As strong as the tech job market is, computer science graduates still face challenges during their transition into the real world. While employers prize their smarts, they can be leery of a perceived lack of practical experience and business skills on the part of people looking for their first real job. That doesn’t mean you should be discouraged. It just means you should be ready to approach your search with careful planning, effort and focus.
Just ask Veronica Ray. The 2013 CS grad conducted a textbook search during her last semester at Duke. Just when she thought she might have to settle for an internship, she hit the jackpot, landing a software engineering job in San Francisco with marketing solutions firm Bizo.
Have a Strategy
Instead of shot-gunning the market, Ray developed a profile of her ideal employer and focused her search on companies that met it. Using her own research and a spreadsheet, she ranked and compared their key characteristics, such as size, culture and number of attainable job openings. “I didn’t want to work for a large company or one that was so small, I’d be the only IT person on the staff,” she says. “I wanted a mentor and an opportunity to learn, so I targeted firms that had about 20 engineers.”
Customize Your Approach
For every company on her list, Ray created a customized cover letter that outlined why she wanted to work for them. “I mentioned my personal connections to their employees, experience with their product or service or interest in their technologies,” she recalls. “For example, I wrote that I had completed Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails tutorial and explained why I liked the Rails framework for a job requiring experience with Ruby on Rails.”
Develop an Online Image
Naturally, several employers checked out Ray on the Internet. In addition to having social network profiles, she built up her online presence by completing tutorials and open source projects and posting the code on GitHub.
“It’s important to show that you’re passionate about technology and have the ability to work on a team,” observes Mark Carolino, a career counselor for computer science majors at the University of California, Irvine. “Post work samples from student projects, coding competitions, side projects and internships in a portfolio or on GitHub,” he says. “Then, demonstrate your knowledge of the business side and collaborative skills by entering business plan competitions and posting your team’s work online.”
Practice Your Interviewing Skills
Ray bombed her first technical interview, but instead of giving up made a concerted effort to improve her skills by studying Gayle Laakmann McDowell’s Cracking the Coding Interview and participating in mock interviews with her friends. The lessons she learned: “Remain calm when you don’t know something and ask for hints if you need them,” she says. “And remember to articulate your thoughts when solving a problem.”
Keep the Faith
Of course, not every application resulted in a job offer, and Ray had her share of ups and downs. Her advice: “Don’t get discouraged. Rejection is part of the process. Just because you don’t get the job doesn’t mean you’re a bad programmer.”
Even now that her search is over, Ray faithfully attends hackathons, meetups and other events to build up her network. And though she’s happy with her company and her role, her networking efforts have gained her the attention of other employers.