Calculated Informality: My Approach to Job Hunting

As I just announced, I have accepted a position to join BatchBlue, a web app startup in Rhode Island. I’ve been looking forward to blogging about the process of this job hunt. I tried something a bit new for me—I’ll call it “calculated informality”.

You see, I was already in a great situation. Aptima was a great gig. I was a Team Lead. I worked on some cool projects. I kicked off our blog. In this job hunt, I was looking for a gig that was special. Specifically, I looked for a job that filled quite a few criteria:

Not too much to ask, huh?

So, what is this calculated informality thing? A few things.

1. Appearance

Part “forward-thinking”, part “flexible”, I looked for companies that didn’t care about—shall we say—appearance. Let’s just say, I’m not a groomer. I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy… and preferably a shave-every-few-days and wait-way-too-long-to-get-a-haircut kind of guy. I made a point of making sure some of this was “on display” when I interviewed. Why would I do that? Wouldn’t that hurt my chances of getting a job?

I made the conscious decision that if a place was going to hold wearing sneakers to an interview or meeting with them sporting some stubble against me, it probably was not going to be a place I would be comfortable working.

2. Software & Skills

I also made a conscious effort to leave the proverbial software and skills list off my resume. This means that I didn’t include a list that says I know XHTML, CSS, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, etc., etc. Instead, I wrote about how I do “interface design” and develop with “web standards”. Those should convey that I know how to get the task done and that the tool is irrelevant.

A colleague asked me, “but that’s not a good idea because a lot of companies’ HR departments won’t accept a resume if it doesn’t have Photoshop.” Again, my response was—I don’t want to work there, then.

3. Don’t Be Generic

Every company that I took the time to pursue got their own cover letter… not of this “swap out the name” crap. I would take a good amount of time looking them up, looking them up on Technorati, seeing if they blog (if so, reading that), and seeing what types of projects they’ve done. Then I could find tidbits of why I honestly, truly wanted to work for them.

If I didn’t find those tidbits, I didn’t bother sending them anything.

Every single word of the “cover letter” (just an email, for me) was customized to that company. Every once in a while I found a few paragraphs I wrote that I could reuse (my background, for example). But other than that, I was talking directly to them and not the field as a whole—and they seemed to appreciate that.

4. Let Your Passions Be Known

I made a point to let potential employers know exactly what is important to me. By the end, I was using this paragraph fairly often:

I am completely obsessed with XHTML/CSS, semantic markup, Microformats, “designing for data”, “bulletproof web design”, “letting go of pixel precision”, cross-browser/platform/device development, simplicity, cleanliness, transparency (in information sharing, not so much the reflective Web 2.0-logo-type), social media, usability, user experience, and my two-year old daughter.

I thought this paragraph summed up pretty well what I’m all about and what I’d really need to be doing day to day in order to be happy. Plus, I got to throw the “two-year old daughter” in there to let them know that work/life balance is very important, too. Once in an interview, I could elaborate. But I at least got it on the radar.

5. Be Honest

Many people embellish on resumes and in interviews. I can’t stand that. I don’t want to lie to a potential employer and then end up screwing up. I don’t like to disappoint people. So, I set the expectations in advance, say what I do… say what I don’t, and then kick ass at those things.

Here’s an example from the very first CSS-based position I went for. I hadn’t been developing in CSS very long, but I was offered the job (I didn’t take it, though). This job was 100% CSS, and the first thing I did was say I’m not a CSS expert.

I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve been developing in web standards for years. The standards movement is a relatively new passion for me, but that’s what it is—a passion. I have been developing validated sites with CSS formatting for years, but using CSS for layout, writing semantic markup, implementing and contributing to Microformats, and studying community marketing are more recent extensions of that—and I can’t get enough of them.

Hell, I even said “I’m not going to lie.” I think they appreciate that.

6. Cutting Out the First Step

There’s no sense in wasting anybody’s time. So, I put as much about myself as I could on my blog. As I’ve written about before, The Blog is the New Resume. And I really ate my own dog food on this one.

I hate portfolios that are just screen shots. So, on my Featured Work samples, I wrote a page-long description to explain what the heck my role was. That way, potential employers know what I did. How often do you have people say that they had this huge customer… and you wonder what exactly they did? For me, quite a bit.

I directed potential employers to blog posts they may be interested in (or categories). I told them about the projects they may want to check out. If they didn’t see a match, cool. I would rather have that out of the way now than later.

Did it Work?

Absolutely. Let’s go back to the five criteria I set out and see how BatchBlue matched up.

Five out of five ain’t bad.

4 Comments

  1. On May 22nd, 2007 at 6:53 am Mark said:

    Congrats on marching to your own drum – pardon the cliche’. Your the envy of many cube dwellers.

    You really made a great point about HR depts looking for specific things, Photoshop in your case. It just points to how much we are taking the thinking out of things and making everything a process. Large companies talk about diversity, but create square peg apatures through which all must pass. In turn, most are coached to get their resume’ through HR. I’m also glad that you had the luxury of finding what you really wanted, perhaps we all do, we just tell ourselves that we don’t, and have to take what we can get. That collective mentality keeps the current system in place. Great that you challenged it – and won.

  2. On May 22nd, 2007 at 10:00 am Adam Darowski said:

    Thanks, Mark. Great comment. I’ve always thrived on my “square-pegginess”, so instead of trying to fit in with traditional HR practices (which would result in me losing a lot of what I consider “my edge”), I figured I’d try it my way. And it worked.

  3. On May 22nd, 2007 at 11:16 am Ed said:

    Adam, no one is more jealous of your grueling down the hall commute you now have than I.

    Mark makes great points about the diversity game that large companies talk, but in the end we are all walking through the same door into the same cubicles. ‘Settling’ on something is a term heard far too often in our society. I’m happy to see that for you and BatchBlue it died somewhere along the way. Congrats AD.

  4. On February 1st, 2008 at 11:02 am BatchBlue: Blog said:

    [...] my first day with BatchBlue, I wrote on my personal blog about specific qualities I was looking for in a company during the job search. One of the qualities [...]