I had a conversation with my friend Josh Doody, author of Fearless Salary Negotiation, about getting your first development job. I’d like to share our conversation with you.
I’m here with my friend Josh Doody who wrote the book "Fearless Salary Negotiation." He and I were just having a Skype conversation just now, and we were just like, "Hey, let’s actually record this and share it," because we’re going to be doing a particular interview but we’re having a really good conversation. We said, "Hey, let’s just record this," and that’s what I’m sharing with you.
We’re talking about how to get your first development job, which, I know, a lot of my subscribers at angularonrails.com are trying to get their first development job, or trying to move from the job they have into a better job, or something like that. That’s how we got on the topic but, Josh, when we talk about positioning, what does that mean to you?
Good question. The word positioning, there’s really broad set of definitions for it. For me, and this is not it, I’m not giving you a technical definition here, I’m just giving you Josh’s opinion of what I’m talking about when I say positioning, is basically, how do you specifically appeal to or offer value to something?
You and I are going to dive into a couple of different types of positioning. Positioning, in particular, is if you were to say, "I can do X." What is X? That’s a position. If you were to say, "I can do X. I can write software," for example, "for Y, for some group, or for some company, or for some person, or for some technology stack.
That’s even more narrow positioning. As you keep adding descriptors onto the end of that sentence, "I can do X for Y, in Z situations," then you’re narrowing your positioning down further and further.
Just to give a concrete example, in 2011, I started doing Ruby on Rails and I transitioned. I was doing PHB before that but at some point in time, I considered myself a Ruby on Rails developer and that’s how I sold myself, so that was a positioning. I’m a rails developer. It’s not a very unique positioning and then…
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We would call that horizontal positioning, right?
Yep, exactly. If it’s technology-based then that’s a horizontal positioning, as opposed to a vertical positioning, which is industry-based or something like that. My friend who, you and I, Josh, were talking about earlier who does software for the manufacturing industry. That’s a vertical positioning. It’s pretty broad vertical positioning, but it’s vertical as opposed to horizontal.
When I switched from being just a Rails developer to Angular and Rails, then that was a more narrow horizontal positioning. Therefore, it became a little bit more powerful because there was less competition for people who are claiming to be competent or expert or whatever in that combination of technologies. I just wanted to jump in with that little example there, but yeah Josh, continue what you were saying.
I love it and I think what you did was you added descriptions on that X, or my kind of generic example earlier. You positioned by saying, "Well, first of all I’m a developer." That’s a really broad horizontal position. It covers everything in that world. Then, I’m a Ruby on Rails developer. Now you’ve narrowed that horizontal position. You’re not as wide there. You’re not as broad. You’ve cut out a ton of technologies and stacks.
Then Angular for Ruby on Rails is even narrower as a horizontal position. You haven’t described yet who you’re doing that for, but you’ve described much more concisely what you do. That X has become much narrower in terms of a horizontal positioning over the past few years.
Yep, exactly. One thing that the people might be wondering is, "OK, I get what positioning is. How can that benefit me? How can I use that to get a job or whatever?"
Yeah, so I think the real key is, first of all, kind of tightly defining your position. You’ve done that, I think, really well. I think most people’s reaction to even what we’ve already said, so by the way we have only really kind of narrowed positioning down a little bit, you can go much, much narrower on positioning.
I think what that does is it makes people feel nervous because what they feel happening when they start positioning in this way is they feel opportunities being removed from their world of possibilities.
They say, "Well, wouldn’t I have more job opportunities if I were just a software developer?" I think you then have to pause and look at it from the other side, which is if you were hiring someone to write software who would you want to hire?
You mentioned earlier PHP, so that’s mostly the WordPress world that taken over that PHP development with plug-ins and support and custom WordPress sites. If you were hiring a software developer, who would you want to hire, just a generic software developer or a software developer who writes PHP for a custom WordPress sites?
It’s like if you need brain surgery, do you want a brain surgeon or a general practitioner?
That’s exactly right. Yes, you are narrowing the universe, the possibilities, but you’re also making yourself more desirable to those areas that would want your skill set.
I would add that, just because you start emphasizing a certain slice of your skill set, doesn’t mean that you are limited to that. All your other skills that you still have, they don’t go away when you start communicating a specialty. You don’t have to stop doing that stuff. You don’t have to turn down opportunities. It’s just the difference in what you’re communicating.
That’s right, and who you’re appealing to. [laughs] I should have used your specific example. As a PHP developer, you’re not just qualified from generic software developer work if people want somebody to do that and if you’re willing to do that work.
You’re more qualified or more positioned for PHP custom WordPress site work. I think that, that allows you to do a couple of things. One is, appeal more to those people again who are looking for a specific type of developer.
They will find you more easily, and you’re probably more valuable to them because of that, because they say, "Well, I could hire a generic developer but what does he know? I want the guy or girl who can help me to code up this specific site and this specific technology that I need right now. "
Yup, back to the point of it doesn’t limit you. I wrote a book that covers how to use Angular and Rails together. I have a couple of months ago, a prospect came to me and they needed help with the Rails project, just Rails, no Angular.
Since I’ve written a book, it almost doesn’t even matter what the book is about. But the fact that I wrote a book on Angular and Rails, that just puts the perception in their mind of, "Oh. Well, obviously you know what you’re doing. You wrote a book on that topic," even though it wasn’t the exact same topic.
Then I’m working on the project right now where it’s just Angular, there’s no Rails, and the back end is Python. The person who came to me with the project, I’ve known him for 10 years and he’s seen this body of work that I’ve put out there, that talks about Angular.
It’s like, "Well, OK I have this Angular project. I know that Jason knows Angular, so I’ll go to him through that." Having a specialty like that, it can give you something to talk about and become known. Even though you’re known for that thing, again, it doesn’t limit you to just that.
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I think you said that good and I liked that you used a real example [laughs] that’s yourself instead of my hypothetical…that was good. I feel this conversation moving and I think anybody whose listening is maybe already thinking, "OK, fine, but tell me how to do this?"
Before we do that though, let’s talk about vertical position because I think that’s an important point here. Also, when I start talking about how I approach positioning with my clients, vertical positioning plays a role there. Do you want to, maybe give an example of what…so we’ve talked about horizontal positioning which is what you do, that’s the I do X part.
The second part of my little equation sentence is four Ys, so who do you that for? Do you want to maybe give us an example of what vertical positioning looks like as opposed to horizontal positioning?
I’ve never had success with this myself. I’m more interested to hear what do you say. You don’t know this yet, Josh, because I haven’t told you but, around 2012, I attempted a vertical positioning. I said that I was going to go into real estate IT, and I’m going to build software for the real estate industry.
That totally did not work out because I had no connections in the real estate industry. I was randomly chose something and try to go after it, and it just did not work out. As an example, but don’t take that example as, "Hey, good idea. I’m going to go do that." Don’t do that unless maybe you have some connections already. I’m curious to hear what you have to say about that, Josh.
You just gave a great example that illustrates something. Let me ask you this. You’re going to the real estate industry, so you’re going to do X for the real estate industry. That’s your vertical position. How much experience did you personally have in that industry? Not even just contacts. Had you worked in real estate before?
Very little. I worked for a company that did like land auctions. I wrote the software that handled the auctions, but that’s it.
I don’t think you quite gave yourself enough credit there. It’s more than very little, but not extensively, right? You didn’t have a career in real estate or something like that. That’s one of the keys when you’re trying to vertically position.
I do think it’s possible to vertically position for an industry without having specifically worked in that industry. It’s much more common that you will find it very difficult to do it for a lot of reasons. You don’t know what you don’t know with respect to the industry.
You might think that you’re solving a problem for an industry. You might think you see a problem that you can solve for them with software or something else.
It may turn out to be either not a problem that they actually care about or even really experience or that your solution to the problem isn’t one that would be amenable to them for lots and lots of reasons. For example, they just don’t do it that way.
You can find yourself in a situation where you’re pursuing an industry with a problem that you perceive that you can solve with software. This is really common. People do this all the time. I did it, so I’ll tell you a story about that in a second.
What happens is you find that either they’ve already acknowledged the problem and just don’t care. They’re just happy doing what they’re doing, the way they’re doing it. It’s been working, so they’ll just keep doing it or it is a real problem for them. They would be willing to change but first, you have to educate them that the problem exists.
Then you have to educate them on the solution that you’re providing, which can be really challenging if you’re not part of that industry already. Now you’ve created a marketing problem for yourself in addition to a technology or solution problem.
Positioning yourself for verticals that you don’t have experience in can just be really challenging. You don’t know what you don’t know about that vertical. There’s a lot to overcome there.
Frankly, you have to get lucky as an outsider in an industry. Look into that industry, identify a real problem they have, and identify a solution that they’ll recognize to a problem they’ll recognize and that they’ll pay for.
Right. I just want to jump in real quick with…it’s not enough for a problem to exist. People won’t pay for things they need. They’ll pay for things they want. Often they don’t want the things they need.
Yes. That’s a great segue. I’ll tell you my story now. This is the first time I’ve told the story publicly. This is going to be interesting. It’s not going to be super polished. I don’t think. If you like stories [laughs] of start-up failures, I’ve got one for you.
A few years ago, in 2011, I built my first Ruby on Rails app. It was a social app called ShareAppeal which still exist at shareappeal.com. Please, don’t go there and sign up for it.[laughter]
It’s actually not bad. I looked at it a couple of months ago. I was like, "You know, this isn’t terrible." It was basically sharing links with people on the form of a reading list. I may have been a little ahead of my time in terms of just the idea here.
Basically, I was solving the Twitter firehouse problem with an app. I had designed it so that you could share links with people. I guess that, "Oh, Jason would really like this article. I’ll put it on his reading list." Then I could drop that link on your reading list if we were following each other.
Then you would have another article that a friend put on your reading list as opposed to just random stuff that you see on the Internet. It’s curated by your friend’s reading list, and you could do the same for me. We could also comment on the articles that we share and stuff.
Also, it had a nice little feature where I hooked into the Twitter API. I would scrape your Twitter feed for tweets with links, and pull them back into your ShareAppeal feed. I would also do some analytics and stuff to say, "Whoa, what’s the most retweeted link on my timeline today?"
Pretty cool stuff. It didn’t work out. I killed it early because I realized, as I looked ahead, "Where is this going? How do I monetize this? How do I grow this?"
I just realized that I had built something cool that would be fun for me and my friends, but that the effort to turn that into any kind of business in the long-term would be just tremendous. Of course, likely to fail. I was trying to build a social network, which is [laughs] notoriously difficult.
Then I realized, "Well, I should go for businesses." That was positioned for, I guess this is vertical positioning. Very broadly vertical positioning of four consumers.
We call it B2C. Business to Consumer Business, which is typically, that’s what most social networks are. That’s how Facebook started out. You could very much argue Facebook is becoming B2B with advertising and stuff. Business to business.
I realized, "Well, the real money in SaaS products, Software as a Service products, is in business-to-business or B2B." I started poking around looking for an idea. I had some friends who were running a bakery.
Red flag number one, I was not running the bakery. I knew people who were running the bakery. I talked to them and realized they could use something to help them run their bakery more efficiently. Especially because they had a lot of hourly employees, a lot of turnover.
If they could find a way to make sure that people who were new to the company were trained efficiently on exactly what to do. That they can keep track of what their workers were doing even if they weren’t in the store, if the owners weren’t in the store, that would be valuable to them.
I built an app called Task Book, which was essentially a checklist app for businesses to create repeated checklist. It had instructions on what to do. It was a web app, so you could access it from your phone.
I’m sorry, Josh. We cut out there for a second.
Oh, no. Where did I lose you?
Just maybe the last 10 seconds.
OK. I built an app called Task Book for my friends that were running a bakery. Task Book was a checklist app for businesses to help facilitate repeated tasks that would happen frequently as much as daily.
They could just assign to the entire store, to specific employees the stuff to do that they needed to do. Then the employees could complete the tasks, and check them off, or leave notes for the owners. The owners could see what was going from a dashboard regardless of whether they were in the store. All they needed was an iPhone or iPad.
My theory was if can get stores using this, they will never stop using it. The problem was I couldn’t get stores using it, because I didn’t understand the retail business. I didn’t understand how they spent money. I was right that once they started using it, they wouldn’t stop. My one customer right now [laughs] is still using it every day.
It’s a story of positioning. The problems that I mentioned earlier are the ones I ran into, which is I did not understand. I was going after small retail shops, mom-and-pop shops. I did not understand that industry at all. I didn’t understand what they perceived to be real problems. I didn’t understand what they would the willing to pay to fix the problems that I perceived they had.
The reason Task Book ultimately failed was not a technology, or usefulness, or a product reason. It was a marketing reason. I didn’t know how to market anything at all at the time. I was unable to even find customers locally enough to make it a sustainable business. I didn’t know how to market to anyone but specifically to that vertical.
That’s really interesting that you share that story, because I have a really similar one. I don’t remember if you and I have ever talked about this before, but I ran a SaaS for five years. It was scheduling software for hair salons. Have I told you about this?
You haven’t, but I already feel that sense of dread overcoming me.[laughter]
Yeah, so back to what I said earlier, it’s not enough for a problem to exist. Hair salons have a real problem. All of the hair salon scheduling software is horrible. It’s not that most of it is bad, or that some of it is horrible, it’s that all of it is horrible. I thought this was crazy. I was like, well I can easily build something way better than any of this stuff. I did. I built a product that was better than anything out there.
My product wasn’t very good, but it was still the least worst. What I didn’t understand was, "OK, if you’re selling…" You mentioned B2C, and B2B, earlier Josh. A big difference between B2C and B2B is consumers don’t have very much money and they buy mainly based on price, whereas businesses tend to have more money and they buy more based on value.
You can afford to…Spotify costs what? Like in the neighborhood of 10 bucks a month or whatever? Very inexpensive, but a lot of businesses will pay a couple hundred bucks or a couple thousand bucks or way more than that for B2B software because if you have a product that saves a few hours a day for dozens and dozens of people, well that’s a no-brainer ROI to spend a few hundred bucks a month on that.
With this hair salon app, it was technically B2B, because I was selling to businesses. What I didn’t realize was that it was a B2B product, but I was selling to people who had B2C kind of money. For them 30 bucks a month was, hmm I got to think about that. That’s kind of a lot of money. It’s like, really 30 bucks a month is a lot of money? But it was to them.
Yep, you ran into the same problem that I ran into, by the way. I didn’t mention that part of it.
I was going to guess that it was, yeah.
Yep, you got to model those businesses. The mom and pop shops, little salons, independently owned salons, you model them as a B2C because that’s basically an independent operator who has maybe a separate business account, but they see it all as one giant pile of money that goes in and out of their life. They’re not spending $30 on a business expense, they’re spending $30 that they could spend on groceries.
That’s how they see it, even though they’re a business.
Yep, and the other problem with the buying process was that salon owners, I found, did not have an investment mindset. They had an expense mindset. They didn’t look at is as, if I spend 30 bucks a month I’ll reclaim 200 bucks worth of missed appointments. Therefore, I come out on top.
They looked at it as, I’m losing 30 bucks a month because that’s how much it costs. Which is totally wrong, but I can’t do anything about the fact that they have the wrong mindset. It didn’t work for that reason either.
I just wanted to share that because it was really similar. I’m not sure what it has to do with the point we were trying to talk about, but I just wanted to chime in with that too because it was so similar.
Yeah, it does. I think, hopefully, for your audience that’s still with us, hopefully we’ve helped dissuade…
The 10 percent that’s still with us.
Right. Hopefully we’ve stopped several startup ideas from even getting off the ground.
In terms of, obviously, I want to encourage people to build cool stuff. If we can just save people years of pain, for example trying to figure out how to market a $30 a month solution to salons that do not want to pay for it, that’s hard. Looking back on TaskBook, I wouldn’t call it a failure.
I think there were failures, but it was more a failure of my ability to market. I think I could have gotten TaskBook to work, but then I wrote my book and just decided I knew more about that domain and so I could build a business around the book. Fearless salary negotiation. I wouldn’t call TaskBook a failure. I think, if anything, it was a failure to sort of get off the pad. You know what I mean?
I think I just didn’t know how to make it go. I logged in…My customer emailed me like a month ago with a support request, a really simple one. I logged in to the app and I was like, man this isn’t bad for a guy who this is his second Ruby on Rails app and isn’t a designer or anything. It works. Even now.
I think this is a great spot to now, for those who are still with us, as developers, who were saying, "OK, I now get positioning. I get vertical positioning. I get horizontal positioning. I do X, which is my horizontal positioning for Y, which is my vertical positioning who I’m servicing."
If it’s OK with you, let’s zoom in to software developers and how software developers can take advantage of this idea of positioning. In particular, let’s say software developers who recently graduated from a boot camp or just built their first web app and they’re trying to get a junior developer job.
This will apply, I think, to all developers, but I think that group in particular struggles to differentiate themselves because the value of positioning is you’re differentiating yourself as a unique person or a unique skillset for a unique audience. That makes you easier to find when they need to find you, but also can make you more valuable to them if you actually understand them.
Let’s talk about how software developers can use this idea of positioning, which so far we’ve talked about in sort of a business context, business positioning, trying to get customers. What is the product that a software developer offers and who is their customer and how can they use positioning to help get the right customer or get that job?
Cool, so I think for software developers the product that they’re selling is themselves and their skillset. The positioning that they’re interested in is what are they doing? What is their skillset as a developer? Who are they doing it for? I think the easy way to look at that is vertical positioning, but I actually like to slice it a lot thinner in the vertical space to single companies.
This is something that I just worked with a client on and I thought it was really interesting, because he hired me specifically to work with him on how do I position myself better? Because he was in this spot where he’s just started Ruby on Rails apps, he’s a freelance developer, and he’s getting more experience with a full stack doing front end.
He was having, not trouble getting interviews, he wasn’t having trouble finding good opportunities. He was having trouble getting offers.
He asked me to help him…He recognized this. He was very self-aware. He realized the reason I’m not getting offers is I’m not positioned to help these firms that I’m talking to and they don’t see my unique value.
I don’t want to kind of dominate here. Did you have anything that you were thinking of that is come up with your audience in terms of struggles that they’ve had with positioning or finishing boot camps and that sort of thing?
No, I’m just really curious if somebody gets done with a boot camp and everybody went through the same experience, and the same learnings, and stuff like that, how do you differentiate yourself when you’re talking with a prospective employer?
I’m going to dive in here and this is sort of a new process for me. I wrote about this in my book a little bit, in the chapter on how to ace your interviews. I did not use the word positioning at all and at the time I don’t even think I realized that what I was writing about was positioning, because I wrote about it in the context of basically how you stand out in a job interview. How do you be better than the other people they’re interviewing for this job?
That’s kind of where this came from. Then working through it over the past several months and then this client…I had kind of an aha moment. That, oh, I’m talking about how to position yourself when you’re interviewing so that you’re the developer they want. How do you do that?
My process is simple. It doesn’t require a lot of work, but the first differentiator is that most people simply will not do this work. I think the first thing you want to do is, again, to kind of put this in the overall context, I’m now talking about positioning yourself horizontally as a specific type of software developer. Usually, you know, what stack are you using. Maybe even more narrow, like you, with Angular on Rails.
Then vertically positioning, maybe for an industry, but for a specific company. Usually what this looks like, that sounds kind of abstract, but basically what I’m saying is you found a company that you’d like to work for.
How do you position yourself to be an asset for that company? Not a good software developer, not a good Rails developer, a good Rails developer for the company that I’m going to interview with tomorrow.
This is, I guess, as narrow as you can get. I guess you could go narrower within the company, the specific department that I’m going to help you with, but let’s stay at the company level. The way that you do this is, we talked about this earlier, is understanding that vertical. I mentioned we both talked about how we tried to build a SaaS for a vertical that we didn’t understand and how hard that was. What you want to do is understand the vertical.
The good news is, it’s a whole lot easier to have a good understanding of a company. If you want to model a company there’s a really thin vertical, than it is an industry that you don’t have experience with. The reason is there’s just less information that you need in order to understand what they’re doing.
Let’s say I’m a software developer, I just finished a coding boot camp, I’m now a Rails developer. That’s good. This is kind of a broad horizontal, but it’s still narrower than software developer. I’m trying to get a junior developer job at a company who is obviously hiring junior developers, because I’m talking to them.
There could be tons of junior developers, like for example everybody else that was in my boot camp might be all running to the same two businesses that are local and trying to get a few junior developer jobs. I’m going to talk to them tomorrow, how do I position myself to be the person that they call back for a second interview?
The answer is research. Again, learning about that company or that vertical. You want to go as deep as you can to understand, first, who they are, what they do, how they do it. Then to position yourself as the Rails developer who can help them do the things that they want to do.
Yep, I just want to hop in with one comment that’s related to something you said.
Which is, you mentioned how some of these tactics will work just by virtue of the fact that most people will not bother to do this work, which is very true. If it’s a company you’re not familiar with, if you just visit their website, you’re probably in the top 50 percent just by visiting their website at all.
If you can find out the names of the people you’re going to be talking to, and there’s nothing wrong with asking them, like "Hey, who am I going to be talking to when I come in?" Then go and research those people. It’s never been easier now that LinkedIn exists and stuff like that.
If you go and thoroughly research the people you’re going to be talking to and learn about where did they go to school, what’s their background, blah, blah, blah, you’re probably going to be the only person who did all that stuff. That’s definitely going to make you stand out.
Oh definitely. You’re hot on the trail for my exact process. I think all the things that you mentioned are great because a lot of interview…I think people don’t realize this…I was a hiring manager. I’ve interviewed lots of people. I’ve hired lots of people.
I built a team of 25. They weren’t technically developers, they were senior and midlevel support engineers, but they spent a lot of their day writing sequel. They had come from technical backgrounds and were moving into a customer facing role.
When I’m interviewing those people, as a hiring manager, I have your résumé. I can skim your résumé and see what technology you know. That’s not why I’m talking to you.
I’m talking to you because I’ve got 30 of those résumés that all say Rails developer on them and I’m trying to find the Rails developer that I want to work with 40 hours a week. Right?
I think the kind of terminal art would be something like fit interview. I’m interviewing for fit. Cultural fit. How are they going to fit in and complement the team that I have? But, also, how are they going to help us? How are they going to help the company? How are they going to help my team get better? How efficient are they going to be?
A lot of what you’ve demonstrated is…Essentially, what you’re doing, when you do that research on the website, is, "Hey, I’m gonna be a good fit. I learned about you. I know who you are."
You can signal to them, with that information that you picked up — like what school they went to — that you’ll be a good fit. That you’re a conscientious person, first of all. Second of all, that you’re willing to do some homework. But third of all, you’ll just build rapport with them faster, and they’ll feel better about talking to you because you’re not just a robot.
You’re an informed robot.
Something that I’m kind of reading into the direction you’ve been going, Josh, and tell me if this is the right idea or not, is — if you pick a very, very narrow positioning, that’s so narrow that you’re focusing on the actual company that you’re interviewing with, then that shows them that you really care, that you want to work for them.
A big part of the interview process is…There’s that whole famous marketing thing of people want to buy things, people want to do business with people they know, like, and trust. When you go into an interview, they don’t know you yet, and you want to — as much as possible — get them to like you and to trust you.
You can grease the wheels with that a lot more if you’re familiar with the company and you understand what they do and you show that you really want to be there and you want to get the job working, not just somewhere, but, specifically, there.
Yeah. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what you’re doing. Again, it’s not in a vacuum, right? There’s a comparison here, which is the other people who are not doing that stuff.
The assumption is that you’re more or less equally qualified with them. Again, in my example, you all just graduated from the same boot camp, and you’re all Rails developers. What differentiates you from those other developers? What’s going to cause them to offer you the job?
That’s what you’re looking for, and that’s how you get those second interviews. You mentioned a good part of the research I think you should do, which is, "Who’s the company? What department am I interviewing for? Can I learn anything about the people who will be interviewing me?"
Remind me, and I’ll loop back on some of the ways you can do that without public information, that you can get it as you go.
Then the next sort of phase, that is, you want to learn about the company in terms of, sort of generic-like demographic company information. Stuff you can find on their website or through Google, and so I’m talking about, how big is the company? Are they 100 people, 20 people, 10,000, 100,000 people?
What do they do? Who are their customers? Who are they selling to? What do they sell to their customers? What is the value proposition of the company?
Understanding not only who they are as a business — how big or small they are, where they’re located — but who their customers are, who they’re trying to appeal to, and how they’re trying to appeal to them, and what they’re trying to sell to their customers, is important.
I think a good thing to look for is a mission statement, often be on their home page or their site, easily to find. That will give you a lot of information about how the company thinks, what their culture is like, what their real goals are, and will help you kind of align with that and understand what it is that they’re doing.
You also want to do some research into what their current goals are, so their mission statement. But also any pain points that they might have. If there are struggles that they’re trying to overcome, a word…if you’re reading…You can read financial statements on Google, like their annual and quarterly financial statements if they’re a public company.
I don’t recommend reading them cover to cover, [laughs] but, usually, on the first page, in the first couple paragraphs, they’ll have a summary of what their business does and how they do it, and what [inaudible 35:06] they’re facing.
A word that you’ll see a lot of time, in Apple documents, is the word, "headwinds." That’s a euphemism for problems. [laughs] 4X headwinds is a big one, which is something they can’t control. But they’ll have other headwinds, in terms of consumer sentiment, or competitors, and stuff like that.
You’re looking for not only what they’re trying to do, but you’re looking on the other side of that. What’s preventing them from doing what they want to do?
I feel compelled to make another comment, too, which is, when I was a lot younger and doing some of my first interviews that I’ve ever done, like being interviewed, I always wanted to come into the interview with a lot of answers. Then, as I got more experienced, I realized that it’s a lot better to come into the interview with a lot of questions.
That’s a couple things. One is, so I read that book, "Think and Grow Rich."
There’s a lot of good stuff in that book, and there’s a lot of weird stuff in that book, too, but I read that book, and it had the idea of, before you go into a job interview, list a bunch of ideas as to what you would do to improve the situation at that company, and stuff like that, and rattle off this list of ideas during the interview. That’s horrible advice.
You have no idea what their priorities are right now. At best, you’ll hit the nail on the head, and those will be exactly the things they’re wanting to do right now, but probably not.
More likely, those are things that are already on their radar, but either they’re not a priority right now or they just can’t do anything about them, for whatever reason, or, worst case, those will be things that they don’t even care about at all, and you’re just making yourself look dumb by listing all these ideas that don’t have any relationship to what they actually want to do.
Much better to come in with some really smart questions about, what’s, kind of, going on at the company right now? What do they want to accomplish in the next month or six months, or whatever. You can ask that question at a company-wide level or just in that small team that you’re potentially interviewing to be a part of.
Josh. Yeah, I totally agree. I’m going to send you a link that you can share, maybe in the notes for this article, but it’s called "10 Job Interview Questions You Can Ask."
It’s one of my favorites, because it’s exactly what you’re saying, which is — and I alluded to this a couple of minutes ago — as you’re going through this process, you don’t just learn stuff about the company and then go in and talk to them.
That’s good, and that’s going to set you apart, but, as you’re talking to people, you can continue gathering information and learning more about the company, which, then, you can use that information to position yourself as a better asset for them. A great way to do that is by asking the right questions.
You mentioned a couple already, but, "What does a typical day look like?" is kind of a vague one, but they don’t tell you what they’re up to.
"What are the greatest challenges for your team right now?" is a great question, because it shows, not only that you care and that you’re thinking about their challenges and how you can overcome them, but will give you great information that you can use in the next interview.
Because the next person to interview you doesn’t know that you asked that question. Now you’ve got this information that you can use, in your dossier on the company, to give better answers to questions.
When they ask you, "Why should I hire you?" instead of saying, "Because I’m a great Rails developer," you can say, "Well, I’m a good Rails developer, and…" and then you go to your memory bank and say, "Well, one of the challenges they have is that they’re having trouble writing quality code and they’re having a lot of regression issues when they ship new stuff."
Then you, kind of, flip back into your answering question mode and say, "Well, I’m a Rails developer who focuses really heavily on TDD, and I like to write tests and avoid problems with regressions, in the future, by doing thorough unit testing," or whatever it is. I’m a little bit out of my depth there in terms of the lingo.
You asked a question that might trigger a rant from me, but I just want to touch on it.
[laughs] OK, good.
There is the question, "Why should we hire you?" Thinking back to my 20-year-old self, I might have been, like, "Well, it’s because I can blah, blah, blah," but really, if somebody just busts out that question, "Why should we hire you?" I think the right answer is, "I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t."
Because it depends on the fitness. It’s like, "What, exactly are you needing?" and, "Do the services that you need performed match up with the kinds of services that I can provide?" I think if you answer it more that way, that’ll demonstrate to them that you’re confident.
I think so. I don’t like that question a lot, but it comes up a lot.
It’s the reason I even started thinking that way, is, I answer a lot of questions on Quora, and if you look around on people asking about interview stuff on Quora, there’s a lot of different versions of people asking, on Quora, "How do I respond to the question, ‘Why should I hire you?’" Another one is, "What qualifies you for this role?"
There’s all these different kind of flavors of that question. I think it’s, sort of, a lazy interviewer’s question.
But it’s an interviewer’s question that gets asked. A lot of times people are interviewing because they just got pulled in off the bench because the person who was supposed to do the interview is sick that day or something.
It’s a really, kind of, low-hanging fruit question, is, "Well, why should I hire you?" In other words, "Why don’t you do my job for me, as an interviewer, and you interview yourself?"
If you’re going to answer that question, I think it helps to have the research that we’re talking about, and I think maybe the most important thing you can do is be ready before the interview, so that you can answer that question by starting it with the word "you."
You said, when you were 20, that you would answer, "Well, I can blah blah blah, and I know this technology, and I have this experience, and I did this group project in school," but what you want to say is, "Well, you are trying to accomplish this thing, and I have experience doing this other thing that will help you accomplish the thing you’re trying to do."
You just turn it around and you just talk about them and their needs and how you’re going to help them solve their needs, which is why they’re hiring somebody.
My other least favorite interview question is, "What’s your greatest weakness?"
[laughs] That’s not even on my list. I don’t even address it because it’s such a…I don’t even know. I probably should think about that question, like, how to answer it, but I do not like it.
It’s a total BS question.
It tests for your skill at being interviewed, as opposed to your skill for anything to do with the job. I think, if they’re going to ask a BS question, it’s totally fair play to give a BS answer.
My answer is always, "Verbal communication," which is a great answer, because, historically, for me personally, it’s true. That has been my greatest weakness. But, then, I’ve taken some steps to improve it, like I’ve gone to Toastmasters and improved it that way, and I’m better than I used to be.
But also, usually, the other person will respond, like, "Well, I think you’re doing great job right now."
I’m so exdivd. That’s clever.
It’s a weakness that can be turned around into a strength. Nobody can argue against you, that, like, "No, that’s, actually, not your weakness, Jason. You’re awesome at talking. Give me a different answer." They can’t do that. If you get that horrible interview question, there’s a canned response that they can use.
Yeah, and I can say I’ve interviewed scores of people, and I can confidently say that I’ve never asked anyone what their greatest weakness was. [laughs] It’s a useless question. Not because I didn’t think of it. Because I know I’m not going to gain anything by asking that question.
As an interviewer, I’m not going to learn anything that will help me. I do like your answer, though. That’s a very clever answer, because if you articulate the answer to that question well, then, really, all they can think is, "Wow. If his greatest weakness is verbal communication, he’s doing so well with it right now. He must be awesome at everything else." [laughs] Which is…
Yup, and I always like to say that my greatest strength…I tell people that I have a lot of really great qualities, but the greatest of all is my humility.
[laughs] Right, right. Which is a way to diffuse that greatest strengths question.
Don’t ask me this dumb question.
I think that research, though, is what allowed you to give these good answers to questions. That’s really what interviewing is all about, is giving good answers to questions, that stand out from other people, not generic stuff.
When you’re positioning…I mentioned all the research that you do on their mission statement, and what they’re trying to do. I think it’s good to look at job openings. You can tell a lot about a company by what jobs they’re hiring for, and in what quantities.
Sort of the obvious example is, if you look at their career page or their jobs page and they’re hiring 15 front-end engineers and a marketing guy, [laughs] then it’s pretty obvious that they’re focused on beefing up their product.
They’re focused on product, in some form. They might be focused on the product, itself. They could be focused on R&D for new products, but they’re focused on product. They’re focused on building and shipping stuff. On the other hand…[crosstalk]
Sorry to interrupt. That can give you a feel for company culture, too, because, if they’re hiring 15 developers and one marketing person, it also might tell you that their CEO is a programmer, and they have a programming culture.
Whereas, if they have 10 sales guys and one programmer, then it’s like a sales culture, and, depending on your temperament and stuff like that, might not even be something that you want to pursue.
Right. That tells you a lot, usually a lot, about the phase that the business is in. If they’re hiring a bunch of sales people, hopefully they built some product that they’re now investing a lot of resources and selling.
You’re right that that’s probably not an engineering-focused company. It sounds like they have what they think is a pretty mature product, and they want to try and get out there and sell as much of it as possible. As opposed to, like, an engineering…
Yup, and/or the CEO is a sales guy. It’s always a reflection of sales guy will hire 10 sales guys and a programmer/designer will hire 10 designers and a sales guy. It’s really funny that way.
Yeah, you’re right. That information allows you to learn about the CEO, about the company, itself, and then to think about how you can help that kind of company. Maybe you’re an engineer who doesn’t mind working for a sales-heavy organization, right?
But the task that you have is, still, to look at those jobs and say, "Well, they’re hiring a bunch of sales people. They’re hiring for two engineering positions. So, what can I offer this company as an engineer?"
A way to reframe that is, "What can I offer? I’m an engineer. I write software. I’m not a sales guy. How can I help a company who is really, really, heavily focused on sales right now, with my engineering expertise?"
Now you’re thinking about, "What are the needs of an organization who’s trying to sell?" They’re trying to grow revenue. They’re trying to grow their footprint. "How, as an engineer, can I help them grow revenue and grow a footprint?" One way you can do that is by helping them ship a quality product. You can help them reduce customer return by shipping a better product.
Thinking about that ahead of time will allow you to give better answers to their questions, so when they say, "Why should I hire you?" or they ask you, "What do you like to do?" you know, "What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?"
You can give an answer that’s a project, not just that had engineering built in, but you can also roll in some information about how, "I tried to build a really quality app on this project that I worked on, because I knew that it was important to build an app, but it’s also important to get people to use it and to keep using it so they stay customers."
That kind of answer is going to appeal to a sales organization, because they’re like, "Yeah, we want customers, and we want to keep customers."
That’s a really good point.
Now we’re talking about positioning. You’re answering a question, but you’re answering it in a way that positioned you as a contributor to their current mindset and their current goal. You’re not saying, "I am a developer, and I will write really good software."
You’re saying, "I’m a developer who focuses on quality software that’s gonna be really appealing to customers. It’s gonna be easy to demo. Sales guys are gonna go out in the field and they’re gonna have no trouble demoing this software and getting customers to sign up for trials, and it’s gonna be high quality, so once they’re in for a trial, they’re gonna be in, as paying customers.
"They’re not going to return out, because they’re going to be so impressed with the product, and it’s going to solve all their needs, and they’re not going to get frustrated with it."
Yeah. You could maybe even ask them something like, "I noticed that you have a lot of sales people, and very few developers." When you make that observation to them, that tells them, hey, this guy is sharp. He’s paid attention and he’s made this observation.
But then you can ask them, like, "Have you had any challenges, or do you feel like you’ve had any challenges related to that, related to the fact that you seem kind of sales-heavy and engineering-light? Can you tell me about that?" That can give you some really good ammo to come back and share with them how you can help them as an engineer.
That’s right. Now, if we zoom out, we’re back to, "I’m a junior developer, I just completed my time in a boot camp, I’m now a Rails developer, and I’m looking for my first job," and you show up.
You’ve done this research, and you’ve looked into the people interviewing you. You’ve looked into the company’s mission statement, who they’re hiring, how many of those people they’re hiring, how big the company is, who their customers are.
Now you’re able to give significantly better answers to generic interview questions than everybody else in that boot camp class with you. I think you can see, we’ve kind of meandered to get there, but just zooming out that level, I’m kind of looking down from the sky on two developers.
One of them has done this work and one of them hasn’t, and they both go in for an interview. The developer who did the research is really going to shine. That’s what you want, because you’ve got to differentiate yourself from all these other people who literally built the same cred app over 12 weeks in a boot camp that you built. [laughs]
You’re no more or less qualified, technically, but you can demonstrate that you’re engaged in their business needs, and you want to help them make money, which is, ultimately, what the business is there to do.
They want to make money. You’re not demonstrating, "I’m a good thing to invest in, because I know how to write software." You’re demonstrating, "You want to make money, and I’m going to help you make money. Here’s how I’ll do it."
That’s very true.
That’s what you’re trying to do. There’s another thing that came up when I was working with this client, that was his idea, but it was really clever. When I worked with him…I was telling you, before we started recording, I’m really kicking myself that I didn’t record this as a screencast, because it was [laughs] really good just watching him go through this process.
He did all that research and he knew about the company and how big they were and what they were trying to accomplish and what their challenges were. He knew all that stuff and he gave great answers there, but he also, then, went and dove into their actual product. He trialed their product, because it was a SaaS company, so you can’t always do this.
He actually went into the product and he used it. He tried it. I think it was a project-management product specifically for software companies, or something. He went in and used the product.
He made his own notes and some wire-frames on ways that he would enhance the product, or he would improve it, or he would find things that frustrated him and have questions about, "Why is this built this way?"
His plan was not to use those things to go in and do a tear-down of the company’s product in front of them, but to have some ammo available, as you used in your analogy from earlier, so that he could answer questions, in a way, and say, "You know, I was actually using the product the other day, and I noticed that, when I tried to do X, this thing happened, and I’m curious why that is."
Then they can give an answer, and you can say, "Oh, OK. I see. I see." Then they might even ask him, "Well, what would you do differently?" He’s got an answer, because he spent time playing with the product.
Again, this is a person who, comparing him to that basic junior developer who just finished a boot camp. This is a person who really stands out as he’s already working for us [laughs] . He’s doing pro bono work for us right now on spec, and he’s got ideas and has the product, and he’s focused on the product. How he interacted with it, things that he would do if he were building it, and all this stuff.
Again, now you’re another level ahead of any other sort of off the street junior developer who’s coming in.
That reminds me of something really [laughs] funny. You’re probably familiar with Ramee Satie. Right, Josh?
Oh, yeah, of course. Mm-hmm.
He has something that he calls the Craigslist penis effect which refers to how women put up a dating ad on Craigslist. Most of the responses she gets are you know what. Just by being like a normal person, you are already way ahead of the pack.
He applies that to stuff like this. Just by doing the most minimal effort and research before the interview, you’re already probably in the top 10 percent of people, because most people aren’t doing any kind of research or effort like that at all.
I think people would be surprised how often…Again, I’ve interviewed a lot of people.
I think you’d be surprised how often if I would be interviewing someone and realize that they didn’t even know the name of the company that I was working for. They didn’t know the name of the company, but they literally did not know what we did.
They didn’t know if we were a services company. They didn’t know if we were building widgets. They had no idea. All they knew was there was a job with a job title that looked like something their résumé matched up to and they submitted for it. Now, they had an interview on the calendar.
Gosh, it’s hard to hire that person. If I have any other options, that’s the last person I’m going to hire. Just because, why would I? They haven’t convinced me.
I feel like we can’t emphasize this point enough. I had this interview at this place called Ifbyphone in the Chicago area some time ago. This was several years ago, and we talked a little bit, me and the guy interviewing me.
Maybe, 10 minutes in he said, "So, tell me about Ifbyphone." If I hadn’t done any research prior to that, I just would have been like "I don’t know anything about…" I totally would have fallen flat on my face because there’s just no other way to answer that question. It’s so worth the tiny amount of time and effort that it takes to do your homework.
Yeah. That’s a great example of a real world place where what we’re talking about would have paid off huge.
On one side, you’re the person who has done no research whatsoever and your answer is, "I know that you’re hiring a developer." That’s what you know about them. That’s not very competitive.
But on the other side, actually using the product and making notes and wire frames aside. That was my client going just kind of going above and beyond, but the basic research we talk about, I’m literally talking about 15 minutes of work at most.
Google. You get their website, you read their website. You see who their customers are. What’s their mission statement. Click the jobs or career page or whatever. You’re looking at the job openings. OK, I see some trends there. You google them. See if there are any news articles about them. See if you can figure out how big their company is. Are they public? Are they private?
This is all trivial research with a web browser in 10 or 15 minutes. Going back to the question that he asked you about the company that you are interviewing with, if you’d done this research your answer instead of well I know your hiring a developer is, "Oh, OK, well, I know that you build this product and that your mostly serving this market of customers.
"I know that you’ve got about three hundred employees right now. But it seems that you’re growing pretty quickly because you’re hiring a lot of engineers, so I know that you’re focused on R&D in technology. Which is great because that’s where I focus." You can just rattle off basically just facts that you learned by googling them.
Yeah, and it would be great to say those things and then kind of turn it back to them and say, "Is that pretty much the right idea? Did I pick things up correctly?" Because to the extent that you can be the one asking the questions, you can dominate the conversation and choose where it goes. Obviously, that works to your advantage if you can be the one directing the conversation.
Yeah. That example that you just gave is a great kind of way to tie all that together, and say we’re talking about 10 or 15 minutes of work. Just think of how much you, Jason, were able to guide that conversation. But also just give an answer that said, "Wow, this is a really competent person that has come to me.
"That has done their homework, or at least engaged enough to do homework and understand the business. They’re still here for an interview, after what they’ve learned about the business. One, they believe in what we’re doing, and two, they believe they can help."
Again, as an interviewer they’re probably looking for a fit. They want to know how you’re going to be on the team because they have your resume. They know what technology you know. They might do some technical interview stuff, but mostly they want to know if I’ve got to work with Jason 40 hours a week, and I’m assigning him projects and stuff, how’s it going to go?
It sure looks like it’s going to go pretty well if he invested this time to come in here and give me a good answer about my own company that he doesn’t even work for right now. Imagine the kind of work he’ll do if he actually works for us.
Exactly. I think that’s a really good point. Josh, if we were to kind of summarize into a few bullet points, take this wildly meandering conversation we’ve had over the last hour and boil it down to just a few things. What would you say would be the top takeaways that if people remembered nothing else, what are the few things that they should take away?
Great question. I love, love, love to end stuff with tactics. What are the tactics, what are the action items for people? I’m assuming that the people who are going to get the most value from this or anybody that’s got an interview coming up soon. Most of this positioning stuff is for…
I have an interview tomorrow. I’m going to go into that interview, how do I stand out from the other 10 people that are interviewing for the position? The first thing is to make sure that you do your basic research on the company.
You mentioned, maybe, check out LinkedIn. See if you can find the person who’s interviewing you. If you have their name or do they go to school? Do they have any interests listed there? Obviously, you don’t want to get too deep on that.
Then, do the same thing for the company. Who is this company? Where are they located? How many employees do they have? What is their mission statement? All this basic, I describe it as if you bumped into them at a cocktail party. What would you learn if you just started chit chatting with the company?
You have that information. You’re going to look at the jobs that they’re trying to fill. Who are they hiring? How many of them are they hiring? All those good things.
Now, you’ve done 10 or 15 minutes of research, you’re going to go into your interview tomorrow, and you’re going to have a bunch of information that you can use to give better answers to questions than other people.
The second thing that I would say that’s really important is that you shift your focus from I to you. When you’re asked questions, your answer should not begin with I or me or be about you. It should be starting with you and about the company and how you’re going to help the company.
My sort of one liner for this is your job when you’re interviewing is to tell a story about how the company will be better if you’re a part of it. All of this research that you’re doing to position yourself, that’s all you’re doing is you’re giving yourself the background information on that story that you’re going to tell throughout that interview.
Those are the two high level things is one. Do the research, 10 or 15 minutes on Google. Learn everything you can about the company and the position. Who they’re hiring and all that good stuff so that you can give better answers that demonstrate that you’re conscientious but that you are a good fit for the company and will add value.
The second is when you’re answering those questions, use that information and position it as you focus on the company, focusing on their needs. What you’ll help them accomplish, what they’re trying to accomplish? What their pain points are and how you’re going to help them resolve those pain points as a valuable asset to their team?
Those are the two things that you can do to position yourself as the person that they should hire as the software developer for the job that they’re trying to fill as opposed to that broader random junior software developer who walked in to give us a résumé.
I think that’s great. Josh, if people like the things that you’ve been saying and they’re like, "Oh, that’s interesting. I want to learn more about that." Where can they find you online and, obviously, there’s your book, "Fearless Salary Negotiation" which I assume they can just Google it and find it.
Any stuff like that, URLs or Twitter or anything like that you’d like to share with people?
A good way to find me on Twitter is I’m @JoshDoody. I’m really responsive on there. I’m pretty active on Twitter. If you have a question for me, just ping me on Twitter. You can also find the book, "Fearless Salary Negotiation" at fearlesssalarynegotiation.com.
There are tons of articles. If you go down to the footer, you can see articles. You can actually read the book for free on the site. I offer video courses and all kinds of good stuff there, but I encourage you to just check it out and look for the articles that appeal to you.
If you’re changing jobs or interviewing, I’ve got a lot of good stuff. Jason, I’ll share that link that I mentioned earlier for the 10 interview questions that you can ask and you can share that as well. Which is a great way to start thinking about gathering that intel and that research as you talk to people during the interview.
You can see the research process we talked about with Google. As you go through the interview, you get smarter as you interview more with the company. Every successive interview, you’re able to give even better answers, and you’re able to position yourself as an even bigger asset for the company.
Awesome. Cool. Josh, thanks again. We’ve touched on a lot of really helpful stuff that people really appreciate. Thank you very much for appearing on angularonrails.com.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. It was fun.