificity. You are about to start a career that could last for decades. How do you have no idea what you want to get into??

Everyone starts somewhere but it's time to move beyond that point. You need to craft a hypothesis for exactly which companies you would like to work for and in which capacities. It's perfectly fine to iterate this over time, but you need to start with a specific hypothesis.

This isn't merely an academic exercise designed to help you clarify what you are looking for -- it is the starting point you will use for reaching out to real developers. During an upcoming assignment, this will be quickly put to practical use.

For now, we'll start with something relatively lightweight that you should be able to work through in an hour or two. Write down:

  1. The specific company you want to work for most. Go on Glassdoor and look for similar companies and read their reviews. Keep working until you have a top 3 list. It doesn't matter if these companies have open positions right now.
  2. The specific role you want to work in. Go on Dice or Hired or similar sites and read through the job descriptions. Pick three which you would most be interested in and write down why you are most interested in these particular positions. It doesn't matter which companies these are with for now.

We will take this exercise even further shortly.

Once you have discovered your top 3 companies and top 3 roles, it's time to work backwards using what you know about the hiring system and the ideal developer. Ask yourself:

  1. What specific developer profile do you think your top 3 companies are looking for? What about the companies behind each of your top 3 roles?
  2. What do you think your specific team would look like in each of your top 3 roles?
  3. When they come across your resume, your Github, your personal site or your blog, what do you think they want to see to verify that you are their ideal developer?
  4. What do you need to do to make this happen?

Keep these companies and roles in mind and freely iterate on them as your skills grow and you learn more about what you do and do not like. Again, it's far less important to get it exactly right the first time than it is to have a specific idea of what you are looking for.

After doing this exercise, you should have a much clearer sense of how you need to present yourself and what you need to learn in order to achieve your goals. Upcoming lessons will take this theme and build on it.



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Next Lesson: Your Personal Narrative