Finding Work

Finding Work

Some of my readers will be aware I finished working at Quantel at the start of this month. After more than eight and a half years–by far the longest I’d spent at any one place–I felt it was time to move on. A merger with another company had brought a lot of new faces into the office, and a recent department restructure on top meant too much change: it no longer felt like the same place I’d become used to.

There was a lack of clarity in my mind about where I fit into the new, different organization and my comfort was disturbed. I was suffering high stress levels and recurrent anxiety attacks and decided it would be best for my health if I left. I was confident I had the means to keep Anne and me going until I could find a new job.

The day I left I met with the department head and HR; they shook my hand and wished me well. I slipped out quietly. The emotionally charged process of saying goodbye would have been too much for me. It all seemed a little unreal as I drove home, closing the door on that chapter of my life, but I did feel an increasing sense of relief as the stress dissipated. I simply relaxed for the rest of the day, refreshing myself and recovering from the weeks of exhausting, overwhelming mental turmoil.

The next day was a Friday. I woke feeling energized and strongly motivated, and quickly set to work putting together an up-to-date resume which I posted to a website I’d used the last time I was seeking a new job. Within hours I started receiving emails and phone calls from recruiters.

Now phone calls are a thing that often cause me problems. Conversation and interaction with strangers are things that can trigger anxiety. But it’s a question of context: in this case the interactions were predictable and hence manageable. I had a clear picture of what I was looking for and was able to easily communicate that. Plus I’d been through this kind of process before and understood how it works.

In a nutshell the process goes like this: I put my resume together with an emphasis on my skill set and experience. I post my resume and details in a place where I know recruiters will see them. Then I sit back and wait. The recruiters do the leg-work of searching among their lists of open positions for ones that match what I’ve got and when something comes up they contact me and market that “opportunity” to me. They earn their money through commission, just like sales-people, so they try to make sure they offer suitable matches based on the information I’ve provided. The better the definition I give them of what I want, the more appropriate the jobs they approach me with.

It worked very well. Within a week of starting my search applications had been submitted to several companies and I had my first interviews arranged. In the past, over 8 years ago, I’d almost always been asked to attend these first interviews at the company offices where I would meet people face to face. Not this time. This time around the first contact was conducted by phone (plus an initial web-based test in a couple of cases).

My biggest area of concern was that I usually get mistaken for a man on the phone. It’s just the way my voice sounds, the effect of hormones on my development as I grew up with a body that increasingly diverged from the way I felt it ought to be. But I needn’t have worried: the people phoning me had my details in front of them and I’d deliberately used my full name, Alexandra, as a gender hint rather than my usual ambiguous Alex.

I know that many people find job interviews to be highly stressful experiences. I’m unusual in that I don’t. Not any more, at least. When I was looking for my first job all those years ago I did suffer with nerves. I was going into a place I’d never been before, meeting people I’d never seen before, and had little idea what to expect. These days I have a degree of familiarity with the process which makes it largely predictable.

I also have a lot of confidence in my technical skills. I’ve got a lot of experience behind me and I know that I can provide an answer to pretty much any relevant technical question. I work in a technical field, software development, and it’s those concrete technical skills that mean a lot in the interview. They’re not the whole story though: the bottom line is that the interviewers are looking for somebody who will fit into their existing organization. It goes both ways too: I need to feel that it’s right for me and I’ll be comfortable there.

This is the point at which I throw most of the standard interview technique advice out of the window. Typical advice mentions such things as researching the company in depth, practicing answers to common questions, and having prepared questions to indicate your interest. My research consists of finding out what technologies underpin the company’s products. I’ve never practiced my answers or even spent time thinking about what they might ask me in advance. And I don’t compile a list of questions to ask them.

Things I do spend time on beforehand: I take reasonable care with my appearance. I dress in a suit, make sure my nails are tidy and the polish isn’t chipped, and wear light, neutral makeup. After all, an interview is a formal setting so it’s important to conform to business conventions regarding appearance. Beyond that, though, I favor the honest approach: I speak and act as I would normally in a work environment. I want the people interviewing me to see me as I am rather than me putting on an act, trying to appear as somebody I’m not and impress them with my people skills (such as they are!). After all, if successful I’ll be working alongside them and there’s no way I could keep such a pretense going.

That avoidance of pretense was also the reason I never considered trying to present as anything other than my everyday female self. I’m a trans woman in the (lengthy) process of transitioning who has not yet started any medical treatment. My view going in was that if somebody I met was not comfortable with this, with me, that wouldn’t be a good place to work. I’m the person you see in front of you and if you can’t accept me as I am then we’ll not be working together. As things turned out I saw no indication at any point that being trans affected how I was treated.

Things I commonly get asked: there are always questions about particular projects I’ve worked on in the past and about relevant experience I’ve highlighted in my resume. Not things I need to rehearse because, obviously, I was there and did those things. I can speak about them at length, and indeed tend to do just that. Interview advice is usually to keep your responses short and to the point but that’s not me. If I’m offered a chance to infodump about something I’m interested in I’ll grab it. My interviews usually overrun the scheduled time as the interviewer and I end up conversing about common technical interests. It’s not intentional, but it seems to work out well.

In fact, a couple of my technical interviews started with the expectation that some of the time would be spent taking a written technical test. The interviewers in both cases arrived with a sheet of questions, but they presumably decided it was unnecessary after a few verbal exchanges. I must confess that I enjoy the chance to talk about the technical aspects of my work to people who have the knowledge to understand the details, and tend to make the most of the opportunities that an interview presents.

I mentioned above that the interview process goes both ways. Yes, I need to find a job, but it has to be one where I’m confident the role and company will suit me. I can reasonably expect that I’ll be in a job for a number of years, so it’s important to me that I choose carefully. I rely on my gut feeling for this: I form a subconscious impression of a workplace as I talk to the interviewers. I need to feel comfortable with these people because I’ll potentially be working with them, so if there’s something that makes me uneasy–even if I can’t consciously identify what’s causing it–I’ll decide against accepting an offer should one be forthcoming.

The end of this tale is that I received a verbal offer at the end of last week, only two weeks after I began searching. It’s the quickest job hunting experience I’ve ever had: it seems there’s plenty of demand for software developers. I’m feeling very happy, excited and positive about this next step in my career, and I’m really enjoying the absence of stress and anxiety right now.