How to crack the job search process, not just the coding interview.

(This is an abridged version of the Launchpad newsletter — to see the full issue, click here.)

In Issue 2 of this newsletter, I talked about how companies read resumés and what criteria they typically look for while skimming applications.

As a quick reminder, here’s what I wrote:

At my last company, we claimed that candidate-job fit had to do with four factors:

1. Mission Fit, or alignment with the core mission of the company (as an example, Duolingo’s mission according to their website: “Our ultimate goal is to give everyone access to a private tutor experience through technology”).

2. Culture Fit, or alignment with the way teams operate and organize themselves. My friend Brandon Wang, the founder of Conduit Analytics, wrote in his company’s interview prep doc that the ideal Conduit candidate “has passion and interest”, can “see big and little picture thinking”, and is “trustworthy”. (…)

3. Critical Skills, or abilities relevant to processing and filtering information. At SolverIQ, we broke down candidate fit into 100+ of these skills, but a few examples might include developing objective measures and believability weights while making business decisions, staying organized under pressure, or effectively representing complex ideas to peers.

4. Finally, Skills Fit, or your actual ability to do the job required — if the job description is looking for a frontend dev who knows JavaScript, are you a frontend dev who knows JavaScript? This is the technical interview part.

Let’s try to reverse-engineer that list for a second, though. Why would a company possibly care about these things? What’s the strategy behind those priorities?

To understand why those priorities exist, we need to discuss how technical (and a lot of non-technical) recruiting actually works.

An example

Let’s say you’re 22 years old, a recent college grad, and a recruiter reaches out to you on LinkedIn inviting you to apply for a new job at my company, Null.

Excited, you apply — and after passing through a technical screen and acing your interview, you’re in. You get hired at a salary of $100k/year plus benefits. You’re thrilled to work there at first, but after a year you decide that you’d actually be a better fit elsewhere — and lucky for you, your application to work at Google is accepted and you move down to the Mountain View office and get a pay bump. (Nice job.)

The above scenario is any non-top company’s worst nightmare.

First of all, since you were hired through a recruiter external to the company, that recruiter actually gets an additional “finders fee” on top of what you make — so if your salary is $100k, the recruiter or recruiting company might get between $20k-$40k as a finders fee. That means the company’s probably sunk about $130k on you thus far. When factoring in other costs as well (employee onboarding, employee perks, benefits packages, etc) you might cost the company upwards of $150,000 — at a $100k salary. And, given that you’re junior talent, you still might not have all the skills necessary to achieve peak performance.

If you leave after a year, the company you’re working for gets to absorb all of those fixed, one-time costs — but they yield no long-term ROI.

In contrast, let’s take the example of someone who interns with my company during their college years. I compensate that person generously by intern standards ($10k/mo comp for 3 months = $30,000). But, in exchange, I get lots of opportunities to see how you actually work and see if you’d fit in here, driving up the likelihood that you might stick around more than a year if I give you a return offer. I get to give you an offer first, likely before other companies would respond, and get to (likely) pressure you with a quick deadline to reduce the likelihood you’ll be able to effectively negotiate up your total compensation from me. Total cost to hire? $130,000, $20k cheaper than hiring you on the open market — and that extra $30k was in exchange for software engineering work that I’ve likely made money off of, rather than just a sunk cost towards paying someone to spam people on LinkedIn.

There’s lots of other examples like this (please don’t walk away from this thinking that you have to get a fantastic internship with a big-name company in order to get hired there; that’s not true), but there’s a few key points I’d take away from this.

The reason why as an employer I care about “culture fit” and “mission fit” is because if either of those things are wrong, you’re leaving in 1–2 years, which means I’m losing a lot of money. I want you to stay for at least 3 years so I can maximize ROI.

The reason why as an employer I care about “critical skills” relevant to your problem solving/creative/collaborative ability is because those traits are highly indicative of your likelihood to be able to grow and improve once you take the job — important, because if you don’t improve significantly as a junior hire, you probably won’t end up being a quality team member down the road, costing me productivity or more money.

How to use this information

I know, you want more practical tips — clear things you can do — to improve your chances.

Let’s look one last time at the framework companies are using (generally speaking), in order of importance:

  1. Mission fit, or alignment with company goals.
  2. Culture fit, or alignment with company operating style/community.
  3. Critical skills, or ability to grow/improve.
  4. Skills fit, or core technical/practical ability.

If you just operate off this framework in optimizing your application and preparation for the job search process, you’ll avoid a bunch of possible pitfalls.

  • Rather than focusing solely on the technical interview, you’ll focus more of your attention on selecting companies where you likely fit well and communicating that in the interview and application materials.
  • Rather than writing a resumé that’s super text-heavy and just lists a bunch of technical skills, you’ll try to tell a story, picking the most relevant experiences to your underlying mission/the things that motivate you.
  • Rather than chasing a string of ‘prestigious’ internships, you’ll select internships and work opportunities that serve as supporting evidence for your underlying mission.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also drill Leetcode questions with friends or search for intro pathways to get referrals — those are great strategies to give yourself a leg up, though they work for different reasons than some people think.

The reason why direct intros + referrals yield better results, in short, is that companies feel more comfortable hiring you when they feel they can get a better grasp on your mission fit and culture fit, by talking to the person who referred you. We all have an easily triggerable bias in favor of selecting the option which we have more information about, and a candidate with a strong referral has more evidence in their favor. More certainty = perceived higher likelihood of staying = perceived improved ROI.

The reason why drilling Leetcode questions and rereading ‘Cracking the Coding Interview’ 50 times actually works decently well for improving your technical interview skills is because the people doing the assessment (either the person conducting the technical screen or the person operating the Hackerrank assessment) aren’t looking for standouts, e.g. they’re not looking for reasons to think you’re good — they’re looking for reasons to think you’re bad and eliminate you from the pile. If you exceed a certain baseline, you move on to the next stage.

Then, things like mission/culture fit and critical skill development matter — and lots of applicants spend so much time drilling technical questions and so little time developing a solid work narrative that they are tripped up there, not at the technical screen stage.

Thanks, y’all 🚀

Thanks for reading this week’s issue! If you liked it, have an idea for how it could be better, or have a question for me, please don’t hesitate to email me directly at [email protected].

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