Pretty image
When the deck seems stacked against you, you can still win if you play your cards right.

Sometimes you’re looking for a job, and you’re at a disadvantage from other candidates. Then it’s time to focus on those parts of the job hunt that matter most to your specific circumstances: a portfolio of your work, and a network of contacts backing you up.

In my session on resumes and interviewing at the Palmetto Open Source Software Conference, there were about a dozen people who were part of vocational rehabilitation. Many states have vocational rehab programs to help retrain people who need to make career changes.

Three of these people were in wheelchairs, including one man, Joey, who apparently couldn’t move his arms or legs, but could write programs on a computer with voice control. A few had had injuries that knocked them out of their chosen careers, forcing a career change into another industry, in this case IT.

Joey told me of going on job interviews where he had the knowledge required for the job, but would be told on arriving that the position had just been filled. Whether or not he was facing conscious discrimination in these cases, he still faced a disadvantage. Even subconsciously, we tend to gravitate more towards people who are like us, and that applies to potential employers.

Dealing with a Disadvantage

There are many different sorts of disadvantages we can face when job hunting. For example:

  • Physical challenges (limited mobility; deafness)

  • Physical differences (being very short or tall; missing an arm)

  • Having been out of work for a while

  • Making a career change

  • Just starting in the job market

Whether or not these are actual problems for the candidate, I’m talking about potential prejudices and perceptions about the candidate. Discrimination may be wrong and illegal, but it still exists. It might not even be intentional. A potential employer might not consciously think, “No way I’d hire someone in a wheelchair,” but might still be uncomfortable with the idea subconsciously. The disadvantage to the candidate may be subtle, but it’s still there.

When you’re facing this kind of situation, your two best tools are a solid portfolio and your network of contacts. A portfolio is always important to show your work, but in the case of someone like Joey, he can use it as a tool to sell his programming skill before he even meets with the hiring manager.

For anyone in a technical field, however, a portfolio is a powerful tool to demonstrate the work you can do. It’s a way to show a future employer the results of your skills. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then printed copies of your code must be worth at least that. Instead of saying to an employer, “Yes, I’ve worked with Ruby and Rails,” you can show a working Rails application that says it all for you, and far more convincingly. For system administrators, substitute network diagrams and procedure documents.

In the case of Joey, where his physical limitations freak out employers when he arrives, he should create an impressive portfolio that sells employers on his skills before they ever meet him. He needs to have employers fall in love with his work, and be falling over themselves to get him in for an interview. The goal is to have an employer so excited to perhaps be hiring him that they’ll overlook any misgivings they may have about hiring someone in a wheelchair.

New graduates especially should create a portfolio of work that showcases their skills. New grads often say, “This job wants work experience, but how can I get experience if they won’t hire me?” A portfolio isn’t time spent on the job, but it’s the next best thing if you have no time on the job.

Build Your Portfolio

So what goes in a portfolio?

You fill it with work that shows that you’re able to do the work that an employer wants, or at least that you can write code. And if you don’t have any code? Create some from scratch. It doesn’t need to be creative, or ingenious. But it does need to be an example of what you’re capable of doing.

The other comment I hear when discussing code portfolios is that work created for your day job is not available as open source, or is covered by an NDA, or is for some other reason not to be disclosed. Creating your own code specifically for a portfolio gets around that problem. You’ll want to create your code as open source and host it on a public service like github or Google Code.

Here are some ideas of what you could write to show your programming abilities:

  • Rewrite grep in your favorite language

  • Create a blog application

  • Write a program to analyze your web page’s server logs

  • Fetch your Twitter stats and graph them over time, or analyze your Twitter feed lexically

  • Create a command-line to-do list manager, or rewrite Task Warrior in your favorite language

The key is not to show your ingenuity at coming up with a new tool or project, but to show your ability to write solid code. I’m also suggesting that you not use exercises like the Code Kata at codekata.pragprog.com. While such exercises are a great way for you to learn more about programming, they are not the sort of example that will give an idea of what your working applications will look like. You want to show working applications and tools, not just exercises.

When you create your applications for your portfolio, be on your best coding behavior. Your portfolio is supposed to represent your best work, not some code you slapped together in an afternoon. Comment liberally. Take no shortcuts. Create the best code you can.

This portfolio creation might seem silly. You might balk at the idea of writing code that you might not actually need. I suggest you look at it this way: If you’re out of a paying job, then your actual job is to get a paying job. You can spend your downtime playing World of Warcraft or reading Slashdot, or you can create code that will impress your next employer.

Work Your Network

The other tool to work on when you’re at a disadvantage is your network of contacts.

You need to have them as allies to help talk you up to potential employers. If Joey has a contact at a company that he’s pursuing, it’s a huge help if the contact can talk up Joey to the hiring manager. A resume and code portfolio hand-delivered by a current employee can do wonders for your hiring prospects.

You’ll need to have a wide-ranging network to get those contacts.

Get to every user group meeting you can to meet people who can some day help you out in your job search. Better yet, give a talk at a user group meeting (see my articles in PragPub #8 and #9) to show people your skills. Work by attracting people to your social circle, not recruiting them.

Address Disadvantages Head-on

Finally, don’t try to hide what it is that you’re working with.

Just as in political scandals, addressing the problem head-on is always preferable to trying to cover it up. Don’t play your situation for sympathy. Just explain it plainly, and address potential concerns. For example, a candidate might say, “I’m in a wheelchair and have been for the past seven years. The only accommodations I would require are a slightly higher desk, and a special USB keyboard and mouse that I bring with me.”

If your perceived disadvantage is something about your situation, then talk about it like you would discuss any other business situation. Address the potential negative as a positive. Face it head-on, instead of trying to hide it, but don’t bring it up too early lest you give them a chance to exclude you.

When the interviewer asks about your abrupt shift from car sales to network administration, explain “I’d been wanting to leave the sales world for a while, and the downturn in the market gave me my chance. I took advantage of the state vocational rehabilitation program and my local community college to learn about network administration. I’ve been doing server and workstation upgrades for my church, and I’m eager to get some real experience.” You explain the situation, how you’ve worked past it, and where you’re wanting to go.

What’s Your Story?

We all face challenges when searching for jobs. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome when landing a tech job, and how did you do it? Let me know in the Forums.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at theworkinggeek.com, and can be reached by email at andy@theworkinggeek.com.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.