Manchester from above

What no-one will tell you about rocking employment fairs! (specifically the Manchester Digital talent fest)

All you need to know:

  1. Get a ticket
  2. Turn up.
  3. Talk to as many tech companies as possible to try understand what they do and how they operate

All you need to know to rock it:

Do:

  • Ask people lots of questions – especially about the area you’re most interested in. People LOVE anyone who’s interested in learning about how they do things – and this is what is likely most interesting to you. You can ask things like:
    • What technology does you use? What sort of tooling do you use on your frontend projects? What’s your backend architecture?
    • What sort of software development methodology do you use? What’s your process for turning requirements into code?
    • Is there anyone here who I can talk to about networking / programming / how you do project management / marketing etc?
    • What are the skills or technologies you feel most new graduates are missing that I can start familiarising myself with?
    • There is a question people love answering but students never ask: “What’s your background? How did you get your first tech job?” Ask it!
    • What’s it like to be a junior employee in your organisation?
    • How many women do you have in your tech team? 
    • What does your company do to help support minorities entering the world of tech?
  • When you hear something mentioned you’ve not heard of, consider asking “sorry, what’s X?” (Eg. “Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of Cucumber?“). It’s ok and very normal not to have heard of things, and asking about them will impress who you’re talking to.
    • When they start explaining, make a note of the name of the thing, and say something like “Thanks for explaining, I’ll look this up more when I get home“.
    • “Do you know where I can learn more about X?”
  • Personally take a note of everyone’s email address whom you meet.
    • You can easily get this “Do you have an email address? Mind if I drop you an email later if I have anymore questions about FooCorp or X technology?”
    • “Sorry what’s your name? Do you mind if I grab your email address?”
    • If they want your email, give it them – but insist on taking their name & email too.
  • Follow up afterwards with everyone!
    • After the fair, on the same day, go home and email, tweet every single company or person you spoke to. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
    • You can say “Thanks for explaining about XYZ at the event today.
    • You can say “@steve Great to meet you today Steve, reading up about cucumber and test driven development now – thanks for the pointers!“.
    • You can say if you don’t have a name of a person: “Just wanted to write and thank the Foocorp team for taking the time to explain about your project management process to me today – I’m reading up more about Scrum – do you know any good resources I could go look at?
    • You can ask “Great to learn a bit about Foocorp today, do you have any more info or links about that thing you mentioned?”
    • If you can find them on LinkedIn and you had a good chat, add them! (This is not an alternative to following up properly)
    • This is a general life pro tip. If you get good at sending a message after you meet people, you will be lucky much more often than you feel is statistically likely.

Don’t:

  • Whilst you’re there, you may see people “drive-by-CVing” where they’ll waltz past a stand, give their CV and run away. This is a time consuming method advanced method called “not getting a job”. Sure, perhaps someone has a story of it working, but a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  • bother asking about pay. Lots of people will tell you highs, lows, and averages – but they’re all pretty pointless. You’re most interested in learning what YOU will earn. No-one will tell you until they interview you and offer you a job.  And there’s so much more to your first job than pay – for example – whether you hate everyone you work with, or like everyone you work with. Tech salaries are good – there is a time to ask and think about whether what you’re being offered is fair – but don’t bother trying this part at the employment fair stage. :)
  • The employment fair isn’t about your porfolio, level of experience, CV, etc so I’d suggest not focusing on these things too much beforehand. It’s just not time well spent. If you want to help yourself, read the next section and/or consider making index cards of questions you could ask people.

All you need to know to rock it and be one of the wisest people at the event:

Do:

  • Before the day, Google each of the companies who are listed as coming. Make a note of those who you’re most interested in talking to, and least interested. Prioritise your time and chat to those you’re most interested in learning more about. The companies will be very happy if you know vaguely what they do already too.
  • Turn up early. I don’t mean on-time, I mean, be there 10-15mins early. There’s a lot of companies to talk to. Even if you’re not allowed in early, it’ll be worth it. If you are let in early, go talk to people who look mostly setup and ready.
  • Talk to the downtrodden, small, less grand, stands. They may be smaller, they may look the least organised – this may be indicative that they’ll more focused on doing the thing you’re interested in, rather than “professionally hiring people”. Be wary of flashy, well organised stands with lots of branded outgoing people. They may not be as representative of organisations that value all the things you value most. Give the small and large stands equal attention.
  • As well as real life, talk to everyone on twitter.
    • I get it – chatting to people is your worst nightmare – that was why I first started playing with computers too. Talking to people gives you a massive edge – even when you feel you’re pushing yourself to be the most social you can be. It’s not easy, and face-to-face is hard and scary. Fortunately there are tools that can can make it slightly less intimidating.
    • Ask other people on twitter who you can see who went to the event “@jane12345 I loved #eventhashtag too! Who were your favourite people to chat to?
    • [Before the event]: Companies who you want to chat to  “@foocorp Looking forward to chatting to you on Fooday! Will there be anyone at #eventhashtag who I can chat to about <specific area you’re interested in – eg front end, back end, java, project management, marketing, whatever>?
    • [After the event]: Companies who you
    • To the organisers: “@eventorganisers Thanks for organising #eventhashtag today – so great to chat to everyone – thanks for all the effort you put into making it happen”
    • Use the hashtag in all your tweets.
    • Keep a twitter search going for that hashtag.
    • Follow every who looks mostly relevant.
    • psst. I think the hashtag is #MDTalentDay ;)

Don’t

  • bother chatting to recruitment agents or recruitment agencies. They’ll be very good at talking. That’s their job. They’ll be very organised. This is their job. They’re also 100% less worth chatting to at this event than the companies who hire people directly. And if you get hired directly, you’ll probably work for a company where you’ll be happier, who’ll pay you more. And everyone will be happy about this. All recruitment agents will dispute this assertion, and suggest that they’re different from the majority in this regard.  My suggestion is only to talk to recruitment agents when you’ve spoken to every single other company at the event. If you find yourself in a conversation with one by accident, here’s some ways to escape:
    • Great to chat to you. I’m going to go mingle and make the most of the event.
    • I’m supposed to be meeting my friend now – catch you a bit later.
    • Sorry I’m not interested.
    • Thanks, I already gave you my info though!
    • “I’m not a student sorry!”
    • <speak in foreign language>
  • care about freebies. Freebies are dull. Competitions are rubbish. Get a job. Then buy yourself “freebies”. 10 minutes of your time at this fair is worth more than a mars bar.
  • go round in a group. Let your friends go round separate from you. You’ll be at an advantage on your own or in a pair.
  • Stop chatting to employers after you have one good conversation. Chat to as many people as you feel able to.
  • Pick up leaflets without talking to people. Find some kind of question to ask them. I’ve given you plenty – asking what technology they use is a good one. :)

What do you know about this? I got my first job through the precursor to this event and since then I’ve helped other friends meet their future employers at the event.

What other questions could be asked? What would you say?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Used this article to get yourself something good? Consider dropping me an email or leaving a comment to say thanks!

First dabbles with Asterisk - I didn't have two computers so I had to take a photo of the help commands page just so I could come back and try things

How I sneaked into the tech industry without a degree and got my first job.

When I started writing this blog post, back in 2008, I’d just got my first real job, quite an achievement by any standards, and wanted to share my experience, but I could never quite capture what I wanted to say.

Those who knew me well at the time, will remember I had been actively looking for a job. Not at MacDonalds, or a waiter, or one of the many low level jobs in the retail services sector, but in the tech industry. My reasoning behind this was relatively sound – a entry level job in Tesco would be unlikely to help me get a job in the tech industry at a later date, so jumping straight in was the best option.

I started looking around, for a job…anything where I could get money for using my technical skills. I had previously been employed freelance for a webdesign project for an e-commerce website so I thought perhaps I could be a web designer. Every day, I would read the the Manchester Evening News and Metro, “Jobs” pages for positions in IT. Whilst this didn’t help me get a job in the tech industry, it did help me understand a bit about how the job market worked. The only things that were frequently advertised in the newspapers were for expendable call centre staff, and relatively traditional organisations (like schools), searching for well qualified, well experienced staff – not entry level positions.

Anyway, all the good jobs seemed to want 3 years industry experience and/or a university degree, and I had none of those.

Fortunately, over the previous year, I was lucky to have made with a bunch of people in the technology industry. Techies who already were sysadmins and developers, who hung out on IRC, friendly people who ate curry and drunk beer in curryhouses and pubs.

I mentioned to some of them that I didn’t have a job but wanted one and it became apparent that one of the companies they worked for was always on the look out for students to be software testers for their product (a propriety virtualisation platform). Straight away though, I encountered some issues and I was advised that I would probably need to be 18 to apply because of “child protection issues”.

This was quite a frustration and stalled me from applying for sometime until I emailed the company and asked them straight out whether this would be an issue. It was interesting to note that the company website did not list these student tester positions on it’s website at all and appeared only to be advertising for relatively high powered people. Unfortunately, my email went unanswered and I celebrated my 18th birthday still not knowing whether they would have picked me.

However, from what my friends had said the position looked very attractive to me – the pay seemed good, the hours were very flexible, and the atmosphere friendly. I talked to one my friends and they then gave the email of someone I should send my CV to. I sent my CV to them and waited. And waited. And nothing happened. I never received even an acknowledgement of my email. I was very disappointed.

At the time I was in the second year of my two year studies at sixth form college. For some incomprehensible reason, I had the whole of every Wednesday with no lessons, which frankly, seemed like a giant waste of time. Fortunately for a lazy teen, Wednesday seemed like a good a day as any to snooze and sleep in, so that’s I aspired to do.

One day, whilst reading my mail, I came across a newsletter from Manchester’s digital trade association (an organisation I’d somehow signed up to online) which mentioned some kind of day for graduates to meet employers in the digital sector or something. It was on a Wednesday at around midday. I’d been to an event the night before and figured I wouldn’t be out of bed in time to go to it.

Somehow, I was woken up, and not being able to get back to sleep, I figured I’d get the train into Manchester and go to this thing.

I found the place, walked in and saw lots of tables of people. As I wasn’t a student, and felt vastly under qualified and unnerved by the whole thing – it wasn’t my world, I’d never encountered a “full service agency” before and the smooth talking men in trendy suits talking about Adobe and ASP.net was quite unnerving.

Then I bumped into Wini from Code Computer Love, and introduced myself. As I explained how I actually wasn’t a student, but had been to some tech events in different parts of the country, and explained about some things I was interested in, and to my surprise (at the time!), Winnie was very enthused explaining how he’d also travelled to events when he was young and whilst Code probably didn’t have anything for me right now, he commended me on being there. With a little fire in my belly, I set out to try and find out what was what.

For various weekends in my youth, I’d tried to complete various projects – write really poor software – do this, do that. One of the things I’d tried to master was installing a Voice over IP server on an old server so I could make phone calls. I was sure this was possible, but I never really understood it far enough to make it work – I’d get the turnkey distribution installed, but then never quite know what I was doing enough, to make anything work. (One of the main problems at the time was that I hadn’t figured out it also had a web UI.. ah, if only I’d read the manual or something).

First dabbles with Asterisk - I didn't have two computers so I had to take a photo of the help commands page just so I could come back and try things
First dabbles with Asterisk - I didn't have two computers so I had to take a photo of the help commands page just so I could come back and try things

Just as I thought I’d spoken to everyone and was hoping to run away home, I bumped into this guy standing on his own, who explained that his company built Voice over IP phone systems.

Instinctively I asked him whether he used the turnkey VoIP linux distribution I’d originally tried out, and his face lit up.

Colin at DMC had been looking for 2nd year or sandwich year student to help part time with his business whilst studying, with a view to going full time at a later date. He’d been looking for someone with Linux experience, and had had a few possibles that afternoon, but (as I understand it!)  few who sounded very confident with linux, and no one who knew anything about Asterisk – the open source PBX software in question.

Whilst my failed expeditions into Trixbox, had hardly helped me develop any working systems, this vague knowledge of how things worked, coupled with the laptop running Debian in my rucksack, and the not particularly stunning, yet disastrous, understanding I had of the Linux CLI, meant that despite my age and qualifications (or there lack of), I was actually the best of the bunch. Apparently.

The day I walked back from the subsequent interview, having been told I’d got the job, was memorable. I hadn’t expected to walk into an entry level technology job, with working hours that fitted around my college work, working with technologies that were open source, and an employer that didn’t seem mindnumbingly dull. It seemed too good to be true.

Pay wasn’t what was important, heck, lots of things didn’t seem important that day.

The important thing was that I’d been looking for the start of a path, and somehow, with neither qualifications nor a CV to die for, I’d found the start, and could take my first steps along it.

I celebrated with a curry, I think I’d earned it. Somehow.