Programmers and Engineers entering the job market usually have high hopes of working at a hip, fun, start-up style company like they've seen on TV or in the movies. They want the colorful and modern offices with wacky chairs, in house chefs, game rooms, and high pay. While these jobs are out there, not all of them are equal. The truly great places to work are the ones that value their culture above pretty much all else. And for every one that does, there are many more that don't, even if they have a similar outward appearance. When you find one of the good ones, you need to focus on more than just your technical skills and experience, you need to show that you can be one of them.
Depending on where you're job hunting, your skill set may be common or it may be very rare. For our company in Buffalo,NY, skilled developers are in extremely short supply. You might think that this fact would make us lower the value of cultural fit when a qualified candidate comes in but in fact it's the opposite. Our employees are like family, so the last thing we want to do is bring someone into the mix that will make things awkward or less fun for them. At the same time we need a person who can perform at a level that is higher than most due to the fact that we're small and lean. Since there are so few skilled developers in our area we value fit and potential even more because we don't expect to find the exact skills we need from a person on day one.
If you've been toiling away in your basement for years becoming the best possible programmer you can be, that's great, but it's not everything. Being sociable, being able to carry a conversation, and being pleasant goes a long way in this field. It's a major positive differentiating factor when comparing job candidates. If the person doing the hiring gets the feeling that they could hang out with you outside of work, chances are good that you'll be getting an offer (provided you're reasonably qualified of course). In addition, you need to show that you're hard working, dependable, ambitious, and eager to learn. It's a lot to ask but that's the reality.
It's not the same everywhere though. Desirable jobs at places like Google have been forced to reduce the value they place on cultural fit due to their size and the large demand for technically skilled people. At some point you simply have to fill the positions with people who can perform the duties. For us, and for the hundreds of places like us, we can be slower and more careful to hire for the sake of our culture. And for job hunters looking to make their work life as enjoyable as possible, that's everything. After all, you probably spend more time with your co-workers than you do with your actual family.
Before you focus on showing a company that you're the person they want, you should perform due diligence on the company first and find out if they're actually as fun as they claim to be. See if you can talk to employees (present or past) about their experience with the company. Find out what the environment is like. If the company is on social media, dig into their posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram looking for interesting things they've done and shared. Find out what kind of equipment and tools you'll be working with. Do they regularly outfit developers with the latest computers, devices, and tools to make their lives easier or do you have to battle a 6 year old mini-tower running Windows XP? Talk to some of their clients even, see how their work stand up.
Once you're comfortable that this is the place you want to work, what are some things you can do during an interview to show you're the type of person the company wants in their next ping pong tournament or beer tasting event?
- Be positive and friendly
- Be lighthearted and easy going
- Be genuine
- Be eager to learn
- Be ambitious and hard working
- Talk about your personal interests
- Have examples of comparable challenges you've faced
- Speak broadly about your skill set
- Show willingness to adapt and become what's needed (skill-wise, not personality)
In the end if you've been honest and genuine and they don't bring you on board, it probably wasn't the right place for you. Every culture is unique and so are the attributes of a good fit. The company's culture should be as good a fit for you as you are for them, and in that way, work becomes as enjoyable as it can be. It's also not the right goal for everyone. You can make a lot of money working for a giant, soulless corporation and there is nothing wrong with that. But for some, it's far more important to be happy than it is to be maxing out their salary. In turn though, if you're happy, you're more productive. If you're more productive and help a business succeed, you earn more when a company cares a lot for its employees. Life's too short to be miserable 5 days a week.