Careers

‘Churn that butter’: Mastering the job search after a layoff

(Editor’s note: Two thousand twenty-three was a particularly tumultuous year for the tech industry, with 240,000 jobs eliminated, 50-percent more than in 2022. If you’re an IT talent who’s looking, here are some pro tips and job search techniques that will land you an even better gig.)

In December 2022, I was laid off. Actually, it happened on 30 November, a couple of days after the first Advent. So as you can imagine, I was feeling a little less than grateful and full of joy. But since one can’t wallow in self-pity forever when one has a mortgage loan and some dependents, a job search was in order.

There are actually several ways to go about the job search, as I discovered from my and my sister’s experience. I’ll tell you about mine first. The code phrase for it was, “Churn that butter.”

There’s an old story I’ve been told as a child. A frog falls into a jar of milk and realizes that it’s unable to jump out. Instead of giving up, the frog starts kicking and splashing around in the milk. Over time, the milk begins to churn, and eventually, it turns into butter. With the solidified butter as a platform, the frog is able to climb out of the jar.

So what does churning the butter mean in this context? What can one actually do?

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Find referrals

The first thing I did was to go to a WhatsApp chat and a Slack channel where some of my ex-colleagues from previous companies hung out. I was a member of both but rarely participated. However, this definitely called for a shout-out.

The results were really reassuring: immediately, seven or eight people referred me to their companies.

This way is absolutely not to be underestimated. As I learned from experience, a company will definitely prioritize you if you come well recommended. It’s the best way to be considered, and while officially there’s no preferential treatment — you will go through all the steps that anyone else does, — it still gets you into at least the first rounds of the game in a faster and more reliable way. (Besides, your referral source might give you at least some pointers about what is expected of you.)

Set the “Open for Work” status on LinkedIn

It’s actually a “red flag”, according to former Google recruiterNolan Church. You may wonder why, and so did I. Apparently, this feels like desperation and the companies want to feel that you’re exclusive to want you.

Well … I guess that’s debatable.

What’s not debatable is that there are a lot of recruiters – admittedly not from Google – who happily do not have any concerns of the kind and who will jump at you like sharks if you are worth anything in the job market. That is, if you check at least some of the boxes (wanted profession, relevant experience, education).

From my experience, it’s the fastest way to get as many companies to speak to you as possible — and it may be especially relevant for people who don’t have much experience and, therefore, referral sources.

Photo by Gaining Visuals on Unsplash

Pay for a Calendly account

Scheduling the interviews is a job on its own, and it can get really frustrating if there’s a lot of back-and-forth, especially over several different channels (emails, LinkedIn, Indeed.com, etc). It gets way easier once you can provide a Calendly link and just write “Please feel free to have a look at my calendar and see if anything suits you”. I didn’t have a paid Calendly account before but I set it up specifically for the purpose (and canceled the subscription after finding a job). It’s definitely worth it and saves loads of time.

Calendly also allows you to set your working hours and configure the breaks between meetings so that you don’t have them back-to-back.

Pro tip:

Put blocks on your calendar to schedule learning sessions, take-homes, and other time slots you need to prepare for the interviews. Don’t just think “I will do it after hours” — preparation is one of the most important parts, and one of the most tiring, too, so if you do it after hours, you’re looking at a very quick and very sure burnout.

Also, put in blocks for meal times and other personal things. The recruiters might well be in other time zones and won’t know that they’re scheduling something exactly at your lunch hour: you’ve given them the calendar yourself!

Ask the same questions — and write down the answers

The first stage of any job search is usually a recruiter interview, and though it’s the least technical, it’s the most informative. Have a list of questions prepared and use it with each company — this way, you will be able to compare the takeaways afterward. Quite often, the recruiters cover most of those questions on their own, and then you just need to write down the information. But sometimes, you have questions that aren’t very common but are still important to you.

As an example, my list was as follows:

  • Salary (I asked if a company has a range. Let’s face it, we’re working for money, and we need to know if it’s even worth our time to start, right?);
  • Tech stack (pretty important for a software developer);
  • Remote first, hybrid, or office? (I was looking for a remote position but also considered hybrid ones. What I definitely didn’t want is a 100-percent office job. I could joke and say something like “It’s so pre-pandemic“, but in reality, it just doesn’t work well with a kindergarten-age child — because of the pick-ups and drop-offs);
  • How many people were on the team?;
  • How did the company feel about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)? This isn’t a very common question, and when it’s answered, one often hears some boilerplate talk — but a worse sign is not to hear anything, or see the recruiter stumble and grasp for words. It’s always better when a company has at least some kind of policy around these topics, and if the recruiters are not prepared to discuss it, it’s not a great sign;
  • Was German required? Because I live in Germany, but I always held jobs in companies that used English as an official language, my German is far from perfect;
  • How many steps of the interview? Tech companies usually have a multi-step process, which includes – but is not limited to – a recruiter interview, a hiring manager interview, an automated coding interview (using services like Hackerrank), a live coding interview (and often several of those), a system design interview and a team fit interview. Often there is also a take-home task, sometimes as an addition to live coding, and sometimes as a replacement (but then, a tech interview is scheduled anyway to discuss your solution). Sometimes there are more exotic steps, but these are the most common;
  • Personal development. This includes the learning budget and learning options. It’s a good sign if the company covers attending conferences, pays for onsite or online training, sponsors subscriptions to online libraries or upgrades the qualifications of the employees in other ways. Being in tech means that you learn all your life, and better to do it at least partially on your employers’ time (and money).
Learning. © Photo from the author’s archive

Take that time to learn

I mentioned scheduling learning blocks on your calendar, but scheduling isn’t everything. You need to actually do it. HackerrankLeetcode and other services like that are your friend; a nagging, tiring but useful friend. If you’re rusty or new or just sensitive and the thought of actually going into the live interview scares you, you can also use services like Pramp for mock interviews and get a chance to practice faking it before making it.

Don’t overdo it

Interviewing is hard work. When people really want to find a job as fast as possible, there’s a temptation to schedule as many interviews as possible, to grab onto all the leads. But in software engineering, it means that the technical stages start piling up, and you can have several tech interviews on the same day. I made a point not to schedule more than two live codings on the same day because I found that it was a limit for me.

Ideally, schedule some blocks of time for activities that relax you.

If you face rejection, it’s also discouraging — and you probably will. There are no good statistics on the average interview-to-offer rate (though some data exists), and it differs based on the job, candidate experience, tech prowess, soft skills, location etc. etc. But unless you’re that guy who got 18 offers (and I’m guessing made a fortune on it afterward — I wish I knew how to do that), you will be rejected.

Probably not once.

As you go through the process, you’ll get better, and the rejection rate will inevitably decline. (And then you will get that first offer and a chip on your shoulder, but that’s a story for another day.)

But this sad (well, it’s a little sad right?) fact brings us to the next thing you can do.

Start small

Or, as they say in my country, “train on cats.” This vaguely improper expression refers to the usage of lab animals before doing something to real people. In the context of job search, it means that one should not start the process with a company or a position one really wants.

Because, unless you’re jumping ship right after joining, you’re probably at least a little bit rusty and therefore in need of training. So, don’t test your luck by starting with the position you want most.

Get your feet wet with the company you aren’t afraid to lose.

I made this mistake a few too many times, and I still think about those times with regret. Oh, it turned out for the best, but … who knows what might have been?

Conclusion

I had three months of severance — that was the time I had to find a new job. 

My mortgage payment was hanging over me like a proverbial axe.

I interviewed like crazy for six weeks, which led me to five offers. The first one was pretty low, but it still gave me some leverage in talks with other companies. I accepted the one that came in last. At some point, I kept about eight threads running in parallel, and in the end, I was almost burnt out.

In retrospect, it could have been easier — and that is why I’m writing this article.

Have it easier, folks.

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Read more about expat careers here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Maryna here.

Maryna Kryvko
+ posts

Maryna Kryvko is a software developer in Germany. Maryna also writes a programming blog to share her knowledge. She sometimes speaks at conferences, though being an introvert, writing comes more naturally. Maryna says she’s not a professional writer but writing is something she likes, “and I think I can do it pretty well.”

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