In 2001 I found myself “in-transition”. A year prior I had accepted a position with a small Internet start-up firm in New Jersey. As the Dot Com bubble burst, I found myself without a job, as the company I worked for headed towards shuttering it’s doors. I was let go on September 5th, 2001. Six days later, I watched in horror as terrorists attacked our country. During this time I had traveled across country to re-settle in Seattle, WA. Little did I know, at the time, that Seattle would suffer with some of the worst unemployment in the country following the 9/11 attacks. My unemployment lasted a full 8 months. I was at a complete loss as to how to respond to the constant rejection as I applied for jobs, interviewed, and was dismissed. I found that my resume was average, my interview skills lacking – there was not anything that made me stand out from the plethora of resumes that stream across a recruiter’s desks. That time was very similar to today’s job market: many people are competing for a handful of desirable jobs. If you are employed, you feel fortunate to have a job. If you are “in-transition”, you may feel as if you will never find a job again. You will. It may, like me, take much more time than you anticipated.
In retrospect, I am thankful for the difficulty I experienced in finding a job. As a result of this experience, I have learned how to make myself stand-out, no matter the economic situation. This article will share my top 5 tips for maintaining an edge in a difficult market and landing a job.
1. Know your trade, inside and out. Get back to the basics.
During the time I was unemployed, I found I landed interviews fairly easily. It was sealing the deal that I found difficult. Part of the reason I had difficulty was due to my inability to naturally speak the language of my chosen profession – business analysis (BA). I had been a practicing BA for a good 5 years at this point, but I was shaky about my skills when interviewing. Once I realized this was part of my problem when interviewing, I started to study my own trade. I purchased a few basic books on the subject and read them all. I knew most everything in the books, but it reinforced what I hadn’t practiced during my 8 months of unemployment. This gave me a common language to speak with the manager with whom I was interviewing. It also gave me confidence that I really did know what I was doing – which can be easy to forget when you go through long periods of unemployment.
In the same sense, keep yourself marketable. What sets you apart that makes a potential employer want to call you in for an interview? Future employers search for people that will be an asset to their organization. Demonstrate this by participating in activities that set you apart. For me, I try to publish articles in my field, attend and present at trade shows like Business Analyst World. I also look for opportunities to lead within my organization – like starting a Business Analyst Center of Excellence for my latest employer. These activities demonstrate my ability to lead a team, conduct public speaking, and write. Look for opportunities within your community or current organization to similarly demonstrate how you are an asset to an organization.
2. Interview, Interview, Interview. Practice makes perfect.
Interviewing is a skill you must keep current – no matter how long you have been an employee of an organization. One recommendation I make to people is that they try to interview with another company every year. Interview even if you are perfectly content in your current position. Why? You need to practice interviewing and the best way to do that is to explore different opportunities. You may find that you discover opportunities you would not have otherwise pursued. If you do find that you are in the position to look for a new job, you will be better prepared to face the challenges of navigating through an interview then someone who has not practiced the skills in years.
3. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Prospective employers will inevitably ask you what your strengths and weaknesses are. These questions usually make me squirm because it is difficult for me to talk about why I am so great (I tend to downplay my own strengths.) To help myself get over this fear, I purchased a book called Strengthfinders 2.0 by Tom Rath. I took a short test and was surprised at the accuracy of the results. The test will produce a top 5 list of your strengths and a strengths profile. While this may seem hokey, it is a great tool to use to make this conversation easier. I would never list my top 5 strengths verbatim from the book. However, I would tell my prospective employer that I am known best for being a great team builder. I would then list examples of how I have used this skill in my day to day work.
Strengthfinders or any similar tool, can give you insight into areas of weakness. Any strength taken to an extreme can be a weakness. Most Websites which offer interviewing advice will tell you that when answering the question “What is your greatest weakness?” you should use this as an opportunity to highlight one of your strengths. For example I could say something like: “I like to build consensus among my team members and can become frustrated when certain team members are antagonistic. To combat this, I would sit down one-on-one with the individual and try to probe the root cause so that the team can address the individual’s concerns.”
4. Keep your resume up-to-date.
This seems like a no-brainer right? I am always surprised by the number of people who tell me they do not have a resume or have not looked at their resume in years. A friend of mine recently found herself looking for employment after 11 years with her company. She started at the organization fresh out of college and had spent her entire career there. She fully expected to spend her entire work life working for this organization. She was shocked when she found herself a part of a reduction in force. She also had never written a resume. She didn’t know where to start. Don’t let this happen to you! Have a current resume ready and available at all times. I also suggest that you have different people periodically review your resume for areas of improvement. This outside perspective will enhance your resume and ensure you are putting your best foot forward at all times.
5. Find a path to success.
During my 8 month period of unemployment, I had many rejections from many companies. Prior to this experience, I had found it fairly easy to land a job. This was a different business climate and I needed to adjust my expectations. After about 6 months of not finding a job as a Business Analyst, I started to expand my definition of acceptable employment. I applied, tested, interviewed and accepted a position as a Metro bus driver for the Seattle metro area. While I had no intention of making this a permanent career move, it did me a world of good. It gave me a success under my belt. I was able to land a job. I was a desirable employee to someone. While I never did end up driving a bus, the experience gave me tremendous self confidence that I had lacked dearly at that point. I used that newly found self confidence to land the perfect job a few weeks later at a large Insurance company as a Senior Business Analyst.
Another approach may be to keep your skills current by contributing to an Open Source project. Grant Ingersoll1, a distinguished contributor to the Open Source project Lucene, recommends you find a well known Open Source project and start contributing. These types of projects often need people to de-bug, test, write small patches (if you know how to code), and contribute ideas. They are grateful for the help. There are similar projects available to Analysts. Eclipse.org produces the Open Requirements Management Framework. Check out their website (http://www.eclipse.org/ormf/project_home/get_involved.php) to see if there is potential for you to contribute. Using this technique allows you to publicly demonstrate your skills and keeps you active in the software community while you continue your search for a job. Who knows, you may even find that this type of work is a good networking vehicle to launch your next career!
In Summary – Stretch Yourself
I have a quote framed on my desk which I take with me to every job. It states: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the blowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” (Katsumi Sugita) Apply this principal to your career. Take a risk. Sail away from the safe harbor and stretch yourself, you won’t regret it.
In the end, each of us is responsible for our own career. We decide whether or not we are an asset to a company. We decide how well we perform. We decide how long to work for an employer. We decide our future. Own it. Live it. Be your best, every day. We owe that much to ourselves.
While I can’t guarantee that following these tips will land you a job every time. I have found they have worked well for me and have helped me stay competitive no matter where my career takes me.