How Not to Get a (Python) Job – a rant

May 27, 2012

How Not to Get a (Python) Job – a rant

At PyCon 2011, Brian Moloney (of Imaginary Landscape here in Chicago) gave a talk titled How to Get A Python Job”. It wasn’t really so much about getting specifically a Python job as about how to land any job. It was the same sort of advice you can find in a lot places – hints on how (not) to apply, how (not) to present yourself, how (not) to interview, how (not) to impress interviewers, and so on. If you’re looking for a job, go watch it and take his advice very seriously.

I went to Brian’s talk because I had just found my own Python job and I was curious about his perspective. I had started my own job search with my fair share of negatives – the economy was in the toilet, I was over 50, I didn’t have much formal training, my experience (in private education) wasn’t exactly mainstream, etc. And yet within 3 months of sending out my first resumé I had a job, and even had to turn down other offers. Even as I settled into my new job, I was frequently contacted by recruiters looking for Python programming help. And yet, I’ve heard many people complaining quite vocally about how difficult it was (and is) to find programming jobs in general and Python jobs in particular.

As the IT director and lead developer at a startup trying to grow its tech staff, I’ve been heavily involved in searching for and interviewing developers. In that process I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds painfully ignore the basics of getting a job. So the idea behind this post is to put one more voice out there, sharing some of the things that make me not want to hire an applicant.

Here are the things that make crazy. Take from them what you will.

Not knowing the market. Several candidates have said, “it seems like no one is looking for Python people.” Say what? I get called regularly by recruiters looking for Python developers. We’ve been searching for a Python dev for months. Admittedly, the market is better for more experienced people and you might need to relocate, but even junior Python dev positions are going begging. Ask any recruiter, we’re a hot commodity. When someone tells me that no one is hiring for Python, that tells me one of two things… either that person doesn’t know the job market (at least around here), or they aren’t really a Python developer. In the first case, I’m a pretty firm believer that the responsibility for finding jobs lies with the job seeker and not having done research on the market it a bad sign. If you don’t care enough to do research to find your own career, why should I expect that you’ll have the initiative to solve problems and help our team move forward? And the alternative is worse – in a market where knowing how to spell the word “Python” (at least on a resumé) should get you at least a few calls, not getting any traction is a red flag.

Not knowing the craft. This is so obvious that it shouldn’t need saying… except for the fact that it needs saying. “If you’re applying for a Python programming job, you should know as much as you can about Python and programming.” That means a basic understanding of the language, some basic knowledge of programming, some familiarity with the common or hot tools and technologies, etc. Obviously the depth of that understanding will vary depending on your experience, and for junior positions, particularly, you’re not expected to know everything, but you still should have some idea of the field.

I’ve interviewed candidates who couldn’t tell me how they would approach a problem, or what libraries they would use (or even have used), who’ve never even heard of Django, and so on. I’m no fan of springing little programming puzzles on candidates, since to my mind that mostly tests the ability to solve little puzzles, and I don’t expect lengthy dissertations on advanced programming topics, but I do expect you to be able to know the basics of coding and Python syntax, to have at least a nodding familiarity with current technologies, and to be able to discuss the approaches, tools and pitfalls involved in some of the coding you’ve done.

And speaking of the coding you’ve done, particularly for junior developers, you may not have done that much professionally. However, if you haven’t done anything outside of classwork, I’m going to be pretty skeptical. There are tons of opportunities to get involved in open source projects, to create your own web site, to help with something for a business, a club, or even just scratch your own personal software “itch.” It doesn’t matter how big or how successful your projects were, what matters to me is that you’re interested enough to be in the game on your own time.

Not knowing us (and the job). It’s been said before, but if you don’t care enough to do some research and thinking about us and the position before you come in for an interview, why should we think you’ll care once you’re hired? You’ve got the job description, probably some names of people at the company, and the entire Internet as resources. Even if you don’t have absolutely all the information, you should be able to find out enough to ask questions and maybe even float trial solutions. Why do you do x? How do you deal with issue y? Have you ever thought of trying z to solve this problem? Even if you’re completely wrong about your assumptions, the very fact that you’re thinking about our business is very compelling. If you want to be really sneaky talk about how “we” might solve some of those problems together.

And speaking of sneaky (not really, since it’s clear if you’ve done it or not), if you know who you’ll be interviewing with, look the people up online. Google and LinkedIn are your friends here. At worst you’ll have a feeling of control during the interview and at best you can work in a comment or question relevant to the interviewer’s background, which is almost always good. I’m not going to support hiring you just because you looked at my LinkedIN profile, but it does tell me you cared enough to do some research, and that’s a good thing.

Not selling yourself. Don’t go into your shell – there is a job open and somehow you’ve gotten an interview. So take advantage of it! You may be an introvert, it may be hard to talk about yourself, or maybe you just don’t think you should have to “market” yourself. Whatever… but in this situation you’ve really got to go for it. Show us how interesting you are, how much you care about the work, how cool you think the job is, how much you would bring to the team. If we hire you, we’ll have to work with you every day, so why should we look forward to that? (In a business sense, of course – promising to keep everyone loose with dirty jokes is probably not be the way to go here.)

We can only hire a few people and we need to get a lot of stuff done. We have lots of problems crying out for solutions so we want someone who is eager to tackle those problems and has some chance of succeeding. As Joel Spolsky succently put it, “smart and gets things done.” You may not have the exact sklls to fix every problem at this moment, but that’s not the entire point – as a startup none of us had the exact skillset for this business when we started. But all of us were ready to dig in, we figured it out fast, and we got the job done. And that’s the sort of person we need.

Note: this is not the same as emphasizing how good this job would be for you. I understand that you want to move from that old job to a new, more interesting area. I applaud the fact that you just love to learn new things. I’m totally on board with how wonderful this opportunity would be for you… but we need to move and scrub a ton of data, polish the UI, analyze customer behavior, and keep thinking of new ways to stay ahead of the game. How are you going to help us do that?

Please feel free to ping me with comments or questions: comments are not automatically published, so if you have a question or comment, please feel free to leave a comment and indicate if you want it to remain private.

Edit: If you’re looking for Python jobs you might try the Python Job Board, which as it happens is where I found my current position, or the PyCoder’s Jobs site (I have no direct experience with this one, this is not meant to be an endorsement), which is dedicated to Python jobs and run by the same people who do the Python Weekly newsletter (which I do find very useful, actually.)

[edited to add company name and contact info]


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