As a self-taught developer, making the switch from sales to engineering was no easy task. Standing out amongst a sea of other applicants with more impressive resumes and experience required me to find creative ways to get the attention of recruiters and hiring managers.
In this session, we explore lessons learned from my career journey and actions you can take to make your non-traditional (or traditional) background stand out in all the best ways - no matter where you are in your career.
Shaundai Person: [0:00] Hi, everyone. Let's talk about standing out as a nontraditional applicant. My name is Shaundai, pronounced as the day of a week, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I am a UI Engineer at SalesLoft, a software company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. I come from a nontraditional background.
[0:19] In our world, software engineering, we know nontraditional to mean, person who's in a technical role who doesn't have a computer science degree, and that's me. I don't have a CS degree. In fact, I didn't go to a boot camp either. I am self-taught. Add to that that I spent my entire career over a decade in a completely a non-technical field, sales.
[0:42] When the time came for me to start applying for engineering jobs, this is what my resume looked like. Formal education included. As you can see, 12 years of straight sales in business. I know, it doesn't exactly scream engineer off the page.
[0:58] I knew, for every job that I applied to, there'd be dozens of others competing for the same spot, and many of the other applicants probably had better experience or more relevant education to put on their resumes.
[1:09] I also knew that all the hard work that I'd put in, watching tutorials, finding and working with a mentor, building projects, all of that was worth something. I would make a great engineering hire somewhere. I just needed a hiring manager or a recruiter to see that in me, too.
[1:26] I've never been a professional recruiter myself, but I imagine that looking at a ton of resumes a day for one position is a lot like shopping for a rubber duck. There's obvious no's, and those are the ones who flat out don't meet the baseline criteria, like rubber frogs that come in.
[1:43] Then, even after you weed those out, you're still left with so many choices that all look the same. You would think that, in most cases, there's an obvious yes, and that's the one who matches the job description exactly and does the best job at it.
[1:59] How do you measure the best job descriptor? Then, how do you account for those brilliant people who write beautiful code but don't make good contributors to a team? In my head, this is what I'm thinking is the hiring managers biggest dilemma. I want to make the decision easy for them. I do that by standing out in all the best ways.
[2:18] I was aiming to be this little guy here on the lifesaver. He's not perfect. I don't know if you've noticed, but his beak is a little crooked. He does meet all the baseline criteria of a rubber duck. He's yellow. He's chubby. He's adorable. You can't rule him out.
[2:33] In addition to that, he's also offering something so unique that I didn't know that I needed until I saw him. He's the first one I see, and then probably also the one that I'm going to pick. I needed to make my resume or whatever the hiring manager was seeing see in a way that made them say, "OK, I know this person is different, but that's why we need her."
[2:53] To solve this problem, I started with what I knew. At the time, what I knew was sales. Every day, I'd cold call and I'd email people who'd never heard of me, never heard of my company, to essentially ask for money.
[3:06] The trickiest part though is standing out from the other sellers and from the rest of the noise in my prospects inboxes. How is this relevant to applying for jobs? Well, applying for jobs is a form of prospecting.
[3:19] In both cases, you're trying to stand out from the competition, You're trying to get the attention of someone who's likely never met you, to show enough value so that they're interested in having a conversation with you. Then from there, get them in a very short span of time to trust you enough to take a bet on you.
[3:37] The three tips that we're going to go through are ones that I attribute to both my success in sales, as well as my success in switching careers. Now, you don't have to be a salesperson to use any of these tips and you can be at any stage in your career, but do note that these tips will take time because they involve a level of customization.
[3:54] You don't do these for every single job that you apply for, especially if you're applying to a lot. Narrow it down to the top 5 to 10 and use this for those. There's a thread between these three tips, and that's tell your story.
[4:11] Hiring an engineer is a huge investment. Managers want to feel good about making the choice to hire you. They don't want to feel like they're taking a chance. When they see that CS degree on a resume it gives them this level of familiarity, like in this industry this is what I've seen before and so this is clearly what works right.
[4:27] You want to tell the story that paints a picture that, "No, it's not the degree that makes the person a good hire. It's a type of person, along with the technical skills that they've built from wherever. It could be a degree, but it also could be from Code Academy tutorials," for example. Let's talk about how to do that.
[4:47] Now, the first tip is to show a value and show relevance. It's a little known fact that at the beginning of my sales career for a very short time, I sold cars. The reason I only did it for a short time was because I was terrible at it.
[5:03] If you are a customer and you came onto the lot looking for a car, I would literally read every single bit of the description that was on the cars window sticker like, "This car has anti-lock brakes, and it has automatic windows. When you press this button, the window goes down," and people just didn't care.
[5:20] Why should they? They didn't need me to read the window sticker. I wasn't making the choice any easier for them because I wasn't helping them to narrow down all the options that they had on the lot. When it comes to applying for jobs, you want to apply that same concept, and let's make sure that you're not me selling cars.
[5:38] Think of yourself as someone who needs to help the hiring manager narrow down that list of applicants. As you do this, keep in mind that your goal is to make some assumptions about what they're looking for as they relate to what you have to offer and how they differentiate you from others.
[5:55] This is critically important because you can bet that all the other people who apply are also going to know the tech stack. It's a commodity at this point. After we weed out all the people who don't have the technical skills, that brings us only to the middle part of the funnel where there's still some narrowing down that needs to happen.
[6:15] To get down to the bottom, we need to show how the unique skills that we have are valuable and relevant to the job that we're applying for. What are some ways that we'll do this?
[6:28] The first thing we want to do is learn about the other person and learn about the company, and we do that by getting into their shoes. Some ways to do that are, learn about the company, look at the job description. I don't just mean the bullet points that say, "These are the criteria for the job." I mean that HR blurb that's at the top that talks about the company culture.
[6:48] Look all through their company website. Learn about what they're doing. Look at recent news articles and blog posts that were published by the company. Find out what's important to the company and what their values are.
[7:00] Learn about the person, the hiring manager, the recruiter. This takes a level of stalking. [laughs] Look on their social media, see what kinds of things they're into, what's important to them. Have they published anything? Maybe you can take some nuggets from there.
[7:14] Once you have an idea about what's important to them, you want to, again, showcase the unique skills that you have that you think are important to them.
[7:24] Let's take an example of how I did it when I was applying to SalesLoft, and maybe this will help to spark some ideas as you look at your own career and your own professional development path.
[7:34] In my case, I assumed that all the other applicants already had the technical skills, but what was it that made me uniquely qualified? Well, SalesLoft is a company that builds software used by salespeople, and I'm a salesperson. A salesperson who's sold to salespeople.
[7:51] Here's how I positioned it. SalesLoft has an amazing design team who puts together detailed specs for the new features that we'll build, but there are tons of decisions that the engineers need to make in between the lines on their own.
[8:03] I am uniquely qualified to make good engineering decisions because I know what it's like to be one of our customers. I know what our customers are expecting from a UX perspective all the way to which features they're using or the ones that they need but don't have.
[8:19] Let's take another example of someone who isn't me. Let's say that you're an English teacher. Well, you're able to see patterns in languages. You've facilitated imaginative thinking. You've made complex concepts simple enough for even first graders to understand. Those skills are going to come in handy as a junior engineer.
[8:39] If you're stuck trying to come up with something, talk to people who know you or have seen your work and get real with them, and say, "Look, I'm trying to move into engineering. What advantages do you think that I will uniquely bring to the field based on my background?"
[8:53] Second tip, corporate-style projects. One technique that works in sells well is painting the picture for the customer of the beautiful life they'll have with your product in it.
[9:06] Going back to that car salesperson example. These are the sellers who let you take that test drive home for the night. They want you to see the car in your driveway, all your neighbors are turning their heads. Your significant other gets on the passenger side. Your kids love it, your dogs love it, the whole nine.
[9:21] The next day, when you go to return that test drive to the dealership, there is no way you're going to drive back with the 1943 Buick that you brought in the day before. That new car is part of your family. You're already sold.
[9:33] Similarly, the projects in your portfolio should say to the hiring manager, "Wow, I took a look at this portfolio this morning and this person put a lot of thought into it. They showed the breadth and the depth of their technical skills, and also that they're a good fit for the company. Now that I've seen them, I can't imagine my life without them."
[9:53] Very dramatic but this is the type of energy that we're [laughs] going for. What does corporate style look like? It's a project that serves a business purpose. It doesn't have to be catered exclusively for the company that you're applying to, meaning that if you're applying to Netflix, you don't have to make a Netflix clone or anything. It should look and function like something that a company would hire you to build.
[10:19] In your portfolio, it's important to show the value for the business and for the user. Think about what problem does it help to solve? As you're thinking about the projects that you're going to build, think about one that helped to solve a problem. It should also leave the hiring manager with more answers than questions.
[10:37] What I mean by that is that it should show the breadth and depth of your skills. If they see a bunch of fun and cute, but very surface-level projects like this random sandwich generator, it might leave the hiring manager wondering, "Did this person just take a bunch of surface-level tutorials?" or, "Yeah, this is neat, but I wonder if this person can also do this?"
[10:58] This is also why you want to spend a lot of time on your README, this last point. READMEs to me, they're not the most fun. I equate it to doing a book report. It's so important that you're showing the person the thought you put into this project through a README.
[11:14] Some things that you'll put in a README is how to install it, the text deck that you used. I like to include screenshots of the finished application. Then, add some context. What was the hardest part? What were some challenges that you came across? How did you overcome them? You also do want to include that business purpose that we talked about.
[11:33] Also, a little not so secret, 10 times out of 10, the person that you're talking to during the interview process isn't the only person involved in making the hiring decision. You want to give the person that you're talking to all the resources that they need to say, "Yup. Her resume doesn't scream engineer, but this is why we need her. Look at the project that she built."
[11:52] You'll be able to send a link with you describing in your own words the thought behind that project. In this README, you're giving them all the resources that they need to be able to advocate on your behalf.
[12:04] Last tip, use video. When it comes to applications, there's two types of video that I mean. There's the intro video, which might be a two to three-minute video of talking about who you are, why you're the best fit for the job, why you want the job, and then also, showing them your personality.
[12:22] The second type of video is a project demo video. This is one that I leverage heavily in my job application process. In this video, you're walking the other person through, probably that corporate stuff project in your portfolio, from the perspective of the person using it.
[12:38] This doesn't replace a README, but in this video, you're going to be providing a lot of that same information about your project that you do in a README. In addition to that, you're also adding some context that you can't convey in writing. It's a little in addition to that README.
[12:54] For example, "Here's what I gave some thought to the UX by adding in some slight transition animations when you click this button," or, "Here's where I thought about accessibility by adding the ability to tab through the Nav bar."
[13:06] Why is video important? For me, video was a game changer for getting the right people to see what I wanted them to see. This is both in sales and in applying for jobs. The reason is that video is what turns you from a list of bullets into a human. Video establishes a human connection between you and the recipient.
[13:27] It makes the recipient more familiar with you and feel more comfortable with you, makes you noticeable, more memorable. Also, like we talked about, conveys this context and emotion that's difficult to derive from written text.
[13:40] Lastly, everyone's sending in their written resume. Everyone's sending their links in their portfolio. You, my friend, you're different. You're nontraditional. That's why these companies need you. That's what I had.
[13:55] If you're looking for me, I'd love to connect with you on any social media platform. The beauty of having a unique name is that you can find me @shaundai everywhere. I just use my first name for handle for everything, @shaundai for Twitter, @shaundai for DEV, GitHub, @shaundai LinkedIn, just Shaundai. You get the point.
[14:16] Really looking forward to connecting with you. Thank you for your time.