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Arrested Development: You’re Awesome, Just Don’t Be Awesome Here

I’ve moved around quite a bit in my career. I’ve interviewed with a ton of companies and have worked at a lot of different places.

As a consequence, I’ve had the opportunity to experience something that I find extremely interesting, something that I’ve been exposed to more than most have. It’s a scenario that people in other fields might not experience as much as those of use that make a living in the technology sector. I like to refer to it as the “Arrested Development” phenomenon.

A Job That Hamstrings You

No, I am not talking about the popular TV show (or the band from the early 90s). I’m talking about those cases where you’re hired to fill a position because of the your skill set, experience and character. Then, when you join the company, you a constrained so much that you cannot showcase any of the things that made you the right person for the job.

The process of getting a job is a long and arduous one. Writing a resume that stands out from all of the other candidates is not easy. In addition to that, interviewing with a potential employer is often stressful.

Although part of this process includes your assessment of the company and the position, most of your time is spent trying to show the interviewer(s) that you are good at what you do and can bring something valuable to their team. You go out of your way to demonstrate your skill set and showcase your experience. If you are a good fit, and a good interviewee, you will most likely convince them that you are in fact awesome and, odds are, you will end up getting an offer.

At some point in your career, after you’ve established yourself in the industry, this process becomes a lot less stressful. In fact, employers will start seeking you out when they have a job opening. They look for you, and offer you a position on their team, because they believe that you have the right skill set and can help them achieve their business objectives. In other words, they think that you are so awesome that they must have you on their team! This is where it get a little weird.

I will hire you because you are awesome, but I don’t want you to be awesome here.

arrested-developmentWhat sometimes happens next is what I’ve started calling the “Arrested Development” phenomenon. Your new employer has gone through all of the effort of finding you and determining that you are the most qualified candidate. They’ve evaluated you  thoroughly to make sure that you are a good fit based on your skill set, experience and personality. You’ve passed every test and you’ve wowed them at every turn.

Yet, when you join the team, you are immediately handcuffed by bureaucracy, budgets, politics, existing processes, established ways of doing things, and a whole host of other constraints. It’s like your asked to work with shackles around your ankles and one hand tied behind your back.

Sometimes it seems like they are saying “I will hire you because you are awesome, but I don’t want you to be awesome here.” This can make you regret your decision to switch jobs and can make it hard make an impact at your new company.

Find a Place Where You Can Be Awesome

I’ve had the luxury in recent years of not having to spend too much time looking for work. These days, I am usually approached by a previous employer or coworker and asked to interview with their company. This happens because the people that I have worked with in the past know my work ethic, skill set and experience and they think I would be a good addition for their team. Sometimes it turns out not to be a good fit, but other times I come out of these interviews excited about the position and end up taking the job.

Unfortunately, sometimes the environment at the new job isn’t setup to take advantage of my particular flavor of awesomesauce. This is totally understandable in certain situations. There are business objectives and financial limitations that come into play. But that doesn’t keep it from totally sucking the air out of your sails.

Most of the time, we change jobs because we believe that it will be an opportunity to grow or at least showcase our existing skill set. Coming into an environment where you are not being challenged or do not have the opportunity to grow as a programmer can be soul sucking and demoralizing.

One of the things that I love about the company that I currently work for is that they don’t try to hold me back. On the contrary, they encourage me to exercise my awesomeness every chance I get.

In fact, on my first day at the company, I sat down with the managing partner and he told me several things that really blew my mind. They were all a complete 180 degree shift from what I have previously experienced. One of these things was that he wanted me to take every opportunity I had to be awesome! He told me that he hires us because we are great at what we do and he wants us to showcase that greatness for our clients.

The best part of this is that he wasn’t kidding. As long as I’ve been with the company, I’ve been encouraged and expected to be as awesome as possible. It has been a great experience.

– Miguel

Unfortunately, I’ve heard this tale told many times over. I have a large network of friends in the industry and have heard, over and over again, how this same scenario has played out for them and others. Although it is not easy to prevent, if we do a little bit of homework we can try to identify these potential problems ahead of time.

Then again, whenever we find ourselves in these situations we should remember that we are still in the driving seat. We can always reevaluate if that positions still makes sense for us. If not, we have the option of going somewhere else. That is not a bad thing. Some jobs are just not a right fit.

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Not Just a Programmer: Let Your Personality Shine Through

Just be yourself — it’s the only way it can work.
— Johnny Carson

You are a programmer, and you are building your brand, but that does not mean that the only thing you should present to the world is code.

People want to get to know who you are. They want to learn from you but also get an idea of the person behind the coding tips and technical knowledge. So let your personality shine through your work.

Are you are horseback rider? A motorcycle racer? A husband and father of a special needs child? Don’t be afraid to let people know it.

Be Yourself In the Office

You need to be yourself in the office and company you work for.

shi1When I first started at my current job, I held back in many ways. I acted in a reserved way, feeling out the culture and the people. Because, I have other interests beyond programming, some of which people tend to have strong reactions to.

But as I got to know people better, I began to slowly dribble out more information about myself, to let them see who I am. That meant telling them about my herniated back that I got from trying to start a farm and failing at it. I was cautious about doing so at first, because, what if my bosses became concerned that I would not be able to do my job due to back troubles? But I did so anyway, so that I didn’t have to try to hide what was ailing me.

It also meant revealing that I was a Catholic apologist (and then explaining what “apologist” meant). That may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that the managing partners of my company hold the very kinds of belief that I wrote a provocative book about. What if they read my book and got offended that I was challenging deep-seated religious beliefs that they held?

Nonetheless, I have a public presence in that sphere doing radio shows, blog posts, books, and interviews, so I figured it was better to tactfully reveal it instead of hoping for security through obscurity.

Tact is required when letting your personality shine. Some interests that you have may not be shared by coworkers, and could even be considered in a negative way by them. (In other words, not everyone may be as into death metal as you are.)

Let Yourself Shine Through Social Media

Usually being yourself in social media is easy, perhaps almost too easy. Twitter especially lends itself to fast tweets that people come to regret.

That said, people are connecting with you on twitter because they expect to get to know you. They find you interesting and want to see who you are, what you write about.

tweeBut it can go too far. I followed a popular developer whose mobile app framework I have used. I read his tweets over several days but none of them were about mobile app development; they were all political tweets about this or that party and candidate.

Now, I happened to agree with him on most of the issues, but I unfollowed him, because I am interested in his mobile programming work, not his political views. I’d have been fine if he had mixed in a political tweet with ten other programming ones, but all politics, all the time was overboard.

For facebook, if you have a page for your blog or business, mix up the posts by sharing other content you find interesting and adding commentary on it. Include some personal reflection or experience you had related to it.

Doing so shows that you are actually managing your page and that you don’t just share your own site’s posts. It makes you more real and also more a giver than a taker.

On your blog, you have the opportunity to write meaty blog posts that contain lots of personal experience. Yes, show us the code and patterns and how you figured out the solution to a nasty bug, but also let your voice come through. It’s okay if you’re a nerdy guy, or if you are a bird watcher or salsa dancer. People love to find out those tidbits.

I followed a blogger for years who was into a religious topic, plus science fiction shows and books, plus square dancing, and eating low carb meals. I was interested in two out of the four topics he blogged about, and I found reading his opinions on the others interesting in a curiosity sort of way.

But Keep Some Parts of Yourself Private

For example, keep your private parts private.

A friend of mine owns a business and interviewed a young man for a position.

He liked him and was going to hire him. But he did a cursory google search for his name and his facebook page came up. The guy’s profile photo was of him naked, holding a beer in one hand to cover his genitalia and pointing to the sky with the other hand.

My friend called him and said, “sorry, I can’t offer you a job. Our clients could search for you and find the same photos, which could cost us business. You should consider being more discreet about what you show.”

The guy got offended (of all things) and said, “this is who I am. If you don’t like it, too bad.”

Well, yeah. But, certain basic boundaries do exist and should be followed. Prudence and tact are important, even when letting the real you be known.

Spicing Up Software

Programming can be a dry topic. But programmers are never dry. Show your technical expertise to the world, and do so with your own personal panache.

hanseI think a good example of someone who shows personality is Scott Hanselman. He writes and speaks on many topics but brings a humility to it, and a human-ness that is appealing. While clearly a sharp developer who has done tons of different work across a broad swath of technologies, Hanselman is also willing to reveal that he doesn’t have it all figured out and that he even has doubted his own skills many times.

When I first began my blog talkingincode.com, I went straight to the topics that were on my mind and heart at the time: leaving a company I had worked at for almost 14 years. It was a bit raw and unfiltered, and I received feedback from good friends that I was being to harsh and critical.

I reflected on their feedback and ended up going back and revising many of the original posts. I deleted a few too. If what I wrote would not help anyone, but was only me venting, it wasn’t something I wanted to remain out there. Best if I had thought more about it before posting in the first place, since caches can last forever. That said, better to delete something I regretted than to leave it there in perpetuity as if I still stood behind it.

Now I am pleased that the posts I wrote showed forth some vulnerability in what my career had looked like, what difficulties I had faced, and how I decided to make a big change by leaving my company and going to a small, private company. Other developers have messaged me privately and told me that my posts struck a chord with them–even that they felt as if they could have been the ones writing what I wrote. That is a great feeling.

So let your voice shine, and strive to make it the best version of yourself that comes through. Inevitably and at times you will fall short, but that itself is a learning process that you can grow from. Your audience will appreciate your candor and humility.

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Mastering the five keys to a good interview

We’ve all been there many times in our careers…the dreaded interview! We’ve all sat in someone’s office nervously answering questions, trying not to say the wrong thing or sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about. Interviewing can be a very difficult thing to do well and it is something that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s another one of those soft skills that we are not taught in school. Instead, we only get better at it after we fumble our way through many nerve racking interviews hoping that we don’t do or say something that messes them up completely.

I’ve probably been interviewed 30-40 times and have interviewed at least 100 people in my career. There are a few guidelines I have come up with that I’ve found help make the experience a lot less stressful, both when I interview for a position or when I interview a candidate. I’ve found that doing these things makes a huge positive impact on the interviewing experience and increases the interviewee’s chances of getting the job.

1. Be Prepared

The first thing you should do is prepare yourself for the interview. This means different things for different industries and even different companies but there are a few things you can do to make sure you are ready to interview with a potential employer.

Most importantly, you should research the company (and the key people that work there) so that you understand what it is they do and make sure that you are addressing the things that are important to them during your interview.

Most importantly, you should research the company (and the key people that work there) so that you understand what it is they do and make sure that you are addressing the things that are important to them during your interview. You want your conversation and answers to be relevant to the interviewer so that they resonate with him/her, the company and the position that you are applying for. A focused answer, that is relevant to the potential employer, will make a bigger impact than a generic one that might speak more to situations and circumstances that were important to previous employers.

Remember, you have a plethora of resources at your disposal. All of the effort you put into learning about the company you are interviewing with will pay off when you’re in front of the interviewer answering questions. You should start off by visiting to the company’s website and reading through their vision statement, news articles, product offering and “about us” pages. These could provide you with a valuable insight into the company’s history, the products or services they offer and the key people that work there.

Secondly, you can search the internet for articles that speak about the company, its employees and competitors. This gives you an outside perspective of the company that can help you understand how it fits into the market and/or industry. You can also utilize the network of people around you to help research your potential employer. Of course, this assumes that your job search is not a secret or that there are people in your network that you can trust to help you in confidence. If so, you should ask them if they know of the company you are interviewing with. If they do, any insight they can give you will help focus your interactions with that company. Maybe they can give you some information about their development processes, the technologies that they use and any tools, technologies or processes that they struggle with.

All of this information can be used to focus your conversation and show the interviewer that you’ve done your homework and are seriously interested in the opportunity. It shows initiative and desire…two things that are extremely valuable in our industry.

2. Be Authentic

Another key interviewing tip is to always be authentic…always, always, always be honest. Don’t pretend to know things that you really don’t know. Even if you get away with it during the interview, and you end up getting the job, you will inevitably be called on it later. You will look bad for claiming to be able to do something during your interview that you really couldn’t do.

Most people think that they have to know the answer to every interview question. Well, the truth is “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer sometimes.

Most people think that they have to know the answer to every interview question. Well, the truth is “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer sometimes. I know that when I interview people I would rather hear that than hear them try to answer a question they obviously don’t know the answer to. Of course, “I don’t know” can’t be the answer to every question. You should use it sparingly, and always explain yourself. It should always be followed by the reason(s) you can’t answer at the moment and how you would go about finding the answer if you had to as part of your job.

For example, it is perfectly acceptable to say that you have never had the opportunity to use a particular tool or technology and then explain how you would go about learning it if you had to. Most people won’t expect you to know the answer to every question, but the way you answer every question does make a difference…even when you don’t know the answer. You could use those opportunities to showcase your resourcefulness and describe how you solve problems…another valuable skill that we look for in software developers.

3. Be Relaxed

relaxOne of the hardest things to do in an interview is to relax. It’s difficult for most of us to fight our natural response to stressful situations and not get nervous. This was definitely the hardest thing for me to master. In fact, I’m not sure I have mastered it yet. I know I have come a long way though. I really struggled with anxiety during interviews early on in my career. Luckily, with the help of some really good advice, I was able to overcome this and am now very comfortable meeting with a potential employers to discuss job opportunities.

It’s difficult for most of us to fight our natural response to stressful situations and not get nervous.

During my last year in college, I signed up for as many interviews as I could with companies that had come to the university to recruit students that were graduating with a computer science degree. I think I interviewed with about 15 or so companies. In the end, I only got one callback…and I did not get the job. I was a nervous wreck in all of those interviews. I tried everything I could to not be nervous but the more I tried, the more nervous I got. I kept putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well because I knew there was a lot riding on the outcome. Soon after that, I graduated from the university and ended up moving back home. I had my programming degree, but I didn’t know how I was ever going to get a job.

Eventually, I decided to talk to my father about my anxiety issues and how bad I had done in those interviews. He gave me the best advice anyone has ever given me about interviewing. He told me that he was really surprised I was having such a hard time with this because I had always been really good at talking to people and making conversation. He suggested that I approach these interviews just like any other conversation. “In the end,” he said, “it’s just you and the interviewer sitting around chatting about technical stuff – something that you’re really good at doing. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get the job…and that really isn’t so bad.” His advice made a lot of sense to me. Why was I struggling so much with this if it was just a conversation like any other.

The next time these companies came to the university, I signed up for as many interviews as I could once more. Again, I interview with around 15 companies but this time I took my father’s advice. I went in there and just talked to the person interviewing me like he/she was someone that I already knew. As it turned out, I got a call back from every company that I interviewed with that time. In fact, several of them extended a job offer to me on the spot. It was an amazing turnaround!

In the end, he said, it’s just you and the interviewer sitting around chatting about technical stuff – something that you’re really good at doing.

Ever since then, I have approached interviews with my father’s advice in mind and it has helped me remain calm and allowed me to present myself in a better light to the potential employer. In fact, using my father’s advice, I can say I have actually gotten a job offer from every interview that I have done since then. Maybe it’s been luck or maybe there is something to those wise words my father shared with me almost 20 years ago. Either way, if you find that you are struggling to remain calm during interviews try taking my dear old dad’s advice and just approach it like your talking to one of your coworkers or friends. That could make all the difference for you as it did for me.

4. Be Thorough
Interviews are not just an opportunity for a company to evaluate you, but for you to evaluate the company as well. You should be thorough in your evaluation and be prepared to ask as many questions as necessary to determine whether that opportunity makes sense for you and for you career.  You should be mindful of the things you have decide are important to your personal and professional life.

Remember, you don’t have to end up loving the job but you should not end up hating it.

For example, these are some of the questions I like to answer during an interview.

  1. Is the position in line with the goals that I have set for myself? Does it get me closer to my end goal?
  2. What exactly will I be doing on a day to day basis?
  3. Do I like the company, product, people and processes?
  4. Are there people here that I can learn from or that I can mentor?
  5. What kind of time commitment is expected from me?
  6. What is the pay range and benefits?
  7. What is the company culture?

All of these questions are important to me. Sometimes the answers aren’t always favorable, but they help me make a more informed decision about whether I would take the position if it was offered to me. Remember, you don’t have to end up loving the job but you should not end up hating it. So, try to ask as many question as you need to get a good idea of what you should expect if you joined the company.

5. Be Yourself

authenticMost of all, just be yourself. You don’t gain anything from trying to be someone you’re not. You’re either going to come across as nervous or fake. In either case, you will have made a bad impression that is hard to overcome. You are at your best when you are yourself and it’s easier to feel relaxed and confident when you are doing what comes naturally to you. All of these things come across to the interviewer and they make an impression and affect what they think of you.

So be yourself, odds are they’ll like the real you more than the “I think this is who you want me to be” you…

A lot of times, these things are more important than the technical stuff. Most of the time, interviews are used to determine if you would be a good cultural fit. By the time you’re called in for an interview, the company has had the opportunity to review your resume and has decided that you have the necessary skills for the position. They just want to know if they can work with you on a day to day basis. So be yourself, odds are they’ll like the real you more than the “I think this is who you want me to be” you…

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