Essay

Hiring managers and recruiters: tell the candidates you didn’t select that they didn’t get the job

As I start my new job today I am going to vent a little about how few companies got back to me after any conversation about, or even my application for, a position they had available.

Closed

There was one shining exception, a small and privately held software company. My interviewers there included the CEO, who is from a prominent family in my city. He called me a few days after our interview. “I’m sorry to say that you are our number two candidate,” he began. “I’m sure this is not the news you want to hear. But I’m calling you personally to say that you impressed us all. It’s just that the fellow we hired has direct experience building integrations to a couple of our customers’ systems, and we need that in the short term much more than we need leadership like you offer. It was a tough call. But I can imagine all sorts of places I could plug you in later, if you’re open to me calling you back when the time is right. And now you have my personal number, so if you ever think I can help you with anything, please call me.”

What a class act. A quick email would have done the job but this CEO didn’t lose the opportunity to make a fan out of me.

The only other company to officially tell me “thanks, but no thanks” was a mid-sized medical services company with a large internal software-development team. Seven weeks after my interview their recruiter emailed me to say they had chosen another candidate. He admitted that the holidays had delayed their decision process, at least.

No outlet

A colleague referred me for a job at his company. He and I and the hiring manager all worked together at the same company several years ago. I thought the interview went great and I was excited about the opportunity. But then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I reached out. The manager said that he was pursuing a couple other candidates but that I wasn’t out of the running. I never heard back from him or his recruiter again. It’s been almost two months since then. Certainly they chose one of the other candidates.

No other company with which I had interviews followed up with me at all.

I applied to a dozen or so jobs where I did not get an interview. Only one communicated with me at all about my status as a candidate.

I could have followed up with these companies myself. But one company made an offer, a good one. As I tried to read the tea leaves of my active opportunities I could see nobody else was going to offer me anything better before my family’s finances got rough. I accepted and moved on.

Wash out

I’m not upset that I wasn’t chosen for the other jobs. Every job search involves hearing “no thanks” a number of times before hearing “you’re hired.” Even though I know I could have done well in each job for which I interviewed, there could have been candidates in the running that offered something valuable that I didn’t.

But I wanted to hear the “no thanks” and have the loop closed. I hated having so many balls in the air. It would have let me move on cleanly as I continued to pursue other opportunities. And, daggone it, it’s just professional to do so.

From now on, whenever I fill a position on a team I lead, I will either personally write the “thanks, but no thanks” notes, or confirm that my recruiter did.

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Personal

Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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Personal

Job search update

I accepted a job. I’m going back to work January 7 as an Engineering Manager for a national software company with a large office in Indianapolis. If you live in the US and have children in school, you probably have used, or at least have heard of, the product I’m going to help build.

I had hoped to find another small company ready to scale. The company I’ll be working for is well established, with a mature product and thousands of employees. Smaller companies have been my “sweet spot” where I’ve found great satisfaction and delivered solid results. But I didn’t find such a company ready for a person like me on this job search. 

Yet I am relieved. And this company should provide a solid platform for growth.

When I found myself unemployed in 2015, I was in high demand. Several companies expressed strong interest in me, I picked up some side consulting, and I got to weigh two competing job offers.

But in 2015 I was selling myself as a Quality Assurance leader. (QA people test software to make sure it works as intended.) I have a great story to tell there, backed up with deep experience.

Since then I made the transition to Engineering leadership. It came not a moment too soon, for as I discussed in this post on my software blog QA leadership roles are drying up, and for good reason. 

But in Engineering I find myself in a much larger pool of competition. Frankly, it hurt me as a candidate that I haven’t coded in ten years and am only lightly familiar with modern development and infrastructure tools and frameworks.

I claim that this doesn’t matter. What I might lack in technical chops I more than make up in skilled leadership. I made a deliberate choice some years ago to double down on being an outstanding leader, and it had the natural consequence of letting my technical skills wither and age. But I get outstanding results anyway, because I know how to harness my teams for best engagement and best results.

This turned out not to be as compelling a pitch as I imagined. In two opportunities I was passed over for candidates with more recent technology experience. Maybe this is ego talking, but I would be surprised if they had anywhere near the leadership skill and experience I do.

But I have to take this as an important signal. In my new role, I need to learn the technologies we use. I must go deep enough that one day when I’m on the market again, I have a technology story to tell that removes any doubt about me.

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Personal

I always thought the reward for doing a good job was that you got to keep the job

Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.

I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.

Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.

To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.

I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.

I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.

When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.

My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.

Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).

Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.

I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.

I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.

I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.

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