Lessons Learned on the Job Search

Interview with Gabriel Jiva, Sr. Engineering Manager at Toast
April 5, 2022
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I’ve been working in software, mainly as a tech lead or people manager, for over 15 years. As a developer, my experience has been mostly backend and a good deal of Android, but have done a bit of everything — from embedded to distributed to React. As a leader, I’ve supported a variety of teams: product engineering, (Dev)Ops, API/SDK, platform, and architecture. (I tend to gravitate toward foundational work.)

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What have you learned from your job searching experiences?

The main takeaway: interviewing is a skill in itself. It’s largely unrelated to the day-to-day of the job, it matters a great deal, and it’s absolutely something that can be learned. It’s like dating that way: the first few dates are crucial, and making a good impression is paramount, but the impressions you get on those early dates contain a lot of not only false signals — like being nervous or interested in everything your date loves — but also superfluous signals, that don’t matter a year into the relationship — like your favorite band. 

And unfortunately, both dating and interviewing are optimized for charming (and good looking) people, who will always win out if everything else is equal. Fortunately, being a polished interviewee is a skill that I think most people can master with practice. Not unlike the premise of the movie Hitch. Because you could be the most amazing engineering leader in the world, but if you don’t interview well, no one will ever know that — aside from the people who’ve worked with you.

What is the typical company interview process?

  1. Screening call with an internal recruiter; 30% of my interview loops skipped this step.
  2. A first round is generally a role-fit discussion with the hiring manager (HM). I consider this to be the first round of the loop, and for me, 76% of the 25 of these I had were just a casual discussion with the HM. Of the remaining six: four were a panel (two of which had technical components), one was a coding challenge, one was a design challenge
  3. A second round, consisting of one or more people, sometimes as a panel (meaning multiple interviewers are in the video call), sometimes as a string of video calls with individual interviewers. But all pre-scheduled together. Eight of the 13 I went through had a technical bent: four included a technical chat, three design challenges, one coding challenge. Six were also panels: one of the design challenges and three technical chats.
  4. A third round, which is usually the opposite of the second: if they did a panel first, then this is not a panel; and vice-versa. If they have a technical screen and the second round was technical, this won’t be, and vice-versa. About 29% of my interview loops skipped this step: three of my five were panels, and one of those was technical; the other two were informal chats with a CTO or VP.
  5. Hopefully, an offer. Most of my interview loops skipped this step 🙂 All five of the offers I got had a fairly consistent base, plus 10–20% bonus, but a big variation on equity — not just in terms of value, but also type: from no equity to private options to public RSUs. Equity ended up being the deciding factor for me.

How long does the process typically take?

For me, the average time from resume submission to some kind of decision was 32 days, but the max was 93 days, and 18% took over 45 days. Most of this was just waiting a long time for the initial response, and then for the next steps to be scheduled, each of which generally took a week or two.

The average time from resume submission to some kind of response was 17 days, but the max was 70.

How do I improve my chances of getting past the resume stage?

The resume screen was the biggest rejection stage by a Grand Canyon-sized margin. A full quarter of my resume submissions were rejected, but even more (39%) were ghosted, and I never heard anything about them. I

I put a lot of work on my resume — and it always helps for it to be short (one page, if possible, because no one has time to screen them), to include the buzz words you’re skilled with and interested in (to make it past recruiters), and to be visually attractive (you can find lots of great templates for Google Docs on Etsy, for under 5$) — but that’s not what made the difference, as I found:

It basically all hinged on referrals, which increased my chances of getting to a recruiter or hiring manager from 5% to a whopping 63%! That’s a 12x improvement, which is impossible to get any other way. I’m sure it helped that my resume looked sharp, but I’m also sure that even with my previous, plain, and long-ish resume, the referral success rate would still be multiples of the cold application.

How do I get referrals/connections?

Tell everyone you know in the industry, and hopefully, they know of an opening or know someone who does, and even if they can’t vouch for you personally: if all they do is pass your resume along with a “this person might be good for this role,” that itself does wonders. Also, if you find a job posting you really like, try to find a recruiter or someone in your network from that company. If you don’t know anyone directly, look at 2nd connections on LinkedIn, and then ask your mutual connection to introduce you. If you’re applying cold, it definitely helps to write the recruiter a note about why they should choose your resume out of the pile.

What if I am the one getting recruited? 

Most of the ones that reached out to me were either Big Tech companies or startups I’d never heard of, and most of those were clearly automated messages. I entertained almost all of them, if for nothing other than the interview experience. And here, LinkedIn is key: using the appropriate phrasing and buzz words and highlighting the experience relevant for the kind of job you want. Recruiters use various tools to search through the hundreds of thousands of potential candidates, and a little SEO goes a long way.

What the recruiter wants is to make sure you’re not going to embarrass them. They’ve seen your resume and decided that based on your history and so forth, you’d probably be a good candidate. So all you really have to do is sound competent, back up your resume with your voice, and fit within the logistical parameters for compensation, location, time zone, etc.

What has your experience during the HR screening process been like?

Of the 19 HM screens I was in, my pass rate was 68%, and I have to say that most of the rejections at this stage were surprising to me. I thought almost all of them went well, and in fact, I had at least two of the HMs tell me they’d like to move me forward, only to get a Dear John email a few days later from the recruiter. I imagine they talked to someone they liked more the next day, but one of the more frustrating parts of the process is that rejection feedback is exceedingly rare. The unfortunate truth is that the overwhelming majority of companies do not provide feedback, largely for legal reasons.

What is the recruiter looking for during this stage?

Like the recruiter, the HM largely wants to make sure the person behind the resume is a solid candidate, that they seem personable and would fit on the team, and at least part of this conversation is them selling you on the job. They ask more poignant questions than the recruiter obviously, and have more details around the position and what they’re looking for and have a better sense of how you’d succeed in the position, but largely this stage shouldn’t be hard, and if you don’t pass, you probably wouldn’t have fit in on the team anyway — not that you’re not qualified, but team dynamic is a real thing.

Go to Lessons Learned On The Job Interviews Part 2

Read more from Gabriel Jiva here

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