How to talk to recruiters at a career fair

Last week two other Twilio engineers and I went to the Columbia engineering career fair. We had a great time and talked to a lot of really smart people. However I was surprised at some of the naive mistakes students made when we were talking. We're there to try to hire students and students are there to try and get internships and jobs, so we desperately want it to work out. As a student, here are some things to avoid when you are talking to a recruiter.

  • Are you hiring full time software engineers? I am looking for a full time position, here is my resume - This question demonstrates a high degree of naïveté. First, the market for programming talent is absolutely on fire right now and everyone is looking for talented people. It's also safe to assume we are at the career fair because we are trying to recruit people for full time positions.

    Second, especially as a small company, we are looking for people who are passionate about what we are doing. It's good to talk about cool things you've done, but at some level you have to express interest in what we are doing, or tie your skills back to how they'd fit in at our company.

    Maybe fifteen people asked me this "are you hiring" question during the fair and most of them were ESL students. I know these students are very bright, and I understand it can be nerve wracking for them to speak to recruiters, but it was very difficult for us to get a read on whether someone would be a good fit, based on how the conversations went. For us, that translates to a "no phone screen".

  • I love programming Java - This is a red flag for us. There is nothing wrong with Java per se, but it's a language that's hard to get excited about. It's also the language students have been using for class, which tells us that you might not do that much programming/learning outside of class (another red flag).

    The other big problem is Java probably has the worst signal to noise ratio of any language on students' resumes nowadays; a higher ratio of students with, say, Haskell experience are good candidates than students who mention Java. Two people who have covered this topic in much better detail than me are Paul Graham and Yaron Minsky.

    The one exception to this rule is if you have experience with advanced Java programs like Hadoop or Asterisk (we are a telecom company and use Asterisk extensively). In this case definitely tell us about your Java experience.

  • You're wearing a suit At some career fairs almost everyone is wearing suits so it's not a big deal if you are also wearing one. That said, I went out of my way to talk to people wearing jeans because a) it indicated they're not interested in jobs where they'd like to see you wearing a suit, and b) it indicated they were confident enough in yourself and your skill set to ignore the vast numbers of people wearing suits. So at least if you are looking for a job at a small tech company, don't be afraid to wear something more comfortable.

  • I don't really know what I want to do - Like the suits, you are young and it's fine if you don't know what you want to do yet. The problem is that we have three specific teams and while we are talking, I am trying to figure out which team you would be the best fit for. Sometimes this can be hard and good people will fall through because we don't know where to put you. It really helps if you express a strong preference that matches the skills on your resume, then I know what team to have you interview with and have a sense you'll be happy.

    If you are not sure, one good strategy is to rotate - tell one company you'd like to do frontend work, tell the next you'd like to work on mobile and tell the third company you'd like to work on big data. Next summer (or in your spare time) you can try out something different.

  • Here's my resume, looking forward to a phone screen - Even if you are an exceptional candidate, this will not get you a phone screen at most small companies. Here is the deal. The Google, Facebook and LinkedIn recruiters have little say in whether you get an interview or not. They are there to hand out pens, collect resumes and answer basic questions about internships/full time opportunities. You'll be encouraged to apply online.

    When you talk to smaller companies at career fairs, the engineers you are talking to are actively evaluating you and making decisions about whether to advance you through the screening process. The stakes are much higher and you should consider it like a culture fit interview. You should do your research, try out the company's product, read through blog posts to figure out what sort of stack they use, etc. Then when you are talking, be sure to bring up parts of your experience that match up. For example, green flags for us are when students mention experience at hackathons, experience using Twilio in the past, or experience with HTTP/API's/writing web applications. So don't expect you can just drop a resume and get an interview - at a small company that won't fly.

Hopefully these help somewhat. Two things to keep in mind are, these are things we look for as a small Internet company - if you want to work at an Internet giant, or in a different industry, my advice would be much different. Second, I might have sounded critical above, but we all really want you to do well - we love talking to great people, and it makes interviewing and screening much more pleasant. Third, we're hiring! I hope you found this article helpful, and I hope you check us out - twilio.com/jobs.

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