Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's not what you know...'s who you know - of course.

Well OK, what you know is important too - but you can be as skilled and knowledgeable as you like - and still not find work because you're either only applying for jobs once they're advertised, or you're relying on recruitment agents to find you work.


Or at least - that's been my experience so far this year.

I have come to the conclusion that in these tough economic times it's really quite hopeless applying for advertised jobs. A year ago in IT it was a workers' market - we could all be pretty sure that we would be able to walk out of one job and straight into another - but boy, how things have changed. Now it's an employers' market, where every job ad receives applications from dozens and dozens of eager web dudes desperate for work.

In the past I don't think I've ever applied for a job that I didn't get - now I'm not even getting as far as the first interview - and for some jobs they haven't even had the grace to tell me I've been rejected - I simply never hear from them at all.

Tom applied for a job the other day with some web design company we'd never even heard of - and they told him they'd had tons of applications and they might get back to him (but then again they might not) - so it's not just the ones I've looked at - I think it's happening all over.

And recruitment agents - don't get me started on recruitment agents (too late - I've started!)

My experience is as follows. You send them your CV in response to a job they have advertised. They call you, wildly enthusiastic, and arrange a meeting. You turn up for an interview with them, they take lots of notes, wax lyrical about your CV, maybe introduce you to one of their colleagues. You leave feeling pretty good about yourself, certain that a new job or contract is virtually within your grasp.

And then you never hear from them again.

Alternatively, they call you excitedly with three completely unsuitable jobs within the first week ("oh I didn't realise 'programmer required with .net, C++, and PHP experience' was different from 'front-end developer wanted with HTML/CSS and jQuery skills'...")

And then you never hear from them again.

There's only one recruitment agent who's actually found me work this year - and I've known her for years. Ironically enough, if I had reached out earlier to all my networks I'd have scored the same contract without needing her at all - it was with a company I used to work for.

OK - so applying for advertised jobs is no good because by then you're competing with half of Wellington. Recruitment agents are crap (unless you've known them for ages) because they don't seem to know what they're talking about half the time, and they rarely follow through.

In my experience, the secret to finding work these days is via your networks.

Let's look at the facts. So far this year...


  • Building a website (which Tom integrated) for Origin Design, where I used to work. Score 1 for the recruitment agent (hi Michelle), and score -1 for me because I should have called Alex at Origin myself (hi Alex).

  • Finishing the build with Tom for WM Bamford & Co's website (hi Noeline). Score 1 for my WebWeaver Productions website, where Noeline found us.

  • Contract work with Optimation, advising them on HTML and CSS best practice. Score 1 for having worked occasionally with them on various projects over the past year or two. Score another 1 for having been introduced to them by a colleague (hi Lulu) in the first place.

  • Building the Round Peg website, designed by my best friend's dad (hi Alice and Shelley). Score 1 for best friends with designer dads.

  • Building a major commercial website as a contractor at DNA. Score 1 for keeping in touch with ex-colleagues (hi Felicity).

  • Finishing the Round Peg website.

  • Finishing the DNA website.

  • More work with Optimation.

  • Building a second website for Origin Design. Score 1 for a new contract.

  • More work with Optimation.

  • Contract with Badger Communications (hi Matthew), building Flash ad banners. Score 1 for best friends (hi again Alice) with brothers who own communications companies.

  • Finishing the second site for Origin.

  • Alterations to the Bamford website.

  • Fix to the Office of Film and Literature Classification website. Score 1 for former employers passing on a little bit of work to me.

  • More work with Optimation.

  • More work with Badger Communications.

  • Looks like I have some work coming up with Shift (hi guys). Score 1 for maintaining good relationships with former employers.

  • Potential of some work coming up with an old colleague from years back (hi Brenda). Score 1 for keeping in touch with former colleagues.

  • Potential of two new clients for WebWeaver Productions. Score 1 for recommendations from existing clients.

  • Potential of some work in the future with a former employer who sees me as a web evangelist - "Web 2.0 before there was Web 2.0" (hi Jill).

  • Job lead from a former colleague (hi Sally) about a potential contract with a former client.

Number of different contracts I've had since the beginning of January: 9

Number of these contracts that have been advertised: 0

Number of contracts obtained via a recruitment agent: 1

Number of contracts gained via my WebWeaver website: 1

Number of contracts obtained through personal contacts and my network: 7

Number of additional potential contracts obtained via my network: 5

Number of advertised long-term NZ contracts applied for: 3

Number of interviews secured from these applications: 0

Number of thanks-but-no-thanks emails I have received in response to my applications: 1

Number of contracts I have applied for where no-one has bothered to contact me at all: 2

See what I mean?

If there's one thing I've learned in my 12 years as a web designer and developer, it's that if you work hard and always do the best job you can possibly do, people will remember that - and they'll come back to you when they have spare work that needs doing - as long as you let them know you're available. That's all I mean by "networking" - it's just the people I know, the people I've worked for and the people I've worked with. It's not rocket science.

The other thing I've learned is to never burn your bridges. Never ever. You must always leave a job on good terms - even if it's a job you're totally fed up with (or a job you wouldn't have left if you'd had the choice).

And it's a good idea to remember that former colleagues can have as much influence on your future employment as former employers. You never know when you're going to come across an old colleague in a new position of authority or influence. Wellington's a small town, and the web industry is a small and close-knit industry.

March was a pretty tough month work-wise. I think that's what's hardest about being a contractor - the up and down, all-or-nothing nature of it - and the total lack of predictability. But things are looking better so far in April.

I realise now that much of my February work was a continuation of stuff I'd sorted out in January - and that I didn't really take the time to hustle for new work which would fill my calendar once the other work was done.

It's tough to find the time when you're working really hard, but you have to do it, you have to keep on revisiting your networks, just to ensure that the work keeps on coming in.

And in my experience so far this year - it's your networks that will keep you going through these tough times. I hope they continue to work their magic for me.

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