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September 10, 2008

Xen’s Guide to Job Hunting

Work in Progress… How I wish there is some machine that can project all my thoughts directly!!!

I’ve been asked such questions since I started working. I myself have asked these questions before I started working. And I myself may need some reminders when I’m out looking for a new job. So here’s what I think.

Disclaimer: The following information is completely my personal opinion. In no event shall I be liable for any direct, indirect or incidental consequence, including but not limited to, if you successfully secure the job you desire, arising out of, or in connection with heeding any or all of my advice listed below.


Job hunting is about you finding a job. I have seen people looking from the wrong side: job hunting seems to be only about the company looking for a slave. To them job hunting is about being scrutinized, intimidated, insulted, disfigured, etc in front of the almighty who will decide your measly salary.

I see it as matchmaking. The company wants an employee, and you want a job. The company puts out their 择偶条件, and you reply with your relevance to it. You meet up, not just for the company to see if you’re suitable, BUT also for you to see if the company suits you. If so, both negotiate the dowry, and get married by signing the employment contract. Because the BUT part is often missing, it results in scary interviews and bad experiences.

So what can be done? Lots of preparation. To analyze, to strategize, to negotiate.

Job hunting is a process. Just like how any big-enough company will see everything. The high level flow diagram for job hunting looks like this:

process.png

STEP I : THE SEARCH

The Search is about looking for the job offer.

Establish your preferences

Before you even start, you need to identify the type of job you prefer. This helps you to evaluate each job offer your receive. It also helps you when shortlisting which companies to send resumes. Preference may include the role of your job, the company industry, size, location, salary, benefits, and any criteria that would be a factor in deciding on a job. Different people have different preferences, and different people assign different priorities to the same preferences. Preferences may be positive (e.g. prefer city) or negative (e.g. do not want finance sector, do not want XXX company).

Do leave some flexibility in your preferences, there may be no job at the current moment in time that matches all your preferences. Also think about how much leeway you can afford in each criteria. E.g. How far are you willing to travel? Sometimes they may be compensated with another preference. E.g. How much more salary/benefit do I expect if I were to travel to a further location?

Look everywhere

Don’t just stick to the newspaper, or just the online web site. Ask your peers, even if from a different industry, because they may have an opening suitable for you in another department. Knowing people already in the company is definitely an advantage, because you can know more about the company not just how the HR sells it to you, but how an actual employee feels about it.

Deposit your resume with agencies. Some companies only go through agencies for staffing. Agency may also be a longer term scheme. They may inform you of good job offers even after you have got your job. I was introduced my current job from an agency, when I have not sent any resume for the past year. They probably held my records since the first time I was looking for a job; I mass-sent my resume then. Of course I had the chance to send my updated resume when they called.

Do market research

Do market research at the same time, as it is important you understand the market rates. Learn the salary ranges and typical benefits. This will become useful only later during the offer step, but it would usually be too late to learn about it then. Note that this information will become outdated after some time, so you may have to renew it each time you look for a job (unless you are regularly tracking the market). So start gathering information now.

Try everywhere

For first timers you may want to attempt a few companies that fall into your negative preferences. For example, give one bank a try even if you listed you prefer a non-finance sector. If you’re lucky to go for interview, you can then objectively say that the company does not suit you after that.

Going for interviews that you’re sure you don’t want also let you build up confidence for interviewing the jobs you really want. You will be less afraid of making mistakes since you know it’s fine to screw it up. (This does not mean you can be sloppy or rude. If you’re not naturally professional you will have to learn to behave professionally.) You might be able to identify the common things that the employer is looking for, or common questions asked, and therefore prepare better subsequently. Remember the last step of the process is you accepting the offer. So even if you performed well during the interview and the company makes you an offer, you can always reject it with your original preference reason. Do be tactful when doing it: you probably want to say that you have considered the job unsuitable after the interview session, so as not to create an impression that you were wasting their time.

STEP II : THE RESUME

The Resume is sent to companies you have shortlisted in the previous step. The purpose of the resume now is to sell yourself to the company, such that they select you for an interview.

Match their requirements

The job advertisement should have listed their expectations of the skills you possess. Design your resume to highlight them, first. They may have a lot of resumes to go through, the more concise and matching your resume is, the higher chance they shortlist you. I personally keep my resume to 2 pages. You may not match all of them exactly, thats fine. In some industries like mine, its often hard to match all of them. To have matches between what they want and what you can give would be one of the basic ways they shortlist you. But there is no need to be extreme to have all of their requirements on your resume word for word. List your actual skills. It’ll be worse if they verify your skill and you don’t possess it.

On the other extreme, if you have little matches, but you really desire the job, send a customized letter with your resume to justify why they should hire you. If there’s no advertisement, but you’re interested to join that company, send a letter with your resume. Remember, getting shortlisted at this stage is the only way you can proceed in the game.

Do take note of the unmatched expectations. Give some thought on it. How will you make up for it? Are you keen to pick up the new skill? The company will expect you to perform that part of your job too. If it is a critical requirement, you can be sure that the employer will discuss it during the interview (if you have been shortlisted despite missing the critical requirement, that is).

Check, Check, Check

Your resume need to be correct, and up to date. Although some employers I know are less concerned with the actual resume, it is still a “first impression” of you. Spelling mistakes should not exist. Worse mistakes are contact details mistake. You may lose your desired job just because they could not contact you on the mobile/email you provided. Get someoneS to proof-read your resume. If you have gone for a few trial interviews they would also have “tested” the contact details on your resume.

For me I take these steps to do up my resume:

  • I PDF my resume so that I would not make accidental changes when sending them out. It can be opened by a free downloadable viewer, and most PCs are installed with the Reader software. The layout is also consistent on screen and in print.
  • Each of them are also dated so that I can talk about the same copy when referencing it over the phone. I will also know if I should send them an updated copy.
  • Each page has a page number, and my name in the footer, so that it will not be mixed with another person’s resume. Page number include total number of pages, so that missing pages can be identified.
  • I got a new email alias that matches my name closer, rather than some “nickname”. Looks more professional. Preferably it can be linked to a mailbox that you check frequently, or you may miss out offer responses.

Prepare references

Some employers may ask for references. You need to be ready to give them, so prepare them beforehand, i.e. get your references contact details and seek their approval to be your reference.

Be prepared

Once your resume is out, you need to be prepared for the interview already. Things may happen very quickly; an agency might call you back within one hour of an emailed resume, to verify contact information and obtain more details. Being prepared means ready to sell yourself, which implies understanding your strengths and weaknesses (see next step).

You should be in a comfortable situation to respond to the queries. If not, such as for example you are in a noisy underground train, smooching with your other half, or baking a cake in the toilet, offer to resume the conversation at a later time when you are more comfortable. Things might work against you when you are in a distracted environment, or when you cannot hear each other clearly.

STEP III : THE INTERVIEW

Step 1 was about you choosing the company, and step 2 the company chose you. This step is about both of you now. I view this as the critical part of the job hunting process. The key is still: preparation. This is when you have the luxury of time and consultants to design your responses. On the actual day you will most likely only able to pull out whatever you have put into your hat.

Know thy company

You need to know what their business is about. Be interested in the business. You may not know their internal organization structure, but you should at least know one product/service they’re selling, hopefully something related to what you are going to do there. If possible, link up your strength with the company, such as experience in their industry, or subjects and modules you’ve done in school.

Know thy strengths

Identify your own strengths, and play it to the best during the interview. Let the interviewer know about your strengths using the questions asked. This can be played well with “Know thy questions”.

Know thy weaknesses

Some people don’t prepare this, so they can’t think of any on the spot, or they smoke one up, or end up exposing some weakness they can’t repair.

Nobody is perfect, so be prepared to list some weakness, but NEVER stop there. Turn it into a strength, or mitigate it. For example, some form of over-hardworking can be a weakness, but it could be a strength. For me I often say I have a rather poor memory and I don’t remember APIs, so I have references handy and I tend to do more documentation. Also put the phone organizer to good use.

The more truthful it is, the easier it is to bring up examples and instances to support it.

Know thy standard questions (thus answers!)

Employers are usually looking for something with each question. If you know what they are looking for, demonstrate you have it, and support it with evidence. This is when your other experience you listed in your resume comes in. Common characteristics they are looking for include leadership, responsibility, communication skills, adaptability, teamwork, independence, initiative, or anything that the company or interviewer values. Therefore you need to prepare and think about which life events are useful for you to demonstrate certain traits. Even if you have not thought about the particular value, it will be easier if you have already shortlisted those life events. Just pick one suitable one and link your story up. However If you don’t have the trait, remember to mitigate it (see the previous section).

For example, an individual competition shows my independence to achieve world-class results, while a project excellence award demonstrates my capability to also work in a team and deliver award-winning products.

Some standard questions:

  • Tell me about yourself. This is the best time to sell yourself, especially in relating how your strengths match the job requirements.
  • Where do you see yourself in X years time?
  • Why do you want to quit your current job? (if not fresh)
  • (many other questions can be found on the Internet. The trick is to first understand what the employer is looking for with the question, then design answers that relate to yourself.)

Prepare questions

The last few “Know thy”s are about convincing the employer, thus you need to demonstrate that you can provide value to the company. That’s why they should hire you. Whereas this section, which many have missed, is about the employer convincing you. This is when you evaluate in real-time if this company matches your preferences. That’s why you should accept the job. It may occur at the end of the interview, but preferably it should happen throughout the conversation. You should have some pre-prepared questions prior to the interview. Additional questions may also have popped up during the interview.

I categorize questions into two types, the first type relates to the job/company, the second type about your benefits. I recommend asking more of the first type and minimal of the second type at initial interviews — you should be assessing if the job/company suits you. Only if you find the job suitable, and you get positive hints that the employer finds you attractive, then should you start to measure if the renumeration package attracts you. Being more interested in benefits may demonstrate that you are more interested in what the company can do for you, than what you can do for the company.

The Interview Day

Some of my personal do’s and don’ts.

  • DO be punctual. DO give a call if you will be late. By logic, (in case you haven’t figured out) DO have your interviewer’s phone number with you, preferably on paper, so that you can use any phone to call.
  • DO have the interview invitation (if available) printed with you. A printed email is fine. The paper will be able to bring you from the receptionist to the interviewer (especially if the company is above a certain size). DO have a backup copy. Somehow the first copy you show doesn’t come back to you.
  • DO have backup copies of your resumes. A few interviewers I experienced have never seen my resume (just printed out), and some don’t even have it. (They just got arrowed out of the blue to conduct the interview). Help them by giving them a copy. Having a copy in front of you can also help remind yourself your matches and strengths.
  • DO have a pen ready. There are often forms to fill in. For my type of job, sometimes written tests to take.
  • DO have spare self-photos ready. Some forms require photographs. Some people believe they shouldn’t judge you by your looks. So its up to you. You may intentionally not bring self-photos.

STEP IV : THE OFFER

You’ve succeeded in wooing the company. The employer now asks for your hand, and you have the final say to agree to it. BUT, like a marriage, don’t jump into it rashly. You need to ensure you are not disadvantaged.

Decide on a minimum internally

You should have in mind a minimum offer in your mind, and if negotiations start to fall below, that’s when you know you’ve hit the limit. If not you may find yourself being pressed down by their HR tactics.

Confirm the benefits

The company would have decided by now the package for you. Confirm the previous benefits you have discussed during the interview still applies. This is the time to ask all about your benefits, since the company is now keen to hire you.

You have the upper hand

Remember, to complete the entire transaction, you are the last one to sign on the dotted line. You have all the right to reject them for any reason (preferably something courteous). Do not be forced into signing if you are not satisfied with the terms. It may be possible also to ask for a few days for consideration before you agree. This gives you time to look over the contract and check the terms before you sign it. Another reason to do this might be you have other pending interviews you would like to go for. Remember to get a complete copy of the signed contract.

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