On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger

Three thoughts on hiring, from my couch

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Last Thursday morning I tore my calf muscle at the gym towards the end of a boxing circuit, which put me on crutches for three weeks. Now, at the end of my second weekend on the couch, and eleven days cooped up in my flat, I feel like I’ve got some observations to make. Nothing like an enforced extended period on the couch to turn even a self-confessed hermit into a philosopher, huh? So here I present to you: three thoughts on hiring, from my couch:

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Everyone knows the IT industry has a diversity problem. A large reason why we have that problem is also one of the things I love the most about it: we hire through referrals, not job ads. Believe me, this has caused no shortage of anguish in my fevered mind as I’ve lolled around with my leg elevated. I’ve been working on a presentation for linux.conf.au in January and one of the main points I talk about is how we go out and hand-pick great people then work out a role that suits them, rather than creating a job and then going out and finding someone to (more or less accurately) fulfil that role. The great thing about this approach is we don’t have to hire the least mediocre person available, but can wait for a superstar. The problem is who we recognise as superstars, because history and statistics tell us that the people we think are superstars are going to be uncannily like ourselves. Which is how we end up with a whole industry full of white American men aged between 25 and 35 with an unhealthy passion for Mountain Dew.

Let’s imagine for a second that you work in IT, and you would, at some point in the future, like another job in IT. Looking at the ads on seek.com.au isn’t going to get you too far, but there are several things you can be doing now (and should be doing now, even if you’re not planning to change jobs soon) that can help you when you do decide to make that change:

1. If you work for or notice a manager that you really like, then strike up a personal relationship with them immediately, not when you need a job. You know the smelly kid in school who no one liked, until his parents installed a pool in their backyard? Hiring managers hate feeling like the kid who just got a pool for Christmas. People you respect and admire will rarely offer to mentor you, so if you respect them enough to want to be mentored, then go up and ask them. They’ll probably be flattered, and a casual friendly coffee once a month or two is enough to make sure they don’t forget who you are when they have a suitable role come up.

2. Network, network, network! Look, I’m as much of a hermit as the next nerd, and to boot I’m a single parent, so getting out is hard sometimes, I get that. But put some kind of effort in. If you can only make one conference a year, make sure it’s a conference where the people and companies you want to work for are going to be, then dress nicely and go out and talk to people. If you can’t make evening networking events in your city, then take time out of your day to go to lunchtime meetups (assuming it’s within your industry, your boss should be happy to let you go). If meeting face to face is completely out of the question, then be active in online spaces instead: mailing lists, IRC, Google+ and LinkedIn Groups, and relevant Twitter hashtags. Just don’t be an arsehole, because that stuff will come back to haunt you later.

3. Don’t email hiring managers to ask for a job and expect them to fall over themselves to hire you. You’re not that great. Always make a point of asking in person if you can (over a coffee or lunch, or in a private conversation at a conference or other social event). If that isn’t possible, then at least try for a Skype chat or Google Hangout. I love the solitude of working from home fulltime, but I will always appreciate someone going to the effort of seeking me out and talking to me like a human being, rather than just a job-giving robot.

And a bonus especially for hiring managers, just for good luck:

4. Take on mentees, especially if they’ve gone to the effort of asking. And try your very best to take on mentees with skillsets or from backgrounds that are different to yours. It’s easy to mentor someone just like you, but when you get all “oh, I was once young like you” with them, you start to turn into a bit of a dick. Mentor someone who isn’t like you, and you just might learn something new yourself.

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