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.

Getting Hired

Getting Hired

I wrote a piece a couple years ago about my experiences with Aspergers and how it has affected my work. But what I didn’t go into much detail about was the process of getting a job in the first place. This article is to address that deficit.

I’m going to start by saying that I wasn’t diagnosed at the time I attended the interviews mentioned here — I’d not even heard of Aspergers Syndrome — but as far as I’m concerned the only effect of that was that I had no reason to ask for or expect any accommodations. I’m pretty much the same now as I was back then — more experienced certainly but not really any more comfortable with certain situations — except that I now have a reason that explains the way I’ve always been.

After dropping out of university in 1994 I finally had an idea of a direction in my life. Up to then I had always been rather passive and had gone along with my parents and teachers when they suggested what my next steps ought to be… which was how I ended up studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Once I got over the idea that I needed a degree and realized that my special interest would suit me to a career in programming the next step seemed straightforward: get a job in that field.

Well, it wasn’t straightforward at all. I bought copies of the computer press such as Computer Weekly to search the recruitment pages. I was looking for an entry level position as a C programmer — I knew I could program but had hardly anything to put on my resumé to demonstrate experience. I was self-taught, having learned Basic first and then C, and in my degree course we had been taught the rudiments of Fortran. I had written a C program during a summer work placement to drive lab equipment and capture data, but that was only 8 weeks and not exactly commercial development.

I was persistent. I sent off application letter after letter and got back acknowledgment slips and occasionally refusal letters, month after month. I took a part-time unpaid voluntary job with a local charity doing editing and layout for publishing to keep my hand in with some kind of computer work — it was a new startup and there was just the guy running it and one other volunteer. The guy had posted an ad in a local shop and I phoned him; he came to see me for an informal interview, which was nerve-wracking. I felt incredibly nervous despite being in the familiar environment of my own home but it seemed he was desperate for any help and was more interested in selling the job to me than treating me as a candidate. Despite my nervous stuttering and poor interpersonal skills I got the job: it wasn’t something I was interested in pursuing career-wise but it did give me a taste of what an interview felt like.

I realized I had been totally unprepared this time around and would have to work on the impression I made if I was ever to get started in my chosen career. Finally after about four months of fruitless applications I was offered an interview. This time I did my homework: I asked my dad, who worked as a Chief Executive, for advice to learn as much about the structure of interviews as I could. The last time I’d been involved in any kind of competitive interview was after I applied to university and although I’d been successful that time I suspected that my academic record played a large part. Well, it turned out that it was my academic record that had given me my chance this time too — being gifted academically did have some practical benefit.

I dressed carefully in suit and tie despite ties and buttoned collars having always made me feel physically uncomfortable. Luckily as long as the collar’s not tight I can stand it for a few hours and that mode of dress is expected at interviews, at least for professional positions in the UK. It’s about first impressions: the interviewer expects that the candidate will demonstrate a smartness of appearance so you have to meet those expectations the first time they lay eyes on you.

I borrowed my mum’s car and drove myself to the interview. This was in the days before sat-nav or Google Maps so I’d gotten a street map of the city and plotted my route on the map, studying it in detail so that I felt comfortable about navigating the 50 or so miles. I managed to find the place with little difficulty, which surprised me a little given my previous experiences with navigation, parked in one of their visitor’s bays and followed the signs to Reception. I was a little early because I’d given myself a good margin in case of delays. I approached the desk feeling intensely nervous but my desire to finally get a job allowed me to overcome my fear and I introduced myself to the receptionist, stating that I was there for an interview with a certain person. The receptionist was entirely friendly and professional which helped (they must see any number of nervous candidates so I guess with hindsight I didn’t seem unusual). I was told to take a seat and wait for the person who would come an meet me before we went for the interview.

After what seemed like ages because I was so keyed up, but was in reality no more than ten minutes, the manager arrived and introduced himself. I remembered to stand up to meet him and to shake hands, and then he led me into the offices to the interview room. He asked me to sit and offered me a tea or coffee: I declined. I figured that no offense would be taken from my refusal and I really didn’t want to contend with a pressing bladder in my nervous state. He was relaxed but professional in his manner: he must have been experienced at conducting interviews as it all felt very fluent.

He started by asking about my education and I responded, consciously reminding myself to speak clearly, not too fast, and to make eye contact (or at least a point above his shoulder). I seemed to get away with it and as far as I could tell I didn’t come across as either staring intensely or avoiding his gaze entirely. I couldn’t hide my nerves and was aware that I was fidgeting with my hands but I guess it wasn’t excessive because it didn’t appear to attract his attention. Without ever touching on any technical aspects the interview wound to a close, having been mostly about my educational experiences, why I had left university, and what I had been doing since then. He offered me a tour of the offices and then led me back to Reception where he bid me goodbye and said that they had other candidates to interview and they would be in touch.

I left, walking back to the car, thinking about what had just happened and wondering how it had gone: with my lack of interview experience I didn’t know whether it had gone well or badly. I took off my tie and unbuttoned my collar to much relief before driving back home where my parents asked me how it went. What could I say? I didn’t know. I settled down to wait for a response which arrived in the mail a couple of days later: they thanked me for my time but I had not been successful. I was disappointed but not excessively so: I had resigned myself to a long battle before I would be successful but never had any doubt that I would succeed.

Over the next two months I had another three or four interviews dotted around the country that went the same way before I encountered something a little different. This one was a small software company based in Surrey, some 200 miles from my home in Lancashire. I traveled down by rail, taking a window seat so I could spend the journey watching the scenery pass by instead of having to avoid the gazes of my fellow passengers — I don’t enjoy public transportation but there wasn’t another option. Arriving at my destination I realized that I didn’t know how to get to the street where the office was located but I had the presence of mind to ask a cab driver for directions. I walked along as directed and although it turned out to be further than expected making me a little warm and uncomfortable in my suit and tie I persevered and found the place.

I was used to the routine at Reception by now and it all went as expected, taking the offered seat gratefully as a chance to rest before my ordeal. I didn’t have long to wait before my interviewer arrived and escorted me to his office. In a change from my previous experiences there was another person present already; he was introduced as a Project Manager, my interviewer also being a Project Manager. After briefly covering the familiar ground of my education I was pleasantly surprised to be asked to complete a short written programming test, and was shown to another room where I could complete it in private. I was told that they would return in 15 minutes and see how I had managed with it.

I say I was pleasantly surprised; in fact I was overjoyed to have finally been given a chance to demonstrate my skills. I don’t remember the details but there were a number of short questions about the C programming language and an algorithmic problem to solve. I had completed the test several minutes earlier than the 15 minute deadline and when the first Project Manager entered to see how I was doing I told him that I’d finished and handed him the completed answers. That concluded the interview process for the day and after a brief, conventional wrapping up it was over and I left on my long journey home.

I had a positive feeling this time around which turned out to be justified as I received a phone call shortly after arriving home offering me a second interview! Well, I was overjoyed even though I reminded myself that I still had to pass the second stage and it was likely to be tougher. I had known that if I was just given a chance to show my skills I could get there. It was two weeks before my second interview date and my dad offered to drive me down there — I guess with hindsight he had more confidence about the outcome than even I did: lucky again to have been adopted by such supportive people.

I needn’t have worried. After lunch together I left my dad to head off to the second interview: I knew where I was headed this time and arrived in a much better state. The same Project Manager met me in Reception and we moved on to his office where I was introduced to the Operations Director. Apparently I had aced the test — the best (and quickest) result they had ever had on it — and had decided to make me the offer of a job there and then based on that showing. In my relief I think I forgot to feel my usual nervousness as it was replaced by pleasure and excitement. I didn’t accept immediately: I said I’d like time to consider which I thought was rather brave of me. What if they’d withdrawn the offer? But I didn’t think about any of that — I didn’t want to appear desperate and I wanted to talk it over with my dad first. They were perfectly accepting of that — and I think it was a wise decision of mine given my lack of experience in that kind of situation.

Well, I hooked up with my dad and told him my good news… and then found out he had been looking at ads for rental places. One step ahead of me as usual: I would never have even thought about that. We returned home and I phoned to accept the offer. We then discussed when I could start: having no current job where I had to give notice I told them I could start as soon as I had somewhere to live down there. Just like that I was about to up sticks and leave home for what would be the last time. My dad took care of all the rental arrangements — I wouldn’t have known where to start — and also helped me buy my first car. And that was that: I had finally reached my goal and gotten my first job in programming.

I recognize now that I faced a number of obstacles in getting that first job.

  1. No degree. I know for a fact that some firms do not even consider candidates without a degree or equivalent, and it is nearly always listed as a requirement in the ad. The fact that I had gained a place at Cambridge counted in my favor here even though I never graduated: just getting into a prestigious university makes you stand out.
  2. No experience. This one’s a biggie — recruiters look at previous positions held in order to match candidates to openings. No previous jobs means no matches. It’s not so much of an issue for entry-level jobs but there aren’t too many of those, and then the lack of a degree comes into play.
  3. Poor interpersonal skills. This is the ASD-related obstacle on my list and its effect is variable. It won’t stop you getting that first contact or interview but then it can have a detrimental effect on the interviewer’s impression of you as a person. The unfortunate fact here is that these people are looking for somebody to work with them, and — skills aside — they will favor the candidate whose personality fits best into the existing team.

And now for the good news: it gets easier over time. Once you’ve got that first job in a particular field subsequent interviews will give you the opportunity to talk about it. That’s where you can demonstrate your passion for the work, your deep interest in it, and give them an insight into your technical skills. By the time I was on my third job I had recruiters approaching me with offers — it still happens on a regular basis even though it has been over six years since I last put my details out there on the web as looking for a job. Finding openings has also become much easier with the rise of the internet and recruitment- and business networking-oriented sites such as Linked-In. Email means that the phone is much less necessary which is great if, like me, you have anxiety issues making calls. In short, it is that first step that is by far the hardest. But if you’ve got belief in yourself, patience and persistence will eventually pay off.

Worst of Times; Best of Times

Worst of Times; Best of Times

The last few days have been a time of striking contrast. I have plumbed the cold, dark depths of sadness and soared high on bright waves of euphoria. Both Friday and Saturday nights were very low points – it was so difficult just to carry on. I don’t know how I’d have got through without the distraction of work – for those hours I could just do the job and not think about my problems. But outside of work I had nothing to occupy my mind – no persona to adopt, no mask to hide behind. And so I felt the full impact of my negative feelings.

There were a number of reasons for my unhappiness – being in situations I did not want to be in and feeling trapped, picking up strong negative feelings from somebody close to me and being unable to handle the empathic pain, shutting down in public and attracting unwanted attention when I just needed to be left in peace – it all combined into a destructive overload where I was fighting against myself to avoid a meltdown, to avoid lashing out. I was sleeping badly, not eating well and – although I didn’t realise it – becoming physically and mentally exhausted. Even watching my team (Wigan Warriors) win the Rugby League Challenge Cup on Saturday afternoon didn’t affect my mood to any great degree.

Sunday didn’t start well. However I had a busy shift that afternoon at the pub – the time flew by and I got a buzz from it. I also had some supportive feedback from the couple of “down” posts I’d published the previous nights which lifted me. So I was feeling somewhat better by the evening and, even better, relations with this person I’m very close to were considerably less frosty – this is somebody I love very much but we have communication issues from time to time when she gets very openly emotional and I overload and become uncommunicative. I know it doesn’t help the situation but it’s the only way I can handle the emotion I feel as a result.

But anyway, there were signs that things were getting back on track so that helped. And that evening I had organised an event in the pub – a darts and quiz night. It’s a measure of how comfortable I feel in that environment that I felt able to put myself forward for such an event – organising and hosting something lasting two and a half hours. I had ten teams of two competing and I was nervous as anything starting out even though I knew all the people taking part. I managed to round them all up, explain how it was going to work and get things started. After three rounds of questions I was feeling under pressure and took a short break. My legs were shaking and – I found out later – I was exhibiting a couple of tics that my wife could easily identify as signs of my nerves. I was wondering what the heck I had got myself into – why I had put myself in this situation. I felt it might be slipping out of my control. I hadn’t been able to plan the event in detail because I’d not known how many entrants there would be on the night – I was out of my comfort zone and – to a degree – making it up as I went along.

It was about ten minutes later that I got things going again with the next round. The break had calmed me enough and I felt I was getting on top of things – I felt that it was running more smoothly. Nobody had complained yet – in fact a couple had told me it was going well, and that gave me a bit more confidence. By the time we finished two people had made speeches thanking me and called for a round of applause as appreciation for an enjoyable night. Everybody there told me they had had a good time and that I had done a good job of running it. I felt pleased – but more than that I was utterly exhausted. I slept well – over ten hours – and it was Monday morning when I was feeling more refreshed that it sank in and the elation hit me. I found myself flapping my hands in the shower! I feel a real sense of achievement for carrying the evening off successfully, and I know that even a year ago I would never have been able to stand up and speak in front of a group like that – let alone direct the proceedings.

I’m not in any hurry to repeat the experience – it was nerve-wracking and exhausting – but I feel proud of myself for doing a difficult job competently and managing to handle my anxiety. Thanks are also due to the people who took part on that night and were so supportive towards me – I couldn’t have got through it without certain people telling me early on that I was doing well and giving me a well-needed confidence boost.

Pulling Pints

Pulling Pints

I’ve been working part-time as a barman in my local pub since early this year. This may seem a curious activity for somebody who’s not comfortable talking to strangers, but the reality is that the large majority of customers are regulars with whom I was already familiar.

It all started when I volunteered to help out because they were short-staffed. I’d helped out behind a bar before when I was at university so I had some idea what to expect. I did my first few hours in exchange for drinks and to my surprise I really enjoyed myself and did a good job. I helped out a couple more times and then decided to make it official: I joined the company on the understanding that my main software development job had priority and started working a couple of regular shifts over the weekend.

Things I enjoy about the job: it’s primarily manual work and about the only thinking required is adding up prices in my head (I don’t need to because the register handles all that but I want to because it saves time and I like doing it) and remembering the drinks in each order. This means I can largely “switch off” so I find the job mentally relaxing. It’s also good physical exercise – very handy when my main job involves sitting down most of the day – and I’m probably fitter now than I have been for some years. I enjoy the routine of the job – each particular shift has its own pattern with the same regulars mostly coming in at the same times. Beer, especially “real ale”, is a special interest of mine – I don’t drink much these days but I have long had an interest in brewing. I’ve visited several breweries over the years and remain fascinated by the subject.

I get a particular buzz from it when I’m busy – I get something similar when I’m in flow when programming. I get into a rhythm, the endorphins kick in and I’ve occasionally found myself just grinning like an idiot and getting strange looks.

I’m not saying that I enjoy everything about it. I dislike serving food – it breaks the flow – and after I’ve asked a customer if everything’s ok with their meal I get stuck for anything else to say and just wander off feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I don’t get many complaints but I find it stressful to handle them – it’s not that they get confrontational; rather that I’m just not comfortable in that situation.

Funnily enough I find that I can mostly handle the people side of the job. Because I’m there fulfilling a role it enables me to talk to customers within the context of serving them. There’s a routine to it: I greet them, ask for their order, pour their drinks and take the money. It generally keeps to the routine and I stay relaxed. I’ve even got to know people through the job. When I’m in front of the bar as a customer I won’t talk to people I don’t know – that’s just how I am and I’ve always been that way. I have trouble with small-talk and general conversation as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. However when I’m behind the bar people come up to me time after time as they order their drinks. They get used to me, I get used to them and as I get more familiar with them I feel less uncomfortable. And having two feet of solid wood between me and them is a great way to avoid having anybody intrude on my personal space – I feel uncomfortably crowded if anybody stands too close to me.

It’s the little things as well that I enjoy: I’m genuinely pleased whenever I get a tip because it makes me feel I did something well. I like that the manager always thanks me at the end of my shift (don’t tell him I’d happily do the job just to be appreciated – I’ve never been motivated by financial reward which is just as well given the pay scales for bar staff). I like it when my regular customers – yes, I do think of them as mine when I’m serving them – seem pleased to see me. And I like the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from doing something well.