Developers: how to get hired in the wake of Coronavirus

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I created this site for Engineering Leads/Hiring Managers who want to get better at hiring … but that means I also have a lot of insights into the hiring mindset, and tips that could be useful for people on the other side of the table. Here’s my guide to getting hired as a programmer/developer/engineer in a post-pandemic world.

Inside the head of Hiring Managers

There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Instead, hiring managers and their companies are going to fall into one of a small number of templates/buckets, which will define how they react to the hiring during and after COVID19:

  • Target Headcount and Hiring Budget were set last year and haven’t changed
  • Headcount is frozen, focus on revenue-generation
  • Fast growth, hiring across the board

I’m guessing here, but I’ve been a hiring manager through two global recessions in the tech industry, so I have a rough idea of each. Let’s pick them apart

Scenario: Headcount/Budget haven’t changed

Generally these are large, wealthy, corporations with huge cash reserves who need to keep their revenue and costs stable over time. The driving force here tends to be public investors (giant investment groups like Pension Funds) who insist that the CFO keeps the company predictable even in the face of the unpredictable, showing the CFO’s skill at planning and cost-control.

These managers now have a larger field of people to chose from for the same amount of work as before. Expect them to be in no rush to hire – if anything: the longer they wait, the more companies lay-off good staff, giving them more top candidates to choose from.

They have targets, and they have budget to spend – but those targets were agreed in a more competitive hiring environment, and so they are easy to fill today, and the managers can feel fairly relaxed about timelines.

Scenario: Headcount frozen; Revenue is everything

Ironically: these companies are still hiring. Often while saying – both internally and externally – “we’re not hiring”.

The reason is simple: the overall company has stopped hiring, but any units that were profit-generating (anything connected to Sales, new Business, or Customer success if it was tied directly to up-sell/cross-sell) is now getting extra budget and resource. The company is seeing major contracts get suspended or cancelled, is haemhorraging clients and income – so the CEO will be desperate to expand anything that is cash-generative right now.

On the hiring side, this normally equates to three types of hires in particular:

  1. Sales people (probably commission-heavy, with low base salary)
  2. Infrastructure devs (need to increase efficiency, do more with less)
  3. Low-skilled workers (cheap hands that can service contracts manually instead of paying expensive developers to do it efficiently)

There’s some contradiction there, of course. Wherever automation efficiency has rapid near-term gains, they’ll pay for it (improvements in days, not months) by hiring devs. Otherwise, they’d prefer to pay the lower cashflow cost of cheap manual labour for the next few months or quarters knowing that in the long-run it’s more expensive – but because in the short-run it conserves their limited cash-in-bank.

Scenario: hiring across the board

In every disaster there’s always some new (or increased) need to fulfil; for Coronavirus it’s Ventilator manufacturing, Medical staffing, Video-calls for large teams, and maybe even (re-)distribution of Toilet Rolls. There are plenty of companies that are earning more money now than before the pandemic, and need to grow as fast as they can while the demand is high, knowing that it will soon level-off, and their growth rate will return to normal.

Unfortunately, they know they can pick and choose from among the best candidates on the market. Needing to hire large numbers of people quickly, they’ll be particularly looking out for mass-redundancies at rival firms, where they can potentially hire multiple staff at once – even whole ready-made teams. Or they’ll be persuading your boss to go take the job you were hoping to get, because they know that your boss’s own job itself has an uncertain future.

Strategies for candidates

The evergreen classic advice in major recessions is: quit the job, go to business-school. The idea is that when the job-market becomes crowded with candidates, it’s suddenly intensely difficult to stand out from the crowd, and your effort is better put somewhere else, then you can come back later when things have returned to normal.

In particular, the assumption is: when things return to normal, there will be a glut of jobs available (everyone will be hiring at once – c.f. my call to hiring managers to keep hiring NOW because if they freeze hiring, it’ll be much harder for them when they (and everyone else) restarts at once), so it’ll be easier to get a job, and salaries will be higher. This is important because it makes it sensible for you to take on debt, knowing that it will be easier than normal to pay it off later. Economics and Financial Services people tend to be confident and happy to view their careers as financial investments, and so this advice is especially often given to them – hence: “go to Business School”.

It isn’t clear how true that will be with COVID-19; governments across the world have reacted in ways that no government has ever done before: we are in uncharted ground. Normally, recessions are guaranteed to last a year and a half or more – so that taking a year to do a Masters, with the 6 months lead time to apply and get accepted, fits neatly in the “go away and come back when things are better” timeframe. But this one might only last half a year. Or it might last 4 or 5 years (my blind guess: it’ll last shorter rather than longer).

But the equation is much the same: Either stand-out in the reduced market, or find something else to do. Whatever you do, don’t try to just keep doing the same job/role at the same level (unless you were already top of your field – in which case you’re probably not reading this, because you’re happy in a high-paid, very secure, job :)).

Standing out

If you’re on Furlough – or even made redundant – now is the time to learn the cutting-edge technologies and skills you’ve been putting off for months or years. You’ll have to guess what’s going to be important and popular, with an eye to what the different kinds of Hiring Managers above are looking for.

The first thing to do is: ask.

Go find hiring managers in your network. Find ones outside your network at companies you know and respect – or that you’ve worked with as commercial partners – and ask them how they’re doing and what their fears and problems are right now. Use that to get a feel for what techs/skills are needed.

But focus on this: in this climate, Hiring Managers are often looking for “the best”, and they can cherry-pick. If they’re cherry-picking, what about YOU would make you the one that no other candidate could compete with? If you’re good with Kubernetes, are you also 1st-connections on LinkedIn with the original inventors? If you like Rust, have you used it to prototype the same kind of hardware that your prospective employer manufactures themself? etc.

It’s always worth using the extra time you have now (especially if you’re effectively on paid garden-leave/furlough) to increase you skills. But if you can’t stand out in any of those fields then don’t compete there: find something else to compete on. Maybe it’s time to go do a Masters of your own (assuming you can find a programme that’s reasonably highly regarded — or a research topic that you think might be hot in 2021, and hence extra attractive to future employers).

Timing is all

Finally: timing. Many people simply try to keep finding a new job as soon as the old one ends. This works fine in a normal market, but in a recession it can easily lead to you being out of work for months, struggling to find the next role at a time when there are no open roles available. If in doubt: plan to be out of work for an extended period and plan in advance what you’ll do with that time, eating the loss of income and increase of debt, so that you can emerge at the end like a beautiful butterfly, newly-equipped with your unfair advantage you spent the previous few months (or year) creating.

For many of us … being unemployed and unpaid for an extended period (months) is inevitable in our near futures. If you spend those months chasing (begging) recruiters and hiring managers for work you’re in serious danger of ending up no further ahead at the end of it. (if there’s enough interest, I’ll write another post on how to deal with recruiters as a candidate – this is going to be a tough time for them too).

If you’re interested in tech-hiring…

…as I said: this site was created to share my experiences in 20 years of being a CTO / VP Engineering / Tech Lead / Tech Hiring Manager. Over the coming months I’ll be posting interviews, advice, and techniques from my experiences.