Volume 32 Number 3
Dodging Disaster: Networking Gaffes to Avoid
By Krishnan Rangachari | March 2017
Early in my career, when I was a software engineer at Microsoft, I represented the company at recruiting events, hiring mixers and college career fairs. Too often, I saw potential hires trip themselves up with avoidable mistakes. Here’s a list of things to avoid at your next recruiting event:
Be selective in your story telling. If you worked on an otherwise-attractive project that got canceled, there’s no need to mention the cancelation part. Also, don’t downplay your own past responsibilities, roles or projects by—for example—mentioning that you were the most junior member of the team.
When engineers approach me at hiring events, I notice that about 80 percent of them show no targeted enthusiasm. That is, they tend to be passive during the conversation and ask rudimentary questions about the job or company. About 15 percent show fake or generic enthusiasm, coming off as insincere or lacking knowledge specific to the company. Only 5 percent of developers show what I’d call real enthusiasm, marked by the ability to directly articulate their goals.
For example, I may identify one attribute that gets me excited about a potential employer—even the most terrible employer has one attractive characteristic. I then articulate this to the recruiter as the reason for my interest. Often, in trying to express my enthusiasm, I will automatically become enthusiastic.
Poor Story Telling
Don’t talk about what your team did in your past projects. Instead, mention what you did, even if you did it as part of a team. Everybody knows that you don’t work in isolation. The recruiter isn’t hiring your team; she’s hiring just you.
Developers also mistakenly use phrases like, “I don’t remember the details,” or, “It was so long ago,” when recounting experiences. This is conversational suicide. The recruiter will ignore whatever you say next. Do your best to remember what happened and state it without voicing doubt or hesitation. Most recruiters understand that you don’t have a perfect memory. They’re more interested in the arc of the story than the exact recounting of every detail.
Don’t tell employers why you’re a good fit, show them. Direct selling falls flat for engineering roles. So, don’t say: “I used C# in this previous role. I think it will be really helpful for a role at your company.” Instead, say: “Most of my experience so far has been in C#. My most recent project was a large-scale, enterprise-wide deployment of a payroll system that used a C# back end and a SQL Server database.” If I’ve done my research well, and the company actually prizes C# and SQL skills, these words will work their magic.
Wait to get an offer before you make requests of an employer. Some developers instruct recruiters to place them on a specific product, or worse, tell them the teams they don’t want to work with. Others want to discuss things like benefits, perks and commute times. A reasonable request or two, stated with politeness and flexibility, is fine, but an interview or hiring event is no place to make job demands or convey your commitment to work-life balance.
Sometimes developers draw undue attention to their own perceived weaknesses, and thus destroy their own candidacies. They may say, “I dropped out of college to take care of my family,” or, “While I don’t have a CS degree, I’ve worked as a software engineer for 10 years.” Nobody even asked them!
Most of the time, interviewers won’t even notice the education section until these candidates mention it. If you’re genuinely interested in a job, assume that you’ll succeed, instead of identifying why you wouldn’t. Drawing attention to a weakness magnifies it. Talk only about strengths, and the weaknesses will die of starvation.
Your job as a candidate is to present common ground with the company to which you’re talking. If your experience is all in hardware engineering, talk specifically about the software components of your work, emphasize your computer science coursework, and tweak your job descriptions and project selection. Developers sometimes make the mistake of playing up irrelevant or ancient experience, or worthlessly impressive credentials. The recruiter may not care.
If what you’re about to say about a past colleague or employer could be even remotely considered badmouthing, don’t say it! It repels recruiters, because if you badmouth somebody else, they know it’s only a matter of time until you badmouth them. If you feel compelled to mention something negative, rechannel that restlessness. Mention something positive about the new employer instead.