I’m a former product manager. I decided a little under a year ago that I wanted to become a software engineer, and in April I graduated from Hack Reactor. Getting a job at any level is tough, and that difficulty is multiplied the earlier you are in your career. And yet, 2 months after starting my job search I had 7 job offers, from startups all the way to Amazon, Oracle and Google. I even had more onsite interviews scheduled that I had to start turning down. What???
My job-searching strategies were unconventional: and they worked.
The more I talked to friends and classmates, the more I realized that hardly anybody is using these tools. I want them to be useful to other job-seekers beyond myself, so I’m writing this article to compile what worked for me. I am not a professional career advisor, and I can’t promise results or offers — so take anything I say with a grain of salt. I’m just a software engineer who managed to get myself into a lot of interviews, and turned those interviews into a lot of great offers. In the process, I had to expand my idea of what “applying for jobs” looked like outside of the normal bounds of my imagination.
So how did I do it? Below is an explanation of how I got into the interview room — my 10 rules for getting a foot in the proverbial door. For each one I’m including how many of my own job offers they contributed to (not counting, of course, many more interviews). I speak about my search as a software engineer, but I think these strategies are applicable to any industry.
Go through the back door (7/7 offers)
“Applying through the front door” means submitting a traditional application with a resume and cover letter to an official job posting. This might work, occasionally. The rate of return is low — even lower if you don’t have traditional qualifications on paper.
Of my 7 job offers, not one of them came from a standard front-door application. Everything else here follows from the central premise that the fastest way to an offer may be a less obvious route.
SEO your LinkedIn (3/7 offers)
Recruiters use LinkedIn to find great candidates. How do they do it? The same way I search Google for Rick Astley: “rick roll redhead 80’s prank video”. They use keywords, often related to the tech stack or job description, to find people with relevant experience.
Throughout your LinkedIn profile, you want to include keywords relevant to any technologies that you’re familiar with. On LinkedIn, I:
- Paid for LinkedIn Premium. Just do it. It bumps you up in search results and job applications. If it gets you an offer one day sooner, it’s worth it.
- Went to Jobs -> Career Interests, and marked myself as Actively Applying for jobs. I then included every variation of software engineer or software developer under job titles I would consider.
- Wrote a lengthy summary (mine was 4 paragraphs long) at the top of my profile, with a hefty list of technologies I’ve used.
- Listed all of my independent projects on my profile as experience, with a title of “software engineer” and a list of the tech stack in the description. As a self-employed engineer, these projects were valid experience demonstrating my abilities. I treated them as such, regardless of whether I was being paid to make them.
- Listed technologies I had used in the “skills” section and got endorsements from folks I had worked with.
The floodgates finally opened when, after all of the above, I applied for a few jobs directly on LinkedIn. It may have been coincidence, or perhaps it notified recruiters that I was looking. But suddenly recruiters reached out to me multiple times per week, or even per day, with opportunities.
*Caveat: Don’t crowd your profile with nonsensical lists of keywords. LinkedIn warns you could be “filtered out by [their] spam detection algorithms, which will negatively impact your appearance in search results.” Be detailed about your tech experience, but in ways that are truthful and coherent.
Say “yes” to everyone — Even for positions you think you don’t want (2/7 offers)
I knew I wanted to focus my search on certain types of roles, in certain cities. And yet, I scheduled a call with every recruiter who reached out, even if it was for a role that didn’t interest me.
- Recruiters are rarely just supporting one position. They usually have many openings to fill. They just described this one to pique your interest.
- The team/role can surprise you. One of my most exciting offers was for a company I originally was not enthused about — but as soon as I talked to them, I realized they actually had an incredible mission and I was hooked.
When a recruiter messaged me about any position at all, my response was something like: “Thank you so much for your message! I would love to learn more. Are you available for a call tomorrow at 4pm? My phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx.” Once we were on the phone, I explained exactly which types of roles I wanted to pursue. They almost always had something that matched my interests and were happy to set me up with an interview there instead.
Make the First Move (2/7 offers)
In addition to saying “yes,” I also actively reached out myself to companies I liked. I would search that company’s employee list on LinkedIn for signs of potential: “recruiter,” “talent acquisition,” “engineering manager,” or anybody whose profile said something like “We’re hiring!”
I then sent them an email or LinkedIn message, expressing interest:
I hope this message finds you well! My name is Moriah, and I’m a full-stack software engineer looking for new opportunities in <city>. I saw that you have an opening for the <position name> role, and want to reach out. <1–2 sentences about why this company is awesome>
I have experience with <skills I have that relate to their tech stack>; I think I would be a great fit for your team. Would you be available to chat a bit more about this opportunity next week, either Monday or Tuesday?
Thanks so much for your time — talk to you soon!
Be persistent (2/7 offers)
Often after sending an email like the above, I got no response.
… I would follow up 2–3 business days later, with some version of “Just want to make sure you got my message below!…” Usually, still no response.
So I found somebody else. With one company that I really loved, I spent weeks emailing different people one by one with no response. Finally one of them forwarded my email on to another recruiter I hadn’t contacted, who then replied saying they would love to schedule a phone call. Did they all talk to each other about this crazy person (me) who sent them all the same email, and then file a restraining order? Nope.
In fact, the first person I had emailed (who had never replied!) was one of my interviewers at my onsite. They ultimately offered me a job.
Call their bluff (1/7 offers)
Sometimes a recruiter would look at my profile or “connect” on LinkedIn, without sending me any message afterward.
What was up with that? Maybe they decided I wasn’t experienced enough. Maybe they were busy. Who knows. I decided to take matters into my own hands. Anytime this happened, I started reaching out to them myself.
I saw your invite to connect and wanted to reach out. I’m a full-stack software engineer currently looking at new opportunities in <city>. I would love to schedule a time to chat — do you have availability Monday or Tuesday after 3pm?
I kid you not, this worked. Frequently, they replied and were happy to set up a call. Recruiters operate in the world of sales, where sheer chutzpah is a valuable job skill: I think maybe they respected my audacity. Case in point: The message above, sent to a recruiter who had quietly connected with me on LinkedIn but sent no followup message, led to the winning job offer that I ultimately accepted.
Get a referral (3/7 offers)
One of the first things I often did — before contacting recruiters — was to find somebody who worked there to give me a referral. This is a well-known strategy, but it seriously makes a difference. Some things you should know:
- Most companies reward employees who refer somebody that accepts a job offer. They have an incentive to refer you, so don’t feel guilty asking.
- Buy coffee for strangers. Of the offers I got from referrals, only one was from an existing friend. The other two I met on an airplane and at a chicken nugget party (yup), and offered to buy them coffee to learn more about their work. Both led to referrals, job offers and new friends.
- Referrals work better if they do the same job that you’re applying for.
Avoid Qualification Traps (7/7 offers)
This is one of the trickiest things to get right, because it’s a lot like politics. Often interviewers asked questions that might trap me into saying something like, “I only just graduated from a bootcamp” or “No, I haven’t used that technology.” To which the answer was, “We’re looking for experienced hires” or “We need somebody with knowledge in this area.” Better luck next time. It’s the classic conundrum: How do you get experience if every job requires that you already have multiple years of professional experience?
I simply found ways to frame my experience differently. Here were some of my common responses:
- Do you have any professional experience? I talked about the independent projects I worked on, emphasizing what I accomplished. I explained that these were built as a self-employed software engineer, though not technically as an employee of another company.
- How much experience do you have with <highly specific tech>? Do you know any others besides <the one you’re interviewing with>? I emphasized that I had been working with this language most recently, but was excited to get more exposure to <xyz other tech> in my next role. I used this to segue to why I love software engineering: it’s about adapting to new situations and skills as technology changes, which I’ve been told is one of my core strengths.
- What’s this bootcamp on your resume? I explained that, though I had some programming experience when I decided to transition to software engineering full-time, I wanted to level up. So I attended a software engineering immersive to get more professional experience with technologies that are being used in the industry today.
I did not lie about my seniority or my skills. But I found ways to avoid answering questions that felt like “qualification traps,” as I call them: I never responded with a defeated admission of something that I lack. Instead, I learned to pivot to a response that reflected my strengths so they could make a more informed decision about my competency as an engineer.
A friend of mine was having trouble getting past the very first calls with recruiters, constantly being told they weren’t experienced enough to even be sent to an interview. I shared this tip, and a week later they reported that changing this framing was like night and day in how their phone calls went. Finally, they were getting into interviews again — just by pivoting away from qualification traps and refocusing the conversation to their strengths.
Use other interviews and offers to your advantage (7/7 offers)
In your first call with a recruiter, they want to gauge how likely you are to be worth their time. They want to send through the candidates who are most likely to receive an offer, because they get paid when you sign it. To this end, they will almost always ask something like, “Where are you in your interview process? How are things going so far?” I casually leveraged my other interviews to be taken seriously and put into the pipeline.
- Once I had at least 2–3 interviews scheduled: “I’m still pretty early in my search, but I do have a few interviews lined up over the next couple of weeks…” (Rationale: if you have other interviews, then at least somebody else thought you were worth interviewing. So, maybe you are).
- Once I had at least one interview from a “big name” company: “I have a few interviews scheduled, one with <company name> next week and some others the week after…” (Rationale: if you got an interview at <selective well-known company> there must be something impressive about you that they figured out. So, you’re likely worth their time).
- Once I had at least one onsite: “I have interviews right now in all stages from onsites to initial phone screens, though I’m still open to exploring new opportunities…” (Rationale: if you have onsites, then you did well enough in a technical interview to move to the next stage. So, you’re probably worth their time).
- Once I had at least one offer: “I do already have an offer, but I am very interested in <company> and would love to have an opportunity to interview if there is any way to expedite the process…” (Rationale: If you have offers, somebody thought you interviewed well enough to pay you money in exchange for your skills. So, you’re almost certainly worth their time).
It’s up to you how much detail to provide, but find ways to casually mention your existing interviews and/or offers. They appreciate the information: it gives them data points they can use to do their jobs more effectively, and lets them know you’re worth the time and energy they are investing in you.
Acknowledge your impostor syndrome, and face it head on (7/7 offers)
None of this stuff works 100% of the time. You will still receive plenty of rejections before you even have a chance to show anyone what you can do. I did daily standups with a friend via video chat every morning to go over yesterday’s progress, today’s game plan and ways to improve our own strategies — turning failure into data instead of self-doubt. It kept me motivated and accountable, and I never felt alone in the search.
Everybody has a different way to stay engaged. When you receive rejection #3 or rejection #52, build a strategy to dust yourself off and forge ahead without losing the conviction that you are worthy.
Epilogue: An Unlikely Case Study
I want to share a story about another friend, who is an engineer at one of the most prestigious tech companies out there. People say working there a few years can land you a job wherever you want. Or at least an interview, right? Not necessarily — at least, not if you apply through the front door.
My friend has their heart set on one company in particular and is seriously obsessed. They’ve been reading books and listening to podcasts about it. They applied through the front door, even had a referral, and submitted a few applications for different positions with no response. I suggested they try emailing a recruiter to see if they could get a hold of a human being.
They didn’t know where to start, so I went on LinkedIn and used my normal strategy: look up the company, click to the list of employees, filter for recruiters or similar job titles. I made a contact list, and even found one recruiter that had graduated from the same college we did. I told my friend to start with that one, mention the college connection, try following up again in a few days, and then work their way down the list if they didn’t get a response.
Guess what? The next day my friend got a reply from the recruiter, with a followup to start the interview process.
(This article was originally published on Medium.)