Job Hunting in the Internet Age

A Techwise Conversation with Mike Junge, Google’s senior recruiter

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Few things have changed as much as looking for a job. In a way, it’s all Google’s fault. We’ve gone from an information-scarce world, in which the hardest thing was finding jobs you might be right for, to an information-rich world in which the hardest thing is standing out from the hordes of people who might also be right.

And yet, there are people who seem to thrive in the new employment marketplace. We’ve all seen them—the ones who land great job after great job. And we see the ones—sometimes the same ones—who rise through the corporate hierarchy as if their careers were filled with helium. Once we get over the intense pangs of envy these overachievers engender deep within our breasts, the natural thought is, How do I become one of them?

I said it’s all Google’s fault, so it’s only fair that the answer lies over at the Googleplex as well. My guest today is Mike Junge. He’s Google’s senior recruiter and the author of a new book entitled Purple Squirrel: Stand Out, Land Interviews, and Master the Modern Job Market. He joins us by phone from his office in Mountain View, California, where it’s 8 a.m. there. Mike, good morning, and welcome to the podcast.

Mike Junge: Morning, Steven. Thanks so much for having me this morning.

Steven Cherry: Mike, let’s start with the title. Who were the purple squirrels?

Mike Junge: Yeah, so that’s an interesting question in itself. So “purple squirrel” is a phrase that we use in the recruiting industry, almost like someone would say “running on a wild goose chase.” It’s a way that we describe hard-to-find talent. So when clients turn us on to a search that’s particularly challenging, we say that they’re having a search for purple squirrels.

Steven Cherry: So companies write ads for purple squirrels because they’re dizzy with the idea that a million job seekers are going to see their job listing?

Mike Junge: You know, I think it’s an excellent question as well. I think people are always looking to get as much out of each hire as they can. And writing complex job specs gives you a higher probability of coming up with that one candidate that brings a little bit something more to the equation.

Steven Cherry: So if an employer does get, you know, hundreds and hundreds of resumes nowadays, from the job seeker’s point of view, what’s the best strategy to get noticed?

Mike Junge: Well, I think the phrase “get noticed” is really a big part of the equation. From my personal perspective, and speaking as an individual, I think it’s far better to actually be found as a job seeker than to be good at applying. Even as companies are accepting lots and lots of applications, almost always they’re also proactively searching for talent. And being effective at both, being able to stand out as an applicant, and attract the attention of the people who are out hunting for talent, I think that balance is really where the magic starts to happen.

Steven Cherry: So are there any strategies for that?

Mike Junge: Yeah, a big piece of it is understanding the marketplace which you work in. So you set the context really nicely, in that there’s enormous amounts of information available these days. You have to go to the strategies for how would you find any kind of information. If you were to go to your search, your favorite search engine or—let’s just say your favorite search engine—and you wanted to find information, what would you do? You’d type in a search string. You’d come up with some sort of query that’s designed to bring back specifically relevant results. The same thing is happening when people are looking for talent. They’re looking for specific words, phrases, ideas to show up in a résumé that lets them know that they’re on the right track. So when you build your résumé it’s really useful to know what those words and phrases are. And I think a great place to start is by reading lots of job descriptions. Not just to find out if you want to apply to the jobs but also to get a real sense of what your market is looking for. What is it that you’ve done that other people are searching for, and how do they describe, and what phrases did they use to capture the essence of what it is that you’ve done. And the more that you can build them into a résumé, the more likely you are to catch the attention of the people reading résumés and looking for talent.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, your book devotes a fair amount of time to the sort of new world of résumés. And one thing that caught my eye is the résumé starts to look a little bit like, I don’t know, a magazine article, where, you know, all of the really important information is right at the top.

Mike Junge: Yeah, so because there’s so much information available, you’ve got a really limited window of opportunity to catch the attention of a résumé reader. If, me personally, if I click on a résumé, and I don’t see content almost immediately, you know, within the first half page to a page, that seems appropriate and relevant to a particular, the particular search that I’m working on, I’m probably going to be onto the next résumé before I ever get to page two. And I think that’s a commonality across the industry. There’s so much information available that you have a really, you have to use that finite window of opportunity to catch the attention of someone reading.

Steven Cherry: Your book mentions hybrid titles. What are they?

Mike Junge: That’s a great question. So hybrid titles…so where this starts really is companies have unique naming conventions. Everyone talks about similar types of work in somewhat different ways. So you can go into one company and it’s a systems engineer, and another it’s a software engineer, and another it’s an engineer four, and another it’s a database engineer. So a hybrid title allows you to use the title that’s given. So your company calls you whatever they call you—let’s just say sales, sales engineer, sales specialist. But what you’re really doing is engineering and building applications for, let’s say, Windows databases, SQL Server. A hybrid title would allow you to say, you know, sales engineer, and then throw a slash or a parentheses, and then Sequel Server database engineering. And because that, the tag, the second part of the phrase is more specific and relevant to the people hunting for talent, there’s a good chance that it’ll capture a broader audience.

Steven Cherry: And you actually recommend tailoring the résumé to a specific job that you’re applying for.

Mike Junge: Yeah, to some extent, yes. Most certainly. Particularly after someone’s been in the industry for a period of time. You gain so many skills and experiences. You work on a variety of projects. Capturing all of that and presenting it precisely in a single-version document is really challenging. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s possible.

Steven Cherry: In the book you talk about making yourself visible on social networks. Is LinkedIn the most important for a job seeker, or are there others that are more important?

Mike Junge: From my personal perspective, absolutely. I think it’s really starting to gain—LinkedIn specifically is starting to gain a lot of traction as a dominant recruiting source in the industry. The others I think have really interesting potential. Particularly as the ability to build out robust profiles, and companies attempt more and more to engage with their, you know, with job applicants through social media, the opportunities for that being a viable medium are going to continue to expand, but as of right now, I would say LinkedIn is the most valuable place to invest energy as a job seeker.

Steven Cherry: So once you do get noticed, the next hurdle is generally the interview.

Mike Junge: Yeah, I think preparation is absolutely key. And I tend to break preparation into a couple of key components. The first and maybe the most important is really to own your own background. By that I mean being able to speak intelligently and articulately about everything you’ve done as a professional. Particularly the things that are recent, but you should be able to dive into any project or initiative that you’ve been a part of and talk clearly and specifically about what you’ve done, the role you’ve played, how you did it, why you did it, what the outcome was, what you learned. And be able to do that on the fly, without a lot of umms and and hums and hesitations. That can be a process in itself. So I really strongly recommend that people take the time to dig into their own backgrounds.

Steven Cherry: You have a really cool story in the book about a guy who was maybe the most prepared you’d ever seen, and he walked into the interview with a portfolio book. And you know, I think about that as something that, you know, art, you know, graphic designers bring a portfolio, sometimes even a journalist will bring in a book of clips, but I don’t think of an engineer as having a portfolio.

Mike Junge: Yeah, well, I found it to be really an—it was remarkably impressive, partly because he tailored what he showed me in his portfolio specifically to my interests at that particular time. An engineer—there’s so many things that an engineer can put into a portfolio. And it depends a lot on what type of engineering it is. And there’s, the world is pretty broad. But you know, it can be code if it’s software, it can be a finished product if it’s hardware or mechanical, it can be snapshots throughout the process. It can be personal projects that you’ve done in your own time, just demonstrating how you go through your process. It can be any of a hundred things. Personally, when I, in building a portfolio, I really recommend people build it almost the way that they would go about achieving their normal, day-to-day job. So if it’s starting with requirements, what is the goal or the expectation, and then how do you document, how do you break that down into smaller tidbits, and then showing the work, so that you can, at any stage of the process, demonstrate what you’ve done and how you’ve done it, in a tangible, meaningful way.
Steven Cherry: Mike, Google is famous for interviewers asking strange questions in an interview: What’s the angle on the hands on a clock at 3:15, or how many piano tuners are there in the world? But it seems like a lot of companies are doing this nowadays. Do you have any advice for handling those kinds of questions?

Mike Junge: Yes. I mean, actually, it’s one of my favorite things that I see people doing is trying to figure out some key skill related to the particular job, and test or evaluate that skill in an interview context. As a salesperson, that could be actually mocking a sales call or going out on a sales call. As an engineer, that may be demonstrating the ability to evaluate and break down and solve a problem.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, and I guess what interviewers really want to hear is how you talk through the problem more than any actual solution.

Mike Junge: Yeah, oftentimes they really want to see your mind at work.

Steven Cherry: So once you have a job, sometimes you want to move up in the same company, and a portion of your book is devoted to that as well.

Mike Junge: Yeah, so that’s what I call getting on the fast track, or being a fast-track professional. Most top performers find ways to make a difference, not just in the way that they want to make a difference but in the way that other people want them to make a difference. They find out what’s important to their customers or their bosses, and then they figure out how to deliver to that. I think it’s one of the real secrets to success is figuring out how to deliver what other people are looking for. And to do so effectively.

Steven Cherry: I gather that your understanding of hiring, a hiring manager is that he’s looking for specific skills but also specific attitudes. Basically a devotion to the job, the ability to do hard work, things like that. And you can do that in your current job and make yourself stand out.

Mike Junge: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, the more you approach your day job with a great attitude, looking for ways to make a difference, looking for ways to be helpful, looking to be someone that others want to work with—I talk about that a little bit in the book as well—is being someone that others want to work with. That creates, that opens all kinds of doors. The cool projects go to the people that others like working with—and the ones that are talented—but being someone that others can work with and enjoy working with goes a pretty long way as well.

Steven Cherry: You mention a fast track, and your book chapters often end with something you call fast-track challenges. In fact, the book is really pretty clearly structured. Tell us about the fast-track challenges.

Mike Junge: So those are simple exercises that are designed to take the concepts of the book and put them into practice. So that it’s not just theoretical, it’s something that you do. And they’re all simple—simple things that have been proven to work in the real world. And I think it’s one of the things that really makes the book valuable.

Steven Cherry: You know, you’re the third book author we’ve had in about three months, and partly that’s a coincidence, and partly it’s because I think an author interview can be more interesting than a book review. But at any rate, I’m going to ask you a question that, as it came up with the other two authors. One of them was self published, and the other one went the sort of traditional publisher route, you know, even though he gave the manuscript to the publisher at the same time as his wife got pregnant, and the baby won that race by a wide margin.

Mike Junge: Yeah. The self-publishing world is really agile. Pretty fantastic the, you know, the barriers to entry, and the speed and effectiveness at which you can bring new information and material to the market is pretty extraordinary.

Steven Cherry: You not only went the e-book route, you went directly with Amazon, I guess.

Mike Junge: I did. I think—so, there’s advantages to both. I think the traditional publishing world, you know, the distribution, and if you want the book on bookshelves, I think that’s probably the clear winner. If timing and speed and control over your own work are significantly important to you, then, you know, the self-publishing route really opens a lot of doors and creates a lot of options that didn’t used to exist for authors.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, we’ll…Thanks for writing the book, and thanks for joining us today.

Mike Junge: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Mike Junge, Google’s senior recruiter and the author of a new book entitled Purple Squirrel, about mastering the modern job market. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

A correction to this article was made on 02 March 2012.

This interview was recorded 22 February 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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