Monday, November 26, 2007

Happy espioging

Business week has a video podcast up about how to conduct an interview. Go and learn

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Only chaos is sustainable

I happened to be reading this article* on the effect of the minimum wage at the same time I was reading Off the Books,: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. I'll leave discussion of the book as a whole to more qualified folks^, but those two sources, plus a pattern of posts in academic blogs, have helped me cement some thoughts on job having and finding. Specifically: dynamic equilibrium is good, static equilibrium is another word for decay.

For those who haven't taken chemistry in a while: equilibrium means quantitative measures are staying constant- for example, x% of the salt has dissolved in the water. Stable equilibrium is probably closer to what people think of when they mean "stay the same": each molecule is in the same state forever. Dynamic equilibrium means that the overall picture doesn't change- there's still x% of the salt dissolved- but an individual salt molecule may go from dissolved to undissolved hundreds of time.

Now let me use an analogy that doesn't make you wince or fall asleep at your desk, plus fits my point better: the medieval European cathedrals were built out of stone, and more or less didn't need maintenance- they were at a stable equilibrium. Meanwhile, over in Japan, there wasn't enough stone, so they built temples out of wood, which constantly rotted and needed to be replaced. For the century or so, stone looked more stable. But after several hundred years, even stone gets run down. But by that point, no one knew how to build castles. Meanwhile, the constant need for repair meant that temple-maintenance and building skills were alive and well in Japan. My feeling is that only dynamic equilibrium is truly indefinitely maintainable.

How does this relate to job searching? Suppose your goal is to maximize the time you're employed and minimize the time you're unemployed. There are two ways to do this: minimize the time between leaving one job and starting another, and minimize the number of these transition times. So for a given risk tolerance, the longer it takes to find a job, the less likely you are to leave your current one.* Several things affect the time to find a job, but by far the biggest one is the number of appropriate openings in a given time period, relative to the number of people applying to them. Unfortunately, there's a vicious cycle in which the longer it takes to find a new job, the longer people stay in their old jobs.

This would be fine, if everyone was already in their optimal job, but until we implement stable matching, and keep all parties involved from ever changing, that's not going to happen. The best thing for everyone would be to make switching jobs relatively easy and stigma free.

Programmers have this easier than most, because demand outstrips supply, and if you choose your location well you don't have to uproot your life to change jobs. And any occupation in which you freelance has the same benefits. Off the Books discusses how works in the ghetto shorten their inter-job time by having incredible flexibility as to what jobs they do. On the other end of the spectrum are academics, who have months between applying to a job and getting a decision, a huge pool of applicants, and a very small pool of appropriate jobs. And even in good job markets, highly senior people can take a long time to find a job, because churn is slow. My friend's dad is a highly skilled lawyer, but he's place bound in an area without a concentration of appropriate jobs, and it's taking him forever to find something.

In slow-churn areas like liberal art academics, a little bit of discrimination can fuck up someone's entire life. In high churn areas, it might hurt them for a couple of months. High churn areas are a lot more amenable to leaving the workforce for a few years for kids, then popping back in.
It's also a lot easier to coordinate jobs with a spouse if you both can work anywhere relatively quickly (or for that matter, move back to your home town to take care of an ailing parent).

That said, there's not much an individual job seeker can do about this, except choose a quick-turnaround field, so this isn't really helpful in any sense of the word. I just find it interesting.

*I include it for completeness, but it's not the best I've read on the subject, and goes against prevailing consensus.

^Okay, a few comments. 1. Venkates desperately needed a co-author and/or heroic editor. It's incredibly interesting data, but not particularly well presented 2. Like other books I've read on the sociology of poverty in America (which, okay, is one), this one leaves out related phenomena that seem incredibly relevant to me, and it seems to me that they're leaving out data that would make their subjects look bad. In Off the Books, it's welfare. Aside from explaining that one woman wasn't eligible due to past fraud, and a passing mention of food stamps while talking about facilitators, he doesn't touch on welfare at all, and I have to assume that welfare has a huge effect on an urban poor economy.

*My points hold for job searching while employed, but take longer to explain.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Unhelpful advice

Attractiveness is positively correlated with tips for waitresses. I don't have a hyperlink to my freshman year psych textbook, but it's also correlated with getting hired and not being found criminally insane. I'm going to go evo-psych on you all and suggest that this isn't just a male desire to be surrounded by attractive women. Attractiveness is correlated with current health and childhood health, both of which are correlated with intelligence.

How can you make this work for you? Dress nicely. Wash. Make sure your hair is clean (although a friend tells me that super long hair is unprofessional for women). Plastic surgery is probably overkill.

Don't go too far though. Especially for women applying for knowledge jobs, looking too beautiful or sexual makes you look unprofessional, 'cause really, you can't be both hot and smart. That's just not right.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Think Like Syrup

Ask The Headhunter has some advice I do agree with: how to make yourself stand out in a job interview. He compares it to sticky websites, which I think is a bit odd, but it works.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More straying from the mission

Jane Espenson, a writer/producer on Buffy, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica (not all at once, obviously) has a blog, focused on helping aspiring screen writers perfect their craft, although obviously she's got a lot of strike updates at the moment. I'm really sympathetic to this strike, moreso than any other strike I can remember, but seeing a writer I really like describe her picketing location with multiple exclamation marks is just depressing.

Besides that, it seems like a great resource for prospective screenwriters, a constituency I'm sure reads this blog with rapt attention, and in large numbers.

Code Monkey like tab and mountain dew

I initially resisted contract work, because I thought that it was mostly click-monkey manual testing, and I wanted something more interesting. This turns out to be absolutely not true- I have done more automation and planning in my first two and a half week at my current (temp) position than I did in my year at my previous job, and I have a lot more responsibility (in a good way). It may partly be a function of size: large companies hire temps mostly to do work they don't want to waste a full time employee on, small companies hire temps to smooth out variations in their work flow without taking on a major obligation.

On the other hand, being a temp lawyer sounds like exactly what I pictured for programming, and I didn't even know that click monkey was even an option for lawyers. Tom the Temp makes me glad I didn't choose law the way Young Female Scientist makes me glad I didn't choose academia. To be fair, lawyer temps are bored and mistreated at $35/hour, which is a hell of a lot better than what some people have. Even people with years of post-graduate education. But it still sounds hellish.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Just another disapointment

I've come to count on Guerrilla Job Hunting to make me look good, with tips like sending your future boss a pizza with one slice missing or a single shoe. But today they have something reasonable, suggesting super-temping as a way of demoing your skills. Temp to perm is not new for coders, but the super short term work is worth considering.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lies my Reruiter told me: Dress well

I don't think anyone should have to be told this, but I benefited from some rather obvious advice, so let's be safe and cover it. Wear nice clothes to an interview. Even if you know for a fact that everyone at your prospective employers wears swim trunks and torn corporate freebie t-shirts, dress nicely. Unless you absolutely know how your interviewers will be dressed that day, Wear a suit. Even hypercasual startups with DDR rooms won't criticize you for it, and you never know when you'll accidentally interview for IBM.

If you can't afford a real suit, go to a thrift store. In fact, do that anyway, suits are expensive. If you really can't afford it, there are charities specifically set up to loan clothes to you for interviews and your first week (at which point you can go to thrift store and buy your own).

Sunday, November 4, 2007

When you absolutley positively need four cents overnight

Do you know the story of the mechanical turk? Way back in 1769 a man claimed he had invented a chess playing machine. It consisted of a mannequin dressed in Turkish style, connected to a large cabinet, filled with gears. Deep blue it was not, but it wasn't playing Kasparov, so it did pretty well. Eventually someone discovered that behind all the gears was a human chess master, and the whole thing seemed less impressive.

If your reaction to that story is "I'd like to be that chess master hidden in a clock, only instead of something interesting and challenging like chess, I'd like to do the same boring task over and over" I have a money making opportunity for you. Amazon's Mechanical Turks is designed to match humans (you) with small jobs that humans do well and machines do poorly, like identifying whether two products are the same or a picture is offensive. The money is not great, but it is there, and you can earn it while watching TV or waiting for something. Unfortunately, the selection of turks is inconsistent- there's a couple of types that offer reasonably good returns, and a lot that imply deep lack of respect for my time ($2 for transcribing a fifteen minute interview? Sure). The good ones go quickly, so at any given time the site may be devoid of them. This makes it hard to fit it into the five minutes a day it might be a really good return on your time.

I like mturks because I'm a sucker for an immediate payout, even if, in theory, I could increase my lifetime earnings by a larger amount by using that time to brush up my database skills (this leads me to suspect that contracting is a good fit for me). It also helps with that feeling of "I'm not doing anything but sitting here burning money" that unemployment sometimes brings.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

More advice from other people

Some guy from some website has posted a list of of things not to do to your resume on some other website. Surely it can't be as awesome as you describe it, I hear you say. To prove I'm not overselling it, let me share the first tip

1. "Responsible for”

The Problem: This is one of the most common, and most amateurish, resume errors. There is no greater example of weak, passive writing than the overused "responsible for." There are two base reasons why this phrase is to be avoided. The first is that it is already understood that the information included in your resume are activities that you were responsible for; this is the equivalent of writing "we cook" before an item listed in a restaurant menu. The second reason is what I alluded to above: "responsible for" is passive, bland, and boring. It does nothing to draw in the reader, and demonstrates no specific or relevant skill. With the average resume being read in approximately seven seconds, the first word or two in each sentence is absolutely critical because it is the information that will be read first and most. Whether anything else in a given sentence will be read at all entirely depends on if the first couple of words strike a chord with the reader. If the hiring manager holding your resume does not spot keywords of interest in those vital locations, then the entire resume is probably going in the trash, no matter how great the rest of your information is.

The Solution: A great way to test the quality of a resume is to read just the first word in each sentence, and see what image those words build of you as an employee. If your first words consist of "responsible for", "helped", "handled", or other passive language, then you´re not creating a powerful or compelling first impression. Open each and every sentence with a power verb that is relevant to the job you are applying for. Words such as "manage", "direct", "administer", and "process" can often be used to replace "responsible for", and are far more effective.

I'll admit, my current resume (the one that got me my current job. Eventually) features this mistake, and that's after campus services fixed it. The previous version was so bad multiple recruiters told me to have it looked at. Maybe I shouldn't be giving resume advice. Anyways, this makes a lot of sense to me, and I'm going to be sure to follow this advice once I have some accomplishments to list.

The others are not quite as fun and magical, but still useful, and the author seems well worth following.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

seriously people, do you not want a job?

My voice mail message is a recitation of my phone number, with a vague hint that if you talk after the beep I might hear it later. I understand that some of you invest a little bit more in your message, but seriously, if you're in the middle of job hunting, keep your voice mail message professional. And honestly, even people who aren't potentially offering you gobs of money don't want to hear a 10 year old song from a dead rapper when they call you. Really, they don't.