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Choosing a first job

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While the process seemed quite cumbersome at the time, I'm very happy that I took such a deliberative approach to choosing a job.

Deciding which company to join for your first full-time job can be challenging. As my friends can attest, I spent weeks agonizing over my decision, deliberating and gathering information until the right path ultimately became very clear to me. Thinking back on it, there were so many things I was looking for in a company, and I found it difficult to evaluate my options based on so many different criteria. Making things worse, I had limited information available - and for reasons unclear to me, my brilliant and innovative idea that I spend a month working for various companies so I could learn about them was only met with nervous laughter by recruiters.

When friends and family asked about my decision process, I often said that my mind was like a tangled ball of yarn with many different thoughts, all of which were tied together and unclear. This article tells the story of how I untangled that ball of yarn, and provides five steps that you can follow to do the same.

The first step began before I even started interviewing. Before I spoke with any companies, I listed and prioritized what I was looking for in my job. This would help decide which companies to apply to, and how to evaluate them based on what I learned during the interview process. Although I didn't know it at the time, there was an additional benefit to listing my criteria for jobs before beginning my search: reducing job decision bias.

I noticed that towards the end of my decision process, I tended to be most enthusiastic about whichever company's employee I last spoke with over the phone. Furthermore, when an engineer excitedly described how great X was at a company, I mysteriously started to view X as much more important than I had before speaking with said excited engineer. Yet the last thing I wanted to do was make a job choice based on which company's employee I had last spoken with on the phone. Even more trivial things, like the swag I received at a career fair of the amount of sunlight coming through the windows of the interview room I was in, had the potential to influence my perception of a company.

Luckily, setting criterion for a job before beginning to make a decision reduces bias. The National Center for State Courts provides the following advice to those looking to reduce implicit bias in courts:

Before entering into a decision-making context characterized by ambiguity or that permits greater discretion, judges and jurors could establish their own informal structure or follow suggested protocol (if instituted) to help create more objective structure in the decision-making process. Commit to these decision-making criteria before reviewing case-specific information to minimize the impact of implicit bias on the reasoning process.

The NCSC's advice is quite applicable to decisions about jobs, considering how much ambiguity this decision involves. The NCSC's advice is backed up by research, including one study which found that when participants were asked to choose candidates of different genders for a job, "they redefined the criteria for success at the job as requiring the specific credentials that a candidate of the desired gender happened to have". Choosing criterion for success prior to interviewing candidates significantly reduced bias.

So, what criteria did I lay out for myself before starting my job search? There were a few main ones.

  • Because there was a possibility I would stay in software engineering for a number of years, it was important to find a place where I could grow as a developer. In broad terms, this meant finding an environment where I'd be able to learn from and work with experienced and talented developers who were dedicated to helping me grow technically. Equally importantly, this had to take place in a setting that emphasized quality and good engineering practices. In my mind, this ruled out three-person startups where programmers don't even have time to test their base cases (the horror!).
  • Equally important to me was finding a company where I could develop my non-technical skills and become a holistic engineer. In part, this meant being able to improve my communication and writing skills, learn about aspects of the company outside of the engineering organization, and, with time, take on leadership roles. I believed, and still believe, that growing in these areas would make me a better software engineer and allow my role within a company to grow and evolve with time.
  • It was also important to me that I would actually enjoy my work. I wanted to work somewhere that would get me excited to come into work each day. I was looking to be interested in the problems facing me, technically challenged, and passionate about the product I was helping to build.
  • I also wanted to enjoy working with my coworkers. I don't think much explanation is required here - this would make being in the office fun, motivate me to be a productive member of my team, and in general help keep me happy.

While listing the things I cared about was important, I believe the exercise of prioritizing what I was looking for was at least as valuable. I may have given you the impression that the list of attributes I was looking for in a company was fairly short. In reality, my list had closer to 20 or 25 items on it. I felt that by prioritizing, I would be able to focus on the areas that mattered the most to me, and properly weigh all the competing factors when it came time to make a decision. For instance, while I had hoped to remain on the East Coast after college, it was ultimately easy for me to see that it was worth giving this up in order to satisfy other preferences which I deemed more important.

The next step in my process was, unsurprisingly, to interview with companies that I was interested in. I used each interview as an opportunity to learn about the company at hand. There were at least a few occasions when, after a phone screen with a company I had been somewhat interested in, I politely declined to continue with the interview process, having decided that I wasn't excited about the work they did. Additionally, when I had multiple rounds of interviews with a company, I tried to ask some of the same questions over and over again to different people. Obviously, things like "When do people usually get into work" or "where is your office located" only need to be answered once, but I learned a lot from hearing three or four people tell me about company X's engineering culture, or how company Y helped foster non-technical growth in its engineers. These are things that I imagined each engineer might have a different view on, and by asking these questions over and over again, I was able to obtain a richer and more detailed picture of the company. Plus, if multiple people from a company can describe how the work-life balance is very reasonable, then I know the first person I spoke to wasn't just a lazy outlier in an overworked engineering organization.

After interviewing came what I like to call the education phase of my process. In this phase, I attempted to gain as much relevant information about each of the companies as I possibly could. This meant asking recruiters to set up phone calls for me so I could ask employees, engineers and otherwise, many questions about their companies. If I wasn't clear on a company's growth plan, I asked to speak with somebody who could explain it to me. If I didn't fully understand a company's product, I tried to talk to an engineer who could explain how it worked on a technical level and walk me through what made it so compelling. If something I heard about a company's culture in an on-site interview left me feeling confused, I asked about it in follow up conversations.

Equally important as my conversations with employees were my conversations with unbiased third parties. When I worried that working for a smaller company might not be the best option for me, experienced friends in the industry helped me see that it absolutely was. I also took the time to learn about the differences between stock options and RSU's, how trustworthy a private valuation really was, and which types of growth models were generally considered safe bets (shout out to my Uncle Mark for patiently walking me through all of this).

By the time I had most of these conversations, I was nearing the end of November. Companies were ready for me to make a decision, and I had a lot of the information I needed in order to do so. It was time to try and make a rational decision, informed by previously-defined and prioritized qualities rather than by emotions. This proved to be harder than anticipated. As I touched on above, there were numerous factors which affected the emotional rather than than the logical appeal of various companies. I realized that I needed to try to prevent myself from being overly swayed by these things when trying to make a decision.

Looking back on my decision process a year later, I can say that I'm thrilled with the outcome. While the process seemed quite cumbersome at the time, I'm very happy that I took such a deliberative approach to choosing a job. The information that I gathered about Delphix has generally turned out to be accurate, and I'm getting to experience the things that I so looked forward to when I made my choice. While getting to a decision took a lot of time and effort, I certainly feel that it was worth it.

To sum up, here is my handy, easy to follow, do-it-yourself 5-step guide to choosing a job:

  1. List and prioritize what you are looking for in a job
  2. Interview, using each one as an opportunity to learn about the company
  3. Gather as much relevant information about each company as you can
  4. Try and make a rational, not emotional, decision
  5. Decide!

Me, nine months after choosing a job.

Here I am, on the far left, back at school for recruiting nine months after making making my decision.