“Peter, most people don’t like their jobs. But you go out there and try to find something that makes you happy.”
– Joanne, from the movie Office Space
Look where you will, and there are statistics showing that anywhere from 50% – 87% of people are unhappy with their jobs. No matter how you decide to read the statistics or how much faith you put in statistics, even 50% is a high number. Just a quick tally of your coworkers, divide by two, and if those people had a better offer, they’d be gone. Chances are good that they’re not the people you’d want to be gone because statistically speaking, just as many good people would leave as people you didn’t care to work with.
So if even by conservative numbers half of all people don’t like their jobs, why is the turnover rate at most companies so “low”? I say low as a relative term, as it varies widely by industry but most industries have turnover rates that are under 50%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , the average turnover rate is 3.2%. The way they calculate it seems a bit funky, but bear with me because the actual turnover is an order of magnitude lower than the people who are unhappy with their jobs.
Essentially what we have are two numbers showing that the turnover rate is under 5%, yet the number of people unhappy with their jobs is at least 50%. Only one out of every ten people who want to change jobs are doing so.
Why the Discrepancy?
Any number of factors could be contributing to this discrepancy. For example, just because people are unhappy with their jobs doesn’t mean they’re looking for new ones. Starting a new job is stressful, and the anticipation of that experience is similar. Most people don’t go looking for unpleasant experiences, even if there’s a payoff at the end.
For some people, situations in life may be pulling them back. People who plan to buy houses are told not to change jobs because it can affect mortgage rates. Others who have children on the way sometimes feel a responsibility to stick with their current jobs, as if somehow their current job is any more secure than another. There are also existing obligations of both time and space, which seem to prevent busy people from looking for jobs too far away from their current location.
That’s the short list of why there’s a discrepancy between the turnover rate and the number of unhappy working people. But these reasons only address the people who are not looking for jobs and why they’re not looking. There’s another distinct group of people who are looking, but are not being hired. Statistics on how many of these people exist are scarce, but it’s pretty safe to say that very few companies hire the first person they interview.
When companies start looking at candidates for a position, they look to qualify them as best as possible. Guy Kawaski interviewed Libby Sartain about Yahoo’s hiring practices and it came up that the ratio of applicants to job openings is about 50-1. Of those fifty applicants, only about ten are qualified for the position they’re applying for. When I applied at Lycos back in 2003 I was told in the second round of interviews that there had been more than 200 applicants for the position. Of those 200 applicants, they interviewed only eight people. The second round of interviews consisted of only myself and one other candidate.
What is unclear is whether there were more than eight people whom Lycos felt were qualified for the position but whose resumes didn’t draw enough attention to themselves to warrant an interview. And this, of course, is the point. Why didn’t they get an interview?
Landing an Interview
Landing a new job is a process. It is not a set of steps that you go through where you land a job at the end. One misstep along the way and you’re back at the beginning, very similar to the game of Trouble. So you have to put your best foot forward every step of the way. The first place to do that is your resume…sort of.
In a previous life, I spent a lot of time interviewing new candidates for engineering positions because I was very adept at assessing the technical capabilities of people. I paid a lot of attention to their resumes, but what was really enlightening was their cover letters. I know people spend countless hours on their resumes every year. I’m not about to tell you that this time is misspent, but you need a cover letter. And don’t think you can just slap together a three liner in an email because a bad cover letter is much worse than no cover letter at all. Here’s an example that is similar to some of the ‘cover letters’ I have seen for a recent job opening I posted here at Moon River Software:
I saw your job opening for Solutions Architect on Monster.com and I am very interesting in your position. Attached is my resume. Please contact me if you are thinking of scheduling an interview. Thank you.”
Compare the content with a fictitious, if somewhat humorous cover letter that I might send:
My name is Mike Taber and I would like to be considered for the Solutions Architect opening that was recently listed by your company on Monster.com. I have more than ten years of software and hardware development experience and training, ranging from web application development to sub-micron VLSI hardware design. My most recent employment was at Moon River Software, a software and consulting services company that I founded. As the sole owner, I handled all aspects of the business including sales, marketing, software development, and consulting services. In just fifteen months, gross revenue has exceeded $250 million.
I am a hard working and driven individual who has good business sense and is well versed in a wide variety of technologies. I can design either digital or analog hardware, and know some of the challenges associated with digital interfacing, especially on a high speed bus. I also have a great deal of software experience that includes Assembly on 16 bit processors, C, C++, Java, C#.NET, database design, and web application development. While I realize that your Solutions Architect is expected to know VB.NET, I am well versed in the .NET framework and have a solid C# background. The similarities within these technologies are extensive and I feel that I would have no trouble using VB.NET rather than C#.NET.
I am seeking full time employment with an established company that will allow me to work less than the 80-90 hours every week that I have been for the past six months. While I am grateful for the $250 million I have made in the past year, I believe that it has been a good learning experience and no longer wish to be successful. I prefer to return to the drudgery of a 9-5 job where I will be underpaid, under appreciated, and forced to reside in a cubicle farm in an uncomfortable chair for a third of my waking hours.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read my cover letter. If there are any questions about my resume or if you wish to reach me to schedule a phone screen or an interview, you may send me an email at email@example.com, but I would prefer to be called at 555-867-5309 between the hours of 8am-4pm, as I am often bathing in the ‘Tub-o-Cash’ and have the phone by my side. Thank you for your time.
Based on the cover letter alone, whose resume would you be more inclined to look at?
As an applicant, you want to stand out from the crowd and tell your story so that you are asked to come in for an interview. Your cover letter is the perfect place to do that. Most of the applicants for any given position are going to know roughly the same technologies, so a resume simply doesn’t convey why you’re worth their time for an interview. Some would argue that what you put in your resume about your responsibilities at previous jobs has a lot of bearing on whether you are selected for an interview. Without a cover letter, this would be entirely true.
There’s another reason for writing a good cover letter. If you do a good job on your cover letter, you can stand above and beyond the other candidates to the point that they will have to work harder during the actual interview to overcome your advantage. People have an unconscious tendency to make up their minds about a person within the first few seconds of meeting them and there’s a lot of research to support this. If the interviewer thinks highly of you before you walk in the door, you can screw up a lot and they will still think highly of you. This carries over past the interview process and into the part of the process where final decisions are made.
So nail that cover letter at all costs. Have friends read it over. Rework it several times if need be. You only get one shot and it has to be good. Remember. No interview, no job.
How to Write a Good Cover Letter
To make a cover letter work for you, there are a few important things you must pay attention to. First, show that you’re interested in the job. The first paragraph should do this. At the very least, you need to go to the company website (assuming it’s not a recruiter posting the listing) and learn what you can about them. Tailor your first paragraph to them and any experiences you might have had. If you haven’t had any experience, you can address that later. Just a quick intro will be fine.
Next, talk about yourself a little bit. What are your qualifications? What have you done in the past that relates? Again, if you haven’t done anything related, you can address that in the next paragraph.
In the third paragraph, you need to make sure that questions about your resume are addressed appropriately. This is the place to spell out why they shouldn’t disqualify you because of X, Y, or Z. When I sent a resume and cover letter to iRobot, it was for an entry level hardware position. I had recently finished all of the coursework for my Master of Science in Computer Engineering. On the hardware side, I met the requirements for the position, as the focus of my Computer Engineering degree is split between hardware and software. Unfortunately, on the software side I was grossly overqualified for an entry level position. That meant that to a resume reviewer, I should have been immediately disqualified. My cover letter not only prevented me from being tossed out as overqualified, I was called and informed that they wanted me in for an interview based on the strength of my cover letter.
In my resume I explained that while I realized my software experience would typically put me in a higher salary bracket, that I would accept lower compensation than my experience would otherwise require. I pointed out that I was looking at a potential career change focused more on hardware, and realized that it would require I take steps backwards in order to move forward in that direction.
Both of those points that I made to iRobot gave concrete reasons not to throw my resume out the door. For those of you who think you can’t be overqualified for a position, you are gravely mistaken. It is very likely that iRobot would have seen “Master of Science in Computer Engineering”, several years of experience and said “He’s going to cost too much. Move on because we’re not hiring for that right now.” By pointing out that I was willing to work with them on the salary issue and why I was willing to work with them on it, I stayed in the game and got a phone call. Had I simply said I was willing to work for an entry level salary without explaining why, they probably would have thought “Ok, what is wrong with this guy?” and moved on.
Without a doubt, this is absolutely the most important section of your cover letter. You must completely neutralize any negatives on your resume as they relate to the job opening.
Be up front with what your shortcomings are and why they should not be viewed negatively. If you don’t have a software degree and you’re applying for a software development position, you need to talk about it. Why do you feel your Associates degree is sufficient when it calls for at least a Bachelors degree? What experience do you think you have that makes up for that? Is there a good reason you don’t that you might be willing to share? If you’re just out of college and don’t have any experience, what have you done to help prepare for the industry? What differentiates you from the other entry level applicants? etc…
Some people like to include a blurb about a specific project they worked on. This is a good idea, but try not to get carried away and make your cover letter too long. If they ask for specific examples of projects you have worked on, you’ve basically been given a free license to make it several pages long. The fact is, it takes time to explain a complex project, and reviewers will understand that. But if they ask for something in the job posting and you don’t include it, you’re going to look bad compared to the people who followed their instructions.
If you’re not very comfortable with writing a solid cover letter, you can take solace in one very important fact: most people don’t bother. If they don’t bother, the fact that you wrote an average one gives you an edge. Just make sure it isn’t riddled with poor grammar and misspelled words. Nail the cover letter, get an interview. That is the sole purpose of a cover letter.
Once you’ve got an interview, you need to do more homework. Assuming you really want the job, you need to research the company, its products, its competitors, and find out everything you can that will help you during the interview. Now if you don’t want the job, you should turn down the interview. It’s not fair to them to accept an interview for a job you have no intention of taking. The general feeling is that the larger the company, the more acceptable it is to use the company as a practice interview. But if you do your homework, wrote a decent cover letter and a decent resume, then you don’t need to go through practice interviews.
For your homework, you also need to concentrate on your resume. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and I completely drill them on what they’ve done in the past to find out what parts of projects they were really involved in. As an example, I interviewed someone who claimed to have a lot of SQL Server 2000 experience. After grilling him for about 20 minutes on his database project, I realized he wasn’t nearly as competent as his resume or he had indicated. He had no idea what a cascade delete was. To maintain referential integrity when deleting data, he used multiple triggers on every table to determine whether data should be deleted or updated. Needless to say, it didn’t work right, and he had spent months trying to get it working, eventually just giving up and accepting that garbage data would exist in the database. This was for a product being developed at a financial software company he had started with some friends. Needless to say, he wasn’t hired.
Not knowing what you are doing is unfortunately something that would be beyond your control. However you should be aware of absolutely everything that is on your resume, every project that it mentions, and details of the projects. If you don’t remember them off the top of your head, then you should take a few minutes to print your resume and write a couple of paragraphs describing and detailing each of those projects. It will help you to remember them, and you will look more prepared during the interview when you can rattle off exactly what projects you worked on, how you were involved, and the results of each of them.
A great thing to note is that props help. By props, I mean any source code that you can bring, photos, printouts, etc. Be very careful that you’re not violating any agreements that you might have signed in the past. Fortunately for me, I’ve done a lot of things outside of work that look stellar during an interview. As an example, for some of my early interviews I brought photos of the obstacle avoidance robot that my team built for our senior project in college. We designed all of the electronics hardware except the Motorola micro-controller itself, hand picked all of the sensors, and wrote all of the assembly language that literally drove the robot.
Due to the complexity of the project, there were a lot of complications. The only problem we were unable to solve had to do with motor limitations due to the weight of the vehicle and the fact that the motor could spin left and spin right, but not spin “straight”. By that, I mean that after turning right, the vehicle cut power to the steering mechanism, but due to the weight of the vehicle and the friction between the wheels and the floor, it didn’t straighten out the wheels afterwards like it did when it was much lighter. What that meant was that if the vehicle turned right and moved forward to get away, and then tried to go straight, it had a tendency to continue to the right because the wheels didn’t straighten out.
I loved bringing photos of it because it was such a complicated project, that I had a big role in. I was often asked “What grade did you get?” I got an A on it. One of the few A’s in my undergrad career, but I got it and I’m pretty damned proud of it to this very day.
I also have source code for a number of other applications I’ve written, so people can see how I structure my code, my coding style, naming conventions I use, whether they’re consistent, etc… Many of the code bases I have are large and it’s nice for interviewers to see a lot of code so they can dig into the guts to see if I’m really consistent. It’s one thing to be consistent in a single function or maybe a page of code. Showing them 20,000 lines of consistent code that you wrote “for fun” is an entirely different story.
Have you done anything really cool or out of the ordinary that your friends might talk about? Show it off during the interview. Personally, I like to look for things that people have done outside of work because it shows they’re interested in technology for its own sake, rather than looking at the technology industry as just a weekly paycheck. I knew people in grad school who, just for fun, rigged up a system that indexed all of their mp3’s and allowed them to be streamed through Windows Media Player via the URL. There’s software these days that allows you to do that pretty easily, but back then it was unheard of.
Years and years ago, someone in the Computer Science House at RIT rigged up a system where you could buy credits from the “House”, which would let you order soda (usually Jolt) from the vending machine. Simply place your order online, stating what time you wanted the soda to drop, what flavor you wanted and presto. Instant caffeine. You could have a can of Jolt drop at 7:45am as you were on your way out the door to your first class of the day. Neat huh? Not entirely practical, but neat.
It shows ingenuity. It shows creativity. And it shows a desire to use technology to solve problems and do cool stuff. The fact that it isn’t practical doesn’t mean much, at least not to me. True techies will realize that you did it for the experience. Not for the non-existent business problem it didn’t solve.
Applying for a new job is not particularly difficult, just ask the hordes of people who use Monster.com and click “Apply” without a second thought. But not many people do it well.
If you follow these tips, you should be able to land yourself an interview for any job that you are reasonably qualified for. If you go the extra mile to represent yourself as an impressive candidate, you can considerably increase your chance of being offered the position, to the point that the company thinks that it is a no-brainer.
My final piece of advice is this: before you start looking for a new job, decide what you want to do and what you are willing to do to get it. Until you decide what you are looking for, it’s difficult to filter what jobs you should and should not be applying for. And there are jobs you should not be applying for. If you focus your efforts on getting a job you really want rather than just any job, you will be much more successful in landing one that makes you happy.
And finding a job that makes you happy is the real goal, isn’t it?