Pragmatic Advice on Finding the Right Job in Computing

computing_career_300x200Where do you begin when looking for a job in computing? Should you research companies, consult your network, use a job site? Searching for computing jobs online generates thousands of results. How can you narrow down this list to find the best job for you? Then, how do you make yourself stand out against other applicants? Rafael Prikladnicki, Director of the Science and Technology Park at Brazil’s Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (TECNOPUC), and Michael Tsikerdekis, Assistant Professor of Information and Communications Technology at the University of Kentucky, provide their insights on how to find the right job and develop a career in computing.

Where is the best place to start looking for a job in computing?

Prikladnicki: Social media, such as Linkedin; participating in conferences for networking and meeting prospective companies; and searching online are some of the best ways to get started. In addition, since the field of computing is mostly everywhere, my experience is that one should search for good companies not only focused on computing but for any companies that benefit professionals in this area.

Tsikerdekis: The short answer is, look for jobs in anything associated with computing and think broad. The word computing is deceptively equated to computer engineering and computer science when information systems, information communication technology (ICT) and software engineering are all encompassed in the broader term of computing. In fact, even the categories that I have listed oversimplify. Building software or hardware and creating algorithms is a part of many computing jobs but the uses derived from these technologies also encapsulate job requirements associated with computing. For example, cybersecurity jobs often involve drafting of policies, standards, and guidelines for organizations that use technologies aside from any necessary software that may also be developed (e.g., incident response software).

My suggestion would be to broaden the job search to areas that may not initially sound like computing. By looking at the requirements and job description, a job seeker can decide on whether that area holds potential for their future career. Many readers may be surprised that jobs in technical writing often require an either/or Bachelor’s degree that includes Computer Science or Information Technology along with English or Journalism. Some even require certifications such as Security+. When we talk about computing, jobs in technical writing do not immediately come to mind. I think it is a testament to how integrated with technology our daily way of doing business has become. So, they should think big, look broad and then narrow it down based on their interests. That also means, the job networks (e.g., Linkedin or university network) that candidates utilize to find jobs need to be broad and multiple.

What can applicants do to stand out?

Prikladnicki: I believe they should focus on their view for the future instead of their past experience. Past experience is very important, but what brought you here won’t take you there. So sharing how you can contribute with the next few years of a company could make a difference in my opinion.  I also believe that social skills are among the most important skills. Knowing how to work in teams is also needed. Technical skills, in my view, are the minimum requirements  one must have to start, but what makes a difference are social skills, knowing how to work in teams and also having a global mindset (since we live in a globally connected world).

Tsikerdekis: A broad skillset is highly desired in virtually every computing job and this is probably more pronounced in small companies with limited resources. Having a strong core discipline will make a candidate a good fit for a position but a complementary competence will elevate them above the rest. Also, being a good communicator is a highly sought skill often underestimated by candidates. Desired skills also depend on what a prospective employer is looking for and this is not necessarily specified in a job ad. A company may be looking for a database administrator but may have also recently launched a new complimentary REST API service in desperate need of some security evaluation. They will be looking for a database administrator but as a bonus, security experience may be preferred. So, as much as you are applying for a job, you are also applying to a company with its unique mission, objectives, and products. Pitch yourself in the “right” way and highlight skills that can come in handy for that particular company.

Finally, many companies also place weight on independent, creative and innovative problem solving abilities. Most ads include a version of this and essentially are asking how a candidate fits into the general work environment. Can the candidate take initiative to address an issue or will they require training and attention beyond what is expected? This is obviously a highly subjective item but past examples serve as good items to present to prospective employers. This may be an actual product which you played a key role in creating, an event that you assumed leadership on, or research. For example, I have undergraduate students involved in research projects, and it is a great way for them to demonstrate ability to tackling unexpected tasks that are not found in daily routines. Computing is an ever-changing environment and employers are aware of this fact. Companies that use database systems may have started out early on with Oracle, Sybase or Paradox, transitioned to MySQL and today may be using a combination of a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) and a NoSQL system, or exclusively use the latter. The pace of change is also a job-specific feature.  Cybersecurity professionals need to adapt faster than others (e.g., software engineers). But overall, changes affect businesses in computing. Candidates need to understand that a company’s investment in their employees is more focused on their independent ability than a particular skillset which they may possess at the moment of hire.

What are the biggest challenges for finding the right job in computing? How can job-seekers overcome those challenges?

Prikladnicki: The right job highly depends on what one is looking for. The right job for me could be different than the right job for you. The challenge is first to understand what makes you happy in a job. Why you want such job. Then during the recruiting process make sure to ask as many questions you need to ensure the job will make you proud, happy, and better as a person.

Tsikerdekis: There are two challenges for job-seekers that I see as the most influential: defining what is “right” and establishing the probability afforded by the “right” job’s geography.

There is subjectivity in defining the right computing career for an individual, but in my years of discussions with undergraduates, graduates and professionals, I find that many dismiss good computing careers often with limited rhyme or reason. One example was with a student about to graduate that wanted to look for jobs in human-computer interaction, interaction design, web design etc. The claim was that these areas involve more creativity in the workplace. The student ended up getting an internship with a cybersecurity company and hesitantly accepted the position. As the internship went on, he realized that the job was in fact interesting. After the internship ended, he was offered a full-time position and was more than happy to accept. So, ‘don’t knock it till’ you try it’ should be the mantra when looking for your right job.

The other challenge relates to geography and for many job-seekers there is no easy remedy. Geography may sound obvious but should not be overlooked. Yes, if you live near the arctic in northern Canada or Norway, you probably would anticipate that there won’t be much in video game development or Cobol programming jobs. But, within populated areas, we often tend to think of the job market as relatively uniform. Studies have shown that this is not the case. Some  interesting work from Prof. Enrico Moretti, has shown that beyond the brain hubs (e.g., San Francisco, Boston etc.) the job market varies and this includes jobs in computing. We also know that cities with a larger percentage of graduates will also drive salaries higher for virtually every profession. That may lead to cases where a software engineer in upstate New York is paid less or equal to a software tester in Austin, TX. So, if you are able and willing to relocate, l would suggest seeking the geographic oddities (boom cities around a specific computing industry). These areas also stand out in the news as industry leaders may complain about a shortage of supply of qualified candidates. Denver, CO and the shortage of candidates to fill cybersecurity jobs is a recent example that comes to mind.

Once employed, what is the best way to continue to grow professionally?

Prikladnicki: I always try to avoid finding myself in a comfort zone. You should challenge yourself every day, try new things, propose new things, participate in events, learn new things, network.  

Tsikerdekis: Monitor, develop, experiment and maintain a pattern of lifelong commitment to education in computing. If history is an indicator, we are bound to see a trend of development towards abstraction in the field of computing across the board. If there are low-level tasks that you are doing in your profession, expect that eventually they will be abstracted. I tend to be optimistic that there will always be computing careers that will involve humans, but, with the advances in artificial intelligence many jobs are bound to become obsolete. So, if we know that the field is changing and technological unemployment will become a reality for some fields, then growing professionally in areas that machines won’t replace us any time soon, is certainly a pragmatic choice.

In all likelihood, most jobs in computing will remain in one form or another and they are likely to expand in other industries. For example, driverless cars and drone related work (e.g., drone swarms) are just areas that may soon explode in computing job opportunities. Skills in software engineering, cybersecurity, data science and artificial intelligence are bound to become more desirable and more specialized for these industries. So my advice would be, do not aim to keep up with technological change. Aim to stay ahead by building your personal news network that firmly connects you to the industry’s “vibe.”

Is there anything else you would like to add about job searching and career development in the field of computing?

Prikladnicki: I just want to reinforce that past is important. But understanding your view for the future is even more important.

Tsikerdekis: Overall, I think this is a great time to be in the field of computing. We live in a globally connected world with technologies expanded and tested all over the world and across different cultures. This means advancements in innovations, which further diversify the field of computing. This translates to more job opportunities albeit with more varying job titles. Geography is also likely to start becoming less limiting for some jobs in computing that can be performed remotely. A likely trend is an expansion of industries in the places in-between the rural and urban, which will provide geographic access for computing jobs to new job-seekers. Many of these jobs won’t be traditional “programming” jobs but will require a diverse set of skills that may cross academic disciplines. So, if prospective employees are looking for a field that is bound to penetrate every aspect of our lives, is ever-changing and provides you with a never-ending interesting set of challenges for personal and professional growth, they are in good company with the field of computing.

Read more from Prikladnicki in the Finding the Software Engineering Job You Want article in July 2016 issue of Computing Edge.

Read more from Tsikerdekis in the Finding the Social-Networking Job You Want in the August 2016 issue of Computing Edge.

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