Jobs That Beat The Caring Out Of You

“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

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Before I get into this article, let me say that this appears to be a thread going around today (on April Fool’s Day, no less). I decided to add to the chorus.

But before I do, here are the other articles (all with the same title) that inspired me to write this. I especially list Jen first, since she appears to be the one who started this thread.

Feel free to read their stories. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Okay, now I’ll add on with my own story. This involves the company where I worked before I latched on with my current one. For reasons that I think are obvious, I will not name the company (I’ll simply refer to it as “The Company” — and I think capitalizing even that is giving it too much credit), nor will I describe who they are or what they do, other than that they’re a software company. I will leave it at that. Those of you who know me well will likely know the organization to which I refer. Everyone else… well, you’ll just have to play along.

So here’s the scoop. Essentially, I was fired from The Company.

I suppose a little background story is in order.

I’ll start at the beginning. I was hired at The Company as an application developer. I was hired because I have experience with classic ASP — an old technology that isn’t widely used anymore. It seemed like a good place, and I was looking forward to getting started with The Company. Indeed, the people were friendly, and I am still friends with many of them to this day.

Nevertheless, there were warning signs from Day One, and I didn’t pay heed. Only now through hindsight do I recognize those signs.

The first sign: my very first day on the job, I was poking around the application. My very first question: “where is the documentation for this?”

And people looked at me as though I had two heads.

There was absolutely no code documentation anywhere. It simply did not exist. It barely even existed as code comments, and even those were rare. I was expected to understand how the code worked just by looking at it and remembering how it all worked as I went through it — without writing anything down. I’ll say it again for emphasis: I was expected to be able to do this.

That should have been a major red flag there. But there’s more.

There appeared to be a lot of employee turnover at The Company. People seemed to come and go on a regular basis. As I would tell people years later, “this place didn’t just have high turnover, they had a revolving door.” This was another major red flag.

It seemed like a fun place to work. Once a year, they closed the office for a day for a company picnic. It included a golf outing, food and games. Every year around the holidays, they would have a holiday party where they would give out large prizes (including cash bonuses and TVs), and The Company even sprung for a hotel for the night. They would do it again in late winter or early spring, and refer to it as a “blow off steam” party. They regularly had a massage therapist come to the office once in a while to give free massages. I even remember one day where The Company achieved a major success (it was either a successful release or gained a major client — I don’t remember which), and to celebrate, they had girls walking up and down the aisles with trays of hors d’oeuvres. I didn’t even need to eat lunch that day. Indeed, it seemed like a party atmosphere, and they made it out to be a fun workplace.

(I’m guessing that, at this point, those of you who know me know who “The Company” is.)

However, looks can be deceiving. And a “fun party” workplace doesn’t do much for one’s career.

To say that I struggled as a developer is an understatement. I couldn’t grasp a lot of what The Company was doing in their applications. I did my best to keep up, but the lack of documentation was a major stumbling block. I started to doubt my own coding skills — and a lot of that doubt still continues to this day. It’s one of the major reasons why I’ve been moving away from my technical skill sets. I do enjoy writing code, but that experience made me question whether or not I was really cut out to be a developer. At one point in my career, I was hoping to do more as a developer, but my harrowing experience with The Company has since dashed those aspirations.

Let me go back to the part about lack of documentation. I made it clear to management that I had a Master’s degree in technical communication and professional experience as a technical writer. I let them know that I was willing to take on documentation duties, and offered my services as such. They had a company Wiki that was underused, and only a few people had access to it. I asked for, and got, access, and documented what I could, which wasn’t much.

There were clients asking for a system administration guide. I saw what they were sending out. My opinion of the document — the only good place where it could’ve been used was the bathroom. The document was absolutely horrific. It had absolutely no structure whatsoever, and it was impossible to read. It basically looked like a bunch of scratch notes just thrown together into a Word doc that was given to clients — which was pretty much what it was. The excuse I got was, “these people are techies just like us. They don’t need formal or good documentation.”

I offered to rewrite the system admin guide, and I did what I could. I threw out the old guide and rewrote the entire thing. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an infinite improvement over what they had before.

The Company insisted on an addendum to the system admin guide. They insisted on sending out a document — which they insisted on writing in Excel (!!!!!!!!) — out to clients. They sent it out without review, and likewise, it was horribly written.

The Company wasn’t just disinterested in documentation. They were openly hostile to it.

The Company had absolutely no interest in developing their employees. The prevailing attitude was, you don’t need to develop your skills. You’re going to do what we need, you’re going to do it our way, and you’re going to do it well.

Now, I’ve practically made an entire career out of adjusting to my environment. When I realized that I wasn’t going to make the grade there as a developer, I offered my skill sets in other areas, especially in communication. I offered to write full-time. Eventually, they moved me to an area where I was responsible for client software releases. They were showing me that they had no interest in me and my development. They didn’t care about what I wanted. They just wanted something from me — something I could’ve offered, had I been in a decent, nurturing working environment — which this was definitely not.

I was called to HR and told that I was on probation. I had (I think it was) sixty days to shape up. So I worked harder. I worked on improving the quality of my work. I picked up the pace.

I should note that two things happened around this time.

First, I updated and actively (and discreetly) pushed my resume. I had gotten to the point that I was absolutely miserable working there, and wanted to leave as soon as I could. I wanted it to be on my terms, not The Company’s.

Second, I wrote this article. I could see the handwriting on the wall.

Several weeks later, I was called into HR again. I was told I was being let go. They noted the effort I was putting in, but said I was not improving my skill sets they way they wanted.

Not once during my probation period was I told that that was what they wanted me to improve. Not once.

I was cordial during my interview with HR. I asked questions like, “well, how will such-and-such be handled after I leave?” That was the face I gave them. In the back of my head, I was silently saying things to them that I cannot repeat in this article.

There is actually some more details to my story, but I don’t want to discuss them. By now, I think you have the gist.

I told myself then and there that I would never recommend The Company to anyone ever. I didn’t burn bridges with them; they burned them with me. The Company effectively discouraged me from pursuing positions as a developer. I could’ve been a lot more in my career than I am now, and The Company took that away from me.

I have since spoken with other people who experienced The Company, and every one, to a person, has said similar things. One of them went as far as to say, “I hope The Company goes out of business.”

So I suppose the moral of the story is to beware of bad places to work. If you’re not careful, they could adversely affect your career.

On deck: SQL Saturday #716, NYC

Reminder: I am speaking at SQL Saturday #716, New York City this coming Saturday, May 19!  The conference will be at the Microsoft Technology Center, directly across 8th Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  This is a secure location, so you must register using the link above if you want to attend!

I will be giving the following two presentations:

  • I lost my job!  Now what?!?  This is my career/job hunt presentation, and it’s becoming one of my best-sellers.  In this talk, I provide tips and advice for surviving a jobless situation.  Anyone who is looking for new employment is encouraged to attend!
  • So you want to be a SQL Saturday speaker?  This is a brand-new presentation that is making its debut at NYC SQL Saturday!  Want to be a speaker at SQL Saturday?  Here’s how I did it — and you can, too!

Hope to see you there!

Reminder: SQL Saturday #714, Philadelphia

This is a reminder that this coming Saturday, April 21, I will be speaking at SQL Saturday #714, Philadelphia (more accurately, Blue Bell, PA).  Go to the link to register for the event.

I will be giving my career/job hunt presentation, entitled: “I lost my job!  Now what?!?

Hope to see you there!

SQL Saturday #716, NYC Schedule

The schedule for SQL Saturday #716 is out, and it turns out that I’m on it not once, but twice!

I will be doing the following two presentations:

Hope to see you in the Big Apple on May 19!

Networking: it isn’t just for breakfast anymore

At last weekend’s SQL Saturday, I sat in on my friend’s (Paresh Motiwala) presentation about job hunting and interviewing.  (This is yet another presentation that I highly recommend!)  Since I was also doing a presentation related to career and job search, I figured that I should sit in (even though this was the second time that I’ve been to this presentation).

As in most career-oriented presentations these days, the subject of networking came up.  Paresh asked the question: “what is networking?”  One lady answered (I don’t remember the exact wording, so I’m paraphrasing), “it’s where you get together with people that have the same interests.”

That’s where I interjected.  I told her that what she said was a myth.  I said the myth were the words “…that have the same interests.”

When I did my own presentation later that afternoon, I made it a point to bring that up.  “Networking,” I explained, “is any situation where you get together and develop some kind of relationship with people.”  Notice that I did not say anything about people who have “the same interests.”  At a SQL Saturday, most people who attend are data professionals.  Of course, that’s a networking event of data professionals.  However, I also mentioned my extracurricular activities (such as, for me, the large symphonic concert band with which I’m involved).  That’s also a networking event.  I asked, how many of you are parents who bring your kids to Little League, soccer matches, and so on?  I explained, that’s also a networking opportunity.

Now, some of you will likely argue, “well, we wouldn’t have met these people at these places if it wasn’t for some common interest,” and you would be right, so let me qualify this a little.  Obviously, people expect to meet data professionals when they attend SQL Saturday.  But if you want to meet data professionals, and you only go to events like SQL Saturday, you’re missing out.  I play with music groups on the side.  I do CrossFit.  I attend user groups.  I am very active with my college and fraternity alumni events.  Some of you are likely involved with other activities.  All of these are networking opportunities.  Data professionals (or any kind of professional) are people, too.  They have lives outside of their profession.  While you are more likely to meet data professionals at events such as SQL Saturday, a local SQL user group, or any similar event, there is nothing that says you can’t meet one of these people at a music rehearsal, a church group, a kids’ soccer practice, a CrossFit class, a book club, or an online gaming convention.  I’ve actually connected with peers outside of technical events (in fact, I obtained my current job through a Facebook contact).  So you never know whom you will meet.

We connect with people through countless different channels.  Attending events that match your interests is a great way to meet people and to network.  Bear in mind, however, that networking opportunities exist everywhere, not just at an event geared toward your interests.  Your next employee, your next job, or an answer to your question might just be a connection away — and you might not even know it.

The bane of unsolicited recruiters

If you are a technology professional, chances are you’ve received the emails.  They usually look something like this:

To: Ray_Kim@MyEmail.com*
From: SomeRecruiterIveNeverHeardOf@somecompany.com
Subject: [Some job that doesn’t interest me] located in [some place where I’m not willing to relocate]

Dear job seeker:

I trust you are having a pleasant day!

I came across your profile, and I believe you are a perfect fit for our exciting job opportunity!  We have a position for [some position about which I couldn’t care less] located in [some place where I’m not willing to move].

If you think you are an ideal candidate for this exciting position, please call me immediately at (800) 555-1212!

(* My actual email address is suppressed for reasons I think are obvious.)

To me, these emails are no different from the email spam I receive that says I need to respond to claim $1,000,000 from a bank in Nigeria.  I’ll make this clear: spam is a major pet peeve of mine, and is something I hate passionately.

I came across this link that perfectly sums up why I hate these recruitment tactics.  I recently performed a Google search on “recruiting spam” — and the number of links I saw was overwhelming.

Among other things, I found a link by my friend, James Serra, who wrote this article about low-rate recruiters.  I also recently saw one of his SQL Saturday presentations where he talks about enhancing your career.  (It is an excellent presentation; I recommend it highly.)

In his presentation, James talks about taking risks, and he told stories about how he pulled up stakes to seek lucrative opportunities elsewhere.  Personally, I am not willing to pull up my roots and relocate (having said that, you are not me), but I do understand what he means by taking risks, especially calculated ones.  You need to take risks to get ahead, and you need to step out of your comfort zone.  (This is outside the scope of this article, and is another topic for another time.)

However, it’s one thing for opportunity (where you’d take a risk) to present itself.  It is quite another when a “get rich scheme” crosses your inbox.

I once had a bad experience with a spam recruiter.  He set me up on an interview.  When I asked the company with which I was interviewing, he would only say it was “an insurance company.”  He did not reveal much in the way of information.  I only found out where I was interviewing only hours before I was supposed to interview.  It ended up being for a company where I was not interested in working.  After that experience, I told myself that not only was I never going to work with that recruiter again, I also would never again accept any unsolicited recruiter requests.

A good ethical recruiter will take the time to get to know you, gauge your career interests, get an idea of where you want to go, and respect what you want to do.  A spam recruiter could not care less about any of this.  All they want to do is make a buck, and they are willing to exploit you to do it.

I recently responded to a recruiter in which I apologized for my harsh response.  Like so many unsolicited recruiting emails, he pitched a position outside my geographic interests that did not interest me.  After I responded, he wrote me back to apologize, and he was sincere in his response.  I had made numerous attempts to unsubscribe from his list, to no avail (a fact that I mentioned in my email to him).  He mentioned that he had looked into it, confirmed that there was an issue, and made efforts to correct it.  His efforts actually swayed me.  I wrote back to apologize and to say that I was willing to work with him.  (Legitimate recruiters, take note; efforts like this go a long way.)

(Disclosure: I am not, I repeat, not, actively seeking new employment; I’m happy in my current position.  However, I would also be remiss if I did not consider opportunities that could potentially represent a step up.  See my paragraph above about taking calculated risks.)

Swimming in the candidate pool can be an interesting, exciting, and even rewarding experience.  Just be aware that, within that pool, you might be swimming with sharks.

So, what’s in it for me… I mean, the company?

The Facebook “Your Memories” feature can sometimes be an interesting thing.  Yesterday, this memory from four years ago came up on my Facebook feed, and it’s one I want to share.

I think I’ve discovered the secret to great interviews — and I’m sharing this for the benefit of other job seekers like me.

Based on some resources that I’ve read (including “What Color Is Your Parachute?”), most job seekers go to an interview wanting to know, “what’s in it for me?” What they *should* be doing is asking the company, “what’s in it for them?” In other words, ask the company what they want and what you can do to fulfill it. Sell yourself on the precept of what value you bring to the company.

For the past two days, I’ve gone into interviews with this mindset, and it has served me well. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like I aced yesterday’s interview. Also, during this morning’s interview, I asked the question, “what are intergroup dynamics like? What other groups do you work with, how are the relationships, and what can I do to improve them?” When I asked that, I saw nods around the room that said, “that’s a good question!”

It’s too soon to say whether or not I landed either job, but I feel like I interviewed well, and I feel like I have a fighting chance.

Ever since I had this revelation four years ago, I’ve used this approach in every single job interview.  I won’t say that I aced every single job interview — I didn’t — but this mindset has made for better interviewing on my part.

Let me back up a little before I delve into this further.  It’s been often said that you should never not ask questions at a job interview.  Asking questions demonstrates that you’re interested in the job.  I’ve heard stories where a job candidate completely blew the interview simply because he or she did not ask any questions.  Not asking questions demonstrates that you’re indifferent toward the company or the job.

That said, it’s also important to ask the right questions.  Never ask about salary or benefits (as a general rule, I believe that you should never talk about salary or benefits, unless the interviewer brings it up).  If at all possible, try to avoid questions that ask, “what’s in it for me.”  Instead, ask questions that demonstrate, “how can I help you.”

Employers are nearly always looking for value, and their employees are no exception.  When interviewing potential candidates, they look to see what kind of value the candidates offer.  For me, I go to every job interview with a number of questions that I’ve formulated in advance — questions that demonstrate I’m interested, and I want to help.  For example, one question I always ask is, “what issues does the company or organization face, and how can I help address them?”  I’m asking what I can do for them.  It shows that I’m interested, and it shows that I’m willing to lend a hand.

For your reference, I found this information in my local library.  A couple of books I would recommend include the most recent edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? and Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview.  Among other things, these books provide ideas for questions for you to take with you to the interview.  Much of this information is also available on the internet; do a search and see what you can find.

I would also consider attending seminars and conferences, if you are able to do so.  For example, Thomas Grohser, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday speaker’s circuit, has a presentation called “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute.”  I’ve sat in on his presentation, and I would recommend it to any job seeker.

I won’t say that this mindset guarantees that you’ll get the job, but it will increase your chances.  This approach shows the interviewer that you’re interested, and you can add value to the organization.

Best of luck to you in your interview.

No rest for the unemployed

A while back, I wrote an article that I affectionately refer to as the “job hunter’s survival guide.”  One of the things I mention in the article is to “keep busy.”  In my current state of unemployment, I’ve discovered that I’m busier than I ever thought I would be.

First, there’s the job hunt itself.  I’ve often told people that “looking for a job is a full-time job.”  I have yet to disprove that theory.  My work days have been spent working on my resume, applying to positions, touching base with my networking contacts, interviewing, taking assessment exams, following up on leads and applications, and so on.  That makes for a lot of work, and it makes up a good chunk of my working hours.

Second, there are a number of things with which I’m involved.  I’ve said before that getting involved is a good thing for multiple reasons.  Since my former employer and I parted ways, I’ve been to two SQL Saturdays (including one in which I presented), and am scheduled to present at a third one in July.  I’ve rehearsed with my wind quintet.  I’m involved with my local SQL user group.  I work out at the gym.  I also have a number of things with other groups (such as one of my alumni groups) that I need to address.

Third, even staying at home doesn’t offer a break from my to-do list.  Household chores need to be addressed — I have a long list of items around the house.  We have two cats that want attention.  Those of you who are homeowners understand the struggle.  When you own a house, there’s never a shortage of things to do.

For someone like me, I’m finding a few other things to keep me busy.  If you’re reading this article, you’re looking at one of those things.  A writer — even a ‘blog author — always has something to do if he or she has something to write about.  I also have some presentation ideas that I want to develop; hopefully, you’ll see them soon at a SQL Saturday near you.  In doing so, I’m looking for more opportunities to learn new things and keep myself up-to-date.

Staying busy is a good thing; you don’t want to be idle.  If a prospective employer asks what you did during your downtime, you can list all these things you did to keep yourself busy.  When you’re in the job market, small things like this can give you an edge.

“I lost my job. Now what?!?”

Before any of my friends panic, no, I didn’t actually lose my job (at least not at the time of this article); this is just what I’m using for the title.

Having said that, here’s a little background for what prompted me to write this. A few weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine. She was (understandably) flustered because her husband had lost his job.  I wanted to help them (and others) out, so I began jotting down my thoughts for this article.  Ironically, I had a Facebook “on this day” memory come up on the very same day that I started jotting down my notes for this article; it turned out that on that day four years ago, I was laid off from a job as well.

Losing your job is always a scary proposition. Very few people (that I know of) wants to be unemployed.  There’s a great deal of uncertainty.  Questions enter your mind; among others: “how long will I be out of work?”  “How will I pay the bills?”  “How will I get by?”

Having been there and done that, I empathize with people who find themselves jobless.  For those of you who find themselves in such a situation, here are some tidbits that helped me through these tough times.

  • Above everything else, control your emotions.  When you lose your job, your emotions run wild.  Most likely, you (understandably) get scared, depressed, angry, frustrated, and so on.  The worst thing you can do is lose control of yourself.  If you need to do so, find a safe way to blow off steam and keep your feelings in check.  It isn’t healthy to keep those emotions bottled up, but at the same time, it is absolutely critical that you keep your head on your shoulders.  Find a healthy way to get those feelings out of your system, but don’t let those feelings control you.
  • Keep a positive attitude.  It is very easy to get down on yourself when you lose a job.  Strangely, the last time I lost my job, I actually felt invigorated.  I looked at it as an opportunity.  It wasn’t so much that I’d lost my employment as much as I was being offered a chance to try something new.  I wrote a while back that a positive attitude can be a powerful thing.  Rather than dwelling in what was, focus on what might be.
  • Take advantage of your free time.  A friend of mine who’d lost his job at one point told me that he took advantage of his suddenly-acquired free time to spend time with his family, play golf, and do things he didn’t have time to do because he was at work.  While he did focus efforts on his job hunt, he also made it a point to balance his time between searching for a job and having fun — which brings me to another thought…
  • Looking for a job is a full-time job.  Back in the good-old “answering help wanted newspaper ad” days, quantity was quality (there might be some recruiters who disagree with me on this, but I digress).  I am, admittedly, old school, so a part of me still subscribes to this mindset.  There were job hunts where I averaged about ten applications a day.  There’s also doing your homework — researching companies and potential employers, sizing them (and yourself — again, more on that in a minute) up, getting addresses, making phone calls, polishing your resume and your cover letters, and so on.  That makes for a lot of time and effort, and it will tire you out.  Make the time for your job hunt endeavors — but don’t forget to balance your life as well.
  • Find something to hold you over.  No, flipping burgers isn’t sexy, but it’s a source of income.  Even minimum wage is better than, say, zero (and it might also be better than unemployment benefits, which, in my experience, usually pays squat).  There is no shame in taking a temp job to hold you over until you land on your feet again.
  • Get involved, and keep yourself busy.  Number one, it’ll get your mind off your situation.  Number two, it’s a chance for you to network (again, I’ll expand on that in a bit).  Number three, you might learn something new that would make you marketable.  For more thoughts on getting involved, check out my article on getting involved with user groups, as well as an article I wrote about using your skill set for speaking at conferences.
  • Be honest with yourself.  When I started getting down on myself about my job situation, I asked myself a few questions, including: “where do my strengths lie,” “what am I capable of doing,” and “what do I really want to do?”  I identified my own skill sets and my interests; this, in turn, helped me identify positions for which I was qualified, as well as developing my own professional persona that helped me with interview skills.
  • Be creative.  As part of my job search, as well as a tool for networking, I created business cards for myself.  However, these were no ordinary business cards.  I remembered a scene in Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck’s character learned that Japanese businessmen networked by exchanging business cards.  He gave them his baseball card.  That got me thinking: “Business card…  baseball card…” and I put the two together.  The result is what you see in the picture below.

    raysbizcardpic
    My networking business card

    The picture is a souvenir photo I got on a trip to Cooperstown (they dressed you up in the uniform of your choice and took your picture with a stadium backdrop).  I took that photo and made it into the business card you see above.  The back side has my contact information, and inside (it’s a folded card) contains a mini-resume with my career information.  I always get great reactions from people when I hand these out; someone even once said to me, “if I was in a position to hire, I’d hire you right now just because of this card!”  People will remember you, and it makes a great conversation piece.

    You don’t have to come up with a baseball-business card (hey, my idea, darn it!), but by all means, tap into your creativity to get yourself noticed!

  • Network, network, network!  Did I mention that you should network?  These days, networking is probably the best way to find a job.  Someone who knows of a job opening can probably tell you about it long before the open position becomes public knowledge.  That extra time could very well be your foot in the door.
  • Take advantage of available resources.  In this day and age of communication, you have no excuse not to make use of social media.  LinkedIn is specifically designed for professionals, and many online resources (including and especially job-hunt and networking resources) ask if you have a LinkedIn account.  If you’re looking, you can’t afford not to have an account.  While Facebook isn’t specifically geared toward professional networking, it is still another resource you can tap.
  • Don’t limit yourself.  Would you consider moving or taking a job outside your geographic area?  Would you consider working from home?  What about a different line of work?  Would you work part-time, odd hours, or a contract position?  If you’re in a jobless situation, you may very well need to keep your options open.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding surviving a jobless situation.  Did I miss anything, or do you disagree with any of my thoughts?  Feel free to comment below.