How to get the job you want despite thin qualifications

Tailor your resume to find an entry-level position; once your foot's in the door, establish yourself as a good candidate for the next post

Dear Bob ...

I was digging through websites, looking for programmer headhunters when your blog came up. I see you have written quite a lot about the IT business in general.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Bob urges you to bypass HR -- the hiring manager is the person you want to see for a job. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis's Advice Line newsletter. ]

I could use some advice on how to get an entry-level position in programming/IT in today's market. I graduated from one of the better trade schools in February 2010 in a curriculum focused on computer gaming programming.

I have a website, and I am always reading up on programming for C# and C++. The problem is the on-the-job experience is not there, and most entry-level positions seem to want two to four years of this and that -- way above what we learn as students.

Since graduating, I have been working on getting out of my current industry for well over a year with no real chances in sight. I am 39 years old, married, and a father with two small children -- hence, I have no rock star dream of starting out at an obscene pay grade. I have realistic expectations, and I feel I have tried every angle to find a "starting point" in the degree field area.

I will appreciate any advice you can give me. Thanks. I'm attaching my resume as well, and if you have any comments on it, I'd appreciate those, too.

- Re-aiming

Dear Re-aiming ...

I looked over your resume. The first thought that came to mind as I read it: "This guy is desperate -- he's all over the place." Computer game development, audio engineering, troubleshooting, LAN/WAN -- it's too much with no focus.

I'd strongly advise tailoring your resume to each opportunity instead of trying for a one-size-fits all version. When you apply for a corporate IT position, the gaming degree will be a hindrance, not a help; when you apply for a position with a gaming software company, your audio engineer credentials might or might not be interesting. Either way if you're applying for a developer position, your hardware troubleshooting skills are a distraction.

Think of your resume as a brochure to help explain the product -- that is, yourself. Different sales targets will have different interests, and it's up to you to anticipate and cater to them.

Second thought: I don't know anything about the gaming software industry, so I have no advice on how to land a position there. In corporate IT, I'd say your best shot for an entry-level position is as a help desk analyst. It isn't what you want, but it's a good first step toward your longer-term goal.

The way this works: To get hired for your first position in a company, you have to sell yourself based on the immediate value you'll provide. That means relevant skills and a history of succeeding at what you've worked at, as well as creating the impression that you're a professional -- you have no problems, create no problems, and solve your manager's problems. You would be, to put it differently, high value and low maintenance.

You have no relevant skills for corporate application development but quite a few relevant skills for end-user support, including enthusiasm for technology. That's why I'm suggesting you go for a help desk position, though the pay will kill you.

Once you're in the corporation, you have the opportunity to stop being a sack o' skills and start being a person. Once you're a person, the corporation might decide to take a chance on you in a new role for which you aren't qualified on paper; the people who matter now know who you are and what you're capable of.

Another point: Make sure you don't go through the usual routine of sending your resume to HR. It's a chump's game: HR gets thousands of resumes, so the immediate goal of whoever or whatever -- sometimes the task falls to automated scanning software -- is looking over the resumes is to eliminate as many as possible. Instead, you need to get directly in front of the manager who's hiring, in companies you want to work for, whether or not that manager has a position posted.

I'm assuming you're interested in a job in corporate IT. Given that your degree is in gaming technology rather than business application development, I might be headed in the wrong direction. If so, ignore everything I said other than the part about getting in front of the hiring manager.

One more suggestion: Find some local nonprofits that would benefit from your skills. You need experience, while they need help but can't afford it. It can be a good path in, especially if you can muster the patience to gain a couple of years of referenceable experience.

If this seems appealing, turn yourself into an LLC. In addition to being able to credibly present your experience as contract programming to future employers, it also lets you sell your services to them on a try-before-you-buy basis.

And if you haven't already discovered it, the best resource I know for someone in your position is Ask the Headhunter. Visit the site, sign up for the newsletter, and take Nick's advice. He has better insights into both sides of the hiring process than anyone else I know.

Good luck, or, more to the point, good hunting.

- Bob

This story, "How to get the job you want despite thin qualifications," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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