The Career Fair

career fairWhen you’re a newer developer, you need to take whatever avenue is available in order to break into the industry.  Go to meetups, create a LinkedIn profile, sign up to Dice, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc., get an online presence (i.e. portfolio with projects, github), search companies online, talk to recruiters, submit applications, stay in contact with friends and former class/cohort-mates, and the list goes on and on.

It’s a loooooong hard road full of ups and downs, obstacles, flat tires, break-downs and a lot of work.  And I do mean a LOT of work!  There’s no miracle pill here.  Hell, if there was a pill, it would sound like one of those prescription commercials….

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Back to that list though.  If you were paying attention then you know I left one thing off – career fairs.

Last week I went to my first ever career fair.  Yup, I’m just about to turn 40 and have never been to one.  Of course I never needed to go to one, I’ve never had problems finding work before, no matter the economic climate. So through Dice, I learned of the Technology, Security Clearance & Cyber Security Career Fair that was going on August 2nd in Plano, Texas.  On the list of companies attending were Lockheed Martin, Raytheon – IIS, L3 Mission Integration, Southwest Airlines, GM Financial, and Options Clearing Corporation (OCC).

I couldn’t pass this one up.  It was focused on technology, which was nice since I know a lot of career fairs tend to have a very wide variety of what they’re looking for.  Plus these were companies I would want to work for, especially Lockheed Martin since when I was in the Air Force, I worked on the F-117 – a Lockheed Martin Skunkworks project.  Unfortunately the security clearance I had has LONG since expired, but I know I’m still ‘clearable’.

I knew going in I would be a huge underdog.  I feel that companies like these are out recruiting at the best universities looking for the best of the best, and here I am without a degree, although I did attend one of the top universities in the country for a short time.  Well, top meaning it was often ranked as one of the top party schools!  That probably didn’t help much in trying to get a degree.  Instead of finishing up though I decided to go into the military, which would be my one big positive going into this career fair.

I’m not really sure what I expected going in.  Thinking career fairs are mostly for college students though I thought I was going to be one of the older people there amongst a sea of young 20 year olds.  Boy was I wrong.  The crowd of people spanned all ages, and fairly evenly too.

Even though I didn’t know what to expect, it wasn’t anything at all like what I expected.  I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but of all the scenarios I imagined, what I walked into wasn’t like any of them.

The fair started at 11:00 am and I got there at 11:30.  The crowd of people was insane, with lines of people stretching from wall to wall.  I walked into a large rectangular room and it was completely filled up with people.  You couldn’t even tell which lines were for what.  You had to ask the people standing in line which company they THOUGHT they were in line for.  I emphasize ‘thought’ because there actually were people who had no idea what they were in line for.  Some people planned on seeing all the companies anyway so they just got into whichever line they walked up to.

My rendition of the setup and lines – somewhat to scale!

I went through quite a range of emotions during this time.  You couldn’t help but feeling like cattle, and I was just one person out of hundreds, thousands?, trying to stand out and get the attention of the recruiters to land a job.  To be honest, the entire thing felt dehumanizing.

How do you stand out? Here I was, fresh haircut, nice new business casual clothes, and I pretty much looked like everyone else there.  I am 6’2 though so I did at least stand taller than most! I know you normally shouldn’t be looking for work dressed all grungy, but in this crowd I think that might actually be a positive thing.  Thinking back those are the people I remember most.  If I was a recruiter and they had the skills to back them up, I would have a hard time forgetting about them, and personally, I don’t think someone should be ruled out of a job just because of how they dress anyway.

Speaking of the recruiters, I have no idea how they can do what they do.  In the span of 4 hours they had to talk to hundreds if not thousands of people and relive the ‘elevator pitch’ over and over and over again.  Me? I spoke to 6 (not including the few people I spoke to whom I was next to in line).  That’s a tough thought to get out of your head.  How am I going to make a big enough impression in a matter of a couple minutes that this recruiter will somehow remember me out of everyone they’ve spoken to?

Let’s do a breakdown of how it went.  The first company I went to was Lockheed Martin.  The person I spoke to was super nice and friendly.  Unfortunately both her and the other Lockheed recruiter were in the aeronautics division and didn’t have anything to do with software developers.  She made some notes on my resume though and said she would pass it on the the development team and would email me. That was about 3 minutes.

Next I went to L3, which for some reason had the shortest lines.  This was a complete failure.  There were 3 recruiters there and none of them dealt with developers either.  The recruiter I spoke to pretty much brushed me off and told me that they get a lot of hires from online applications so I should go online and find a suitable role and apply.  That was maybe 1 minute.

At this point I had been there for probably an hour and was considering calling it a day.  Hope was fading fast and the lines were still crazy.  I had nothing to lose though and you never know what might happen unless you try, so I stayed.

I decided to hit up Raytheon next, as that’s another company I’m familiar with and would love to work at.  They had the LONGEST line though.  So long that it spanned all the way across the room AND BACK! (see drawing above)  To pass the time there was a lot of eavesdropping and people watching.  When I was close to the recruiter tables I would try and listen to other people’s pitches.  I paid attention to how long a person might be talking to a recruiter.  I tried to play a guessing game at how well people did.  Most of these companies had some small giveaways – pens, cups, stress balls, etc., but no where near enough to give to everyone.  So I looked for who had a water bottle, a cup, thinking they did well.  And I did notice that when someone was talking to a recruiter for longer than usual, they almost always were given something, so I took that as a sign.

After what seemed like 2 hours I finally spoke to the Raytheon recruiter.  I had a rough start, but it actually went pretty good.  She was asking me questions and seemed interested.  The degree issue came up but I think I overcame that, plus she admitted that the military experience helps out a lot with that.  She didn’t have any roles locally for my skill set but there was a need for Python developers in Colorado.  She told me to follow up with her the following week and she would pass along my resume to that team.  And before I left….she pointed over to the table and told me to take anything I wanted.  So I grabbed a pen and said I would love to have a football rocket stress ball thing for my daughter.  It was a much needed small victory!

Raytheon Rocket

Next up was GM Financial.  For those who know me, you may be asking why?  I’m a die-hard Mopar guy.  I only drive Dodges and I live by the motto “Mopar or No Car”.  Growing up, GM and Ford were my sworn enemies, but hey, work is work and my family doesn’t give a crap about my car allegiances.  So I thought I would try and be funny, say something to stand out, even though I knew what I was thinking was stupid, and I shouldn’t have said it, but I did anyway.  “Hi, I’m Chris and I’m imported from Detroit”.  Yeah, I said it, and owned up to it right away.  For those who don’t know, “Imported from Detroit” was Chrysler’s tagline.  I got the weirdest look from her.  She took my resume though and said to look online for appropriate roles since yet again, neither recruiter handled developer positions.

After that debacle came Southwest Airlines.   This went better, but they were a Java shop.  She said they just opened up a position for a front-end UI  person and asked if the HTML, CSS and JavaScript on my resume was related to that.  Then told me the recruiter handling that position wasn’t there that day and I should go online and apply for it.

Finally was OCC.  It was basically a repeat of the others.  They’re expanding to a new location in the Dallas area and are going to be needing a bunch of tech people working with data and cloud computing.  But I would need to go online, find suitable roles and apply.  Although he did say to reference his name and email in the applications.

So that was it.  I walked out at 2:30, which meant it took me 3 full hours just to speak to 6 people for a total time of about 12 minutes.  With most of them telling me to just apply online.

This was my first, and in all likelihood, my last career fair.  I can’t see myself going to one of those again.  I still have to follow up with Raytheon, and I’m not forgetting about Lockheed Martin either.  In the meantime my job search continues…..

Some final tips for anyone planning on going to a career fair:

  • Make sure you have a tight resume.  The recruiters look at stacks of these and peruse through it really quick in front of you so you’ll want to make sure the high points stand out. And bring enough copies too.
  • Practice your elevator pitch!  This one can’t be stressed enough.  Be ready to talk.  The recruiters rarely started the conversation and if you didn’t have your pitch ready there would be some awkward silence as they wait for you to speak.  With all the people they’re seeing you have to sell them on you, not the other way around, so don’t expect them to guide you through the conversation.
  • Wear comfortable shoes!
  • If you’re near the recruiter tables, pay attention and listen in to what’s being said.  You could get some valuable intel that could help you with your own pitch.  This also includes paying attention to the recruiters body language and anything else that might clue you in to what impresses them, what doesn’t, and what they’re looking for.
  • Go ahead and talk to other people around you.  So what if they might be your competition, you never know who you might be talking to, or even who else is around listening.  You could gain a connection or at worst, pass the time if you’re in a long line.  By the way, I’ll admit I’m not very good at this part.
  • Stay positive!  This is tough if things aren’t going well and you’re just standing around for long periods of time, but when you walk up to that recruiter the last thing you want to do is come across as depressing or boring.