"It's hard to differentiate yourself when you don't have prior experience in the tech industry," said Aaron Ho, a technical recruiter with Riviera Partners, via email. That doesn't mean you can't catch that first career break. "Employers that are hiring fresh grads or career changers usually aren't hiring for technical skills. What they are looking for is the ability to think critically and learn quickly. By showing your passion for learning about technology, you can really stand above the crowd."
Ho and his colleague Joseph Yeh shared these ideas for better positioning yourself if your prior IT job experience is limited.
1. Remember that you're the product.
If sales and marketing make your skin crawl, tough. Job hunting requires you to do both. You need to develop a pitch that's more refined than: "Just gimme a chance to prove myself."
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Here's what Yeh recommended: "Understand five strengths and three weaknesses about yourself and be able to share your experiences with others in the form of a story," he said. "Find situations from school, internships, freelance projects and hackathons, and be able to share within two to three minutes the technical problem, the solution, the steps you took -- technical and non-technical -- and the results."
Yeh shared an example story from Tim Lee of CodePath, which partnered with Riviera to form a series of free six-week bootcamps for mobile developers: "As part of an Android bootcamp, I designed an application to search real estate listings based on school zones. Not only did I get to learn about consuming APIs, modeling data and designing interactions, but I also learned best practices of dependency management and testing. Since I was able to show interviewers that I had already developed a very complex app, it was much easier to find interesting career opportunities."
Last but not least: "If there is a personal connection to the project or this is your life-long interest or purpose, people love to hear about it," Yeh added.
2. Know what you want.
"The tech community is welcoming, friendly and helpful. Make it easier for others to help you quickly and effectively," Yeh said. That means having a clear-cut sense of your skill set and what you want in a job and an employer. Hemming and hawing means you're wasting other people's time.
"Have a top 30 list of targeted companies in three domains -- [such as] payments, big data, quantified self -- easily accessible at all times," Yeh advised. "Be sure to know what is your strongest technology skill, and two to three additional skills that you are comfortable with or actively learning."
3. Always be prepared for a job opportunity.
You never know where your first break might come from. Don't miss it because you weren't ready.
"Always have your resume, portfolio and Github updated and always be working on a project or improving your skills," Yeh said. "Make sure your portfolio links are working, and be ready to explain your work effectively and succinctly. Have a digital resume online or a .pdf version in your mobile Dropbox, along with your list of targeted companies."
Yeh also suggested keeping three to five questions ready about the companies you're interested in; employers want to know you're interested in them and have done your homework.
4. Curate the content you read and watch.
Both Yeh and Ho encouraged early career IT pros to learn the industry inside out, and especially your three targeted "domains" mentioned above. Read tech news sites -- hey, you're off to a good start -- and follow companies and individual influencers on social media. Both recruiters also stressed the need for regular learning. Yeh said first-time job seekers should take advantage of the wealth of online education and training available these days, often for free, to learn new skills or keep existing skills sharp. He noted Coursera, Udacity, Udemy and iTunes U as examples of where to look.
5. Get involved online.
"Be involved in online open source communities (such as Github and Dribbble) and contribute your ideas to online forums and groups such as Quora and LinkedIn," Yeh said. "Connect with and introduce yourself to [IT professionals] via social media [who work] at your list of companies."
6. Develop personal projects that showcase your IT chops.
"When you are creating your own mobile app or building your own website for the first time, you will encounter a lot of obstacles you need to overcome," Ho said. "This ability to think through and solve problems that you encounter is critical in tech." This likewise can create good material for the story you tell in an interview.
7. Consider the challenges potential employers face.
In addition to a willingness to learn, companies want less experienced IT hires to show an interest in and knack for problem solving, according to Ho. To that end, imagine the business and technology pains your target companies face and how those might be overcome.
"Think through the problems companies need to solve," Ho said. "For example, a company like Facebook caters to a huge number of users, so one problem they need to solve is making sure their servers don't lag too much."
Doing so will help put first-time job seekers in better stead. Finding the right position isn't always easy, especially when your resume is thin on past professional experience. Everyone starts somewhere, though.
"If you can talk intelligently about tech, demonstrate that you are trying to learn and build things on your own, and show that you are really thinking through real-world problems, you stand a much better chance of landing that first IT job," Ho said.