May 07, 2009, 10:41 AM — Although the total number of IT jobs is shrinking due to the recession, some companies are still hiring -- and using social-networking tools can help you land those jobs. In fact, being in the IT industry just might give you an advantage over the average laid-off worker.
That's because social networking Web sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are foremost among those new tools, and IT people are more likely to be comfortable with them and with related technologies that can help in a job search, such as automated scripts, customized search engines, RSS feeds and the like, experts say.
Brennan Carlson ( Facebook and LinkedIn), a newly hired product manager at e-mail marketing firm Lyris Inc., is an extreme example. He took a highly organized, scientific approach to his job search when he was laid off from Yahoo Video last winter.
LinkedIn was one of the most useful tools he used, as it is for almost everyone else we interviewed. It's also a key tool for IT hiring managers and recruiters looking for candidates. It has become the de-facto must-use tool in today's career environment.
But whether it's LinkedIn or one of the other myriad services, these Web tools are vital to today's IT job search, Carlson said.
"If you're not online, get online," Carlson said. "Be everywhere. Start using these services. . . If you're not on Twitter, get there. Start Tweeting."
Getting more targeted more quickly -- with success
Carlson's initial action consisted of sending out about 60 to 70 resume/cover letter blasts to job sites, companies, etc., around the holiday season after the Yahoo Video layoff. When nothing came out of that, he took a more organized and targeted approach and sent out 103 blasts -- but this time he used LinkedIn and other tools to research target companies, trying to find people who worked at the company who had a role in the product area he was interested in, or who worked as company recruiters.
Three days after the blast, he sent out follow-up messages. "And the response rate from those follow-ups was much higher than the original sendouts," he said, at 40% compared to the first response rate of only 5%. During this time he was maintaining his online profile, doing status updates on sites such as Facebook and Twitter "that were relevant and germane to my job search."
The result: he started working at one of his targeted companies, Lyris Inc., on March 23, four weeks and one day after the targeted resume/cover letter blast.
Lyris, Carlson's new employer, has a corporate presence on Facebook and is "all over Twitter," Carlson said. He said the company has multiple people posting on Twitter, but Lyris does it in a way that establishes a corporate identity that shares information with a common voice but doesn't allow Tweets from the entire company. "I thought that was pretty well done," he said.
Carlson, who studied computer science in college, describes himself as a longtime Internet geek, which helped him in his job search. Specifically, he had experience in working with "new media" at Yahoo and was familiar with social networking sites and other tools. "I think there was a level of awareness that I took into the process that certainly helped me," he said.
Get to know the hiring manager
Natalie Wilson doesn't have that technical of a background, but she is another new hire thanks to social-networking tools. She was part of the recent massive Circuit City layoff in Richmond, Va., where the failed electronics store chain was headquartered. She had worked for the company for 24 years, most recently as a business analyst.
Now, she is about to start her new role as a technical analyst for third-party logistics reporting at a Fortune 500 company in Richmond that she didn't wish to name. LinkedIn was vital to her success. "It's really worked out well," Wilson said of using the site.
She had started her LinkedIn account about a year ago, but didn't update it much. After the layoff, she went back to it and concentrated on improving her profile.
She garnered 35 recommendations from former co-workers and posted them on LinkedIn and used LinkedIn contacts to help her get an edge over other candidates.
According to recruiters and other careers professionals, that is the No. 1 way to land a job in the current economic climate. You must make yourself stand out from the pack, and the best way to do that is to get connected to someone working at the company you're targeting.
"That's the greatest value" of LinkedIn, said Harry Urschel, owner of the staffing and recruiting company e-Executives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. "If you're applying for positions posted online, you're one of hundreds of others that are doing the same thing. And even if you're a great fit for a job, it's incredibly hard to get noticed because you just fall into a database or you're in a sea of other resumes they have on their desk."
But if you can make direct contact with the hiring manager or someone else in your target company who might be in the same department or area you're interested in and who can put you in touch with the right people, "you're miles ahead of every other candidate that's just applying," he said.
Why in-house contacts matter
That's the common refrain, and there are some numbers to back it up. "I collect data," said Gerry Crispin, owner of Careerxroads job placement consultancy in Kendall Park, N.J. He has been analyzing job hiring trends for 40 years and has conducted extensive hiring trend surveys for the past eight years. His data confirms that an in-company referral is priceless.
Last year Crispin analyzed more than 300,000 job openings and how they were filled. His data emphasizes how crucial it is to use social networking sites for one specific purpose and one purpose only.
"The only goal you have is to meet somebody, is to network to someone in the company you've targeted, so they can be your employee referral," Crispin said. "Because when you have an employee inside a company refer you for the specific job that does come open, you'll have 50 to 70 times more likelihood of being interviewed than if you do anything else."
Last year's survey indicated that "employee referrals represented more than a quarter of all the positions filled externally," Crispin said. "You must find an employee inside the company who can be your referral. Period. If you do that, you change the game."
Of course, Crispin added, not every job search is "average" and individual mileage may vary. "But the reality is, which lottery would you rather be in, one out of 10 or one out of 500?"
Wilson is a living testament to that. She applied for a job through Dice.com and after an initial phone interview with a human resources person in her targeted company, she used LinkedIn to actually find four people she knew well who in turn knew current associates in her targeted company. Coincidentally, one of those people on the inside was the HR rep she had spoken with.
Even more important, one of her recommendations was a CIO who knew the targeted company's CIO."I e-mailed [my CIO friend] the day after my HR phone interview and he stated that he knew the CIO at the company I was interviewing at. He asked if it was ok to 'drop a line about me' to him . . . of course I said no problem," Wilson said.
Her other three contacts got in touch with the people they knew inside the company, told them that she had interviewed for the position and also provided a recommendation.
That gave her some serious leverage.
Wilson said, "At the beginning of my second interview with the hiring manager, she stated that she had received a few e-mails from individuals stating that she should hire me. I responded that I had worked for a long time at Circuit City and during that time I had developed many contacts."
After that interview, she was confident she would land the position, and after a third interview she eventually did.
Fewer resumes, but more focused
When Erik Werner was laid off the week before last Christmas from a videoconferencing manufacturer, he immediately turned to the social networking sites to get the news out, build up his network of contacts, research his target industry and gather job leads. He's now a senior engineer for a Washington, D.C., systems integrator, Facchina Global Services.
"By using the social tools I was able to shake a lot more network trees than I normally would have," Werner said. He was also laid off during the 2001 dot.com collapse, when these tools weren't available. Back then, he had to rely on the shotgun approach. "In 2001, I probably put out, over five months, 10 resumes a day," he said.
This time, he said, he probably sent only 20 to 30 resumes in total, but through use of the social networking tools he knew exactly where they were going.
"In this economy, there's a lot of people in the same position," he said. "So how do I stand out? I stand out through the personal interactions. I stand out through the very much more laser-focused" approach that includes asking a social contact to put him in touch with someone in a certain field or company.
He used Facebook to let his friends know he was laid off, which resulted in replies ranging from condolences to invitations to share his resume with contacts they knew. He used LinkedIn to put the word out to business contacts he had made over the years. That also resulted in offers to disseminate his resume. He made sure his LinkedIn information was up to date and everyone knew his e-mail and other pertinent information. He used Twitter mainly as a "listening post," keeping himself up to date on current events in his areas of interest.
He ended up getting hired by somebody he had done business with before. "Opportunities came to me, and then I was able to choose which opportunity I wanted to pursue," he said. "But the way the opportunities came to me was through my social networks."
The power of going local
But such networks don't always have to be the mainstream worldwide services everyone knows about. Local career-related networks can also be key.
Michael Higginbotham was another victim of the collapse of Circuit City, where he had worked as a program manager of Web development. Now he's a senior product manager of platforms at SNL Financial in Richmond. He calls LinkedIn an essential tool in his search, but both he and fellow Circuit City alumni Natalie Wilson expanded their job search via the Virginia Career Network (VCN). This group was started in November by Collins Denny, an account manager at IT consulting company Leading Edge Systems Richmond.
The VCN has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook and Meetup, where Denny said the VCN is the largest group of unemployed professionals on the service. Meetup promotes regular in-person meetings of groups formed around a common interest. He said about 1,300 members have joined the group, with 500 to 600 being regular, active participants.
Denny said the VCN, while coaching members on the use of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, emphasizes face-to-face networking with short and quick "elevator pitches."
Higginbotham's use of the VCN and services such as LinkedIn echoes a common theme among many IT people who have found new jobs: An initial network contact rarely leads directly to an interview and hiring, but rather fosters communication with individuals who communicate with their own network and so on. Similar to the "six degrees of separation" concept, it's often a case of contacting someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows a person at a company looking to fill a position.
In Higginbotham's case, by expanding his network of contacts and keeping in touch with various recruiters and others in his network, he eventually found four people who had connections to a recruiter for SNL Financial. The process wasn't linear, he said, but rather consisted of "a lot of touch points" spread out through a net of personal and professional associations.
In another similarity with Wilson, he credits a large number of recommendations on his LinkedIn profile for his success. "One of the things I asked all the recruiters to do is to take a look at my recommendations because I think they spoke very strongly about my background, skills and tenacity in getting things done," he said.
He also used LinkedIn as a research tool to investigate his targeted company and people he would be interviewing with.
Don't spend all your time online
But Higginbotham and others caution not to rely too much on online services. "Contacting people, staying on the phone [is important] -- you can search the job boards all day long but they only work for a small percentage of people," he said.
VCN's Denny confirmed that. He said that even with his coaching on how to use social networking sites, he advises people to spend no more than 10% to 20% of their time with online tools. Use them to establish what companies you want to work for. "But then what do you do with these contacts?" he asked. "Find a way to get connected with them. Find a way to get their phone number. Find a way to get a meeting with them. You're not just looking for a job interview, maybe you're looking for an information interview."
e-Executives' Urschel, who also has been helping job seekers in classes through his church, agreed. People feel self-conscious about having to actually contact somebody -- that's not part of their normal process. "They're afraid to do something that's different. But especially in this market right now if you're not doing something that's different, it's incredibly hard to get noticed."
Steve Van Vreede, a former job search coach who developed his own job hunting social network site called NoddlePlace.com, also advocated a balanced approach of cold-calling, conducting informational interviews and networking. "Overall they want to have a balanced approach to the job search. And too many simply post their resume to job sites and hope that that will get them a job. And that is one of the least effective methods that's out there."
Sean Ryan agreed. He's the senior vice president of engineering at Lyris Inc., the company that hired Brennan Carlson. Ryan noted that social networks have vastly changed the job search process, but sometimes "people fall back to the old methods because they've been there so long," referring to the less proactive approach of posting your resume on the Web and waiting to be contacted. He and others in the company use Twitter extensively in their recruiting efforts, and he pointed out the irony that when he refers to the "old methods" he's talking about sites such as Monster.com and CarrerBuilder.com that didn't even exist 15 or 20 years ago.
So how much have things changed?
"I don't even look at resumes anymore," Ryan said. "You pull up somebody's profile on LinkedIn, you know who they know, you know who's said good things about them. You get a good idea of their background and it's just a great source of information. I've had people come through my office -- my managers and directors -- they'll come through with nothing more than a printed-out profile from LinkedIn. They don't even do a resume."
Ryan said social networking sites have changed the company recruiting process in two ways: personally and on a corporate level. "I'm personally . . . on Facebook, on LinkedIn, I use Twitter. Sometimes I'll track down somebody I've worked with in the past. So it's different than the shotgun approach that you see on Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com. It's all relationship based, and when I go looking it's for a specific skill set with people who understand the skill set."
On the corporate side, he said, Lyris recruits aggressively through social media. "Obviously we Tweet about opportunities that we have available. And we post Tweets and those generate keen interest. Some of those get picked by other parties," which leads to qualified job candidates.
Don't be afraid to reach out
Business analyst Tyler Cooper could be the poster boy for a positive, widespread online presence. He received his first job offer from a blog.
"I was an active participant in a Treo forum and [was] also reading the Treo blogs for the mobile device. And I discovered a company called 3jam. I had some product ideas and suggestions for them so I sent them an e-mail. " He exchanged messages and after some phone conversations Cooper became a summer intern, which turned into staying on for the school year and then "eventually I became a community support manager while I was still in school," Cooper said, "and I was offered a full-time position upon graduation."
However, Cooper didn't accept that offer at 3jam, which deals with SMS text messaging. He chose another job. He's now working for ProSource Solutions in Akron, Ohio, and is contracted to work for NASA on "some infrastructure issues."
Cooper's advice to IT job seekers? Use the Web to keep track of trends and new start-ups and reach out to companies, Web sites, bloggers and other resources. By "reaching out" he means taking the initiative to contact people you may come across on the Web. "Never be afraid to reach out. If someone leaves their e-mail address, send them a message, ask questions, send suggestions. You never know what will come of it," Cooper said.
Urschel agreed. If you follow people on Twitter who are looking for business opportunities of some sort or are more professionally focused, Urschel advised, get in conversations with them and build up a following of those people and build up a number of followers in the same way. "It's obviously a place you can waste huge amounts of time," he said. "But if you approach it a little smarter and a lot more disciplined you can really get a lot out of it."
Chandlee Bryan, a career coach in New York, said, "For me, the value of Twitter comes in the potential for tracking trends, analysis in bits and bytes and -- most importantly -- exchanging information." One of the most valuable features of Twitter is being able to search its stream by keywords or common discussions (marked with a #hashtag), which people can do without joining Twitter -- just use its search engine -- Bryan suggested.
Using specialized job-search tools
In fact, a specialized search engine for Twitter has been developed by TwitterJobSearch, which isn't connected to Twitter but takes advantage of its API. Twellow.com also lets you make Twitter searches with all kinds of search parameters and categories.
With so many tools out there that require regular attention, "It's a lot to keep up with," admitted Wilson.
Of course, if you're out of a job, it's certainly worth the effort.
The best message for the recently laid off may be summed up in Wilson's "signature" found at the end of her e-mails, where she quotes Lou Holtz, a famous former college football coach: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it."