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What You Should Do to Get Software Internships (Part 2: Job Hunting)

Computer science classes don't teach you how to find internships. We cover the steps to get an internship, continuing with how to hunt for jobs.
What You Should Do to Get Software Internships (Part 2: Job Hunting)
Welcome to the second blog post of a 3-part series on internships. I recommend starting with part 1 first if you haven't already. It discusses how to write a resume.

The primary audience for this piece is the college student looking for an internship. If you don't fit that bill, it still may be interesting to read about the mindset and strategy behind job hunting.

Our education system struggles to teach students how to find a job. I've mentioned it before, but it's worth reiterating. You're on your own. Nobody's going to spoon feed you a future, so you'd better step up to the plate.

If the concept of searching for internships is new to you, it'll be hard enough to know where to start looking. You may have written a nice resume to show off, but a resume is useless if nobody's there to see it. The resume isn't a silver bullet. You must learn how search for interesting opportunities and how to talk to people. It may seem odd, but I regard it as a fundamental career skill.

The Hunter's Mindset 🐺

If you hope to be handed a job on a silver platter, please abandon those delusions. As a college student, I've seen too many people drift around at career fairs, only to get nothing done. (I've noticed the same thing as a software engineer recruiting at the same career fairs.) That mentality reminds me of farm animals. You wait for a farmer to feed you your next meal. You'd better hope that farmer arrives.

Be honest. Does the farm animal analogy remind you of yourself? If so, reconsider the way you think. I view starting a career as a hunt. It stems from a single principle: nobody owes you shit. At the end of the day, you're accountable for your own results. Don't be upset if others don't make things easy. Any feelings of entitlement will only hold you back.

Can I have a job?

Back when I was a sophomore, an engineer from Booz Allen Hamilton visited for a recruiting event. He grabbed a small handful of students to present about his work. I was one of the students in the group. At the end of his talk, he circled the room, asking each student their name and why they wanted to work at Booz. We all took turns introducing ourselves and our motivations, until it got to one kid. The conversation went something like this:

  • Booz Guy: So young man, what's your name and why are you interested in interning at Booz?
  • Student: Yeah, my name is Timmy. There's nothing special about Booz; I just want a job.
  • Booz Guy: Oh...that's good to know?

Everybody went silent. The air pressure in the room doubled. I was screaming internally. I don't think Timmy got the job.

The career fair isn't like your local Costco.

"Can I have this job?" is the wrong question to ask. It acts as someone is handing out careers like free samples at Costco. It's not how the world works. People don't casually hire strangers who don't demonstrate some level of competence. If you lack interest, it's also a signal that you're unlikely to be a good fit.

Instead, ask yourself "why should this company hire me?" At its core, job hunting is a process of selling your skills. Ask a recruiter what they're looking for, and share what you can offer. It's all part of proving that you're a good fit. If you're not confident over how to sell yourself, try your best. We all started from square one. Be sure to pay attention when asking what the recruiter expects from candidates. If things don't work out, come back next year and share how you've worked to gain those skills.

What if I don't have experience?

You might be concerned that you don't have the exact background that a company wants. That's fine. You still have motivation and interests. Companies look for strong generalists with high potential, especially when hiring students. Why were you looking to speak to a specific company anyway? If your motivations align with the company, you've already got a strong selling point. Take the time to figure out your motivations and interests. It will make your conversations more productive.

I have a simple template when talking to new people about opportunities. Adjust it to suit your own needs. It's pretty simple, but it gets to the point. Notice how it frames things such that there's a strong reason for the company to be interested in you.

I'm interested in working with <company> because X. This seems like a mutual fit because you're looking for Y, and I'm able to offer Z.

The next time you speak to a recruiter, try using the template. At the very least, it beats begging to be hired. You'll be surprised at how engaged the recruiter can be.

The Mindset Summary

  • Drop your entitlement. Nobody owes you shit.
  • Job hunting revolves around selling yourself.
  • Figure out your motivations and interests.
  • Frame your interactions around why a company would want you.

Navigating the Funnel 🌪️

You talk to the first recruiter you see and apply for a job. What are the odds you get hired? You don't need a Harvard PhD to know that the probability isn't high. If you're confident, you might claim otherwise, but we can agree that it's not 100% guaranteed. That's okay. Few things in life are guaranteed. But you can put the odds in your favor.

Too Many Filters

It helps to treat the application process like a funnel. It least it'll clarify how to think of the odds of getting a job offer. The funnel has several layers where candidates get filtered out. It's wide at the top, but the funnel grows smaller the further down you get.

To put things in perspective, let's look at some ways your application can be filtered out.

  1. You decide not the apply.
  2. The company is not hiring for your role.
  3. Your resume gets rejected.
  4. You fail one of your interviews with the company.
  5. The company fills up its headcount before you get an offer.
  6. You decide not to accept the company's offer.

You have to pass every single filter to get the job. Some of these filters are out of your control. Some of these filters are out of the company's control. All of this is okay. Plan accordingly.

Setting the Odds

It might be worth thinking of our goals when it comes to finding a job. I've boiled it down to two objectives:

  1. You want to ensure that you'll have something.
  2. You want to take the best possible opportunity.

If you've been doing the math, you might notice it makes sense apply to multiple places. That maximizes the chance that you won't go unemployed. After all, every single company has to reject you. Additionally, you gain the luxury of picking the best company. Multiple applications increase the odds of having competing offers on the table. In general, you'll want to be talking to more companies than you think you need to. Having to pick among different offers isn't a bad problem to have.

For context, having tens of applications is not a high number. Having a hundred application isn't out of the question either, if you aren't happy with your odds. If your school isn't well-known or you don't have prior experience, it makes sense to apply to more places.

This is not an invitation to spam applications. Apply to opportunities that you take seriously. Otherwise, you'll waste your own time and energy. On the flip side, don't shy away from opportunities that are "out of your league." The worst thing that happens is that you get rejected. You're on a journey to learn and grow. If a place didn't seem out of your league in some respect, you'd be overqualified for the position.

Finding the right environment helps your odds as well. You'll find more companies at a career fair than anywhere else on campus. Career fairs and other similar events are good for casting a wide net. Talking to friends who've worked at interesting companies. They can put opportunities on your radar. Referrals are the best way to have a quality introduction to any specific company.  Applying early gives you an advantage, since companies take time to fill up headcount. Try to have things lined up early.

I recommend that all students attend their college career fair. You should go even if you already have a job lined up for the summer. You should especially go if you don't think you have any marketable skills. We all had to start somewhere. Not taking the opportunity compounds the problem over time. At the very least, the career fair will be a practice run to practice talking to recruiters. Some people might feel anxious about rejection, but the truth is it's a valuable use of your time.

You'll inevitably have to take hard news from one place or another. Every interaction you have with a potential employer should be a learning experience. A rejection isn't a failure unless you failed to learn something from the experience.

The Funnel Summary

  • Lots of factors are outside of your control, but you can control the odds.
  • Think of a job application as a series of filters. Everything has to go right to make it to a hire.
  • Put yourself in a position where you choose among multiple good offers. The first step is to apply to more places.
  • Control your environment to maximize your exposure to lots of quality opportunities.
  • Rejection happens, and that's okay. Make sure you grow from it.

Networking 🌐

Networking! Hearing the word itself fills you with disgust. What do you imagine when you hear that word? Crowds of suited men schmoozing at a conference and pushing around business cards? If so, we need to reset your understanding of the word.

People tend to assume that networking involves talking to as many people as possible. After talking to people, they try to pull favors out of these people. Some people do try that, but I don't know how well it works in practice. Who would want to do a favor for someone they don't know?

The correct way to think about networking is as a process of building good relationships. Instead of wondering what you can take from someone else, think about what you can offer. How can you help them? When meeting someone new, talk about what you can do for them. Don't force any superficial connections. If you're not genuinely interested in someone else (or vice versa), it's fine if nothing happens. The quality of a relationship matters more than the quantity.

To put things in perspective, most of my network comprises two groups. They're either genuine friends or people I've worked with in the past. (The groups aren't mutually exclusive.) If someone comes to me looking for a job, I know them well enough to vouch for their competency. Networking is a fancy way of describing how to be a good friend. It pays dividends to everybody involved.

I want you to avoid the failure mode where you isolate yourself. You act like a monk because you think networking is dishonorable or unfair. That interpretation isn't accurate. Instead, you lock yourself in an echo chamber and shut out opportunities.

Referrals are the Best

Ask any recruiter about their deepest desire, and you'll get the same answer from each of them. They want more high quality referrals. Referrals are the best way to get hired. You know that a company is good, and the company takes you more seriously than some random applicant. Recruiters have plenty of reasons to be excited. They don't have to deal with the endless sourcing of resumes. Referred candidates also statistically tend to be higher quality candidates.

If possible, you want to get a referral for every opportunity you pursue. There's no reason to wait in line at a career fair, unless you have no better options or you're trying to get a free shirt. (You can also apply online.) It's how the real world works. You skip the line, and it makes the company's job easier.

Note that referrals aren't the same as nepotism. It may be easy to think that a referral conversation goes something like this:

  • Employee A: Hello there, coworker! My failure of a son can't land a job, so can I make him your intern? I will send over a "referral."
  • Employee B: Why of course! Our business can afford to bleed money. I'll write his first paycheck this instant!

Some places might do this, but I'd be skeptical of the business's long term prosperity. (It's probably not a place you'd want to work anyway.) Think of a referral as a means for a company to do better than random searching.

You might be in a position where nobody's there to give you a referral. This is especially common for underclassmen. That's fine. Play with the cards you have. If you're in school, your network may not be big. That may be the case for years after you graduate. Instead, focus on the process. Make genuine connections as they come, and keep an open mind towards opportunities.

Networking Summary

  • Be a person of value, and let people know that you're a person of value.
  • Networking is a process of building genuine relationships for the long term.
  • Referrals are the best way to get a job.

What's Next?

You've applied to a bunch of companies. A few of them were referrals. The recruiters think you're a good fit, and you're excited too. Good job! Now you need to turn those applications into offers.

The next milestone comes during the interview stage. It's one of the filters I've described earlier. Fortunately, it's a process that you have a high degree of control over, so there's a lot you can do to prepare.