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My Amazon Experience

So you've finally gotten that 4 year (or 6 year or 10 year) degree. Employers are banging down your door with $70000 offers to work on the coolest projects. Ha! Right. Maybe that's how it worked during the bubble but not anymore. I've had friends who couldn't find work for months. Heck, some of my friends still can't find work.

What are you going to do? You're not going to mope around the house all day. And you're not going to take a crap job leading nowhere either. Fortunately for you, I've done all the research. I'm going to tell you exactly what you need to do to find work. From the time I left school until the time I got an offer was about three months. In that time I have gotten phone calls and e-mails from many companies, including Bloomberg (five times and counting) and Amazon. I am still being contacted a few times each month. To find out how, read on.

I was once hanging out with some roommates and their friends, when someone mentioned how much he loves interviewing. I absolutely hate interviews. These are the people I'm competing with. These are the people you're competing with. Many employers try to be objective. But that's really not possible. They're going to favor the outgoing, confident candidates over you and me (unless they have something against extroverts). You need to reclaim that lost ground. You're the one with the real talent, and you know it.

The very first thing you're going to do is put up a web page. No, not of your dog and family and the ice cream social last week. Post your work. It will be months, at least, before you find something. Building a professional web site is a full time job. You need to start advertising yourself now. It's a lot of work, but think of the advantages. That site will be up and searchable on the web 24/7. Once you get it up there, it will be your professional advertisement for the rest of your life.

A resume says very little about you. A web site full of past projects and articles about technical topics you excel at says a lot. You never know what's going to impress a potential employer. Recruiters won't read your web page, but really smart engineers will. They may think a project you've worked on was really challenging material. It says a lot more about you than a silly 15 minute interview. Even if you're not particularly brilliant, putting the effort in to set up a web site tells people you're motivated and a self-starter.

Write articles about work you've done and opinions you have. Promote yourself on the internet. Post links to your site on the resume section in Craigslist. Make posts on slashdot and usenet groups. You never know who might be lurking there.

I have been told "I felt like I already knew you." Isn't that a wonderful thing to hear on an interview? I also made a connection with another employee when she mentioned that she had read some of the things I had written and agreed with them. When you hear these comments, you will get a confidence boost like no other. Your web site will make the first impression. Even if you go into an interview sweaty and nervous, it's OK, they already like you.

The most frustrating thing I have experienced is being lied to and ignored. I have been told on interviews that I would be called back within a day or two and then never heard back. Once, I asked why I didn't get a response and was told "my hiring options were frozen." I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds a lot like the professional version of "well, you're a nice guy, but...".

On many other occasions I could get no response at all. I called and e-mailed the interviewer multiple times, only to be completely ignored. Why it's so difficult to send a quick e-mail explaining that they aren't interested is beyond me. On some rare occasions, the employer will show some professionalism and call you back. But don't count on getting that phone call. Just assume they found someone else.

I have also found that potential employers will make all kinds of strange assumptions about you. If they see Java and JSP on your resume, they'll assume you want to be a web programmer. If they see masters in electrical engineering, they'll assume you want to do whatever it is that they do there, even if your specialty has absolutely nothing to do with their products. Sometimes they'll just want an engineer -- any engineer will do. Only rarely will someone bother to read your objectives and look at the course work you've done. As soon as you inform the interviewer of your interests, they'll disappear quickly if it's not a match. Perhaps most 22 - 23 year old graduates just lack direction. If you know what you want to do, finding work will be more difficult.

I promote my skills, not just with my resume, but with my web site. This works really great if someone intelligent and technical finds your site. Unfortunately, it's usually recruiters or HR who do the initial review. And they often do not know what they're doing and will not take the time to understand your abilities. I have found that some companies have one or two permanent, good HR people. But this isn't true in general. Furthermore, if you have a very specific set of skills, even other highly educated engineers may have a difficult time understanding your skills and interests. Obviously, you cannot expect a recruiter to understand.

You will have to find ways to deal with these problems. I have asked recruiters to look at my web site and show it to their clients over and over again. They will not do it. I have been asked for a more in depth resume. I have had recruiters ask me if they can add to my resume so that it will appeal to their clients. There is more than enough content on my web site to demonstrate my skill. Unfortunately, that does no good unless someone important sees it.

I suggest you just keep promoting your site. If they ask for a resume with more content, make sure you put a link to your site on it. Add links to specific pages you want them to see. Many people lie on their resumes to get a job. Obviously, I do not recommend this. But it's ok to put every single technology you've ever used on there as long as you represent yourself accurately during the interview. That is, if they ask about your experience with X, tell them exactly what you know. I have chosen not to fill my resume with buzzwords, simply because it would make my resume three pages long. However, many managers prefer those buzzwords along with detailed descriptions of your previous work responsibilities.

One of the first things I tried was testing the waters to see what the true job market was like. You hear everyday about how hard it is to find technical people. Is it true? Here are my results. You decide.

I wrote a generic cover letter and sent hundreds of resumes out on craigslist to the Washington DC area, New York, and the Bay area. The total number was probably around a thousand. I got virtually no response whatsoever from the first two locations. I did get a handful of replies from the Bay area. I estimate my number of requests for interviews to be at about 1%. Keep in mind, this was just for an interview, not an offer.

Now you've seen my resume. I'm not a superstar, but I'm no slacker either. What's going on here? The truth is, no matter how hard you worked in school, unless you have a lot of experience in a very specific area, you just aren't worth money to a company. There are a million other brilliant engineers just like you that can fill that job. And many employers will wait a very long time to get the person they want. They're not really as desperate as they make themselves out to be.

How many times have you sent out a resume, only to get back a response a month or two later? This happens to me often. Those companies have a long list of applicants to go through. They can afford to neglect you. If they really needed you, they would call the day you sent them a resume. They know you'll still be unemployed when they get around to contacting you.

My experiment brings up another issue. You can't just get on Craigslist or monster or any other job board and send out a few resumes. Trust me, it will not work. I have gone on monster many times and applied to dozens or hundreds of jobs only to get little or no response. You need to apply to everything. If the thought of that makes you uneasy, just remember, you absolutely have to do what works. If only 1% of employers out there have an interest in you, you need to apply to 100 jobs to get a response.

I once tried an experiment on craigslist where I sent a resume with a link to a web site I was working on as sort of my work portfolio. Only one of at least a half-dozen recipients even bothered to click that link. And he only spent about two seconds on the site. You know what that means. Most of those e-mails you send out are being totally ignored. They are not being read at all. They may be getting completely lost amongst the hundreds of others in some recruiter's inbox. Apply to everything.

Before leaving Indiana, I decided I wanted to already have some interviews lined up when I arrived in RTP. So I went online and found over a hundred companies in the area. I wrote a nice generic cover letter, bought special resume paper at the school book store, and got some nice large 9x12 envelopes.

It took a long time to copy down all those addresses and seal the envelopes. And it cost quite a bit too. But it was worth it. Almost immediately upon arriving in the RTP area, I was getting responses. I got around 5 responses and landed an interview at Cisys. I highly suggest you try this at least once. If you send out enough resumes, you will get responses. There is a reason spammers send junk to everyone, even though they know almost nobody wants it. It works! But you don't need to spam 50 million people. You're sending resumes to a highly targeted audience. A handful of those employers will be glad to see your resume in their mail Monday morning.

Here's another tip: keep sending. I sent a resume by mail to Redhat twice. I applied for positions on their web site and on monster. Eventually I did get a response, and they asked for an interview. Imagine this. You mail a resume to your dream company. The new HR intern was in a crappy mood and ripped it up. Then she laughed about it with her friends that evening. The second time you sent in a resume, it got stuck to the back of someone else's resume and ended up in the trash without ever being seen. The third time it was lost in the mail. The fourth time an engineer happened to see it sitting there and was ecstatic. Where has this guy been? We've been looking for someone like this for half a year! The moral of the story is this: keep sending. Send weekly. Until you get a response, there is no reason you shouldn't keep sending.

One thing I absolutely hate doing is making phone calls. Cold calls are a nightmare. But that's exactly what I did when I first got here. I picked up the phone book and started calling local software companies. Ultimately, I made several dozen calls and came up more or less empty handed. If you're going to do this, you really need to call absolutely everyone. That is, you should probably be working your way through a few phone book pages a day.

I did have some interesting experiences, however. I found that some people were very helpful. They made suggestions, gave me some of their contacts, and accepted my resume. Other people were a little rude but most weren't. One serious problem I had was with numbers being wrong in the phone book. Many of the numbers were completely invalid. A few of them ended up being personal residences. Sometimes I was redirected to a number out of the local area. I had been told on an interview that many of the companies around here went under after the bubble. That may have been the problem. One man told me that the entire software industry in RTP has been hell since the war started. On the other hand, I have also been told that it's hard to find programmers in the RTP area. Who's telling the truth. Once again, I'll let you decide based on your own experiences.

When I first arrived in RTP, I was only looking for part-time work. I learned the hard way, that it's nearly impossibly to find a part-time job that pays anything. I thought Cisys was going to offer me some part-time work at a decently hourly rate. But it turned out they just didn't have enough work (or so they said).

I also learned that once you tell someone you're only looking for a part-time position, they won't take you seriously if you later change your mind. So be careful!

I have a theory that it's hard to get responses on craigslist because employers are tired of seeing the same old boring cover letters and resumes. I decided to try something a little different. Below are responses to three e-mails I sent (with names stripped for obvious reasons). I consider two of them to be a success. One got me a phone interview. What is absolutely amazing is that I estimate my response rate was at least ten to thirty times greater than usual.

> I haven't worked with cold fusion. But if you can afford about
> $39.99 for the book, I think things will work out pretty well.

>> Hi Todd!
>> Thank you for your response! J The ColdFusion Developer position was
>> actually filled this morning; however, I will keep your resume and
>> if I have anything that looks as if it may be of interest to you I
>> will certainly let you know. Thank you again and I look forward to
>> working with you in the near future!

> Greetings,

> I don't have any php or asp experience. But I'll learn it off the
> clock. It should take about a week. I don't know if you've ever
> tried to find part time work, but it's really really hard.

> Just go to the link below and click on resume.

>> Todd,
>> Call my office monday and see if i can find something for you.

> You're fooling yourself and lying to clients if you think you have
> zero-defect software. Anyway, here's
> my resume.

>> Actually, Todd, our documented work at * won the CIO Award for
>> excellence by delivering zero-defect software in automated
>> user-acceptance testing and *production* of the * system. I am
>> sure you understand that I did not review your resume.

I probably should have worded that better. And I don't recommend saying anything that might offend an entire small company. There were also a few other e-mails that were probably a little too aggressive. But you never know what's going to get you a response. If you're going to say anything that could be insulting, use self-deprecation. Use humor too. Just remember, no response, no job.

*Apparently zero-defect software doesn't mean no bugs. I don't quite understand what it means. This was the first time I had heard of such a thing, and frankly I think it smacks of arrogance. It's also irresponsible. If you didn't know anything about software, and someone told you that you were getting zero-defect software, what would you think? However, I still applaud the effort to achieve such a goal. I can't stress enough how difficult this is. The discipline and maturity involved is attained by few.

+Be careful what you say by e-mail. I've read that as much as half (or more) of all e-mail is misinterpreted by the receiving end. Because your expressions and emotions can't be read, the reader is relying only on the words and his emotional state.

While I've never been asked anything truly difficult on an interview, some of the technical questions can be quite hard given that they want you to answer them right there on the interview. It's hard to say whether they want you to be both smart and fast or just if they just don't realize not everyone can solve problems quickly. In any case, you need to be ready.

Most of my interviews actually weren't technical. Rincon asked me some DSP theory questions. Bose asked me one very involved engineering/problem solving question. Amazon asked data structures, algorithms, and design problems. Some of this is just silliness. If you were really interested in getting in, you could just buy the book and memorize the answers. But you'll still get asked things you don't know the answer too, meaning you'll have to figure it out right there, which isn't fun. So you better study.

My Amazon Experience

Out of the blue I got an e-mail from a lady (call her S) who asked if I wanted to interview with Amazon. I told S I had no interest in going to Seattle. For the rest of the day I kept looking back at her e-mail with its enthusiastic comments about me.

>Given your strong academic background, your interesting project experience, as well
>as the object oriented design and implementation experience that you bring to the table, I
>do think that you could offer valuable insight to the folks already working at

Well, I had already turned down Bloomberg and Redhat for an interview. I figured the stupidity has to stop. So I e-mailed S back and basically said sure, why not.

At this point, I wasn't aware that Amazon ranks up there with Microsoft and Google in terms of quality of work, smart people, and good pay. I had actually once sent a resume to Google after finding a job ad in CUJ. It was rejected. Never have I applied to work at Microsoft. (I've gotten myself in trouble for lack of ambition in the past.) I probably should have been flattered that Amazon was coming to me for an interview, but I just wasn't aware of their reputation. I wonder if the fact that I pretty much blew them off at first came off as confidence or stupidity.

Now I still really didn't understand why S was interested in me. I was, after all, looking for a DSP job. She cited my object oriented design, interesting projects, strong academics, and my music background*. Perhaps they're just trying to interview as many smart appearing candidates as possible. She was persistent even through my lack of enthusiasm. And I bluntly told her I still wasn't sure about the Seattle thing.

So I went to the interview, nervous as usual but no idea what I was in for. The first tip off that something was up came when the guy sitting near me said he used to work at Microsoft. It was becoming apparent that this was not going to be an easy interview. To make matters worse, I wasn't terribly motivated, I've never had a technical CS interview, I haven't done much data structures type stuff in five years, and my school didn't really cover it very well. I actually learned most of what I know on my own in high school, which was about nine years ago. And some people really, really prepare for these things. Check this one out too.

The first guy I interviewed with was obviously extremely intelligent and motivated. In fact, he told me before Amazon, he had been working 90 hours a week on Wall Street. After that interview, I got the feeling they had already made their decision about me. I had one more interview with another very intelligent software engineer, which also didn't go too well. In fact, my implementation of list reversal was so awkward, it took him a while to even grasp it. After that they let me go. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to interview with several more people, but it looked like they had already made a decision.

*I assume she was speaking of MusicRebellion.