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The Working Geek

Thoughts from Milwaukee JobCamp

by Andy Lester

Generic image illustrating the article
  Andy spends a day helping people who want to get or keep a job, shares what he taught and what he learned.  

In late February, I attended and spoke at the third Milwaukee JobCamp. JobCamp is a day-long event filled with speakers, workshops and lots of personal networking. Although the name JobCamp sounds like it might be a sort of BarCamp or Unconference, there’s a schedule of speakers and activities planned well in advance. Attendees come from all job categories, all ages and all industries, not just technology.

As always, it was well worth the day off I took from work to go, mostly as a learning experience for me. Even if I were not speaking, I’d have gone. Here are some thoughts from the event.

Get Business Cards

I handed out about 50 business cards to people I met. I suggest that before you next go to a conference or a user group meeting, you get some business cards of your own. Doesn’t matter if you have a job or not, you should have a way of representing yourself with a physical reminder. Even if you have business cards from your employer, get some for yourself. Carry a few in your wallet or purse at all times so you can give them out at a moment’s notice.

Business cards are dirt cheap. For about $20 you can get 500 cards professionally printed on heavy stock that will stand up to the recipient’s pocket, purse or laptop bag. That’s great bang for the buck. Don’t go cheap and try to print them yourself on microperf laser printer card stock. People can tell.

Have your cards designed professionally. If you’re like most geeks, you probably know a graphic designer or two that you can sweet talk into throwing something together. In my case, it took my bribing my freelance friend Kristen with lunch for her to throw together some designs in PDFs.

Your business cards should have the following bits of information on them:

  • Your name

  • What you do

  • Your email address

  • Your phone number

In my case, it could be as simple as:

  • Andy Lester

  • Programmer, manager, author, speaker


  • 815-245-1738

Do include your phone number, even if the phone is not your preferred method of contact. To many, especially non-geeks, it may be their preferred form. You never know where your next awesome job is going to come from, so don’t prematurely optimize away the potential for someone to reach you that way.

Remember that your card may not go to someone geeky. Don’t put anything on it that is going to be misunderstood by someone not in our subculture. Your geek buddies might be amused at your card saying “Bob Smith: Hacker and raconteur,” but the non-geek recipients of the card probably wouldn’t, and would pick up on “hacker” as meaning “computer criminal.” It’s a good thing for your card to get passed down to other people, so keep it appropriate for an audience of everyone.

If you have any sort of image on the card, make sure it’s clear what the image is, and why it’s significant. In my case, I have the cover of my book on my card, but many people have been confused. Although Kristen’s design is attractive, I never realized that it’s not clear the big heart that dominates the card is the book’s cover. I wanted people to remember that I have a book, but for many I think they just see a big heart.

Once you have your cards, don’t be stingy with them. Hand them out to anyone who might be interested. If you give out 100 business cards over a three-day conference, you’ve spent four or five bucks.

Consider What You Want to Be Remembered for

When I give a talk on job hunting, or write a column here or at, I try to think about how I’m going to be remembered after the listener or reader is gone. My goal is to have one or two key points that stick in the mind of my audience, things that are new ideas. I want her to say, for example, “I was reading this article by Andy Lester, and he was talking about business cards, and I’d never thought about how cheap they are compared to the impression they make.”

This sort of thinking should be at the front of your mind as you work through the job hunt. I see posts on forums like Reddit like “Do I have to take out my nose stud for the job interview?” It’s not a matter of “have to” as much as “Do you want to be remembered as a great programmer with serious chops, or the guy with the thing in his nose?” You don’t want to let something negative, or even neutral but meaningless, overshadow your qualities.

What brings this to mind is the speaker at JobCamp who gave a talk about the importance of interpersonal networking when searching for a job. About halfway through a fine talk, he brought up his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

I thought this was a bit foolish. Religion is one of those personal topics that has no place in business (see the chapter “Too Much Information” in Land The Tech Job You Love). But then he spent the rest of the talk comparing his walk with Christ to the personal networking of job hunting. I’m sure that 90% of the audience, regardless of their faith, remembers him as the guy who wanted to talk about Jesus.

Think Hard about Your Résumé

One of the most popular parts of JobCamp is the Résumé Doctor. A room of a dozen tables is set aside for one-on-one discussions between a job seeker and an “expert” on résumés. I put “expert” because there’s no certification for “résumé expert,” other than the assertion “I know what I’m talking about.” Naturally, as an “expert” I critiqued résumés for a few hours in the Résumé Doctor room.

The problems that I saw most in the résumés were:

  • Lack of understanding of the reader

  • Insufficient use of specifics and details

  • Too much focus on absolute rules

In all my critiques, I talked about how the reader would perceive it, what he would take away from the document. I explained how the addition of details to achievement bullets make the stories come alive in the mind of the reader.

One of my résumé patients that most surprised me in this way was from a man who’d been a car salesman for twenty years and was looking at moving into customer service because of the weak automotive market. His résumé was all fluff and soft words. He said that he was a driven salesman, always working to close the sale and make the customer happy, but there was no evidence. I asked him if he was a good salesman, and he beamed, “Oh yes, I was top salesman in three of the last seven years at the dealership.” I asked, “Then why the hell isn’t that on your résumé? It’s like you’re saying the car gets great mileage, but not telling me what the mileage is.” A light bulb came on over his head, and he realized that his résumé was all about sales, something that he excelled at. He’d never considered it in that way before.

In technical résumés I see from day to day, it’s the same thing. The writer asserts she’s worked on “large software projects,” but there are no specifics to back it up. How many lines of code? How many people on the team? How long was the project? Someone might claim to be a strong team player, but without giving examples. Examples and details back up your claims, and make you more memorable.

There’s No Right Answer and There Are No Rules

When I was asked, “Is it true I can’t have a résumé longer than two pages?” (and every person asked me) I referred to Roger Ebert’s rule about how long movies should be: “No good movie is too long; no bad movie can end soon enough.” In résumé terms, that means that if you have more than two pages of solid information about your background, then that’s OK. Go ahead and list it. If you have a two-page résumé that’s filled with 50% fluff, then it should be one page.

A Perl axiom is “TMTOWTDI,” pronounced “Tim Toady,” and it stands for “There’s more than one way to do it.” Nowhere is that more true than in job hunting.

More than a few résumé patients told me, “But this other guy told me that I should ....” Sometimes it was said with a note of confusion, but usually with frustration, even anger. One of my résumé patients started crying in frustration in the middle of a discussion about the pros and cons of using one approach or another on her résumé.

If there was only one Right Answer to how to find jobs or how to land them, there wouldn’t be so many books out there. We’d just buy a single book that told us all the answers, some sort of job hunting Bible, and that we’d just have to do what that book said. Of course, it’s not so simple. Every job and hiring manager is different. Every job seekers and job hunt is different. We have to adapt every step of the way.

Lifetime Employment Is Dead. Your Career Is Not.

I steal this section name from item #18 in Tom Peters’ excellent new book The Big Little Things: 163 Ways To Pursue Excellence because it so beautifully sums up what I saw in the thousands of faces that came through that space. People from all areas of industry in every sort of job were out there looking to improve their situation because the rug had been pulled out from under them.

I put my seat belt on every time I get in a car, because I expect that I’m going to get in a crash. By the same token, I expect that I am going to get fired some day. It’s happened before, and it can happen again.

That you’ve spent your time reading this article shows that you understand the value of keeping yourself hirable. Keep it up.

Finally, if you get the chance to go to a gathering like Milwaukee JobCamp, go. Even better, if you can volunteer, do it. To handle the 2,000 attendees, organizers Todd Nilson and Angela Harris had 160 volunteers handling speaking, directing people, taking registrations and so on. I know that if I ever need help in my job hunt, Angela and Todd will remember me and help out however they can. In times like these, there’s little more valuable than that.

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, and can be reached by email at

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