April 19th, 2018

How engineers can stand out from the applicant pool

Everyone wants to stand out when they‘re applying for new opportunities, including me. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions engineers ask me these days.

To get more ideas, I reached out to people who have been on both sides of the table: engineers who have been employed in the past, but are now founders of their own companies and hiring engineers.

I asked each technical founder the same question:

What have you done in the past, or seen other engineers do, to stand out from the applicant pool?

The responses were so good, I had to share.

Daria Rose Evdokimova

Founder of VoiceOps, previously engineering at Coinbase, Gusto, and Google.

I didn’t wait for recruiters to reach out to me, but did my research and found companies I was most excited about and reached out directly to technical recruiters with a very specific explanation of why I wanted to work for them. E.g. I repeatedly heard that Gusto had the best culture and treated their employees extremely well, and I wanted to learn more about that (it turned out to be completely true).

Now being on the other side of the table, as a person who looks at all the applications that come in for VoiceOps, I can say that it’s extremely easy to figure out if a person has done their research and is applying specifically to us, or if they have no idea which company they’re submitting their application for.

Amy Hoy

Founder of Stacking the Bricks, 30x500, Freckle Time Tracking, and more.

The best thing any engineer can do to stand out is to help others. Lots of folks say, “Contribute to open source!” but that’s only one way to do it.

Back when I was more active in programming, everybody in my language communities knew who I was — I became a go-to person — and yet I never contributed to OSS. People trusted my programming ability because of the things I wrote about programming. My cheat sheets built my credibility. Only a person who understands can teach others… but, in a glorious flip side, teaching others builds understanding. Speaking about programming or relevant professional topics, recording screencasts, sharing code snippets, designing cheat sheets, writing blog posts, all of these things will build reputation and communication skills and demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual and not just a keyboard jockey.

Another thing is to have some kind of cross-over skill, whether it’s ethics, philosophy, business, accessibility, design, sales, public speaking, security, the front-end guy who knows databases, the back-end girl who knows CSS, etc.

Lastly, even if you never do any of the above, learn how to listen, elicit requirements, and understand business goals. If you can go to an interviewer and explain how you and your skills will help the business as a whole and not just “Solve Interesting Problems,” you’ll be ahead of the pack. Most employees never look up.

Christine Spang

Founder of Nylas, previously engineering at Ksplice (bought by Oracle).

Significant open source contributions are one, but they require a lot of free time which not everybody has. I got lucky having gotten into this when I was a teenager when I had a lot of free time.

In onsite interviews, one of the things you can do to stand out is express genuine excitement and curiosity. These traits are infectious and show that you’re likely to put in effort to be successful.

Leah Culver

Founder of Breaker, previously developer advocate and engineer at Dropbox.

When an engineer is a fan of the product, they stand out. If they’ve been using the product, they can guess what some of the technical challenges will be and may already have suggestions for improvements. I also personally look for engineers with a collaborative attitude rather than a competitive one. Humility is important too. Everyone makes mistakes and all software has bugs, but being willing and able to quickly fix issues as they arise is the key to keeping everything moving at a startup.

Michelle Glauser

Founder of Techtonica, previously freelancing as a software engineer.

People really stand out when they make websites specifically targeted at companies they want to work at to showcase their skills, like http://www.nina4airbnb.com.

Jen Dewalt

Founder of Zube, previously Head of Growth at Wit.ai (acquired by Facebook).

For me, it’s all about “what have you built.” I’m totally uninterested in whether someone can whiteboard some ridiculous academic problem. I love to see engineers who have made real things that they can talk about passionately. I think that’s a much better indicator of success than whether they can write bubble sort on a whiteboard.