A few weeks ago, I started a new job as a senior systems engineer. I’m incredibly excited to be taking on a new challenge, and I’m sure there will be lots to share in the future as I settle into the new role.
Today, I want to tell you about how I approached the job search itself. This was, by far, the smoothest job search I’ve ever conducted. I was able to get an offer with my first application, which was an amazing feeling. I approached things a bit differently than I have in the past, and the results were excellent. Given how frustrating it can be to conduct a job search, thought you might like to hear about what I did so that you can apply it to your next engineering job search.
Looking back, my strategies fell into four distinct categories:
- Find an excellent fit
- Research the heck out of the company
- Have a man on the inside
- Nail the interview
Find an excellent fit
I spent a very long time looking for a position that was a great fit for me. This was made possible by the fact that I wasn’t in urgent need of a job (my wife was working and we had savings). This gave me time to find a great fit rather than jumping at the first thing that looked somewhat reasonable. This is an important first lesson to learn: if you don’t need a new job right now, it’s important to set yourself up for success for when you do want to change jobs. Save some money and evaluate the job market regularly so that when it’s time to make a change, you can be patient with it.
Role or Industry, but Not Both
When you’re looking for a job in a new company or a new industry, it is often a good idea to make sure you’re only changing either your role or the industry, but not both. This way, you can have solid footing in one while you learn the ropes in the other. As a systems engineer, a systems engineering position made sense for me, even though the work was in a new industry.
Would They Be Crazy Not to Hire You?
In terms of the job itself, I wanted to find something that was a clear “slam dunk” kind of fit. When looking for job postings, I kept asking myself “Would the company be crazy not to hire me for this?”. If so, I would plan to submit an application. If not, I’d move on.
Here’s the thinking: if you’re switching either your role or industry, you’re risky to a new company. You’re an unknown quantity. How do they know you’ll succeed? The truth is they don’t. To mitigate that risk, the hiring company will need to think you’re a pretty sure thing. This will likely mean taking a position that is at or slightly below your current capabilities. This isn’t such a bad thing if you look at it as an opportunity to get your foot in the door to be able to learn and grow in a new place.
Note that looking for a slam-dunk kind of job isn’t the only approach to find work. I offer this as a good approach if you want to maximize the likelihood of being successful with a given application. If you’re looking to move into a more advanced role, the easiest way would be to do that with your current employer. If you want both a new employer and to climb the corporate ladder, you’ll likely have to submit many more applications before getting a bite.
Research the Heck Out of The Company
As important as it is to find a job that’s an incredible fit for you, it’s also important to find a company that you’ll fit into. Your technical work only makes up a portion of what your overall work life is like. The culture, working conditions, colleagues, benefits, client-base and hundreds of other things can influence how well-matched you are with a company.
Same Engineering, Different Life
Consider this: being an environmental engineer in a 5-person boutique consulting company would be very different than holding the same job in a major multi-national corporation. Same job, very different life.
I don’t mean to imply that any one company is objectively better than any other, but there will definitely be better companies for you. Your job is to figure out what kind of environment is going to provide you with the opportunity to work, progress, learn, grow, and live the way you’d like.
For me, it was very important that the company value work-life balance and had a solid benefits package, among many other things. This was important because I have a young family and my wife works as an independent contractor and doesn’t get company benefits. If you’re single and don’t have kids, then you might not value these things as much and would be attracted to something else, like the opportunity to travel a lot for work. Whatever the case may be, you need to figure out what kind of company will be the best fit for you.
How I Researched Engineering Companies
Here’s how I researched companies I was interested in:
First, I looked at the various companies that were hiring. I took special note of companies that had a lot of postings because that’s an indication that they are staffing up for a new contract or new department. If you can get an interview for one job and you’re not selected, you may be offered one of the other jobs (this is what happened to me at a previous employer).
Glassdoor is especially useful because it provides insights into salaries, benefits, interview questions, and what employees really think of the company. Entries come from the employees themselves, so you get a clear picture of what people really think. You also get a measure of what proportion of employees would recommend their company to a friend and the approval rating of the CEO. While these things are hardly scientific, it can be a good way to compare companies to one another.
LinkedIn Premium was absolutely worth the price I paid. It was free for a month, then about $30 CAD a month after that. It allows you to get deep insights into things like how long people stay at a given company, whether the company is growing or shrinking, whether they’re adding or shedding engineers, and tells you if you’re a top candidate for a given position. It has the added benefit of allowing you to reach out directly to recruiters. I held out for a long time on paying for this but was very happy once I did. Then when I got my job, I canceled the premium account.
LinkedIn Premium also makes it much easier for you to research the people who work in a given company. This can be a huge bonus when conducting informational interviews, which I discuss later in this post.
Employer Awards Sites
Finally, I also used a national employer awards site called Eluta.ca. This site is only helpful in Canada, but the premise should apply equally well everywhere else (In the United States, the Forbes and Fortune both have great top 100 lists). Eluta provides lists for the top 100 employers overall, the best employers for families, the best employers for young professionals, etc. If a company was on any of these lists, the website also provided a public scorecard so you could see what made it such a great place to work. These scorecards helped me a lot in understanding a given company and whether or not it looked like a great place given my interests and requirements.
Have a Man on the Inside
For my last two positions, I had internal referrals. I can’t say for sure how much influence this had, but it at least made sure that my application didn’t get lost. I have definitely had applications get lost in processing that were only rescued because a friend in the company made sure my resume made it to the right desk. There is no guarantee that having a friend, family member, or colleague on the inside will get you a given job – far from it. What it can do is make help you avoid being disqualified by administrative errors and get your foot in the door so that you can have a shot at proving yourself in an interview.
The next reason that having a man on the inside is important is that it can help you learn a lot about the company. While the research ideas I presented above are helpful, there’s no substitute for asking a real company employee the specific questions you have. Using LinkedIn, you can even do this by reaching out to people you don’t know by conducting “informational interviews” (there’s a really good guide here by Don Gallagher if you’d like to learn more about conducting these sorts of interviews.)
Having someone internal to the company will mean you have a better understanding of the company and a better chance of getting an interview.
Nail the interview
Finally, when you do get interviews, you need to nail it. I know this is common sense, but it is easier said than done. A lot of preparation should go into an interview. If you’re being strategic about job applications, as I’ve suggested in this post, you should have time to really prepare for your interview. I estimate I spent 4-6 hours preparing for my in-person interview, and I recommend others do the same.
There are a ton of resources available on interview techniques and strategies, so I’ll just share some of the specific things that I did for my most recent effort.
Do Your Homework
First, do your homework. Demonstrate to the interviewers that you really do want to work there, you’re interested in what they do, and have taken the time to really look into it. If you follow the strategies I’ve suggested above for fit and research, you’ll be head and shoulders above most other candidates. Don’t forget to read through the company’s website, social media accounts, and recent news using Google News. Also, if you have any internal connections, you need to talk to them about what’s going on inside.
Next, you need to know your own resume, cover letter, and other application materials inside and out. It would look awful if you gave answers in your interview that conflict with what you’ve said in your resume. If you’re honest about what you write on your resume, and you’re honest in the interview, that shouldn’t be a problem. Still, it’s good practice to know what points you made in your resume, what you left out, and what your professional “story” is.
If you understand the company and your own profile, you can create a bit of a pitch for yourself. You need to be clear on how you can provide value to the organization. How do you fit, and what makes it so important that they hire you? In marketing, this is called a “unique selling proposition”. If you have this unique selling proposition internalized, you’ll find opportunities to communicate it through the interview in a natural and helpful way. This will help the interviewers understand what they’re getting if they hire you.
My unique selling proposition was that I was an experienced systems engineer who was a quick study and could provide leadership from day 1. I wanted to emphasize that I knew how the technical work worked and that I could get my bearings in a new industry quickly (thus mitigating risk for the employer).
Question Your Questions
Finally, have real questions to ask and bring them to your interview. I literally printed off a bunch of questions I legitimately wanted to have answered during the interview. As the interview went on, I checked off questions as they were answered in our discussion. At the end, I got a chance to ask any of the questions that were left unanswered. Taking this approach will demonstrate you were prepared and are legitimately interested in the company and the position.
There’s no doubt that the hiring company contributed a great deal to how well the hiring process went for my most recent position. That being said, there were also a lot of things that I did differently this time around that I think helped me a lot in landing this position. I believe that implementing some of these strategies for your next job search can help a lot and can make the job search process much more straightforward for most people.
If you try any of these out or have any questions, just let me know in the comments section below. I promise to answer every comment.
Bonus: Where to Find Engineering Jobs
If you liked this article or are working on your own job search, download my free guide “Where to Find Engineering Jobs”. It provides a list of 25 places engineers can look for work, based on my own experience.
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