Sunday, March 8, 2009

Job Hunt Frustrations

Having recently emerged from the world of job-hunting, I had forgotten almost how insanely idiotic most of the process is. From companies having unrealistic expectations in their job postings to potential employers who pride themselves on their "stringent" hiring policies, the entire experience leaves me just wanting to smack some sense into people. Here are some of the top annoyances I had with the process of finding a job as a software engineer:

  • Almost without fail, every job posting for a large corporation that doesn't have IT as its main function is completely unrealistic. Requiring three years of experience in a technology that's only existed for two years, demanding proficiency in an obscure internal technology, immediately rejecting resumes based on their inability to list a particular application that a decent programmer could learn in under a week, the insanity never ends. Most of these are the result of HR droids not really knowing what it is tech folks do being coupled with hiring managers trying to make their jobs sound more important than they actually are. Guess what? It does not take a programmer very long to learn SAP - your search for an "Experienced SAP developer" will only bring you one of the uninspired masses who has as much relation to a skilled programmer as a monkey has to a rhinocerous. If you want incompetent consultants versed in buzz words, by all means keep your job postings peppered with useless acronymns and internal products.
  • Some companies are just unable to move quickly in a field that demands quick response. If I apply to a job, I should not expect a response that takes 6 weeks - after week two, I've already written you off. If your hiring process takes more than two weeks to get back in touch with promising candidates, you are doing pretty much everything wrong. Fire your HR department and hire someone who can actually do the work you are requesting. There is no reason that candidates have to go through three or four committees before getting the OK for an interview.
  • Not providing requested feedback is one that always pisses me off. If I get rejected after an unsolicited e-mail, fine, I'm cool with that. But if I've taken the time to prepare materials, come in to your company, go through your interview process, common courtesy says you should at least be willing to answer a question along the lines of "Hey, sorry it's not going to work out - how can I improve so that next time I am a more desirable candidate?" A lack of response on something like that is a dick move. And stow your bullshit about not wanting to give the candidate lawsuit fodder - a trained monkey can be taught to not discuss the things that could lead to that kind of lawsuit. If I've committed time to something, I'd like to see a payoff outside of some nebulous "experience of the interview" bullshit.
  • Obviously fake reasons for rejection are even worse. During one set of interviews for a company, I nailed every single question they asked me. I provided every answer they were looking for, and got along well with the interviewers. Yet a few days later I get a response saying "We decided to go with someone with more experience." Bullshit. You were uneasy about something and didn't want to tell me what it was, so you hid behind some fake line that does a horrible job of making the interviewee feel better.
  • Brainbench tests. If your company relies upon these as a measure of programmer ability, your company is doomed to failure. There is no way in hell a MULTIPLE CHOICE TEST THAT THE CANDIDATE HAS TWO HOURS TO COMPLETE is an accurate judge of programmer competence. You do realize that - nearly without fail - every test taker is punching the questions into google to get their answers, right? No? Well then you deserve whatever you get. Brainbench is a worthless measure of productivity, coding ability, and general programming knowledge.
  • Excessively long interview processes. I've been through several interviews where I spoke to something like 7-10 people throughout the course of the day. You know what ended up happening? I answered the same questions 7-10 times. I'm sure you feel that each person in the interview has a reason to be there - if that's the case, put them all in the same damn room. I have no problem speaking to a panel, so let me answer everyone's questions at once. Otherwise, your process is just inefficient.
  • Arbitrary interview tactics. It's great and all that Microsoft uses logic puzzles to weed people out, that doesn't mean that the process works - just take a look at any version of Windows for proof. Nearly no-one performs well in a high stress situation, and having an interviewer sitting there prodding you with "clues" does nothing to ease the nerves. On top of that, 95% of these logic questions require that you know some obscure "Trick" to it that not only isn't relevant to the job being applied to, but doesn't even apply to anything outside of the question being asked! Tell me, how does knowing that "they don't bury survivors" make me a better developer? When will "so that they can't fall in" ever result in me writing code that conforms to spec? Why not just come out and request a copy of the candidates IQ scores and be done with it?
I'm sure there are more floating around in my head somewhere, but these offenses seem to me to be the most egregious. Anyone out there have any others?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to get a job in 40 days

So I'm temporarily back from the dead. Last month I promised a new post that would shortly follow the bit of chainmailitis I channeled for Missie explaining my prolonged absence. I made the mistake of promising this post "shortly" - I suppose today's post sets a duration that could qualify as "shortly" when compared against, say, a decade but I admit that I am in the wrong for falling off the update train. I do have a good excuse, though. Well, it's an excuse - I wouldn't quite call it good.

Ominous portents and the death of a dream

Our story begins way back on January 12th. I get to work, having been pounding my head against the same problem for two weeks at that point. I sit down at my PC at 9 AM and lo and behold, I'm actually making progress! The task I was working on was programatically integrating custom numbers into a car shader (so that a player could set their own number for their car if they so chose). About 10 or so, my boss' boss (the VP of the company) asks myself and a coworker to come chat with him and Eugene (owner of the company). So to make a long story short, they tell us that we're both being laid off (along with about 5 other people). In an hour I go from being gainfully employed, performing work I both enjoy and do well at, to being unemployed with a financial clock ticking on the demise of my lifestyle. Talk about a bit of a shock.

The reason we were given for being laid off was that the company hadn't sold any games in a couple months, so they needed to circle the wagons and scale back some of their efforts. A couple months without a sale may not sound like a big deal, but when what you sell is a large arcade cabinet at $6,000 a pop you can get an idea of what kind of income streams we're talking about. I can understand that mindset and, given the economy, I guess I can see the reasoning. I'm not entirely sure I believe this line though - there were some rumblings at the company that I could go into massive detail on, but I don't think I could do so without burning any bridges. Suffice to say that if someone tries to tell you that a gouraud-shaded, single-textured game looks better than a bump-mapped, HDR-lit engine with per-pixel lighting they're either blind or they're trying to give themselves justification for something they want to do but can't do based on the evidence they have.

Damage control

Anyway, yeah - stuck by personal tragedy. I spoke with my boss and secured references from pretty much everyone at the company - did I mention I was good at my job? - wrapped up my stuff, and went home to plan. I firmly believe that the measure of a man (or woman) is in how they deal with tragedy and unexpected curves, and I've always tried to live with that in mind. I don't always succeed, but I do my damndest and this was no exception. By 5 PM that day I had applied for 5 positions and had leads on two others. I applied to 11 positions the next day, and 10 the day after that. Suffice to say I immediately got on the ball and did my best to rectify the situation. I kept up this pace for about a week, in the end applying to something like 47 positions total. Within a week of being laid off I had my first interview, then a phone screen with another company. Time passed, and at some places I was more successful than others. All told I ended up with 7 in-person interviews, and 3 job offers. I accepted one of the offers last week, and start work on Friday. In total I spent about 50 days on unemployment, and my new job will pay much better than my old. It won't be in game development, but seeing as I live in Chicago that was kind of a long shot anyway - especially considering Midway going bankrupt and releasing reams of experienced game developers into the Chicago market.

Lessons learned

Throughout this experience I learned a lot. In my opinion, there are two things that every person should do the moment they become unexpectedly redundant:
  1. Update your resume as quickly as possible
  2. Calculate how long your finances will last
Both of these should be obvious steps, and are important for different reasons:

Updating your resume immediately is especially important when the firing comes out of nowhere, like mine did. You wouldn't believe how quickly things fade when you aren't thinking about them anymore, and you want to write down your accomplishments while they are still fresh. This document is basically how any company you apply to is going to see you - it's the first line of defense for an HR department with thousands of applications to sort through. Update it, make it pretty, and most importantly TELL THE TRUTH. Lies on your resume may get you to the interview stage, but what's the point of getting to that point if the interviewer will just make you feel like an ass while disproving every lie on your resume? Not to mention that even if it goes unnoticed, you'll be fired if the fabrications are ever discovered in the future.

Calculating your finances and estimating how long you can continue to pay bills helps both in keeping you motivated and, strangely, in keeping the stress of being unemployed at bay. I use Quicken to keep track of our finances, and I use some tricks to determine where we stand at any point in time. You should know all of your monthly expenses (a post on this will be forthcoming at a later time), and have a budget for those non-stable bills (such as groceries, gas, and so on). See if any of your debt obligations allow for deferment due to economic hardship - I was able to defer about half of my student loans, which helped reduce my monthly outlay (I should have been able to defer the whole thing, but Iowa Student Loan Liquidity Corp is staffed by complete and utter morons who can't figure out which form goes where). You'll also need to prioritize your bills, and know the repercussions of missing a payment. In an ideal world all bills should be paid to their fullest, but when income is restricted so must options be. Housing should always take priority, then groceries, then utilities (gas, electric), and so on. Figure out the minimum amount you need to survive each month, then divide that into your total available cash, and you know exactly how long you can go without having to worry. For about the first week I was incredibly stressed about not having a job, but once I did the math and figured out how long we could last on only my wife's salary and unemployment income I was able to take that weight off my shoulders. What was worrying about the unknown became controlling spending to prevent splurging and impulse buys.

Aside from those two most important lessons, I found the following very helpful in my search:
  • Don't rely on former employers who said "feel free to contact us if your situation changes" or something along those lines. Their situation may have changed, and what was an open invitation may not be so open anymore.
  • Keep track of every position you applied to - company name, position, date, source, and status. I had a spreadsheet I used to track my progress that proved invaluable towards the end of the search. This is especially important when working with headhunters, as oftentimes they cannot legally submit you to a position for which you have already applied.
  • Customize your resume and cover letter as necessary for each position. Many HR droids can spot a form letter a mile away. Also, make sure that if you use a form letter of sorts that you ensure that you change the letter completely for each position. It doesn't do you any good to be applying to Abbott Labs with a cover letter that shows your excitement for the various opportunities available with Motorola.
  • Experience requests on a job posting are often a guide to keep off the underqualified. That said, they can't be thoroughly ignored. Take a close look at each posting and truly think about whether or not you are a fit for the position. The shotgun approach to job hunting doesn't always work.
  • You will experience a lot of frustration in your search. There will be a lot of unrealistic requirements in job postings that make you want to hunt down every recruiter for a given company and smack them with a bit of common sense. Don't act on this frustration - just be thankful that the unrealistic expectations of the company in question will ultimately prevent them from recruiting a quality individual.
  • Remember always that you have a lot to offer a company. People have hired you in the past, they will hire you again. Everything you're doing you've done before, and you were successful then. Don't get discouraged!

Why did it work so well for you?

I realize exactly how lucky I've been in my search. In some of the most dismal economic conditions of the modern era I not only had a short stint of unemployment, I received multiple offers, the majority of which represented a significant increase over my prior salary. I don't want to fool anyone into thinking a job hunt is easy, and in the interest of full disclosure (and to maybe mediate any unrealistic expectations some of you may have) I will freely admit I had the following advantages going for me:
  • I have a master's degree in a computer science-aligned field
  • I work in technology, one of the few professional areas projected to experience an increase in demand (despite economic conditions)
  • I live near a major city with several commuting methods available nearby, so not only are the job opportunities more plentiful than they might be elsewhere I am able to search within a larger radius for positions
Additionally, I have a very strong support network. Throughout my search I received a lot of valuable aid from friends and family. In fact, the position I ended up accepting was brought to my attention as a result of a friend who used to work for the company. I am eternally grateful to my network of friends and family for their support during this time, and their assistance when they were able to render it.

Onward and upward

Probably the most crucial bit of advice anyone can receive when they are laid off is "Don't Panic." The hallowed words of Douglass Adams are more than just a comedic prop for a fictitious galactic wikipedia - those two words are some of the most sage advice people can receive. Once you lose your cool you start to make mistakes, and making mistakes is not an option for someone who's in a dire situation. Also, you need to keep a handle on your own emotions. Losing a job, especially if it was a job you loved, hurts. It hurts more than you think, and this hurt can often catch you completely unprepared. It leads to stress, which strains familial interactions, and the last thing you need to do is drive away the very people who care the most about you at times like this. Just keep a positive mindset. Things will improve. Persistence is rewarded. Opportunities will arise. Be prepared, approach the situation with a goal in mind and a plan of action, and you can't go wrong.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From a friend, for a friend :)

There's a new-ish post coming shortly, I promise. The delay I've been experiencing will be its primary subject :) In the meantime, I got this from Missie over at Death by Chocolate Martini, and figured I'd indulge. Unfortunately the chain'll have to stop here for the moment :(

· go to your documents
· go to your pictures
· go to your 6th file
· go to your 6th Album
· go to your 6th picture.
o no changes here… sorry
· blog about it
o …or here either
· Tag 6 friends to do the same.

Here's my photo -

Ahh yes, this picture. When I was at Iowa State, I joined Tau Beta Sigma, which is a co-ed music service sorority (of course at the time I joined I was only the second male in the chapter :) ). This was taken at Kappa Kappa Psi/Tau Beta Sigma Midwest District convention in 2001 or 2002, don't remember which. The blanket I was wearing was one that I was selling, as each had the fraternity or sorority's letters and crest on it. To sell some more, and to make a fool out of myself (since I enjoy making people laugh), I created this character called Blanketman, and constantly referred to myself in the third person. At a meeting of all attendees, when they asked for any announcements, I jumped up and gave a version of the following speech:

"Do you find yourself freezing in the evenings? Have your feet gone numb due to lack of warmth? Need some security in this harsh world? Then you're in luck! Blanket man is here to save you! With one of my trusty blankets, you too can combat the callously capricious cold! See me for details!"

So yeah. Fun stuff. Ahh, my sorority days - :)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

9 useful money tips from Get Rich Slowly

Was browsing the web while my code was compiling, and stumbled across this article at In case you don't feel like reading the whole thing (and I highly recommend reading the entire article, as well as several of the associated links), here's the 9 tips summarized:

  1. Track every penny you spend
  2. Develop a budget
  3. Optimize your accounts
  4. Start an emergency fund
  5. Get out of debt
  6. Fund your retirement
  7. Automate your finances
  8. Earn extra money
  9. Educate yourself
These are all very good (if somewhat obvious in some cases) tips for getting your finance in order and increasing your overall wealth. Obviously this blog is focused on number 5 - getting out of debt - but that is most definitely not the only subject I'll discuss. I'm also already performing several of the above steps:
  • I track all of our spending in Quicken, mostly out of a paranoid fear that someone may have stolen our credit info. I keep track of categories to the best of my ability, and have all our bills entered as recurring payments. I've recently begun to use this as a twice-a-month checkpoint to determine where our funds our at. One of the things that got this whole effort started was a daunting lack of knowledge regarding our financial situation - at any point in time, it was almost a guess more than a certainty that any given transaction at the grocery store, or while grabbing a bite, would be successful. Since I've started the budgets and keeping an eye on debt, I've been a lot more confident with these situations - and it's only been about a month!
  • I've got two unofficial budgets for tracking purposes, and one budget I'll be discussing with the wife that we'll use to actively control our spending habits. The tracking budgets are just tools I use for the moment to keep myself on the ball, to get a general feeling of where we stand in terms of our financial situation. The new budget will actually be geared toward having foreknowledge of where all our money will go, and will come with guidelines for how to function under the budget. Somewhere along the line I developed an obsession with documentation, and I'm working on describing this whole thing in a doc that will probably become a blog post somewhere down the line.
  • I'm constantly educating myself on money matters by browsing finance blogs in my free time - it's how we saved 10% off market when we purchased our home as a foreclosure. The Housing Bubble Blog was one I used to mitigate my frustrations with my life as a rental during the housing insanity of the past several years, and has been a wealth of information and resources.
  • We're both working towards funding our retirement. It's not a lot at the moment, as we're both kind of focused on debt reduction, but it's also not zero and every little bit helps. I'm matching my company's 1% at the moment, and increase that amount by 1% every may after merit increases go through.
  • We're also establishing an emergency fund. One of our primary problems, as most homeowners know, is that within the first year of homeownership thousands of dollars worth of expenses can come out of nowhere (especially in a house like ours that was vacant for 18 months before the purchase). With the new budget, we'll be putting away at least $250 towards savings every month, which should give us a comfortable $1,000 emergency fund within five months, and at least a month's worth of expenses by the end of the year (if all goes according to plan, that is).
I view my debt as a beast, and to pull unashamedly from Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, I'm constantly looking for knowledge bullets that I can load my brain with, so as to more effectively bust a cap in that bitch. Or something.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Don't resolve, just do.

Around this time of year, people are making resolutions for the new year. They resolve to get out of debt. They resolve to quit smoking. They resolve to get in shape. What do all of these people have in common? Simple - they're likely setting themselves up for failure.

There are two problems with new year's resolutions. First off, the special significance ascribed to the new year is unnecessary. If you are continually waiting for some big event, some turn of the clock, or some magical marker to begin your improvement plan, you're setting yourself up for failure. By making a big deal out of the goal you are trying to accomplish, you are doing exactly the opposite of what you need to be doing - making the improvement a habit.

Second, by calling them resolutions we mislead ourselves by improperly labeling these items - they are goals, and goals need to have several components in order to be useful. They need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely - known by the acronym SMART. Most resolutions will resemble the following:

"I resolve to get myself in shape this year. 2009 is the year, baby!"

Now on the surface this seems like a good goal. The problem is that it's doomed to failure. First off, the person making the resolution is trying to step outside their life, to circumvent their habits by using the new year as a jumping point. Why the new year? What's so special about this one date? How will you then not use this logic to circumvent that goal on, say, your birthday? After all, it's your birthday, it's a special occasion!

Second, where's the specificity. What does the resolver define as being "in shape"? Personally I'm in shape right now, that shape just happens to be "bulbous." If it's not specific, how do we know when we've attained our goal? What about a deadline, to hold us accountable? There is absolutely no way to gauge the success or failure of this goal accurately - it is simply far too nebulous a beast to get a handle on.

When I was first out of college, my boss made me read a book entitled The Power of Focus - this book did a great job of laying out what one needs to do in order to achieve lasting self improvement. Specifically, it focuses on two areas - setting appropriate goals, and developing habits. Both of these areas are crucial in achieving the things you want - you need to get into the habit of doing whatever it is you need to do to achieve your goals, otherwise you will just relapse into the patterns that got you into the hole in the first place. This is why most resolutions fail - the person making the resolution is trying to sidestep their habits by making vague promises on a special day. I'm sorry, but the world just doesn't work that way.

So if you must, make your resolutions, but make them SMART. Don't fall into the trap that so many other people will fall into this year.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Debt #4 - My Car

2006 MINI Cooper S (link goes to picture source)

Original loan length:
5 years
Remaining loan length:
2 years, 8 months
Monthly payment:
Principal remaining:
$13735.92 (estimate)
Interest rate:
6% (estimate)


This is a loan for my current vehicle. I'd test driven a mini back in 2004, and had so much fun driving it that I promptly began to work towards purchasing one. I was able to fulfill this goal in 2006, when I changed jobs to get a 21% increase in pay. The car was purchased brand-new, and so far has had few problems. It's got about 10k miles left under warranty.

Plan to payoff

This debt will be accelerated by adding in the monthly payments from both
my wife's car and our past taxes. This will most likely occur beginning in December of 2009.

Edited because I like extra words

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Debt #5 - Past taxes

Past-due taxes from 2006 and 2007
Original loan length: until paid off
Remaining loan length: until paid off
Monthly payment: $100
Principal remaining: $3502.61
Interest rate: 5% + 1% per month late. Finding this number is actually insanely challenging, as the IRS site is very labyrinthine and does its best to hide numbers from you to avoid an implied promise of rate (or so I figure).

This is a repayment plan I had started due to a couple of tax bills that we weren't able to pay in full. In both cases, the underpayment was the result of simple lack of knowledge of what impacts our taxes owed, and how much those items would actually impact our taxes.

First, in 2006 we came up at around $4,000 off in our taxes. This was primarily due to some stupidity on my part. I had changed jobs in the middle of the year, and had a number of expenses come up all at once. So instead of rolling over my 401k, I simply took the disbursement and ate the penalty. As I didn't adequately understand the documentation, I thought the penalty (which it seemed to me was extraordinarily severe) included the taxes due on that amount. Obviously I was incorrect. Couple that with incorrect number of allowances, and bam - tax hit. We paid off $2,000 of it right off the bat, then requested a payment agreement. We promptly stopped hearing from the IRS until about 6 months later, when it turned out they had received our payment, but misplaced our tax returns. Of course they were very quick to cash the check we sent them, but they continued to bug us about their mistake for the next two years. We refiled no less than 5 times, and in this case it seemed the fifth time was the charm. By this point, we already had another installment agreement going.

In 2007, there really wasn't much wrong. We got some bad advice on the number of allowances to take, and as such we didn't have enough money taken from our paychecks. This resulted in right around $1800 that we ran short. As we were moving pretty much right at the same time (we closed on our house on April 11th, 2008), we decided to send in a small amount (I think it was like $500 max), and then just wait to start an installment agreement until we could afford it - e.g. as soon as all the traditional "new house crap" sorted itself out. By the time we got the installment agreement going, the IRS had yet again lost our 2006 taxes, so we refiled. Somehow they were magically accepted this time, and we had the amount tacked on to our current installment agreement for 2007.

Plan to payoff:
This will be the second debt we tackle, for two reasons. First, the monthly payment is something we can easily afford (it's why we selected that amount), so we have no worries in the immediate future about being able to pay it off. Second, I'm holding out hope that our 2008 returns will wipe out some of this balance. Once I found out about the issue with our allowances/exemptions in 2007, I immediately reduced the number of allowances I was taking at work. So the idea is that this year we'll probably overpay, and according to the installment agreement any returns are first applied to the past due balance before returning to us. The same thing happened with the economic stimulus payment from earlier this year, which was a pleasant surprise (even if it would have been nice to have the cash on hand).

So in any case, this amount is just something we're not too concerned with at the moment. If our returns for this year eliminate the amount due, then great! If not, we need only wait until May, at which point we can accelerate our rate of repayment using the payment from my wife's car that will have just finished. All things held equal, this debt should be gone completely within 12 months. Ideally. Unless we owe on our taxes again, which I am pretty confident we won't but not 100% sure of. Online estimates of the taxes we owe are $15,000 (approx), and I've already had $8,900 deducted from my paycheck over the year, and this isn't counting student loan interest deductions, mortgage interest deductions, property tax deductions, or 401k contributions (not to mention the amount that my wife has paid towards taxes as well). So while it's possible that we may have underpaid yet again, I don't think that will be the case this year. In all honesty, though, getting a handle on this garbage is probably going to be my next target once we've got a handle on our debt.