- I’m not getting Interviews
- Self-Study Time
- I’m still not getting Interviews
- Is it my Resume/CV that is the issue?
- Resume/CV Style
- What to write in a CV/Resume?
- Is my lack of a Cover Letter an issue?
- Sending the CV/Resume
- At what time should you schedule Interviews?
- Test the Comms and Environment
- First Interview with the Recruiter
- Research the Interviewers
- Predict Interview Questions and Plan the Answers
- Asking Questions
- Good Answers for Interview Questions
- Show your work
- Take Failure Gracefully
With millions or tens of millions of competent people looking for careers, it’s easy to become disillusioned if you’re keen to start working again.
After having experienced the surprising difficulty in finding the right role, I wanted to write down some suggestions that may help, although there’s no guarantee of success with it of course. Some of these are based on my experience, and some are based on what I've found out asking around.
Please take these as just ideas to rule in/out. At the end of the day, everyone has to take control of their own career-seeking procedures, and I'm certainly no expert.
I’m not getting Interviews
It may not be your fault. Some organizations have a recruitment system that makes it almost impossible to get to the interview stage no matter how well suited you are for the role. Some even very large organizations have a broken recruitment system currently as a result, which means they will miss key talent, and they may not even realize it.
It could be a good idea to reach out to old work colleagues, in case they can help you in the search for a job. If they put your name forward for a role it may carry more weight within the organization.
Some organizations are overwhelmed. There have been stories in the news of a thousand people chasing one job in a single day. It may not be worth applying to those!
How can those jobs be identified? One method is to use LinkedIn to gauge interest. With some subscriptions, LinkedIn will show you how many applicants have applied through LinkedIn. Multiply that number a few times to factor in those that applied through different channels, and you’ll get an idea of how many people you’re competing with. As a result, it’s possible to quickly weed out the jobs that are heavily oversubscribed with applicants. See the example below. Based on that, it might make little sense spending time preparing an application for Nintendo, and focussing on an application for Sky could be a better option if all other things are equal.
A lot of the jobs sites are too popular. It could be worth visiting individual firm career pages on the company website, in case there are jobs listed there first. There is a chance some organizations try to recruit on their own, then give up when they don’t get a lot of responses, and then hire a recruitment firm.
Searching for a job can be a full-time task in itself! I'm proud to know some friends who used their time productively, and they did training courses. Some are free, and others cost about as much as a monthly mobile phone bill. There are training tracks for some job roles, for instance, you may wish to become a VHDL expert or a Linux expert, and both of these job-roles can involve industry-specific training or certifications. Even if you don't complete the training or the test is too expensive (some certifications can cost thousands of $), it is hopefully impressive to be able to tell an interviewer that you're doing the training track for your certification.
Another idea is to read books, and this could include business-related books as well as general engineering books and then more specific content for your area of interest. The business-related and general engineering books are important because you'll be interviewed by managers and other senior leaders so it helps to speak a similar language. Your ex-manager will probably provide great recommendations if you ask them, plus it's a nice opportunity to reconnect.
I’m still not getting Interviews
It might be worth passing your resume or CV to someone you trust who has not seen it before, to get their feedback. It could be important to act on the feedback because they will provide you with a valuable first impression. I did this and learned that my CV was too intense (I had copied someone else’s style) so I started from scratch and simplified it.
Is it my Resume/CV that is the issue?
Spelling and grammar mistakes probably don’t help. I learned not to just rely on Word’s built-in spelling and grammar-check. Consider using Grammarly, there is a free option for it, and a Word plug-in (see screenshot snippet below), and it picks up things which Word doesn’t. If the audience is international, consider spelling and grammar to suit them, rather than trying to spell for your local country. Embrace the Oxford Comma from time to time If you use Grammarly then it helps with blog posts and comments too – it works with online forms.
There used to be a school of thought that a Resume or CV should only be one or two pages long. That doesn’t apply for Engineering roles I feel – it’s better to just move to three or four pages rather than cram everything in.
On that note, it’s always (in my opinion) better to spend time tailoring the CV or Resume, throw out any extremely irrelevant content if it doesn't suit the job in question, and really targeting the document for the role you’re applying for. On the other hand, some people report success by not tailoring, and just increasing the volume of applications massively. That doesn’t suit me.
I feel the style should look simple yet modern (Sans Serif! Although Times New Roman might suit non-engineering jobs maybe?) but let the content speak for itself. Having said that, I still put some small diagrams in one single place to convey an example of projects I have worked on visually. A diagram can say a thousand words, which is positive, but it may not be searchable automatically, which is not good! So I used the diagrams to augment, not to replace, and keep it tiny, people can always zoom in if they get curious. It’s in the personal profile section, on the first page. You may also want to place a link to a portfolio of your work. You could use box.com (that's my current favorite, and the site is not full of unrelated advertising which would look unprofessional) or use a different cloud storage provider.
Just for want of having an example to show, here is a possible format (content is blurred out, it is my CV/resume). I won't suggest it is ideal, and it probably looks too 'busy' for some, and perhaps should be simplified further, or spread out, since there is some space on the last page. The personal profile section looks long, but I have used that first page almost as a summary of each area I have worked in (for example software or hardware or radio frequency engineering, or verticals like medical engineering, automotive, and so on).
Incidentally, if you're wondering how to do left/right formatting for CVs, one method is to use tables, with invisible borders. I use that technique to give myself left and right columns for (say) indicating the job titles on the left side, and the organization name and years that I was there on the right side. I convert to PDF from within Word.
What to write in a CV/Resume?
For the Personal Profile section, I took the opportunity to stress customer, business, and technical focus and then wrote some content under technology headings. It could be replaced with vertical-specific headings, or industry-specific headings too. This is the playground area which I change to suit the job I’m applying for. For instance, if I was interested in a job at Rolls Royce then I’d probably have a section on aviation, and list the aviation technologies I’d worked with, list some key certifications for that industry, and mention some aeronautical projects I’d worked on (describe things extremely generically and only mention specific project names if they are public information and no confidentiality agreements are being broken).
For the Professional Experience section, I think reverse-chronological order should always be followed for the job role titles (and list the years or year and month that you worked, and your job title). I used lots of bullet-points to list things I’d done. Sometimes I grouped several things into a single bullet-point if they were related. For instance, if I’m mentioning responsibility for bug tracking, then I’d mention bug tracking systems and bug tracking achievements (say, migrated to a new bug tracking system and achieved consistent zero-showstopper releases for three years) all on the same bullet-point to save some space.
It is impossible to fit everything you’ve worked on, so you have to be selective sometimes, find the right terms and key-words to use for the job role, and also not forget to mention the impact, not just the stuff you worked on. As an example, if you’ve written good code, what you’ve actually done is “earned the trust of test teams worldwide”, so then write that : ) You might want to mention customer impact in a few places too. That becomes extremely important at the interview stage though, more so than the CV/Resume I think.
For the Education section, I only list a few things in bullet-points. I put down the name of the certification (such as "Electrical Engineering" or "Computer Science" but I didn't place the award itself (such as First Class with Honours, or 2:1 with Honours and so on) in the CV/Resume, it didn’t feel right. Since not everyone will be familiar with all acronyms, I write it all out, and then show the abbreviation. An example would be “Bachelor of Engineering in Information Systems (BEng)”. The university name, town or country, and years studied are listed too, in a similar way to the work detail in the earlier Professional Experience section.
An Awards and Accomplishments section could be a good idea. There could be internal company awards or competitions you’ve won, so why not list them! If you’ve ever helped out at a career fair, depending on what you did, it could be better described by stating you're a ‘mentor for dozens of young engineers helping them with success in their jobs’. I use this section to replace the “hobbies” section that we were taught at school to have on our CV/Resume to allow interviewers to get a personal feel. Instead, I move any hobby to the earlier Personal Profile section - I just add a sentence stating that hobbies include (say) DIY or keeping up-to-date with technology. These are safe and not going to raise any questions. I think it's too much to reveal things like being a lover of cats or mountain-climbing. For me that’s too much personal detail, others may disagree. I’d rather discuss a love of pets if one turns up on the display during a Zoom/Teams video interview.
Is my lack of a Cover Letter an issue?
Possibly! A cover letter is another opportunity to express yourself. If there is a cover letter option then I always take it.
Sending the CV/Resume
I think if you’re applying and you’re lucky enough to know someone working at the firm, it could be good to forward your CV/Resume and cover letter to them first. Often they have an incentive to submit a successful candidate, so why not let them do that, and they can advise you if the contents need changing, and also give you tips about the role, the interviewers, and so on. It has become a lot easier to identify acquaintances who could become friends, by using LinkedIn. It shows you who you have some direct or indirect relationship with, who works in that firm.
If you’re sending the CV directly to the firm or to the recruitment firm, then if you have a way to identify the recruiter, I think it’s OK to connect with them or send them an e-mail too, perhaps with the CV attached again, and put a 2-3 sentence summary about yourself in the e-mail too. It’s not being pushy. I’ve had success this way in getting to the interview stage, and that’s all you’re looking for at this point in the process anyway.
If you’re submitting your CV through an automated system that parses your PDF CV/resume and auto-fills in fields, then make sure to examine each one because it’s not unusual for the auto-fill to go wrong. Some job application online systems are temperamental, so expect some IT frustration from time to time while applying.
At what time should you schedule Interviews?
As soon as possible is a good idea : ) Me and others I’ve asked, all feel that you’ve got more chance of being remembered if you go first, or go last. And going first has got a fragment more positive vibe to it, than going last.
It is of course good to be flexible in the interview time, but I hope for and prefer if the interview occurs between 10-11am, or 3-4pm. During these times, no-one is thinking about lunch or an evening meal. I'll offer these periods for the first day's timeslots when the recruiter asks. But you should also offer early (say 8 am) and late (perhaps 5 pm) timeslots for availability on some days too, because some of the interviewers may be in a different timezone.
Test the Comms and Environment
Make sure your WiFi, camera, and microphone work! Microphones (standalone and those in phones etc) in particular can be weird, some of them rely on bounce off a desk and won’t work properly at the edge of a desk, or if you angle your head away slightly and so on. A bright room could help too since it’s the first impression. With video, it is traditional not to wear anything heavily checked, because it used to play havoc causing video artifacts and perhaps compression issues which are not great for home Internet connections. I don’t know how relevant that is anymore, but a plain unchecked shirt is probably a safe option. A nice webcam might be needed if the laptop camera is bad (recent laptops should have excellent cameras hopefully). Once you’ve set things up, it is usually free to make a zoom or other collaboration system call to a friend and check it all functions, learn the best microphone positioning, and ask for their general impression!
First Interview with the Recruiter
Don’t ever underestimate the technical knowledge of the recruiter : ) Some are highly technical! I spoke to one who ran a cloud user group in his spare time and experimented with home automation systems. Good recruiters need to have the trust of their clients too, and they won’t let them down by badly recommending people for the next interview.
The recruiter may ask what your current salary is, and what salary you’re expecting, so you’ll want to price yourself in advance to be prepared for this question. If you go low, you’re radiating that you are not worth as much. Too high and it could price you out. I think if you’re honest about what you’re worth and maybe price yourself 10% less during COVID, that could be useful to pre-empt the fact that others will likely price themselves slightly lower too, to try to increase their chances. But better to price yourself 10% less than 20% less, because the 20% person will look either desperate or less competent. That’s been my thinking, but it could be completely wrong. Another strategy is to price yourself higher, so you're perceived to have more value than the competition.
I bet sometimes it is easy to get the pricing wildly wrong, for example, if you’re changing industry. The times I have got it wrong, the firm automatically raised their offer to beyond what I asked for, which is nice when that happens, and then you know your worth in that industry or vertical a lot better for the future.
Throughout all the interviews, don't forget to smile! and you want to look and sound positive, and not leave the impression you’re ambivalent about getting the job, or that you’re not sure if the job is for you. Sure, part of the point of interviews is for both parties to see if they’re a good fit, but don’t put your cards on the table and tell them you’re unsure. You can privately think about it offline and reject a job later, but you cannot easily do the reverse and say to the interviewer “I’ve changed my mind and now I’m more sure I want this job role”.
Research the Interviewers
It is customary to know the name and job title of the people who will be interviewing you. It’s ok to do some research and get to know them (not like a stalker!) via google search. If you look at their LinkedIn page, they will likely know you did so (LinkedIn shares this information). It’s not a big deal. It comes across as being thorough if you’re reading up on the interviewers, so they won’t find it a negative thing when they get their LinkedIn alert.
Predict Interview Questions and Plan the Answers
It may be possible to predict 50% or more of the Interview questions, so it’s a great idea to make some notes of example questions, and the things you’re going to talk about. The STAR format might be expected by the interviewer. They will appreciate it if you use it, so they can have a higher throughput of questions answered, and hopefully tighten more screws into your nameplate on your virtual office door. The STAR format provides a way of reducing what you need to say, to more completely answer an interview question quicker. The interviewer can then pick and choose the area they want to drill down into, and so you’ve helped them get to the drilling phase a lot quicker, and they’ll appreciate it. STAR is short for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. Here’s an example:
Question: “Give me an example of a time when you disagreed with your manager and how you resolved it”
Answer: “The situation was, my manager thought I was spending too long fixing a customer’s PC. My task was to find a way to explain my reasons for the decision to go the extra mile for this customer. The action I took was to find the benefits of the customer relationship, and the impact it would have. I took the responsibility to ensure the customer directed all his organization’s computer repair business to our team, and to purchase upgrades from us too. The result was an extra $100k that year, and ongoing repeat work.”
To memorize this STAR, you could jot down a one-liner:
Disagreeing with a stakeholder – PC repair time, explain reasons, take future work responsibility, $100k result
If the call is a video call, you could always stick up a collection of one-line STAR summaries on the wall beyond the PC, and glance at it. I don’t think interviewers even mind if you’re looking at notes if it helps them. And it makes you come across as organized.
You can predict that you'll get asked for questions for the final ten or fifteen minutes of the interview, so that's ample time for at least two questions, and these could be prepared up-front. Obviously, they shouldn't be salary-related! Possible questions could be along the lines of:
What's the org structure like? How far in the project are you? Do the engineers ever get together for team building events or presenting their activities to their peers? How did I do? (It might sound cheeky, but it's sometimes worth asking for feedback like this).
All questions are not equal, some can be dangerous and best avoided. For instance, I suspect (not sure) that it's not good to ask if there will be training for the job, or if there are opportunities to move around within the organization because asking these questions might leave the interviewer with questions about your level of training and commitment to their particular project.
Good Answers for Interview Questions
What makes a good answer? Probably, showing a big result does! If your feature has improved the sales of a product, then mention the big number! For example, your feature work or PCB layout may have resulted in multi-million $ sales that year. You should mention that.
You may also be asked about the times when things went wrong and how you dealt with it. One way to tackle this is to give an example of when you searched out the root problem and fixed that, and put a process in place that it could never happen again. That’s way more important than just saying “I debugged a circuit and found the correct resistor value to stop the circuit burning up when no-one else could”. The point is, the incorrect resistor should not have been in the circuit in the first place. The root of the problem therefore isn’t the incorrect resistor.
You might get asked how you deal with young engineers. An interview isn’t a time for jokes like “I’d slap them around the head if they went wrong”, or for old-fashioned views like “I’d only hire experienced engineers” or “as they improve they would get a review and a pay rise”. I don’t know the best answer, but you could probably answer along the lines of expressing that they should be empowered to make decisions, let them share their findings, even engineers like to present what they’ve worked on, and ensure you share the vision with them that they are problem-solving for customers, not for technology’s sake. And if you need to make a decision, then you can explain the reasons for the decision; that’s an adult way of treating young engineers, to keep them in the loop. This might not be a perfect answer, but it’s likely better than suggesting the old-school way of turning young apprentices into professional engineers over time because it is obvious that experience comes with age, so why bother wasting time speaking about it.
Incidentally, you probably want to say the word “customer” in nearly every sentence during the interview. Every single thing an organization does should be ultimately traceable to a customer reason. The reason could be to solve a customer pain-point, or to anticipate your customer needs in the future, or to go beyond the call of duty to keep your customer coming back next time. For a response to any question, if it doesn’t sound like you can use the word “customer” then maybe the answer needs to be re-thought. A pause before answering is fine.
It might sound like disagreeing with a customer flies in the face of everything, but occasionally that needs to be done too. I’ve watched a competent salesman tell a customer “this product is too new for you guys, wait until it has more mature software”. They respected him for it. Another example of disagreement could be that the customer is blaming your company for faulty hardware or software. How did you go about getting the customer to the point that they supplied the debug or allowed the root cause analysis to be performed, and gently made the customer aware if it was an issue elsewhere? How did you try to reduce the risk of this occurring again?
Every answer should be honest. It is easy to get caught out in a lie. If they ask if you’ve used certain software before which you haven’t, don’t lie but instead let them be aware that you’re familiar with the particular development software trends going on, and you’ve been meaning to investigate it. Even a simple thing, like if you say you’ve read a book or done a course, make sure you’ve done it! Otherwise, chances are, the interviewer’s next question will be about the particular software or that book or course, and then when you can’t answer it well you’ve made yourself look untrustworthy. In a similar vein, it’s not a good look to be boastful, although you want to make sure you articulate the massive impact you’ve made for customers. So, if you’ve made mistakes, mention one or two of them too, but only if you have an answer how you made sure it never happened again. An example could be that you were responsible for developing a license or hardware lock-out, and it was discovered very late in the product development that it could inadvertently cause paying customers to experience a lock-out. You could make sure that you come out sounding positive from this mistake, by saying you learned that day to ask the right questions about what if any benefit the lock-out feature provided to paying customers, and if there was no benefit, then the feature absolutely must not get in the way of customers, and furthermore, you ensured it was never delivered to customers with that fault, and never could again, by adding test-cases to the software releases.
Every answer should be passionately answered, if possible. You can show ‘skin in the game’ by saying you’ve been doing some training courses or that you're reading up on Fugaku's communications fabric, even if the firm is only developing the desktop computers of today. It shows curiosity and passion. You’re an engineer, you’re supposed to find what you do interesting, so don’t put the interviewer to sleep either : ) Watch their expressions if you’re on a video call interview, and change the pace of your answers and get to the point.
Another possible question for engineers could be related to how you deal with problems with third-party software stack bugs or component issues or system integrators being too slow, or even issues with priorities in your team or another team. You can easily prepare an answer in advance, anticipating this type of question. An example answer could be twofold; firstly, you went deep and built a tool to analyze the debug, and secondly you could say that you set up a weekly call with the third party software or component vendor’s account manager, or the product team responsible for that third party software or component, so they were aware of the business impact, so they could prioritize resources for their engineers to solve your problem.
Show your work
Sometimes, there is an opportunity to show your example work. You could ask the recruiter to forward your document, or a link to your portfolio, to the interviewer. I have shown hardware over Zoom calls. Last year, I took a blank PCB from a design challenge and showed it to a potential client, and it was enough to get a job offer if I wanted it! I had used a Design Challenge as an opportunity to learn a new skill in-depth (Bluetooth LE). It turns out that BLE is similar to Zigbee in some ways, and that opened up opportunities in different industries. Design Challenges if you've not done any or heard of them before, are an almost free method (just costs your time) to learn new skills and perhaps have access to industry experts if you need it.
Any interviewer will love to see hardware or software I bet - it is a brief break from the interview and can lighten the atmosphere!
Take Failure Gracefully
If you don’t get the job, ask for feedback, although it’s very likely you won’t get any, sometimes you do. Also, maybe the recruiter knows of a better fit for you. Another important reason to take failure gracefully is that it could happen a lot. No matter how good you are, you will never show yourself in your best light in your first interview. It takes practice. If there is no other opportunity to practice then you could apply for some job roles that few people are applying to, just for interview practice. It’s not nice to waste anyone’s time, but you sometimes need to think of yourself too, and anyway chances are higher for your first few interviews that you may not perform as well as others, since you’re still getting into the swing of things, so by doing the practice interview you might not get a job offer for the job you don’t want anyway.
Also, personal mental health is important too, so if you start getting warning signs that the culture at a firm might not align with your vision of the organization you wish to work for, or that you won’t perform effectively compared to a different job role, then don’t feel obligated to accept the job offer, even during these COVID times. It is taking a gamble, but sometimes it needs to be done.
This blog post hopefully resonated a little bit if you're interested in engineering jobs currently, and I hope some of the information can be useful to apply for jobs, prepare for interviews, and then get through the interviews. A lot of the information is probably subjective though, and going with your gut instinct is important sometimes too. I'm not a recruiter, nor do I work in HR and cannot speak as an expert. Anyway, the more useful information could end up in the comments below since it takes a community effort to identify many more tips and best practices for interviews and for getting jobs. It would be great to hear what you think, and what works for you or doesn't work, and your best and worst interviews.
For what it's worth, my worst interview was at the start of my career. The interviewer was awful, and told me during the interview what the salary was, despite knowing what the recruiter had mentioned to me. I immediately asked if I could have a raise in 6 months' time, and he went weird on me, saying it's not normal for pay raises for the first year or two. I didn't like the sound of that and said nothing. There was an awkward silence for a minute or two until I broke it and wished him well and said goodbye. On the drive home, the recruiter phoned and said they had decided to raise the offer. However, I considered I'd dodged a bullet, and took a job elsewhere.
Thanks for reading!