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Clinching that elusive first job in tech
I've landed my first tech job at 48 with no previous 'commercial experience'. I won't lie, it wasn't easy, and I almost gave up. But I'm glad I didn't and this is a list of what worked to get me through and clinch that elusive first job in tech.
1> Set your own expectations
It must be close to 22 years since a company has technically employed me, back when I used to work as a graphic designer. My background is a little unusual, but that said, I am an experienced and passionate designer. I've learnt to code from the kitchen table and put new skills to practice as a remote web designer. I put myself through coding bootcamp to build an MVP for my food tech company TreatOut.
I foolishly thought it wouldn't take long. I'd won awards and industry recognition validating my efforts as a remote worker. I’ve kept up to date learning about new technologies with online resources and on-the-job experience. After bootcamp I built the MVP for my food tech startup stepping up to the role of technical co-founder. I could easily get a job, couldn't I?
Uh no, not without commercial experience. Even the most junior positions wanted at least three years experience. I started to feel really gloomy about my prospects, given my lack of commercial experience. You've either worked for an external company as part of a technical team, or you haven't. No way to get around that. But you mustn't let it get to you.
I've been told that getting your first job in tech does take time, no matter how old you are, or what your background is. This will be a long game so be prepared. It took me the best part of nine months from May to January. Arm yourself ready to give it your best shot, be determined and stock up on plenty of stamina.
2> Keep tweaking your CV
My final CV was nothing like my first attempt. In fact, I lost count of the number of times I changed it, uploading each revision to various job sites. I'd listen to comments through each interview process, putting more emphasis on parts they found interesting and removing stuff that didn't seem to have any relevance. It worked. Towards the end of the job search, every new conversation would start with a compliment about my CV. Don't be scared to treat it as a living document.
Speak to people who are already working in the industry and get them to take a look at your CV. Talk about what you've done. I found this really useful, particularly from a female perspective. It's often quoted that women are far too modest on their CVs, so I asked a fellow male bootcamp student to write my CV for me.
It was quite a shock, what was assertive to him, to me felt like bragging. But I did go with it. The result was a complete re-write of what I'd originally put together, with just a few tweaks here and there to make it my own voice.
Dare To Be Creative
I wanted to make sure I caught the eye of the hiring manager drowning in a sea of CVs. After all, I claim to be a designer who codes. The presentation of my CV was a perfect way to demonstrate this. As before, the design evolved and changed completely over time.
One internal recruiter commented that given my experience I was a gamble. I just needed to find a company willing to take a punt and give me an opportunity to prove myself. That was the inspiration behind my CV's final makeover, re-branding myself as a wildcard.
3> Control your digital profile
The first thing I'd do to research a potential interviewer was google their name, and check out their digital profile. With that in mind, I needed to to take stock and make sure I had continuity across all online accounts ready for when I was the one being searched.
I was officially job hunting which made LinkedIn a good place to start. I edited the headline to clearly state that I was looking for new opportunities. My profile was updated to match the CV. I added links, listed awards and included certificates from online courses too. You can indicate to recruiters that you are job hunting. Do it, it definitely works and you will be contacted by recruiters who take an interest in your profile. I've made some seriously good contacts that way.
You want to be a coder so you've got to prove it. I tried to write code daily and get my profile full of little green dots. Github is your code portfolio and a chance to show how you approach a problem, how clean your code is and how well you can document your workflow. I took advice on what's considered good practice.
One tip that paid off was to make sure that every commit message I made was detailed. To make sure that I pushed commits little and often. To explain my thought process and write clear documentation on how my solutions could be installed. I was advised to write as if I was leaving my notes for myself, so that I would know exactly what I was thinking when I revisit the code again in 6 months time. I now see how that makes you a valuable team member, where your colleagues will love you for making it easy to understand what you've written.
Your personal website
I had some work to do here because I originally set the site up as a web designer to get freelance contracts. Any page geared up for contract work was removed. My blog hadn’t been updated for a while so that came off too. I decided to add my CV here again and in fact, this still remains as the content for my homepage. It's important to remember that this is your digital showcase, a place to show off the projects you’ve worked on. I wanted to make sure it complimented my CV and LinkedIn profile.
Be active on social media
Social media for me is a tool to show personality, interests and a way to expand my network in a less formal manner. However, regardless of which platform I use, I am mindful to keep it professional at all times.
4> Practice, practice, practice
If you’re applying to lots of jobs you're going to be asked to do a ton of code tests. You could be asked a whole range of technical questions about lots of different languages. I was told to practice, to try and code daily and it was pretty good advice. Here are a few useful resources recommended to me:
Exercism.io is really useful with plenty of people using the platform, ready to offer advice on how to improve your code. It’s a great practice tool.
Freecodecamp.org is an open source community that helps you learn to code, build pro bono projects for nonprofits, and get a job as a developer in the process.
5> It's all in the preparation
I looked at company websites, downloaded apps and engaged in some friendly LinkedIn and twitter stalking to learn more about the people I'd be meeting. It was time well spent and enabled me to talk about company products and have my own set of questions ready to ask at interview. Of course this goes without saying and every recruiter will drill on the importance of you doing your research before each interview.
Sometimes a more technical question would throw me off guard highlighting a gap or weakness in my knowledge. With a bit of homework I'd make sure I was ready with an answer should the topic come up again at the next interview.
6> Finding job vacancies
I developed quite the love-hate relationship with recruiters. I'd make a plan to contact a handful of recruiters each week to get some conversations started. More often that not I'd end a call regretting I'd even started. If like me you're not a standard tick box candidate it can be hard to get recruiters to engage and take interest. They were dismissive, disinterested and some were just downright rude. I even wrote about the lessons learnt tech job hunting as a woman returner.
But, you have to remember that not all recruiters are like that. In fact, I've made a contact list of those who were lovely to deal with. Start conversations, quickly end calls that aren't looking promising and keep in regular contact with the good ones, trust me, they are worth their weight in gold.
Tech job fairs
Job fairs were useful because I could talk face to face with the hiring companies and get past the initial barrier of a CV screening round and the elephant in the room - unconscious bias. I had a short version of my CV printed onto a postcard and handed these out during each conversation. Here are a couple I found useful:
FindATechJob - currently specific to London, but the format is like speed dating for recruitment, where you get to chat directly with hiring teams over a beer.
SiliconMilkRoundabout - is the big 2 day event held twice a year in London, and well worth grabbing a free ticket if you are job hunting.
Approach companies direct
Over time I learnt to email my CV direct to companies that looked interesting regardless of whether they were hiring or not. I made it clear that it was a speculative application sometimes receiving a response the same day. I discovered that some internal talent acquisition managers keep a shortlist ready for the next hiring round, and this is a perfect tactic to get your name on that list.
7> Don't give up!
I did open with a disclaimer that it will take time and it won’t be easy so don't give up. Remember, you become better with each round of interviews. Towards the end of my jobhunt, applications started to move pretty quickly resulting in the last two both going to final stage, just two weeks before I was ready to quit my search and go find a job doing anything.
And here I am! I have landed my first tech job working as a full stack rails developer for Skills Matter. I'm still pinching myself that I now have a dream job smack bang in the middle of geek heaven.