Job networking for developers

Notes from a job hunt

January 17, 2024 · Felipe Vogel ·

tl;dr I learned some job networking. Thanks to my handy dandy list of tips below, you can too!

For the past few months I’ve been back on the job hunt, after two years in a wonderful first developer job. I wanted to stay longer, but a series of unfortunate financial surprises meant the company had to cut expenses in order to survive. Over half of the employees were laid off in 2023, including yours truly in the latest round.

No worries, I thought. It took me only two months to find that job. Now that I’m not entry-level anymore, it’ll be a piece of cake. I mean, I’ve heard the market is bad right now, but really, how bad could it be?

Famous last words.

Applying for jobs: a waste of time

Actually, I’d already started my job search several weeks before the layoffs. I sensed they were coming and knew my end was near.

So I jumped into action with my tried-and-true approach: doing new projects to put on my resume, submitting job applications, and waiting for the interviews to roll in.

… Except the interviews didn’t roll in. In fact, after two months and dozens of applications, I’d gotten only one positive response, and that one doesn’t even count as my tried-and-true approach because I had an extra advantage, a referral from someone I know in the company.

Which means that my old strategy completely failed.

Welcome to 2023-24, where it seems like half of your friends in tech are laid off, and companies ignore the ensuing flood of cold applications in favor of personal connections.

Setting aside my objections to greasing the wheels

My first reaction was something akin to indignation.

I’m a good developer, I thought. I shouldn’t have to spend my days hobnobbing on LinkedIn and smooth-talking strangers into offering me a job.

I vented to friends, acquaintances, and innocent passers-by about how my merit should stand on its own, and how the winners aren’t the most talented developers but instead the ones who are best at gaming the system.

But guess what? Complaining about it is a waste of time, and in fact it showed a lack of empathy on my part. What would I do if I were faced with a stack of hundreds of applications? Read every resume and cover letter line by line, immerse myself in every blog and toy project, and peer into the soul of each applicant?

The fact is, my application is almost guaranteed to be overlooked among hundreds of others.

However…

When I talk to someone personally, when they hear my name from a colleague, when they see my name in their LinkedIn feed, suddenly I’m top of mind.

I could either ignore this fact, or embrace it.

Embracing networking: preliminary work

Here’s the advice I would give myself if I could go back in time to the beginning of my job search.

I mention Ruby because that’s where I focused my search, but if you work with a different tech stack then you can take the general recommendations and ignore the Ruby-specific resources.

Embracing networking: the routine

In my day-to-day I’ve spent most of my time on the points above, but when it comes to finding and following a job lead, here’s what I’ve been doing.

1. Finding an opportunity

2. Making a connection

Once I’ve found an interesting job posting or company (with or without an open position), here’s what I do.

Note: most of the steps below don’t apply to opportunities given by a recruiter, because the recruiter is your initial connection.

The first step is to use LinkedIn search to get a list of people who work at that company.

From there, there are two things you can do with the search results.

A. Find someone who can refer you

If you have any connections at the company (1st- or 2nd-degree), ask them if they’d be willing to chat about what it’s like to work there. Try to be genuinely curious about the company (you do want to know all you can about where you might be working, after all), but at some point you can steer the conversation toward the possibility of that person referring you when you apply. Sometimes you don’t even have to try because they’re the ones who suggest it.

Of course, this is easiest when it’s a 1st-degree connection, but here are a couple of ways to start that conversation with a 2nd-degree connection:

What if you don’t have any connections at the company? Or you do have connections, but you want to give your application an extra “oomph”? That’s where the next approach comes into play.

B. Talk to someone in order to set yourself apart without a referral

  1. In LinkedIn search results for people who work at that company, look for engineering managers or other leaders in product/engineering.
    • Avoid directly contacting talent/recruiting staff. From what I hear, they are understaffed these days, so you have a better chance at having a meaningful conversation with engineering management.
  2. Message those people on LinkedIn. Ask who you should talk to about the position, or (if you didn’t see a job posting but you’re interested in the company) ask if they’re hiring. Then briefly, in 1-2 sentences, say why you think you’d be a great fit.
    • If the person’s LinkedIn bio has anything interesting or relatable, mention that in your message.
    • You’ll need LinkedIn Premium to send these messages, but you can get the first month free if you sign up for the trial.
    • Here are a couple of examples:
    • Hey _____, I saw the open engineering position at _____, and I think I’d be a great fit but I have a few questions. Who should I talk to about that? I used to be a teacher and I love mentoring others, especially aspiring second-career developers. So _____’s mission really resonates with me. Let me know if you want me to send you my resume. Thanks!
    • Hi _____, I saw _____’s open backend engineer role, and I have a few questions about it. Would you be open to talking about it, or could you point me to someone who might be? I love your LinkedIn bio, by the way. “___[a bit from their bio]___” and “___[another bit]___”. I heartily agree! If other engineers at _____ also take that approach, then I would definitely fit in there.
  3. You might be asked to apply, in which case you should go ahead and do so.
    • If you happen to have a 1st-degree connection at the company, be sure to ask them for a referral before you apply, in case you need a special application link from them.
    • What about cover letters? Many applications have an optional space for them. I’ve heard mixed advice, but I myself write a cover letter only if I have something really memorable to say.
    • So now you’ve submitted the application. You might be thinking, “What did I do all that extra work for, if in the end I’m applying for the job just the same?” The difference is that now you’re not just another random applicant among hundreds, and the personal connection you’ve established (small as it may be) will help set you apart.
  4. Here’s another way to use 2nd-degree connections. At some point early in the interview process, ask your friends who know those 2nd-degree connections to ask them to mention your name to the hiring manager. The more your name comes up, the better.

Conclusion: does it work?

I’ll leave the details to a future post, but in short: yes, this approach has been effective in getting me interviews. It’s a lot of work, but the alternative of cold applications and zero interviews… is not really an alternative.

BONUS: after the recruiter screening

When your networking pays off and you’re chugging along in the interview process, here are some tips to keep in mind:

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