Show me the love

As I write this, there are a large number of people out of work in Ireland, and all over the world. Many people are applying for jobs, and feeling more and more discouraged when they don’t get them. Some people are using their time to learn, so that they can spice up their cv.

Like everyone, I can only hypothesise about what will make someone stand out from the crowd, and help them get a job in what is, ostensibly, a very difficult market. I only know from my own experience of getting, and then changing jobs, what worked for me. I’m going to share it, in the hopes that it will help someone out there to find a new direction.

Being completely honest (as I generally try to be!), I never really thought I would be a professional web designer. I always expected that it would be something I would do “on the side”, as a hobby, while I worked either in a biology lab, or as a programmer for a company like IBM. Having a career in web design seemed hopelessly out of reach, particularly when I looked at the professional companies I saw all around me. I recall that, during my final year of college, I sat with a group of friends as we discussed our prospects after college. Most of them were applying for further education (post graduate programmes, Masters programmes, etc.). I had toyed with the idea of doing so, but had decided that I wanted to work (at least for a while) in order to fund some things. While talking to them, I was suddenly gripped with some pretty big anxiety – they all seemed to know exactly what they were doing and where they were going, and here I was, without a job, or a clue. I decided I’d better get myself in gear, or else I’d be swimming in a see of graduates, without even a notion of where to start.

The first thing I did was sit down and update my cv, to include my work (part time) to date, along with some personal projects I’d worked on (web and graphic design projects for friends, family, and eventually a greater extended network). I included my academic experience to date, made sure that it was concise and comprehensive, and then, just to see what was out there, I put it up on Monster.ie. I think that day, my view of my prospects changed completely. Over the next week or two, I received many calls and emails – so many that I made my cv private again on Monster. It didn’t give me a clear cut path after college, nor did it get me an immediate job (as I was unwilling to leave college before completion of my degree, regardless of the interviews offered), but what it did do was show me that I had options, many more than I had imagined.

Fast-forward approximately 12 months. I was working for a small start up web design company. I had finished my degree, with my computer science thesis and project focusing on a website (an externally funded project to catalogue material online). Through my supervisor for this project, I had gotten my first job – he recommended me to a friend, who looked at my cv and, after a meeting, decided I’d be a good fit. Against all my expectations, I was working for a web design company.

I won’t pretend it was all easy – like all “first jobs”, the wage wasn’t great. I sometimes worked long hours to finish up projects, and because it was a really really small company (just two of us, when I started), there was no one else to shoulder my project load if I failed to live up to expectations. It was a baptism of fire into the world of web design, where clients sometimes have crazy expectations, weird ideas, and always much less time than is actually needed for completion of a given task. I had it lucky, in some ways. I walked straight out of college, and into a job. In retrospect, I probably should have looked around more and seen if other jobs were available, but it seemed foolhardy to look this gift-horse in the mouth and not jump at the opportunity to have a job that would give me a steady wage, bonus options, my own laptop, etc.

After 11 months of working for this company, I decided to move on. For many reasons, which I won’t go into here, I was no longer happy working there, and I wondered idly if I could do better. I decided it was time to put myself back on the market, to see if anyone would bite. As before, I spent a long weekend (over Easter) updating my cv, and putting together a portfolio that showed the design and technical aspects of the major projects I’d worked on, as well as how they fit into the overall marketing strategy of the companies we were designing for (Unilever, Vodafone, etc.). Thankfully, I was lucky enough again to get many many hits on my cv, and to have a number of interested recruiters. I interviewed for several jobs, and went right through the interview process for 4 in total. I was in the extremely lucky position then of being offered 4 jobs, and having to make the difficult choice between them. I chose my current position, and I haven’t looked back. I love my work, and I love the company I work for.

I’ve told this story more than once, and I have occasionally thought, “surely it can’t have all been luck that has landed me here”. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, while luck must have played a part, nothing that I have done can’t be replicated by others in the same position. I started to think about my cv, to try to figure out what it was that had made my cv stand out when the recruiters were searching, and employers were reading. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

I’ve always had a very full and active life, kept myself involved in sports and academic pursuits outside of the bare minimum. For me, this meant being involved in musical activities and graduation activities in my secondary school, and various clubs and societies in my college years. My involvement won me a few awards at various level (awards for excelling as a committee member, awards for winning competitions put on by other clubs/societies, etc). I put these things near the end of my cv, under the interests section. As such, rather than simply saying my interests were “reading, eating, watching tv”, I mentioned that I was interested in Biology, for example, and backed it up with independent study and awards in the area. When I said that I was interested in computers and web technology, I backed it up with memberships of IT societies, awards for websites designed in college, etc.

While in college, I didn’t have a full time job, and the part time job that I had had nothing to do with my degree, or my current career. However, as a result of my involvement with clubs and socs, I got involved in web design. What started as a quick project to create a society website spawned into creating several websites, then restoring graphics, and then having a network of people coming to me with projects to keep me on the go.

You may well be wondering if there’s a point to all of the above, or if I’m just bragging. Well, I did promise you a point, and here it is. When I sat back and thought about all of the above, about my fledgling career, my terror on entering final year of college, etc., I realised that my career didn’t start after I left college. I was, unconsciously, building a career right from the start. By developing upon my casual interest in web design as a teenager, I ensured that, by the time I left college, I already had several years of experience of designing websites and graphics. When I went to interviews, I could speak, not only about the websites that I had designed in the work place, but also about the projects I maintained on the side, purely out of interest.

Really, the “take home” message (as I’m fond of saying) is this – show me the love! There are many people out there with the same qualifications, and a stack of varied interests to rival my own. But if your dedication, or your interest in your profession, stops as soon as the clock hits 5pm, it will show. It will show in your cv, and it will show when you interview. Web design is a creative and fast moving profession. There are, at any given time, a multitude of popular “new” languages and technologies, being used alongside the old standards. There are design trends that come and go like flashes in the pan, and following them can mean your website is bang up to date one week, and hilariously retro the next. I firmly believe that it’s not a job that you can just “phone in”.You have to be into it, not just to get paid, but because you’re really into it. When a new technology comes out, you don’t sigh with exasperation, but wonder if it’ll be worth learning and if it’ll fit in somewhere or let you do something cool. And even if you clock out at 5, your interest doesn’t stop there.

I honestly believe that this kind of enthusiasm is what sets people apart in a very populated pool of designers. Many many people can put together a website, but not everyone loves doing it.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, and get yourself noticed, show me the love!

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