On Monday, September 12th, Women Who Code Birmingham held its Programming & Tech Career Development panel at UAB’s iLab at the Innovation Depot.
Twenty-seven women (and a few men) came out to learn what technical and software development employers are looking for in the Birmingham area, what to expect in a technical interview and how to ensure success starting a career after graduation from university, or when transitioning into the field from another career.
Our panelists were:
I had prepared and sent out a list of questions for our panelists prior to the event. This list, plus questions from the audience, served as a jumping-off point for discussion regarding what our panelists were seeing in the local tech employment market, and what they regarded as essential to success. Points summarized include requests for additional information that came from our audience.
A summary of answers from the panel and wide-ranging discussion follow.
One of the panelists also pointed out that the split between Java/C# and web-focused development was also the split between software development for larger corporations (insurance, banks, publishing, internal software and tech infrastructure needs of local manufacturers), and the needs of the software-driven, software-as-a-service and web-based startup community. They are different – the larger, more established firms tend to be more corporate, and the startups tend to be more relaxed, with less focus on job titles and dress codes, and more focus on getting the work done.
Other needs were good communication and people skills, and an ability to clearly document your code for future maintenance.
Panel consensus: It depends on the position. Most of the time, candidates don’t match the requested profile completely. An important part of recruiting is working with the employer to determine core (real) needs versus wish lists or old on-file job descriptions that no longer fit the real requirements. The other issue is whether the employer is writing a job description or requirements list to meet specific contractual requirements (especially if the employer is doing contractual work for government or other large organizations). Many women (myself included) won’t apply for a position unless they meet most of the requirements. The recruiters’ unanimous advice? If you meet 60% of the requirements, put your application in. You are likely to be a reasonable fit, which will need to be determined further. You may not always hear back, but use that guideline to make the decision.
The exception is when candidates are applying through automatic filtering systems. (Shirley: an example is Taleo) If an employer’s requirements list is too long, they will end up with no candidates. A local company, EBSCO Information Services, has been shortening their requirements list to ensure that candidates with specific skill sets get through. In these situations, a candidate’s best tactic is to know someone already inside the company, who knows which manager is doing the hiring.
But it will vary depending on the position, the size of a company, and the type of work you are doing. (Shirley: regard these as Gaussian or fuzzy targets)
Programming ability is important (of course!), and is best demonstrated with a portfolio of work other than class work, but so are communication skills, and an ability to work with others.
Panel consensus – Develop a portfolio of projects that you’ve built or helped build! (Shirley: This was repeated again and again. If you are not sure that your skills are adequate for effective participation, see my next blog entry regarding places to start).
Our panelists discussed this a bit. Their answers varied. For most of the positions that they fill in the Birmingham area, this isn’t a big issue. Approaches taken locally vary by company; some will do a team interview. some do a team interview, in which the candidate is expected to explain their approach to a problem verbally, others will expect pseudocode on a whiteboard, and some rely on project portfolios for candidate evaluation. Outside of Birmingham, technical interviews have become a hot topic, the subject of much candidate anxiety and therefore, about which
many articles and books have been written.
By this point in our panel discussion, we had covered off most of this question. The summary was:
Again, we had covered off most of this question by the time we got to it. The summary was that your project portfolio is the best way to show what you can do. No matter how basic, be prepared to show work.
Resume formatting and presentation matters less than you think. Don’t get too fancy, keep it clean and readable, and as much as possible, use bullet points. Recruiters read a lot of these and long paragraphs get in the way of extracting information. If you are listing a programming language, be prepared to demonstrate work in that language. Have a link to your portfolio of work and your LinkedIn profile. Keep your LinkedIn profile synched to your resume.
Shirley’s tip: keep a master copy in plain text for quick copy and paste into candidate banks where required.
With that, we wrapped up our panel and took questions from our audience. All the recruiters at the event welcome inquiries from candidates in the Birmingham region (I’ve linked their names to their LinkedIn profiles). Billy Boozer, our sole entrepreneur at the panel, also welcomes inquiries regarding projects and ways to cooperatively move the regional tech ecosystem forward.
The important thing that I took away from this panel is the importance of developing a portfolio of work to demonstrate skills. In my experience as a mature student at UAB, this was a problematic area for many students within the CS and IS programs. Many who hadn’t started programming as teenagers (including myself) weren’t yet confident enough in their skills or knew enough of the programming language libraries or frameworks available to start developing those portfolios of sample work. A class in which one could survey these and begin to pull together a set for work on independent or individual projects would be useful. One of the challenges in the region, especially when learning all this as an adult, is juggling family responsibilities (getting children to school and after-school activities, looking after one’s home, civic and community organization involvement) with the time you need to spend simply working through problems and programming. That time is precious – and necessary, in whatever form it can be seized.
Our Women Who Code leadership (directors – myself, Nicole Mubarak,
Kayla Harris and lead Kalyani Bhagat) will be exploring some of the subjects raised at this panel in future Women Who Code meetings. At this point, that includes forming a software-focused LLC in Birmingham, organizing work, unit testing, and estimating and pricing work. We welcome meeting topic suggestions, and further exploration to encourage the development of a diverse programming and technical community in Birmingham.