Saturday, October 13, 2012

The chicken and the egg both come first

Yesterday at the Java User Group, I talked to someone with a recent Ph.D. in Computer Science who can't get a programming job. Why? He doesn't have experience. Everyone wants to hire a Java programmer with Spring and Hibernate to program in Java using Spring and Hibernate. To get experience, you need to have experience. This same chicken-or-the-egg problem shows up all over the job market.

Me, I'm lucky: I graduated in 1999 when everyone was hiring entry-level programmers. You could graduate with an English degree and get a programming job in 1999. [1]

The real way to get a good job is through word of mouth. The best jobs don't go through the recruiters who are screening everyone for experience in Spring and Hibernate. Like so many things in life, it's all about who you know. And how do you get to know people? Through people you already know! It's all about being part of the community.

Communities exist in our field at many levels. In Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn shows that small communities within each scientific specialty decide when a new paradigm is superior to an old one. They control the direction of the field and set the rules for all practitioners of their science.

Getting a job is one challenge. Getting into the community that defines the direction of the field is another.

To excel takes hard work, merit, and opportunities. If any one of these is most critical, it is opportunities. [2] How does a person become qualified for an industry-leading group? Experience. How do they get experience? Someone gives them that first opportunity.

How does a hard-working, skilled person get into a community? Someone invites them in. Work all you want, but until someone gives you a chance, you're stuck on the outside.

Me, I was lucky: someone invited me into the conference-speaker community and introduced me to people who are now my friends. I'm speaking, blogging, tweeting, and digging into technology all because one person held out a hand and said, "you could do this too."

If you are a hiring manager, look outside the official experience profile and hire someone smart.

If you are part of a community, especially an informal one, find someone with potential and hold out a hand. Invite them to your gatherings and share ideas. Look beyond the obvious candidates. Raise up more chickens, and we'll get more eggs. Everyone will eat better.

[1] My coworker Sarah did.
[2] Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. If you disagree and haven't read the book, please read it.


  1. Open source contributions, charity coding, or low-pay/gratis projects for small businesses are also great ways to get experience. These might need to be night or weekend efforts for a while though. I know that some businesses also offer internships for unexperienced candidates. In any case, eagerness and self-motivation are both key to breaking through the opportunity barrier.

  2. Nick, thanks for the advice. It is a good addition to the post; I didn't include it just to keep the focus narrow.

    I know a few other people who have also dealt with this can't-get-experience-without-experience cycle. Do employers count this extracurricular stuff? I have yet to have an interviewer ask about github.

    1. I have observed that employers value initiative quite highly, so any extracurricular effort in honing skills goes a long way. Even if the interviewer doesn't ask, I always bring up my open source contributions and community participation. I think people should look at themselves as a business, and their skill set as a product that they need to market to potential employers. The more we can demonstrate that we are constantly improving our "product", the more appealing that is to buyers.

  3. I have trouble believing Mr. Doyle can't get a job. I know my company would in a heart-beat. That kind of academic skill set is very hard to come by. Unfortunately though, Mr. Doyle hasn't made it very easy to get in touch with him (only InMails can be sent to him via LinkedIn and for that one has to upgrade their account).

    Also, I work out of NY City where my firm is based. So unless Mr. Doyle has reservations about re-locating (for which my company will cover the expenses generously), it shouldn't be a big deal for him to at least get an interview.

    Let me know if he is willing to apply (i.e if *you* can get in touch with him)

    1. I will, thanks! I'll see him at the user group in two weeks. Great tip about the LinkedIn messages.

    2. This is Mr. Doyle. I will following up with anonymous. I did not realize that the difference between a free and paid LinkedIn account made it difficult to contact me. I am going to look into this.