Monday, January 4, 2010

Your Communication Skills -- How to Land a Job as a Software Engineer

Job InterviewAt long last (due to some intense deadlines), I'm getting around to the fourth installment of the How to Land a Job as a Software Engineer series. This concludes the job application sequence starting with your resume and ending with your interview.

This post is about maintaining good communication skills throughout the process. A very close friend of mine named Ryan LaFevre, who is a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer, once mused to me, "I don't write good; I are a engineer." Obviously said in jest, I bring that up because I know a lot of programmers who feel like even a cursory grasp of language arts is completely unnecessary for anybody in a technical field. My former English teachers would probably be pleased to see me say that communication skills are of fundamental importance.

Do you ever watch those court room shows? If so, you've probably seen scenes where one attorney makes a damning argument or the witness breaks down in an emotional display, at which point the other attorney objects. The judge says, "sustained" and instructs the jury to ignore the preceding outburst and has the text stricken from the record. Now, imagine being on that jury. Could you possibly ignore that? Even if you don't make your verdict based on said event, could you possibly remain unbiased by it?

It's the same thing with your communication (both verbal and non-verbal). While I'd rather claim that I focus primarily on the skills you actually need to do your job, and while I can ignore your communication inefficiencies, I cannot ignore the feelings I had when I communicated with you.

For example, I'm not going to refuse to hire a candidate just because he's 25 years old and still can't discern the difference between they're, there, and their; however, there's a pretty good chance I will assume she's not all that bright. Thus, when I sit down with the resumes and my notes from my three favorite candidates to compare them side by side for selection, ceteris paribus, he'll get eliminated first because I won't feel like he has as much potential as the other candidates.

Here are some actual excerpts I've received from job hopefuls:
Hello Mr. Caldwell, I just wanted to touch base with you to see how your doing.
What about my doing? You leave my doing out of this and I won't say anything about your dumb.
The sample project I sent you is very simple on the front end, but it's back end is where all the magic happens.
I just read your email and its dumb is showing; it is back end is where you are not getting a job. Thanks.
I know what you mean about taking your work home with you. I've spent a lot of time with my computer in my underwear coding until the middle of the night.
First of all, gross. Second of all, your computer codes by itself? Third of all, what was your computer doing in your underwear?!?!?
Thank you very much for meeting with me today -- I really enjoyed talking with you -- If there's anything else that you need from me, please feel free to ask for it -- I'm available by phone most of the day and I'll get back to you as soon as possible
WTF? The period exists for a reason; please use it. If, by some chance, your period key is broken and you can't find a working keyboard with which to send your email, please hold alt and hit 0046 in lieu of the double hyphen.
i'll be available tuesday afternoon around 1:30 or so. is there anything i need to bring to the interview other than my resume? i'm really excited about the opportunity and i think emerald software group will be a great fit for me
i hate you (alt + 0046)

Also, sometimes it's not what you say, but how you say it (or, how often). Don't nag me please. I will get back to you; I promise. If you email me every day asking about the status of the job, on your third try (or second if I'm in a bad mood), I will simply let you know that you have been selected out of the applicant pool.

Written communication isn't the only place you can make silly mistakes. Oral communication is replete with its own difficulties. Sure, you less often misspell things orally than you do in written communication, but there are some things you're unlikely to get away with. For example, I really don't want to hear your stance on the adult entertainment industry, I don't want to hear a story about a time you were drunk, and I really don't want to know what crimes you've gotten away with. Keep it on a professional footing — please!

Here are some other hints for oral communication:
  • Don't swear a lot; I'll just think you've insufficient vocabulary.
  • Don't tell me a dirty joke you heard a few days ago. Let's get to know each other a little first
  • Don't opine on politics or religion. Chances are you won't offend me, but on the other hand, chances are I know someone at the office you would offend.
  • Don't tell me my school sucks. For that matter, don't tell me any school sucks. I don't care if you're just kidding and I don't care if you went to a rival school. If you say something disparaging about any school, I'm either going to think you weren't smart enough to get in or you're pompous. Either way, I don't want you on my team because I may later want to hire someone from that school.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that not all communication is verbal. There are plenty of ways you can non-verbally tell me you're not ready for the position in question. For example, don't be late. Don't smell bad. Don't wear your favorite pair of tattered jeans and raggedy flip-flops. Don't be over-confident. Don't be under-confident.

By all means, be yourself and try to have some fun. If you have fun, people are more likely to enjoy talking with you. If you have fun, the worst that can happen is you have a good time, meet some good folks, and learn some new skills.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. In every job that we are applying for, we must always keep it in mind that we must really have good communication skills. It is one of the key principles for us to be successful and for us to be where we want to be. Before I got this job from a technical staffing company, I had poor communication skills, but through practice and determination, I now have the job that I've been dreaming of here at a technical staffing firm.