Stories about Software


How to Avoid the Standard Corporate Hiring Process

Every Tuesday, for the most part, I do reader question Tuesday.  Because I’ve been answering reader questions for an astounding amount of time now (more than 4 years, apparently almost as long ago as I started Pluralsight), sometimes those questions build on prior posts.  This is one of those.  This reader question builds on a post I wrote (in response to reader interaction).

That post was one I wrote after a lot of people shared a post with me about someone quitting Google and wondering what I thought.   What I thought was that I’d write a long piece of advice about how to avoid Enterprise Silicon Valley whiteboard interviews.  Don’t feed the beast, as it were.

The Reader Question: How to Shrug Off the Crushing Weight of the Pyramid

I mention that post because the reader quotes something I said in it.  “If you develop a specialty with business value, nobody will bother to interview you. They’ll just call you and offer you a contract.  That’s how my life has worked for years now.  No reason you can’t do this too.”

The reader quotes this, and then asks the following:

How does one get enough public recognition of their ‘speciality with business value’ for this to start happening?

How do you circumvent the dev hiring layers to reach the person making the hiring decisions?

For example, if I put ‘saved my company 300k p/a by identifying and fixing wasteful processes’ on my CV, it won’t help me get past the keyword filtering internal recruiter, or the dev interviewers who are more concerned with your knowledge of how generics are implemented in java or how the GIL works in python.

In my company, the individuals above have veto power over hires that involve programming, regardless of how much you appeal to the PM or business owner.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so let me say a few things up front.

The resume bot 9000 is the only one that cares about your resume skills section.

You Have to Change the Rules of the Game from What You’re Used To

Let me first say that there are a lot of concepts in here that go away when you have a specialty with business value.  I suspect the reader/commenter understand this, but I want to make sure that everyone does.  When you have such a specialty and appeal directly to buyers, here are the things that stop being part of your world.

  • Recruiters
  • Resumes/CVs.
  • Keyword filtering (or keywords) and concern about tech stacks
  • Non-business-focused dev managers (and the idea of a layer or layers of “veto-ing techies”).

These things don’t matter or affect you because you don’t deal with them.

I could tell you about how my life has shaped up this way and about how I tend to deal with companies.  But I’ve been contracting and consulting for a long time.  I think it’d be more interesting here if I told a story about employment.

A Strategic Pluralsight Hire

For several years, Pluralsight hosted a weekend-long event as its author summit.  This was structured somewhat like a conference back then, and I went to a couple of them.  And one year, there was a technologist by the name of Ben Sullins there, who kind of stole the show.

To the best of my recollection, he was employed elsewhere as some kind of business intelligence/data specialist and, like a lot of us, side-hustling with Pluralsight videos.  Some of the sessions that year focused on the reporting of our royalties.  He not only attended and participated in these sessions, but he also wrote sort of a proof of concept that took this raw data and created some impressive reports for the rest of us authors.

This attracted the attention of Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard.  Aaron talked to him about what he had done at the author summit and about the possibilities of data science at Pluralsight.  The end result was that Pluralsight offered Ben basically a custom job.  (If you want to hear a bit more about this, you can check out this interview with Ben and John Sonmez.)

Solving a Unique Problem for Someone that Can Hire You

I don’t think that I knew or had ever heard of Ben prior to that author summit.  It sounds like he was a salaried employee somewhere, side hustling like anyone else and probably not being overly “internet famous” or anything like that.  (Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I’m going on memory here.)

And so, going back the reader question, it’s not a question of public recognition.  Rather, it’s a question of demonstrating to someone with a budget that you can solve a problem that they care about.  Ben showed the CEO of a growing company that he had a unique solution to a business problem that Pluralsight faced.

The result?  No resumes, no keywords, no recruiters, no stump the chump interviews, and no degrading nonsense.  Instead, it sounds from his interview with John as though Ben just made a pitch to Pluralsight’s C-suite and board of directors and the rest was history.

Get Around the System by Not Needing the System

At this point, I can start to generalize a bit from Ben’s experience.  He had something important going for him that I’ve always had going for me over the last bunch of years and that a lot of other free agents and people with specialties do as well.  They don’t particularly need any gig.

Ben had a job and wasn’t looking for another one.  Whenever recruiters or would be employers reach out to me about something resembling a typical hiring process, I just chuckle and say, “nah, I’m good, thanks.”  I’ve even managed to parlay a few pieces of miscellaneous outreach into legitimate consulting leads.

But to do this, you first have to view the standard hiring system as simply not an option.  That’s just something that other people do.  Don’t you lean on it as a crutch, or you’ll never get away from it.

Then, Make Yourself a Scarce Resource

Last summer I wrote a post called “Always Be Leaving,” where I talk about viewing engagements or employment not as relationships of open-ended duration, but as temporary arrangements.  You’re making it casual from the get-go, if you will.  When you have this attitude, companies will naturally tend to want to engage you as a contractor or consultant, rather than as an employee.

And that’s fine — it’s hard to be a specialist when you’re looking for wage employment.

Think of if this way.  If a company is going to hire you as a wage employee, it’s making a specific statement and a specific ask.  “We’re going to keep you around as long as you’re useful, so you need to figure out how to be a mile wide and an inch deep so that we can deploy you into whatever situation might come up.”  It’s a commitment without end, so their vetting process is going to be standardized and intense.  After all, whiffing means an eventual breakup that might include EEOC lawsuits or something unpleasant for the company.

Not so when you’re always leaving.  Here the company is more willing to dispense with the bureaucracy of wage hiring because the risk is lower.  So talk to people at the organization about short term and about your exit, right from the get go.  Think of the company’s position in terms of the due diligence you’d do about buying a movie on-demand versus signing up for a 2 year cable contract.

As You Do All This, Prefer Smaller Organizations with Approachable Exeuctives

Looking back at what Ben did, consider that Pluralsight was a relatively much tinier company back then, compared to the juggernaut it is now.  It was still a size where a random author could get in front of the C-suite to impress them.  Now, they’re a pretty awesome organization, so that might sill be possible, but it’d certainly be logistically harder.

If you’re talking about multinational corporations and Enterprise Silicon Valley outfits, you can forget it.  Those organizations are hiring committees, bureaucracy and brainless machines top to bottom when it comes to personnel.

Aim smaller.  You want to talk to people who can actually make a hiring decision without clearing it with 8 layers of management or a steering committee.  And this person has to be someone with whom it would actually be possible for you to meet.

Build a Portfolio and Build Your Way to Progressively Larger Experiences Helping People

Now, let’s say that you do get this meeting.  What are you going to do, when this C-suite person with hiring authority agrees to meet you for coffee?  Are you going to pull out a resume?  I certainly hope not.

Now, like Ben, you might have the opportunity to put together a quick prototype or some kind of presentation.  But don’t count on that — his situation was extremely serendipitous.  What you want at this point is a track record of having helped buyers similar to the person you’re meeting with.  For my codebase assessment practice, a nice list of past clients is powerful — way more powerful than a bunch of Twitter followers or speaking to other software developers at user groups and conferences.

But here’s the rub.  You’re probably not going to go from whatever you’re doing now to inking a $50k contract.  So start smaller, and moonlight. Figure out ways to help these buyers, but on a much smaller and less risky scale.  It might start out free in the form of some blog posts or a webinar and build through something like a book or a fixed fee productized-service.  But start helping these buyers, and they’ll keep wanting more and more business.

In fact, they’ll probably eventually offer you a salaried job.  I honestly can’t recall anymore how many consulting clients have point-blank offered me salaried employment in tones ranging from half serious to completely serious.

Embrace Creative Constraints and Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

I’ll close here by giving you a commitment device kind of tactic to get started.  I talk about this a lot, but it bears mentioning here again.

Just don’t do it.  Just don’t do job interviews, recruiters, resumes, and all of that stuff.  Seriously, resolve that this is not how you’re going to approach the world, and challenge yourself to thrive anyway.

If you couldn’t make a resume, call a recruiter, and apply to something on Stack Overflow, what would you do instead?  Reach out to your network extensively?  Talk to little retail shops about building websites for a flat fee?  Hold onto your current job for dear life and moonlight?

I don’t know the answer for your particular situation and for your particular desired specialty.  But I do know that you can do it.

By the way, if you liked this post and you're new here, check out this page as a good place to start for more content that you might enjoy.
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5 years ago

Thanks for addressing my question Eric! So my take away from this is, network to gain exposure/contact to business owners from small companies, via conferences/events or contracting. Then if someone feels you can help deliver value to their business, they’ll reach out to you. This makes good sense. My current plan is, go into contracting, aim at short stints with small companies, delivering end-to-end solutions to gain exposure & recommendations. This way I might be able to network without taking evenings/weekends away from my family (am a father of two, which handicaps my ‘out of hours’ networking capacity). BTW –… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
5 years ago
Reply to  TheWalrus

Glad if it helped! And, it sounds like you’re laying out a plan of attack that is pretty much exactly what I’d recommend, FWIW. Increase the opportunity surface area, so to speak.

5 years ago

Thank you Erik for another great article. In “A Taxonomy of Software Consultants”, you say: “[Consultants] are hired in a more general problem-solving capacity. They advance their practice by being known for listening to their clients, tailoring solutions to them specifically, and notching glowing referrals”.

To achieve this, it looks to me that you would have to be sort of a generalist (as opposed to a specialist) in the sense of having to know (a little?) about many things. If so, it would be counterproductive to niche down. Correct?

Erik Dietrich
5 years ago
Reply to  MrJP

I’m going to add a card to my reader questions to address this more thoroughly, but the short form is that I’d say it’s sort of a nuanced concern. It’s relatively hard to get gigs by saying that you’re generally a consultant, and it’s a lot easier to get them when you’ve niched. But if you’re heavily niched, you’ll probably have quicker, more surgically focused gigs and thus need to land more of them.