From the job description to the final offer, here’s how to avoid getting stuck in a dead-end coding gig
By Paul Heltzel
InfoWorld | JUN 12, 2017
A new programming gig can be a great path forward—or a dead end you didn’t see coming. Not everyone caught in a heads-down job at a coding sweatshop knows that’s what they were in for when they agreed to the job. So, if you’re one of the 75 percent of developers open to new job opportunities, how can you tell if a new development gig is a good fit before you sign on? Or, more to the point, what’s the best way to avoid a disastrous new coding job?
To weigh these questions, multiple factors come into play: job satisfaction, including regular hours and the amount of crunch time worked; salary and benefits; satisfaction with the product; and work-life balance. We sought expert opinion and hard-fought wisdom from tech pros who’ve made their way to leadership and software engineering in various phases of their careers.
What we found is, yes, there are in fact red flags in these areas—and positive signs to look for—as you investigate a new job, from the listing to the interview to negotiating your salary.
Here’s how to avoid a heads-down gig and stagnation while others move on—and up.
What to watch for in the job listing
Consider this scenario: You’ve done the smart thing and signed up for job alerts to get a sense of the market and what positions are most in demand before you need a new job. You get a tempting job alert that mentions a series of requirements, desirable skills, and benefits, and you want to read between the lines. Can you get a sense of the work environment just from the job post?
Bob Hadick, president of recruiter Russ Hadick and Associates, says there are potential red flags to look for in the job description. “Pay attention to the number of technologies they list,” Hadick says. “If they list a lot, such as C/C++, Java, C#, etc., then you know they either have multiple products written in different languages, which either shows a lack of structure and modularity, or that they are in transition of going to another language and have legacy products in other languages.”
Although the listing might offer some insight into what to expect, it can be deceiving. A job that looks good on paper may be hiding a range of work-related problems. “I remember during an executive job search, I came across a job listing that was a perfect fit—it almost seemed as if I had written the job posting myself,” says Shawn Kessler, senior director of technical operations at AgileCraft. “I landed the job. The catch? It became arguably the lowest point of my career. I entered an environment of extreme micromanagement, lack of corporate vision and strategy, toxic politics, and archaic—and sometimes brutal—policies. The job listing, as well as the interviews, could never have prepared me for the chaos I encountered.”
The job came to an abrupt end when nearly a third of the staff were laid off, including Kessler, but the upside came when he got his next job. “It was the best, most rewarding gig in my career—filled with loyal and compassionate co-workers, a clear path for growth and development, a killer product, and a work environment that promoted collaboration and agility. Oh, and that gig didn’t come with a job listing at all—it was obtained through informal conversations and a handshake with a progressive entrepreneur.”
If you think you do want the job, your head may be swirling from the list of requirements or the level of experience preferred. But if you otherwise think the position is a good fit, charge ahead, says Jean-François Lemire, senior practice manager of application development at Teksystems.
“Hiring managers often put a laundry list of skills into the requirement section,” Lemire says. “If the job sounds like one you can do and you have most of the traits or equivalent skills, apply anyway. Many job descriptions are outdated or were written by HR, so if you’re working with a recruiter, ask what else they learned from talking to the hiring manager and other candidates they’ve placed there.”
What to watch for in the recruiting
Sizing up a development gig can be difficult when you’re unfamiliar with the company and its culture—or the recruiter. But if you don’t have a personal connection to the place, there are some things to look for.
Kamrin Klauschie, senior career developer for Dev Bootcamp San Francisco, warns that a take-home project “with little scope or context can often signal that a company may be using your code in the actual product, especially if it’s a small startup without funding.”
She also says to keep an eye out for a nontechnical company co-founder building his or her dream project. “It’s usually not what it’s cracked up to be, because that person should have some technical knowledge themselves and be willing to put in the effort.”
Some aspects of the job sold as benefits may, at least in some cases, mostly benefit the company. It’s all in the execution, so find out what you can from others who’ve worked there or ask around once you step in the office. For example, “all the rage lately is ‘unlimited vacation,’ which is basically reverse psychology for ‘no one takes time off and neither should you,’” says Katy Martin, career developer at Dev Bootcamp Chicago. “In the interview, be sure to ask the interviewer how many days on average employees take in vacation time if the company has an unlimited policy.”
Also be warned that having unlimited vacation, as some developers have found when they move to their next job, means the firm won’t cut you a check for unused time.
What to watch for in the interview
As you sit down for your first meeting, you want to get a sense of the corporate worldview when offered a chance to ask questions. You’ll be spending a lot of time—maybe too much time—with your new co-workers.
“I always ask what the team culture and company environment is like,” says Laura Thorson, a partner engineer at Facebook. “After a bad experience at one company, I decided that it was a nonnegotiable question for me. And depending on the job, you may be traveling with these co-workers—spending even more time with them. So it’s critical that you like each other. Perhaps you won’t become best friends, but you want to ensure that they respect you, that they will support you, and that you will feel comfortable when you come to work every morning.”
Be ready to ask questions that will give you a sense of the team’s attitude toward work-life balance. You may talk to nearly half a dozen managers and potential co-workers, so use that time to find out how they operate and plan to work with you. “Depending on how closely you may have to work with some of them, do you have similar or very different work styles?” Thorson says. “Do they have a fairly positive or negative disposition? Do they seem to be excited about their role/job/future or are they sort of over it? While you might not have a ton of time to determine all of their personality traits, most people can get a good feel for how a particular person is the minute they meet them. Go with your gut.”
And keep in mind you’re signing up for a job, not your last job. There may be some upside, even if you do end up sweating a bit if it leads to a later, better gig. “It may not be your dream job, but if it’s one that can launch you to that dream job, it may be worth taking,” Thorson says. “In my experience, the job that I disliked the most ended up being the catalyst for eventually getting me to my dream job with a dream company. I literally put my head down and worked so hard that I was the top performer on my team every month. Because of that, I was able to get some opportunities to work on high-visibility projects within the company, and I used that work and those numbers to prove in my next interview that I was a great candidate—and I ultimately got that next job. So, while that isn’t always the case, sometimes the heads-down—seemingly dead-end—gigs have more long-term benefits than initially meet the eye, so be discerning when making that choice.”
What to watch for to avoid a sweat shop
Disorganization is the calling card of a badly run firm and it’s the most frequently mentioned red flag by our experts. It can be painfully obvious from the start: From the listing to the daily grind, a lack of focus and clear direction could mean you’re heading into the development equivalent of a sweatshop. And, for those who sign on, it leads to increased crunch time, burnout, and attrition.
“When I was a new grad, eager for my first job in high tech, I remember being extremely wary of development and programming sweatshops,” says AgileCraft’s Kessler. “Several of my friends had already taken jobs as heads-down coders, working insane hours under taskmaster supervisors. For some of these friends, it actually became a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they were so tired, burned out, and depressed in their jobs that they didn’t have the energy or time to search for a new gig. So they remained there, unhappy and stagnant, for years.”
Kessler has a short list of warning signs. Lots of contractors and high turnover? Not good. Low wages in a high-wage field and location? Also a bad sign. And if the company seems overly eager to sign you up right away, you might think about looking elsewhere.
The warning signs often start with the first personal encounter. “Sweatshops usually lack the appropriate focus that should be given to an interview process,” says Lemire. “So watch for interviewers who get distracted by phone calls or answer text messages during the interview. An interview that is conducted by someone who is too general or doesn’t know much about the position is also a red flag. Sweatshops won’t usually focus on training their employees or career progression. So ask questions on coaching, training, and the average tenure. Make sure that you are feeling like you are not just another check in a box.”
What to watch for in an onsite tour
Not every firm will offer an onsite tour, but if you’re given the chance to look around before the job offer, take it. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Andres Seminara, an automation engineer at Belatrix Software, says he prefers to check out the office around noon or whenever the employees are typically having a lunch break. Or not having a break, depending on how overworked they are.
“I can see firsthand how the employees are, how the environment is—relaxed or stressed—and what the atmosphere is like. It gives a lot away especially if employees don’t take lunch, or seem to not talk to each other; that could be a sign that they may be under work pressure,” Seminara says.
“Check for the overall vibe and ask yourself if you would work in such an environment,” says Teksystems’ Lemire. “Are there a lot of people around? Are people talking or collaborating with each other? Is there a common area for people to gather like a cafeteria? Are people friendly with you? Also, make sure that the work environment matches with what was said during the interview.”
Facebook’s Thorson looks for visual cues—including the office layout and the employees’ body language—when she’s sizing up a firm. “Does the office have enough light? Are there enough windows? Are people in the work area talking to one another and looking like they’re enjoying themselves, or do they look rather miserable? Be observant when you are in the space and when you are talking to your interviewers. If people are putting on a charade, they generally can’t do it for very long, so you should be able to notice the cracks in the façade fairly quickly.”
What to watch for in the offer
If you do decide to move forward with a new gig, you obviously will weigh salary, title, and benefits. But you also want to think about the overall health of the firm as well as some other factors that can help you make sense of what’s on the table.
“For me, it was always more important to evaluate the team and supervisors I would be working with when judging an offer,” says Kessler. “Compatibility with teammates and bosses—building meaningful relationships and working together to solve problems and reach goals—is what tipped the scales for me. Nothing is more efficient than a cohesive team with a sense of purpose.”
Seminara says he considers three factors when measuring the offer: “If the company has a relaxed environment, offers a competitive salary, and a chance to build a strong career. If two of the three aspects are fulfilled, I will consider moving forward with the offer.”
How this last step is handled may show your firm’s true colors, says Dev Bootcamp’s Klauschie: “Especially if there are signs of manipulation or aggression. The negotiation should be an expected, straightforward process that’s not too stressful or pressure-filled on either side.”