A collage of images related to job searches

Gig-quest 2016 Edition

I feel like there is scant discussion out there surrounding job searching mid-career. The Internet is full of helpful advice for early-career job seekers describing resume creation, job posting, searching job boards, and the like. What I don’t see very often is what to do when you’ve been in the field for a while; when you have built up a network of contacts, when you’re no longer looking for entry-level or near entry-level work, or when what you’re looking for is very narrow in terms of specificity or of job prospects.

This is probably not going to be that post either, but I would like to take some time to describe my job searching journey this summer.

My need to search began right at the start of summer when my team and I were caught up in a second (or third, depending on how you count it) wave of reductions in force at work. I have made the observation in a joking-yet-not-joking manner several times that if you are going to lay me off, the start of the summer is a pretty opportune time to do so. All humor aside, after spending one frantic week trying to ensure that everyone on my team had a place to land lined up my number one priority was to relax, unwind, and reassess.

But first, to plan!

I worked out a budget with my wife that would allow us to establish a soft and hard deadline for starting a new job. The soft deadline is the date by which I’d really like to start working, the hard deadline is the date by which I absolutely have to start generating income of our financial situation starts to become unmanageable. This set of deadlines was more-or-less entirely dictated by our budgets and our emergency cash on hand—I suppose that’s really the first lesson of all of this.

Lesson 1

Put aside some money first, and keep it set aside. I’m absolutely terrible at this, and I certainly didn’t have as much put away as I should have, but, even the modest amount that we had in savings did an amazing job of blunting the sphincter-tightening panic that can often accompany a layoff. There are about as many rules of thumb about how much to keep in savings as there are smug financial consultants writing blogs, but the guideline that has served me fairly well for a decade is pretty simple: I like to keep track of what my minimum comfortable expenses are, and carry three months of those expenses in savings.

What does that term—”comfortable expenses”—mean? For me, it means that I can pay the essentials (rent, utilities, food) and any bills that are non-trivial to suspend (auto payments, gym membership) as well as keep a couple of quality-of-life items going (Netflix, for example).

Because I’m terrible at emergency savings, we had unfortunately just dipped into that account for some start of summer expenses, but because we had been typically running at fairly close to that three month window, that meant we still had considerable flexibility financially.

Based on our cash on hand and our budget, we were able to plan for a soft deadline of the last week of August with a hard deadline of end-of-September. Despite a laughable severance package, we had socked away enough cash to ensure that we wouldn’t be living off ramen for the duration.

Lesson 2

Use a plan to rid yourself of artificial panic and to help you make good job searching decisions. It is ridiculously easy to slip into negative feelings about being suddenly unemployed. In the US, we have a very unhealthy culture wherein our identities are closely associated with our jobs, so being suddenly bereft of that identity can cause depression and anxiety that are only exacerbated by feelings of worthlessness and laziness. When you add in the anxiety that comes along with a sudden, unplanned reduction in income, you have a recipe for disaster.

A plan can help alleviate this; although I’ll be the first to admit that nothing makes it entirely go away. You’re not alone, that feeling sucks.

With a plan, the situation that you are in switches from feeling thrust upon you to feeling like a conscious decision in which you were an active participant. Believe me when I say that it lifts a huge weight from your chest. Free from that panic and anxiety, you greatly reduce your chances of just taking the first thing that comes along or of going on a series of fruitless “desperation interviews” instead of guiding your job hunt along productively.

Our plan in place, it was time for me to take a break, which brings us to our next lesson…

Lesson 3

Take a break, if at all possible. In a number of important ways, your employment situation isn’t merely similar to a relationship, it really is a relationship that is hopefully built on respect, trust, communication, and mutual benefit. Just like any relationship, skipping merrily from one to the next can really prevent you from taking the time to figure out what it is you want. It is important—especially if you have been involuntarily let go—to take some time between roles to be introspective and to establish what is important to you.

And to kayak. There should definitely be some kayaking.

Immediately before my break I did two things to sort of “set my fishing line” as it were: I posted my resume on some job boards just to get some emails coming in and I sent emails to my network of contacts describing my situation, my goals, and my timing. Once that was done, I spent a lovely month camping, relaxing, reading, catching up with friends, and enjoying the summer.

Oh, and a ludicrous amount of kayaking.

Throughout, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was that I wanted to do. My ultimate decisions are a topic for a different post, but suffice to say that when I started to actively job seek at the end of my self-imposed break, I had a pretty solid idea of what attributes were essential and were nice to have in whatever role I took on next.

With those in mind, I started looking in earnest.

What does this mean, “looking in earnest?” My initial job search consisted principally of reaching out to my network of colleagues, friends, and peers in the industry as well as posting my resume conspicuously. After weeding through the correspondence that those acts had generated over the prior month, I was able to winnow my pursuits down to just under a dozen that I thought seemed like solid possibilities. Looking in earnest, then, speaks to the activity surrounding trying to obtain on of those jobs to which I’d narrowed my search.

Lesson 4

Narrow your search down and devote your energy to a smaller field of candidates. You simply cannot maintain the appropriate enthusiasm and intensity to an endless series of job prospects, so you have to trim the pool down to the manageable. Recognizing that the entire hiring cycle is moderately time intensive and exhausting, at every level you should be slimming your prospects down to a number that affords you the opportunity to present the best representation of you at all times.

Early on, this might mean that you can work on several each day while you’re simply trying to get to first-steps with an employer. Once you’ve reached the interview stage, however, that number has to be reduced, and reduced again when you are going onsite to interview them for fit.

For me, I had eleven potential roles with whom I’d spoken on the phone, that sounded interested in me, and that sounded as though they’d be a good fit. When it came time to start arranging for in-person interviews, it was time to eliminate some from the equation. Two were fairly easy, as they were not tremendously responsive to communication leading me to feel like I was not an especially strong candidate in their opinion—or worse, that they were terribly disorganized and poor at communication, one of my bugaboos. During a phone call with another, I expressed some of my misgivings with the proposed role and my worst fears were confirmed; another easy option to cut.

Now down to eight, I performed an exercise that I use with difficult decisions often: I make the decision then give myself some time to see if I regret it. As I examined the remaining group, there seemed a clear delineation between prospects for which I was genuinely excited and those that seemed safe, so I eliminated my safety choices and decided to move forward only with the rest—then I went camping and put the entire process out of my head.

Upon my return, I still felt very good about my choice, so I pulled the trigger, expressing my regret and choosing to go a different way to a few and scheduling in-person meetings with the remainder. This brings me to one final lesson to impart.

Lesson 5

Enjoy the process. It will be easy to get lost in everything that is going on. You absolutely will get nervous going to interviews, answering questions, and being evaluated. Remember, though, that this is a series of courtships for you as well. Take the time to enjoy meeting with other people in your industry. You are getting a chance to sit down and speak with people doing professionally the sorts of things you enjoy doing. You are actively conversing with people in order to see if there is a mutual desire for you to do more of those things with and for them. This can and should be a really enjoyable experience at this point. At this point in the hiring process, it’s not about winning or losing a job—it’s about meeting with like-minded individuals to see if you want to start spending forty or fifty hours per week together doing something you love.

That’s pretty awesome, if you think about it.

From there, things moved along very quickly and among my remaining five options, three really stood out as amazing opportunities, each in very different directions. One role was strictly that of an enterprise Agile coach, one strictly managerial, and one a developer role for a highly Agile consultancy—all were amazing opportunities about which I was (and am) profoundly excited. Even more exciting, each made an offer!

Three quickly became two when the job role was suddenly and unexpectedly moved to another state, and after considerable internal turmoil, two became one when I accepted the offer that I started on Monday.

In all, I doubt there is much to learn from my experience of this summer. Even when I refer to several of these ideas as ‘lessons’, I do so with tongue firmly in cheek. If you take anything away from this, I would like to suggest the following: layoffs happen, they’re not the end of the world, and they might just be an opportunity to considerably advance your living situation if you keep a calm and open mind.

It’s either that or “kayak more, work less”…what do I know, I got laid off!