Working SXSW (And How I Will Be Hired)

SXSWi at the Austin Convention Center

SXSW Interactive is now over and with it comes a big long exhale. For those who were here who I saw, it is always good to catch up and meet new people. For those I missed, let’s connect online somewhere.

This year I came with one goal in mind: to find a job. I didn’t come for the parties. I didn’t come for the constant, lame fist pumping and business card sluttery. I came to find a job. To that end, I did not get a badge. That may seem counter-intuitive but, in fact, worked tremendously in my favor. Every day of the event, I tracked down people who I thought could help me in some way. Shameless? Perhaps. The reality is that karma is always something that goes around.

Photo by AllAboutGeorge on Flickr

I’m not about to do the namedrop thing where I list everyone I talk to. That’s lame and it’s really no one’s business but mine. But what I do want to address what I do because, as much as I have been a public face, there are a lot of public faces and it’s become clear over the past few months that a lot of people really have no idea what I do or what I want to do. They want to help, but when all I can be introduced to an executive at a company as, “a really famous blogger,” then there is a disconnect in my own personal messaging. As more companies are discovering that I am on the market, they really want to know what I’m about.

In short, my official bio can be summed up as: “I am a business-savvy author and PHP developer who has led development teams, managed technical product lifecycles and have built up enough social capital and marketing prowess to put any agency to shame.”

In greater detail, I come from a PHP development background having coded for the last 10 years. I still do that. As part of that, I have been part of the WordPress community as a core contributor for years and have built a reputation as a high-end WordPress “data guy” (as opposed to a design guy). I build plugins and do architecture stuff, for the uninitiated. I have led development teams. Remotely. Which is hard to do. We built products for the internal growth, analytics and monitoring of our company and for our investors. Very nimble, very small, very distributed teams.

Somewhere in the past five years, I became a marketer. Not really because I don’t have a degree in communications and I don’t really do marketing. But I know how to do marketing well and can run circles around Agency types who like to ask, “Do you have Agency experience?” and then don’t want to talk because I don’t. Son, I could school your entire Agency.

I came to SXSW to find a job. Specifically, I came to find a job in Austin or a job where I could at least move to Austin. I have several solid leads from the resulting conversations and introductions. I did it by being real and not trying to be someone bigger than I am. I did it by acknowledging my own strengths. And my own weaknesses. I didn’t get caught up in the scene. It’s a distraction.

As a result, for the first time in four years, my SXSW experience was better during the day than at night during all the parties.

I don’t know if I will find the technical job with a business and public-side interface that I’m looking for. But I do know that there are people now who know that I can run a development team to build a kickass product that is going to need the grassroots, public-facing social capital that I’ve built up. I think I met a few this week. Here’s to hoping.

How to get a Great Tech Job

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This post is a guest post from Sandy Smith, a hiring manager and PHP developer at Forum One Communications in Alexandria, VA. It was originally an email to a mailing list in response to a job ad posted by a recruiter. The job requisition was worded in such a way to make it sound like the recruiter wanted someone with every web-tech skill and a “mastery” of it for about $75,000 (USD), a salary that is extremely low in the Washington, D.C. area. His response was so good that I asked if I could reprint it. He obliged. Follow Sandy on Twitter at @SandyS1 or at his blog.

So, random thoughts from a hiring manager, speaking entirely for myself, not for my company (My team has no open positions, though Forum One is hiring):

1) This is perhaps not the best job ad in history but it is not that bad. “Mastery” is a very vague word, and nobody wants to advertise for someone who’s “mediocre” at PHP, etc. So cut them a little slack that word, which seems to be the big problem for most people.

2) Learn to read job ads for what they really want. They almost all must pass through an HR person who is NOT a programmer, and sometimes vetted language is helpfully “punched up” by some editor before going out, not realizing they’re effectively changing the requirements by using more “positive” and “colorful” language. I’m going to use “needless” “quotes” some more, “here.”

3) When we’ve worked with recruiters–and I assure you as a hiring manager I see the same ratio of good/bad ones (hint: don’t call me to ask about a position and then demonstrate that you never bothered to visit the company website to look at the description we have posted–and hint: when I say I don’t deal with recruiters and you’ll have to talk to the same HR person who didn’t call you back the last time, you not getting a gig doesn’t mean I’m suddenly empowered to deal with recruiters…so…don’t call me), we’ve usually just supplied a position description to them. They didn’t alter it much, so the wording may not have changed much if someone from the hiring org posted it themselves.

4) The years of experience and the main technologies mentioned are the important parts of a job ad, as are some of the “types of work environment” experience credentials. The extra stuff is usually requested by the HR person to give them a way to sort through the avalanche of applicants, most of whom are barely if at all qualified, who arrive in their inbox. So if there is, as I once abused a quasi-governmental agency for requesting, a ‘magical pony who craps rainbow sherbet is flitting around a meadow somewhere thinking to itself, “You know, I think I’d rather have a government web job,”’ they can find it.

5) The key word is “Drupal.” They’re not really asking for somebody who can invent a new algorithm better than quicksort or even bridge C++ to Ada to PL/SQL to PHP or implement a perfect Strategy pattern using techniques borrowed from OCaml…they’re asking for a PHP web developer who can configure, theme, and write some custom modules for Drupal that might work with some outside systems that others seem to be responsible for. Your best bet is to send in a competently formatted (and spell-checked–seriously, do not put “detail-oriented” and have spelling errors) resume and a cover letter addressing the important points and showing how your experience matches those points.

6) And yeah, if you can’t hang some Javascript and CSS with XHTML onto those template files, then you’re probably not right for the job, and you should move on. And start Googling some tutorials because I know I expect basic Javascript, CSS, and X/HTML out of even backend PHP developers.

7) There are a lot of people applying for much lower-paying jobs, but quite frankly, there are a lot of people who believe in spamming every open position they find with the same resume regardless of whether they’re qualified or not. Trust me, it’s really obvious to the people on the other side when you do this. You will get much better results if you target your application to the position, and skip ones that you know you’re not really right for. I realize this is hard when you’re not currently working, but a better effort on likely positions will get you more than minimal effort on every position you find.

8) Not every technical team is that great, and even if they are, they aren’t always great at finding the right people for the job, as the temptation is to hire someone like yourself, because hey, you’re awesome! Even if someone like yourself isn’t really right for the job. It’s not smart, but it’s really human. So while I have many issues with recruiters, I don’t think you can always lay the blame at their feet for not making their clients smarter. Who among us hasn’t had to swallow our pride and do something kinda dumb because the guy with the money said he didn’t care, he just wanted it that way?

9) If your organization is hiring for a PHP-centric position and you haven’t posted the job ad here–and there’s no legal/contractual reason you can’t–for heaven’s sake, why???

10) None of this is to suggest that recruiters don’t have problems of bullet-point matching that other people have brought up, or that they shouldn’t match candidates to positions using something better than what any random HR person can do in order to make them worth the money.

Photo by Utopian Branch Library

Moving on From Lijit

As the economy continues to spiral downward, and more companies are trying to extend their runways for as long as possible, we are hearing about an increasing number of layoffs. When you’re a contractor, you always sort of have it in the back of your mind that your number could be called at any time.

That time for me is now. Lijit has been my primary client since May and it has been a good run. I came into that role to learn the art of business development and I learned a lot. I can’t say it was my favorite role ever, but it added to my experience and gave me an opportunity to look at the web industry from a different side. No regrets.

Generally, my preference is to run a job or role until I get so good at it that I’m bored. Sometimes, things just don’t fall that way. My role will be changing in the next 45 days with Lijit. I am being offered a restructured contract that will be performance based and will allow me to expand myself back into tech. This is actually good for everyone as that will allow me to get into a role I excel in and can own in an economy where people are being laid off because they are expendable.

It also allows me to stay involved with the Boulder company and continue to extend the number of publishers who recognize the need for upgraded search capability and monetization of search content. At the same time, I can build my own pipeline and diversify enough to survive the next 18 months.

Of course, I am always open to discussions or job offers as well, so feel free to reach out as well at aaron@technosailor.com or 410-608-6620.