Sunday, May 26, 2013

Free at Last, Free at Last ...

Next week I won’t have a job.

This is by design, I should clarify.  I’ve given myself two weeks between jobs to decompress a little.  You know how some people say you should regularly do saunas or colonics to flush all the toxins from your system?  Sort of like that.

So for the next 15 blissful days, I’ll be lazing around, mostly doing nothing.  I’ll spend part of the time at a technical conference (where I’ll actually be delivering a talk, which is pretty nifty), but mainly just doing nothing.  Relaxing.  Winding down.  Chillin’.

Then I’ll start a new position at a new company, which I’m pretty excited about.  Not much to say about that yet, since all I know is what one can gather from the interview process and the background research that accompanies it, but I’m heartened by that fact that folks there seem to have read this blog (including the extensive series on the Barefoot Philosophy) and wanted to hire me anyway.  I think our goals will be plenty sympatico.

What I’m leaving is approximately six years at a company that I really enjoyed being with ... at least for part of that time.  Having signed a piece of paper that strongly enjoins me from saying anything that might cast my former employer in a negative light (and tell me that shouldn’t have been a danger sign), I will restrict myself to enumerating a few facts.

  1. When I started work at this company, it was owned by eBay.
  2. eBay was a pretty great place to work.  It wasn’t perfect by any means, but what complaints I had were mostly surmountable, and there were many layers of management between me and those policies, most of which layers were dedicated to making sure said policies didn’t impact my productivity.
  3. This company was sold by eBay to a different company.
  4. One year later, I’ve resigned.

There.  Nothing “negative” about that, right?  Just the facts.

I have noticed a trend in smaller companies that are acquired by larger companies.  The last company I worked for being owned by two different companies, I got to experience it twice.  Also at the company I worked for before that.  Also at a few of the companies I consulted for when I owned my own business.  Also at companies which I know of because they’ve employed friends, or family members.  Large companies which are essentially conglomerations of smaller companies (or one core business surrounded by many “satellite” subsidiaries, as in the case of eBay) seem to be run very differently than the smaller companies they were once composed of.  I’m not sure why this is.  The smaller companies were successful when they were independent: if they had not been, they would not have been purchased.  However, they inevitably fail as part of the larger entity, when they’re being run differently.  This is a trivial pattern to pick out for anyone who has spent more than a few years in the corporate workplace.  And yet the mistake continues to be made, over and over again.  I’ve always had a high tolerance for ignorance, but a very low one for stupidity.  When you make a mistake once, that’s ignorance.  When you continue to make the same mistake over and over, that’s stupidity.

The mistakes are somewhat varied, but the core of them is pretty much the same.  The smaller organization was nimble and responsive, but the larger company imposes rules and process.  The smaller organization had some lean years, but they perservered and grew stronger because of them; the larger company seems to expect an infinitely-increasing growth curve, with the result that even when you make money, you’re chastised for not making enough money.  The smaller organization valued employees and built its team slowly and with great precision, until every warm body was integral to its success, and there was no waste—not a single speck of fat to be trimmed.  The larger company sees the employees as faceless, replaceable cogs in a machine, and can’t understand why people with vast amounts of business domain knowledge stored in their heads leaving should be a big deal.  Just get some more people.  Lots of people out there wanting jobs.  Hell, you can probably find someone even cheaper to do the same job.  That’ll help the bottom line, too.  Win-win.

I continue to believe that there are companies out there, even larger companies composed of disparate subdivisions, that don’t have this rather large blind spot.  But that’s mainly because I’m at heart a romantic, even though I’m also a cynic.  One day I’ll have to do a blog post on Cynical Romanticism.  I’m also considering a longer post exploring some of the concepts above in more depth.  But for today, I’m just happy to be free.  To do what I want.  Any old time.  (And you’ll have to take my word for it that that’s an obscure 90’s song reference and not an obscure 60’s song reference.  That’s just how I roll.)

I’d ramble on a bit longer, but this is starting to cut into my lazy time.  I’m sure you can all find something to amuse yourselves.  The Internet’s a big place, after all.  As for my little corner of it, it’s about hang up an “Under New Management” sign.  In a couple of weeks.  This week, the sign just says “Gone Fishin’.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Perl blog post #12

I’ve done another technical post on my other blog this week; it’s on the augment feature of Moose.  That’s Perl-speak, so pop on over there if you speak Perl.  If not, just relax and perhaps I’ll get something a bit more exciting next week.

Then again, my parents are visiting all this coming week, so perhaps not.  Who can say?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Another Mother's Day

Sometimes when you pick up your child you can feel the map of your own bones beneath your hands, or smell the scent of your skin in the nape of his neck. This is the most extraordinary thing about motherhood—finding a piece of yourself separate and apart that all the same you could not live without.
— Jodi Picoult, Perfect Match

Last night I had a dream.

In it, I was back in college—not my past, college-age self, but my present-day self.  In the dream, this was a bizarre experience, both better and worse than it was at the time.  On the one hand, age and experience makes it much easier to be able to handle some of the things that we handled badly at that age.  On the other, perspective and an ever-increasing awareness of the preciousness of fleeting time means that’s it’s very hard to take some things seriously, like whether you got an A or a B on some test.  At least that’s how it was in the dream, with the result that I would shake my head fondly (but calmly) at the things my fellow matriculates were freaking out about, but attack seriously the things they blew off to have one more beer.

Many of those attending classes with me were actual people I went to college with.  Not my close friends, but friends of friends, or people who were just in the same class with me, or lived in dorm rooms next to friends of mine.  You know the people I mean: the ones you’d drink with at the parties, or debate points of philosophy with in the library, or perhaps sit with in the cafeteria if there wasn’t anyone else around you knew, but that’s about the extent of it.  In the dream, more than going to class, we would sit around and talk about stuff—I don’t know about your college experience, but that was a big part of mine.  You’d take some class you never really knew much about before, like anthropology, or psychology, or Eastern religion, and you’d learn these things that blew your mind, and you just had to share them with people.  And they were sharing with you the things that they’d learned which had blown their minds.  And you all worked together to make these things relevant to your life, dithering over whether the Heisenberg uncertainty principle could be applied to Jung’s theories of déjà vu and synchronicity, or whether believing that the rites of cannibalistic tribes are acceptable for them but not for you was simply intelligent avoidance of ethnocentricity or downright moral relativism.  A whole hell of a lot of what you learn in college is just facts: sparkly, and exciting, but useless in isolation.  Those long talks over alcohol, nicotine, illicit drugs or no drugs at all, just constant lack of sleep—those were how we developed the framework on which we hung all the pretty facts.

For some reason, all my opinions and outlooks on life surprised my former classmates.  Perhaps it was just that they’d never known me that well.  But, the more we talked, the more I realized that my responses were peppered with phrases such as “there’s just no way you can maintain that philosophy once you have children.”  Which is odd, because all of my perspectives on parenting were developed back in my college days, and they really haven’t changed very much.  But none of these disucssion were actually about parenting.  They were about ... well, it’s hard to remember—you know how dreams are .. but things such as foreign policy and population control and spirituality vs religion and those sorts of abstract things upon which we all have strong but mostly uninformed positions.  But all my ways of looking at the world, my entire weltanschauung (to use a fancy word I learned in college), seemed subtly but irrevocably altered by my fatherhood.

And (I don’t know how I can know this, but, in that strange way of dreams, I do) it wasn’t merely the fact of my fatherhood.  It wasn’t just the existence of my children, but the children themselves.  Them as individuals, the particular people that they both already are and are growing to be.  There is a certain, inexplicable way that any new person you develop a close association with modifies your course in life, but the way that children do so is more profound, somehow. 

Abraham Lincoln supposedly once said:

All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.

(A shorter version of the quote is also attributed to George Washington.)  So it occurs to me that, if my children are responsible for changing the way I view the world, the ultimate repsonsibility for that lies with their mother.

Now, I’ve explored this concept before, both explicitly and abstractly, but apparently my subconscious felt there was more ground to be covered here.  Perhaps the annual recurrence of a day devoted to the celebration of motherhood was just seeping into the undercarriage of my brain.  Or perhaps my super-ego is trying to tell me that I need to appreciate The Mother a bit more.

On the one hand, it’s silly that I should need to be reminded to do this.  Without her, our children would never get educated, our bills would never get paid, our vacations would never get planned, and very little of our home would ever get improved.  Many of us would never get fed ... or would get fed infrequently, at least.  Tough to take all that for granted.

On the other hand, it can be too easy to forget the details as life goes whipping by.  There’s always something else to quibble over, some point of parenting to disagree about, some monetary issue to agonoize over.  Children can be annoying, whether human or otherwise: they pee on the carpet, spill your giant cup of water, feel sick to their stomachs, require help with video games or Legos or having their nails stuck in blankets ... there’s an endless amount of need to deal with, and sometimes you get lost in it, forgetting to pop your head up every now and again and remember how good you’ve got it.  Because they also curl up on your lap, nuzzle your legs, chase you around the house, challenge you to games, or just sneak up on you while you’re sitting on the sofa and lick your nose.  And none of that—not a single giggle or adoring look or nuzzled neck—would be possible without The Mother.

So one really shouldn’t require an annual day of celebration to remember all these things.  But I suppose one does, if only to force one to stop and ponder.  How much she has given.  Author Elizabeth Stone said:

Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.

Author Debra Ginsberg went further:

Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did—that everything involving our children was painful in some way.  The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain.  The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that—a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.

It’s a lot to risk, bringing a child into the world.  More than thrice as much, to risk bringing three, not even considering those who were lost along the way.  It’s hard, and joyous, and terrifying, and rewarding, and painful, and the most important, vital, life-affirming thing you get in this difficult, bitter world.  I’m lucky enough to have three quite pretty ones, and a mother for them who takes care of them, and of me.  It’s perhaps more than I deserve.  And a lot to be thankful for.

And I am.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

In Search of Better Résumés

Today’s blog is about writing a better résumé.

Having run my own business for 12 years, I certainly saw my share of résumés.  In fact, in my current job, I’ve spent many months working on hiring.  Between the two, I’ve seen hundreds of résumés, and been involved in hiring dozens of candidates.  So I have a bit of experience in this area.

Of course, mine is only one opinion.  Some people are going to agree and others will disagree.  I’ve already been told by one person with some experience in these matters that he didn’t care for my personal résumé format ... too “fancy.”  But my format is informed by several rules that I have when personally reviewing résumés, and I have been, at several points in my career, the guy to impress when you wanted to get a job at my company.  So take that as you will.

Tip #1: Keep it short.  Résumés are almost universally too long.  The truth is that, when you’re faced with reading a dozen résumés a day, you can’t read them all anyway.  You’re going to just scan them.  And, even then, to be terribly terribly honest, I’m usually starting to drift off towards the top of page two.  Do everything in your power to reduce your résumé to one page.  And, realistically, unless you’ve been doing whatever it is you do professionally for a minimum of ten years, this shouldn’t even be difficult.  Having a two or even three page résumé when you’re just a year or two out of college isn’t impressive.  It’s pretentious.  Even at 10+ years, when it ceases to be unbelievable, it’s still unnecessary.

Let’s face it: the vast majority of résumé content is bullshit.  Everyone knows this.  Any decent résumé reviewer also knows this and will completely ignore most of the crap on your résumé anyway.  So don’t give them lots of crap to ignore.  Hit the highlights—that’s all they were really going to read in any case.  And this way you get to decide what the highlights are instead of having the reviewer take their best guess at it.

This year I’ll hit my 26th anniversary as a professional programmer.  I still got my résumé down to a single page.  If I can do it, you can too.  And people are far more likely to read the whole thing at that length.

Tip #2: Focus.  I’m a Perl programmer.  I generally am looking to hire Perl programemrs.  If you send me a résumé with a list of languages on it and Perl isn’t first in the list, I’m setting your résumé aside.  I’ve got plenty of other résumés where Perl is the first language in the list.  I want someone who’s passionate about Perl.  When you bury the lead in the middle of a rote list of languages you know, that doesn’t scream “passionate” to me.

Even worse, don’t put it in the wrong category, and don’t misspell it.  I have seen résumés for Perl jobs where Perl didn’t appear in the list of langauges at all, but in some other category like “Scripting.”  Sure, Perl is a scripting language.  Listing C++ and Java under “Languages” and Perl under “Scripting” isn’t going to win you points for being technically correct.  Even if I were to agree with you that you were technically correct—which I certainly would not—why on earth would I want to hire someone with so obvious a disdain for the language they were looking to be hired for?  And while misspelling anything on your résumé is pretty awful, misspelling the primary focus (e.g. “PERL” instead of “Perl”) is instant death.

And don’t give me any excuses about how you need a single résumé to submit to multiple different jobs.  If you’re seriously applying for more than one different kind of job—perhaps you’re both a Perl programmer and a C++ programmer, or perhaps both a programmer and a QA engineer—then make different résumés.  Even if the only difference is which language you list first, that’s a difference worth making.

Speaking of listing languages, don’t list every language you’ve ever dabbled in.  Hit the top 4 or 5 (or even fewer) and move on.  Remember: just the highlights.  I used to put Fortran on my résumé because I took a course in it once.  In college.  Thirty years ago.  I couldn’t program in Fortran if my life depended on it; why was I putting it on my résumé?  Just to pad.  And since it was tenth in a list of ten languages, I’m sure my reviewers had already decided they were drifting into bullshit territory long before they got there.  So why was I bothering?

Hopefully you can turn these specific examples into general advice.  If not, you probably have more issues than I can reasonably help you with.

Tip #3: Dates.  I don’t read most of the details on a résumé.  You know the one thing I do read?  The dates.  The dates on a job.  I look for particularly long gaps.  I look for how long ago you last worked with this or that.  I look for how long ago your first job was, because that tells me far more precisely how long you’ve been at this than some general “blah-di-blah years of experience” up at the top.

Every job should have a month and year that you started, and a month and year that you ended.  The most recent job (i.e. your current job, if you’re currently employed) should be first, and they should go in reverse chronological order, and your first job should be last.  I may very well jump to the end to see the start date on that first job.  Don’t bother with the exact day; I don’t care that much.  On the other hand, just years may not be fine-grained enough.

If you do have a large gap in employment, don’t try to hide it by leaving dates off altogether.  However bad it may look, I can always imagine worse.  When you don’t put dates on your résumé at all, I can’t see when you did what.  This irks me.  Don’t irk me.

Oh, and by the way: include every job you’ve held in the field you’re trying to get a job in now.  Some people will tell you not to do this.  I’ve been told, for instance, that I shouldn’t bother with my first couple of jobs.  They were a long time ago, after all, and there isn’t much there that’s relevant to my career now.  But when I review résumés, as I said above, I’m going to jump to the end at some point and look at the date on your oldest job.  That’s how long you’ve been in the business.  If you leave off your first job in the field, then I don’t know how long you’ve been doing this.  Do you not want me to know how long you’ve been doing this?

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t need to see (and actively don’t want to see) your jobs outside the field.  It doesn’t matter that you were a dishwasher or a pizza delivery guy or a construction worker or a paperboy.  I could care less.  But if it’s related to what you want to do—even tangentially—put it in there.  Be very brief in your description, since it doesn’t much matter and I’m likely not going to read it anyway, but put it in there.

Tip #4: Nobody cares about ...  Remember how, in high school, your teachers and your principal and your guidance counselor told you that your school record would follow you around for the rest of your life?  They lied.  I have never told a single person in my entire life what my high school grade point average was.  I never even put it on my college applications, although I’m sure they got it from the high school records upon request.  I have also never told a single person what my college grade point average was.  I don’t even remember what either of them were any more, to be honest.  I used to tell people what I made on the SATs every now and again, until I realized there were plenty of people in the world who had done better than I had and I should just shut up about it.  But I’ve never told an employer what it was, and I’ve never been asked.

I do not care what your grade on anything was.  It’s beyond irrelevant.  I also do not care what your hobbies are.  Some people will tell you that interesting personal details like this make you stand out.  They do not.  They make reviewers wonder why the hell you are telling them this.

One other thing: I have never called a personal reference.  Ever.  And I never will.  If you put them down on your résumé, they like you.  No, more than that: they adore you.  If you put someone down on your résumé as a personal reference who does not adore you, then you are a moron.  If you are a moron, I’m not going to hire you anyway, and I don’t need a bad personal reference to figure that out, so it’s a waste of time to call them.  If you are not a moron, any personal reference I call is going to tell me how utterly awesome you are, and I know they’re going to say that ahead of time, so it’s a waste of time to call them.  I don’t have time to waste.  I have hundreds of résumés to review, remember?

Tip #5: But they do care about ...  Every field is going to have a few unique things that don’t fit into a standard résumé format.  For me, it’s a link to my blog (my technical blog) and a list of the CPAN modules I maintain.  For you it might be professional organizations, or certifications, or who knows what all.  Put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes.  Pretend that you were going to hire a coworker.  If you had to work with someone for the next several years, what would you want to know about them besides all the other places they’d worked?  Would you really care where they went to school and what they majored in?  (There are perhaps some jobs where you would, but probably not.)  What about articles they’d written?  (Probably so, but then again maybe not.)  Only you, or someone else in your field, can answer this question.

Tip #6: Contact info.  Please, for the love of all that is holy, put your phone number and your email address on your résumé.  And absolutely under no circumstances allow your recruiter, if you must use one, to remove them.  Nothing frustrates me more than a résumé for someone I can’t contact.  And do not put either one or the other.  Put both.  Some people like phone calls.  Some people (like me) prefer emails.  You don’t know which type is going to end up with your résumé; don’t risk pissing off half of your potential reviewers.

Tip #7: Review.  Everything you ever write you must review.  Never, ever, under any circumstances, let a single thing that you write leave your possession without rereading it.  Nothing.  Not a letter, not a report, not an email, not an instant message.  And absolutely positively not something as vital as a résumé.  A résumé should be reread several times.  In fact, you should reread it before you send it to anyone.  Every time you send it to anyone.  You will constantly find mistakes or areas of improvement in your résumé, even when it’s been around for years and you’ve read over it hundreds of times.  Read it again.  You’ll find something else.  Pick apart the spelling, the punctuation, the grammar.  Give it to friends to read for you.  Pick the people you know who write the best and make them help you.  Read it aloud to yourself and listen to yourself.  Any time you hear yourself stumble over something, change it.

Tip #8: Don’t be afraid to experiment.  There is something to the idea that your résumé can be too over-the-top.  But there’s a long way to go before you go too far.  Résumés are depressingly similar, and when you have to go through hundreds of them, they all start to blur.  Anything that sets yours apart is far more likely to be positive than negative.  Look at it this way: even if the reviewer doesn’t like the risks you take, they’ll remember them.  I got a résumé once completely written in a strange, futuristic font.  I made fun of it mercilessly, but I still remember that candidate’s name.  Moreover, in the process of making fun of it mercilessly, I showed it to everyone in the office.  That’s the sort of exposure you can’t buy.

Once upon a time, people might recommend that you put your résumé on some sort of unique paper: pink, perhaps, or a heavier bond.  Nowadays everything is electronic, though.  Of course, you can do things with an electronic format that would be difficult or impractical to do on paper, if you have the skills.  You could, for instance, make your own watermark.  Or add a detailed image to your résumé, if that might have value.  You can definitely take this one too far—if you could somehow rig it so that, whenever I opened your résumé, a .wav file of the 1812 Overture played, I would consider that to be the résumé equivalent of the dreaded blink tag, and I would see you in hell before I saw you in the workplace.  But there’s a hell of a lot of room to play in before you reach that point.  Try it out on your friends before you try it out on an employer, if you’re worried.

Putting it all together.  So do I practice what I preach?  Well, here’s my résumé so you can judge for yourself.  Note that it all fits on one page, despite having quite a few years to fit on there.  In order to make that happen, I went with the two-column format, which is the experimental part.  I included a few things that some résumés don’t; I excluded a bunch of things many résumés have.  All my programming jobs are listed, and they all have dates.  Every job (except the first few, which are listed last) also includes exactly what technical things I was doing, so that anyone can see how old my experience with this or that is, or how long I’ve been continuously working with something.  My technical skills section has gone from being a long list of long lists to being a short, singular batch of bullet points, with only the top-tier skills listed.  And Perl is first, because that’s the sort of job I want to get.  And I’ve read it over and over again a hundred times.  At least.

In fact, the only piece of my own advice I didn’t take was including my phone number.  This is because I am a grumpy old man who doesn’t particularly care for phone calls, and I can afford to eliminate those people who can’t operate their email.  But this is definitely one of those do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do things.

So, there’s some advice on how to present your résumé, from someone who has some experience in those sorts of things.  Take it or not, as you please.  In fact, now that I think on it, the more people who listen to this advice, the fewer résumés I can toss aside without having to do phone screens.  So, actually, don’t take my advice.  Haven’t I told you not to read this damn blog?  Stubborn bastards.