Detail of an orrery made by Benjamin Martin in London in 1767, used by John Winthrop to teach astronomy at Harvard, on display at the Putnam Gallery in the Harvard Science Center, used under CC-BY-SA, by Wikipedia user Sage Ross
I sat across a table today from an account manager at a staffing firm. I didn’t expect to be there. I had taken a phone screen the week prior, my first in-depth technical assessment, that I thought I had completely fumbled. Looking back at my notes from right after the call, I wrote in big block letters, FAIL.
Right after that, I wrote three quick bullet points, things I needed to do in order to avoid failing like that again. In a nutshell, I had not prepared for the call. Things I knew when I was more actively programming refused to pop instantly into my head. Instead, I struggled even though I knew I knew the answers to his questions. The questions were mostly what I call technical trivia, information that is easily searched for online and rarely demonstrates a grasp of useful programming knowledge or skill.
I have since made good on those action items in my notes. I promised myself I would not take an opportunity for granted again, preparing as best I could for each one from here forward.
I have been on the job search a handful of times over the years. I am not sure I previously had such a moment of self awareness. In the past, even under difficult circumstances, I found it too easy to take my knowledge and skills for granted. If I failed, I wrote it off and blithely looked towards the next opportunity. If I had to be charitable in explaining myself, I suppose I would say that more often than note I have had the good fortune to be looking when time was a luxury, when I was still employed. Dismissing a failure without learning from it didn’t seem to carry any meaningful risk.
For some reason, this failure was different. Maybe it was because of an earlier failure in the same search. I had come close but ultimately failed at a first opportunity when I started my search in earnest, back in September. That first chance was like all the others, I guess. I didn’t especially prepare. I relied on my wits, my ability to communicate, and luck more than anything else.
When I didn’t get that job, I was crushed. I really liked the company and the people. The whole experience was great, even doing a thirty hour quick turn around trip from coast to coast. The role was a new one to me that seemed like an amazing way to both return to more hands on technical work as well as to continue to engage my writing and speaking skills. They even found me through my podcast, rather than the other way around.
Maybe the disappointment, in myself as much as anything, was a wake up call. I had used several weeks pretty much exclusively on one job prospect.
At that time, I didn’t have an end date for my current job. I have been blessed to have my hard work during a difficult transition be rewarded by my current employer with support and patience. I now have an end date, one that is still incredibly generous, not in the least because they know I am actively looking. On some level, I knew even before I discussed an explicit end date that it would come, that it would be soon. Realizing I had worked through several weeks with no other prospects to show for it definitely lit a fire under me.
I may have over compensated. I usually am skittish about working with recruiters or staffing firms. In my experience, they don’t save time and often focus on opportunities very different from the ones I find most rewarding. Despite my prior experience, I didn’t feel like I could afford to leave anything unexplored. After I applied to all the obvious good fits, I kept on applying, to the consulting and contracting jobs I know I could do but that I would not enjoy anywhere near as much.
That is how I ended up, today, at a staffing firm talking to an account manager.
Up to this point, I had convinced myself I could and would pursue this all the way through. Part of me added, “if I had to,” to that last sentence while the rest of me, prior to today, worked hard to ignore that contingency. This account manager called me on it.
He grilled me about the usual stuff. Had I used this technology and where. What about this tool. How had I approached this challenge, solved another problem. At some point, he stopped. He looked at me and asked me frankly if I felt I would be happy at this job he was pitching. He went so far as to explain that his reason for asking is that he suspected I wouldn’t be. At the risk of his commission, he didn’t think that made sense in the long run.
For a moment, I prevaricated. I doubt he even noticed, the moment was so fleeting. I admitted he was right. I admitted it as much to myself as to him. Giving up on an opportunity, even one I knew wasn’t right, didn’t feel great. But the notion of stringing it along only to say, “no,” when a better offer came along didn’t feel any better.
At that moment, I realized that this entire job search really was different. In the past, I have always at least tried to focus on what I really want to be doing. I haven’t always succeeded. I don’t think I was making as intentional choices as I could have, rolling with what came my way and rationalizing it after the fact. My engagement and especially my learning from those experiences were thin at best.
For this search, the stakes haven’t really changed. I still need a job, ideally before the end of this year. What has changed is my openness to being honest with myself. I am far more willing to learn from every single experience along the way this time around. Maybe opening up will improve my prospects, maybe it won’t. I am pretty sure I will find the rest of my search far more rewarding by admitting that I am both searching for a job, for a career next step, and at the same time, searching for myself.