Breaking into Tech — Tips from a Former Recruiting Admin
I committed to studying web development in March 2020. By the end of August 2020, I quit my job. I graduated from a coding bootcamp in the beginning of January 2021. In March 2021, I accepted my first developer role.
My previous role was in high volume engineering recruiting. A typical day for me would include reading job descriptions, scheduling interviews, and customer service for candidates, clients, and current contractors. Sometimes that even meant hiring and firing. While attending networking events and tech job search panels, I started hearing some stories that made me realize how valuable my recruiting industry experience was.
What follows is an amalgam of the best practices I gleaned from the sidelines of thousands of interview processes as well as tips I picked up during my job search for my first tech role. If you take none of the advice from the rest of this article, please remember a rejection from an interview often has more to do with the hiring manger than you.
Ultimately, using the network you have and growing it are the best ways to see the kind of roles you’re looking for and get your resume in front of the right people. The other way you can do it is what I like to call “tossing your resume into the void.” I got a lot of leads from applying to jobs for which I was under-qualified. I would get an email a month later from the same company or recruiter for a role that was more of a fit. However, it’s a numbers game. I filled out 195 applications and only heard back from 80–90, whether it was from a human or an automated rejection letter. (Usually the latter.) That’s not even counting a depressing amount of LinkedIn messages. I know quite a few people who have done this successfully, but it requires dedication in the face of rejection, as they usually end up applying to 400+ jobs.
Responding to Recruiters
I’m going to use “recruiter” to refer to someone who is scheduling your interviews but is not a hiring manager or interviewer. This could be an admin or someone in HR as well.
First and foremost, recruiters are typically recruiting for one job at a time. Their focus is to bring in candidates for that role. If you’re not a fit and trying “tossing your resume into the void,” reply back with your resume and ask them to keep you in mind. The goal is to have them make you a candidate profile in their database, so that you pop up when they search for the next role that could be a fit for you. They might even send your resume to another recruiter who is looking for someone like you. The other way to get yourself a profile is to apply to jobs on all the job boards, especially identical ones you see posted at the same time with no company name. That usually indicates a job has been released to a number of recruiting agencies.
A recruiter may ask you to reply back to an email stating that they have the right to represent you. A Right to Represent should not be a binding legal document. It should only be an agreement between you and this recruiter that they will represent you for this one job. It can be useful for you, because some companies will submit your profile without contacting you. You want to be represented by the company you’ve set expectations with already. No recruiter can tell you that you cannot apply to jobs without them.
Be nice to everyone you talk to about a job. This seems like common sense, but being nice to your recruiter is just as important as being nice to your interviewer — even more so if they’re with the company you’re wanting to join. People talk to each other.
If a recruiter repeats something, it’s important that you get that right. A good recruiter will send you the job description and benefits summary and prep you with what you should expect before every interview. Read all of the interview instructions you receive and listen when they give you advice.
Interviews are exhausting and require prep and rest. Don’t over-schedule yourself.
Arrive to every interview (including video interviews) 5–15 minutes early with a list of questions to ask. There are a lot of great resources for questions out there already, but always remember you should be looking to interview the company while they interview you. I also toss in one or two personal questions about my interviewer, and use a fun detail from their answer in my thank you note.
If you’re on the phone or in a video call with someone, talking about a job, you should be taking notes. Right before an interview, check out the online presence of the company, especially their mission statement or values, and take notes. After this research, you should be able to give a brief overview of what the company sells and why.
Practice responses to questions you know you’ll get like “tell us a little bit about yourself” and “what are you looking for in a company?” Practice using your notes in your answers. Practice keeping your answers conversational. I’ve seen blog articles telling people to spend time crafting elaborate answers to common questions using keywords from the job description, and it is a much more valuable skill to be able to work them in on the fly. There are companies that offer mock tech interviews for a fee. Networking communities usually offer it for free. But technically anyone in your life can read you a list of questions and look stern.
Use your notes to write a thank you note for every interviewer. Use your thank you note to reiterate your strengths, why you like the company, and expand on an answer to a question you were asked if you need to. Get someone to proofread it. Email a pdf to your recruiter, instead of directly to your interviewers, if you’re working with one. That way, everyone in your interview process gets an email notification about you.
If you are interviewing at multiple companies, tell your recruiter or whoever your scheduling contact is. If one company makes an offer, ask when they need an answer by and immediately tell the other companies. They’ll let you know if they can accommodate your timeline within their interview process. Then, if you snag multiple offers, you have a lot of negotiating power.
If you do get the chance to use multiple offers to negotiate base salary and other compensation, my advice is to not turn down any offers until you have one signed.
If you don’t have a computer science degree, either dedicate yourself to very seriously studying data structures and algorithms right now or rule out all interview processes with timed algorithm challenge interview steps. There are plenty of companies using building coding challenges, whiteboard interviews, and technical questions in talk interviews instead of timed browser IDE tests. Do study data structures, algorithms, and system design, but don’t send yourself into an imposter syndrome spiral by repeatedly taking and failing algorithm tests if you’re not good at them.
An exploratory call is one in which someone from a company will contact you and ask if you’re interested in a 15 minute conversation. They’ll usually tell you a bit about the company and the role and then ask you if you’re interested in applying, which will start the actual interview process.
The positive feedback I received during and after almost every interview was about my passion. I truly felt that I was just nerdily ranting about code, but my interviewers saw a drive to learn and code outside of work and loved it. To me, that just aligned with two things I already believed — sharing your interests with other people is the best way to make relationships and never be afraid to let your nerd flag fly.
I also cannot stress enough that you need to remain calm and open in the face of correction, criticism, and feedback. That’s one of the main traits people are looking for in a developer who will be working in a team. If you can show that in an interview or any other time, it’ll only help you and your code.
Especially in tech, that first yes is a matter of luck and timing. Always be as flexible as possible for scheduling an interview. Always be open to new leads that could be a fit. Don’t be afraid to turn down roles that are not a fit.
I’m grateful that one of the things my teacher and bootcamp pushed was an online presence. To graduate, we were required to have a Github, LinkedIn, portfolio, and applicant tracking system (ATS) compatible resume. We also watched a panel by Martha Sharpe and her husband where they discussed how they transitioned into tech. I chose to adopt Martha’s “learning in public” process, which prompted me to start a Twitter account. There I shared my blog posts, my #100DaysOfCode journey, how and why I ended up studying data structures and algorithms for 30 days, and the process of building my new professional site.
I’ve started quite a few blogs in my time that never got any views, and when we were challenged to start one, my teacher stressed that it would be years before we should expect any pay off. So I just started writing about what I enjoy about programming, not expecting anyone to read it. Within 6 months, I had received a freelance job offer from someone who saw a blog post of mine. My next article was the fourth most popular blog post on dev.to the week it was posted.
Ultimately, the new site I built (and a very popular blog article about it) is what got me the leads that got me a job. My established network saw my LinkedIn post about the site going live on the anniversary of when I committed to learning web development. Thousands of strangers saw my blog post about building it. I showed it to a few people directly in my networking groups. Before, any LinkedIn message I received was guaranteed to be about a scam, non-tech role, or an extremely senior tech role. After my post, I began receiving actual leads from people who had seen my site, including hiring managers!
Networking During Quarantine: Special Mention
I loathe networking the same way I loathe small talk, and networking remotely added another layer of discomfort. I would have normally buttered my friends and contacts up spontaneously with coffee, alcohol, or food to distance myself from the feeling that I was using them. Instead, I was left only with a text, phone call, or video call as an option. It felt just as empty as emailing or LinkedIn messaging someone I didn’t know. I kept telling myself I’d just schedule an outdoor, socially distanced coffee meeting at some point, but January weather often thwarted me.
However, women helping women get into tech is still a beautiful thing, and I stumbled into a lovely global community called Virtual Coffee. If you’re struggling through interviewing right now, find a community of people who are going through the same thing. Also, special thanks to my friends who listened compassionately through the my entire job hunt.
The best piece of advice I got from a mentor was “every interview is practice for the one that eventually works.” She was completely right. I was at the top of my game when companies started saying “yes.” I had slowed down and given myself time to rest. I had stopped taking timed algorithm challenge assessments and thus regained my confidence in the face of a dark February fraught with imposter syndrome. I knew what I wanted from a company and what I was willing to compromise on. Thanks to the hiring manager in my very first technical interview, I knew I wanted to hold out for a developer role over leveraging my customer service experience for a role like DevOps. Most of all, I wasn’t nervous about my last few interviews. I knew I could conversationally respond to pretty much any question and I had gained a depth of knowledge in my handful of technologies that would stand up to rigorous technical questions.
As soon as I started the bootcamp, I started applying to jobs (with no portfolio!) as part of cultivating a sense of confidence to take me through the job hunt. I can be quite the perfectionist and my own worst critic, so I tried to avoid comparing myself to others and kept in mind a statistic I had seen that had always stuck with me. On average, men will apply to jobs when they’re a 60% match, and women will wait until they’re 100% a match. So I emulated Dolly Parton, who showed up in Nashville with no doubts that she would make a music career happen, and once said about any new challenge, “My desire to do it is stronger than my fear of it.”