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Engineering Job Fair, a recruiters retrospective and 5 CTO’s talk about job interviews

How to score an engineering interview

The engineering job fair, a recruiter’s perspective

I just attended a great engineering job fair in the capacity of a recruiter. This event was complete with a booth, stand-up signage, and free swag.  This particular fair was hosted by CodeFellows, a boot camp for developers run by Andy Sack and Brad Bouse. This was an effort to do something about the tech talent shortage in Seattle.   CodeFellows is a 4-week Ruby on Rails boot camp with instruction and mentorship.  At the end of the boot camp, they guarantee you will land a job that pays at least $60K.  I really like the idea but I liked their job fair even more.  This job fair reflected the mentality of these entrepreneurs and mentors.  CodeFellows is not just about technical chops but about professional development as well.

I have been to a lot of engineering job fairs, and very few of them offer something beyond rows of recruiters behind booths.  This one did. I hope I see more job fairs with this format.  This job fair was different because they brought in a keynote speaker.  In addition to the keynote, there was a panel of 5 CTOs from around the Seattle area.  Both the keynote and the panel were there to discuss the topic of “How to land a software engineering job.”  The keynote speaker was Rand Fishkin, CEO at SEOMoz and a father figure in the startup community known for his transparency and SEO smarts.

Why you should and should not

Rand gave several reasons on why you SHOULD work for a start-up. He also shared why you SHOULDN’T work for a startup.  He then addressed one of the more common mistakes that candidates make in an interview.  I would concur with the Wizard of Moz.  One of the most common mistakes candidates commit is coming to an interview without research on the hiring company.

“Tell me what your company does” is an interview question asked by many candidates and one that will kill any interview.

The CTO panel at this engineering job fair was a who’s who in the startup community.  As much as I was surprised to see all of these guys in one room at the same time, it didn’t surprise me knowing how much Klout that Andy and Brad carry.  It was really interesting to hear how similar the attitude of these 5 CTOs was towards hiring. From a recruiting perspective, I wished this section went on longer than it did. 

In talking to candidates visiting the booth after the panel, they all walked away with a lot of job interview nuggets and “ah-ha” moments. I thought it would be worth of sharing here. I will be paraphrasing here, but hopefully, you get the idea. There was definitely a theme to what Rand and the 5 CTOs were throwing down.  Even if you are NOT a software engineer, the following advice is pertinent to all job seekers.

CTO Panel

The first question was directed to Jeff Malek, CTO of BigDoor.  What do you look for when hiring a software engineer?

I feel fortunate to know Jeff Malek, and if you spend just 2 minutes on Jeff’s site you can tell he is not only a technical badass but a thoughtful intellectual with a big heart.  Don’t let the geek side of the content gloss you over.  This shit is entertaining. I personally don’t get 4/5’s of the stuff on the site, but that only makes him even more of a heavy hitter in my book.  I really liked his answer. He explained it with a balance of seriousness and business logic. He then finished off with a flourish that few could pull off in public.  Jeff looks for the following 5 qualities in a software engineer:

  • Fire: Do you have a natural curiosity and drive
  • Agility:  Are you Agile?  Can you change direction quickly, productively
  • Adaptability:  Startup is ever-changing, can you adapt
  • Ability:  Does the candidate have the tech chops
  • Communication:  Clear cut communication, a lack of verbosity

You can read more details about his philosophy here, but the piece de resistance, the bow with a flourish via the wave of the hand at the end of his answer, went something like this:  “We at BigDoor give a FAAAC!!!”  Yes, it was “nasty.”

Do your homework

I really liked what the CTO at SEOMoz, Anthony Skinner had to say about hiring engineers. I am paraphrasing, but he told the audience what he appreciated in a recent interview. He explained that when the candidate came to the interview it was clear they did their homework.  The candidate knew about the company, the product, and the culture. Because he came prepared, he was able to ask a number of thoughtful questions of the interviewers. 

Through this process of answering and asking questions, he proved that he had most of the skill sets needed to do the job. The icing on this cake is that because of his research, he could also confirm what skill sets he did NOT have. He then laid out a plan to show how he would acquire the skills necessary to be successful in the role. 

I have been through a few interviews in my time, but even I hadn’t heard of this move.  This move would be considered “nasty” in my book. I appreciate Mr. Skinner sharing the story. Usually, the company is worried about what it will take to bring a candidate up to speed. Rarely does the candidate take the initiative or have the confidence to show the path to goal.  Yes, the candidate was hired and pointed out in the audience.


The topic of Passion was a familiar theme in this panel.  It was mentioned via Fire in Malek’s answer above.  All of the CTO’s explained that they want to work with employees that are passionate about what they do. You don’t get that kind of attitude with an employee that thinks 9-5.  One CTO described passion as:

“What would you do if you could do that thing all day?” 

Another CTO mentioned that it is very easy to demonstrate passion via side projects.  He explained that passion is one of the easiest metrics to measure.

“If what you are doing AFTER 9-5 is the same thing you do during your 9-5, that is passion.  Show me what you do AFTER 9-5.” 

After 5 pm, I am writing this blog. Passion. 

Guaranteed interview

Another CTO stated that if you create something using our technology, I will guarantee you an interview.  This is a personal preference on the part of the CTO, but again, it was a way to show a higher level of engagement with the company of interest.  This CTO was very specific.  He explained that the project doesn’t have to be elaborate, just show me that what we do interests you enough to take the time to play with our sh**.

Towards the end of the panel, the CTO of Simply Measure, Damon Cortesi grabbed the mic and explained to the crowd that you should “get drunk and write a cover letter to explain your passion.”  You can take it any way you want, but I took away a couple of ideas:

  1. Despite the general attitude towards Cover Letters, used effectively, they are read, and they work.
  2. Just like writing a girl you are interested in, sometimes it takes a couple of glasses of wine or depending on how you roll, a “forty” to screw up your courage to lay your passion out there.  Whatever it takes, go for it.

Credibility for an outsider

A couple of other points were brought up regarding “getting an interview as a software developer. I thought would reinforce past blog posts.

  • Create a GitHub account and establish your credibility there.  This is a great place to showcase code for others to view.  List this account on your resume.
  • “Referrals are an easy in”.  If you can have someone make an introduction for you, that ALWAYS removes barriers to entry.

Overall, it was an engineering job fair.  We met a lot of interesting candidates, and it was cool to support the community.  Hopefully, the above nuggets will reinforce to you what a senior-level hiring manager is looking for.

My thoughts on how to get an interview from a job fair here:

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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