Tiny Code

Tiny Code

Monday, September 3, 2007

Advice to young engineers

A long time ago I was given a bit of advice that has served me well over the years. An engineer with much more experience than I had at the time made the simple statement that "your company doesn't love you". What he was trying to say was there's only one person you can really count on to look out for your best interests and that's you. Over the years, I've refined that simple statement into a philosophy which has helped me make some small amount of sense of how engineering companies work.

1) Never trust head hunters. These paid recruiters have a list of jobs to fill. They'll always try to steer you towards their least attractive positions since those are the hardest to fill. The rare "dream jobs" require almost no work to sell. Recruiters will lie to you about lots of things, including what contracting rate is equivalent to a given full time salary. If you do decide to work with a head hunter, make sure you tell them you want to be informed before they submit you on any job. That will help prevent misunderstandings where you apply to a company only to find out the head hunter has also submitted you. This is especially important if you ever decide to work with multiple head hunters at the same time. Being submitted by several agencies may lead to disputes about which should get paid if you want to accept the job. Companies don't like dealing with that sort of ambiguity and may decide against hiring you altogether to avoid the potential conflict.

2) Rarely trust Human Resources. Their job is to hire and retain workers at the lowest possible cost to the company. The best HR representatives will realize that if they can keep employees happy, the company will benefit in the long run. That's as rare as a car salesman who realizes that if he works with you to find the car that best meets your needs instead of one which offers him the best commission for the least amount of work, he might be rewarded with your return business and referrals. In my 30 years in the computer industry, I've met just two HR reps who I felt were true advocates for employee satisfaction and as a consequence might work to see I was treated fairly. That's not a terribly encouraging percentage.

It probably pays to do some negotiating when you're faced with a job offer. They're probably walking the tightrope of seeing how cheaply they can hire you without being too insulting. That's why they look for hints about how much you were making at your last job. You would think that a job has a specific worth to them which would be easy to calculate which would dictate what they'd offer you but you'd be wrong.

3) Salary increases are almost never fairly distributed. Companies tend to pick company wide target percentages for raises and those percentages tend to remain unchanged as they pass down the line though the executive staff is almost never restricted to such tiny percentages. So the person in the mailroom who has precious little impact on a company's bottom line may have the same target percentage raise as engineers working extra hours. What's frequently worse is when they create a raise pool by giving a first level manager this same target percentage for all the employees who report to him/her. A manager with an outstanding team of workers will either be forced to give the same percentage to everyone or worse yet, to attempt to steal from some employees to correct past salary inequities. Meanwhile there's no incentive for managers to return part of their pool should they have mostly average or below average employees working for them. Keep an eye on what you're worth to other companies in the industry and always make sure your salary measures up.

4) You're only as good as how well your last project or assignment was perceived. The minute you're not viewed as contributing to the bottom line well in excess of what it costs to keep you employed, you're no longer an asset to the company. That puts you at risk of making the list for the next lay-off. Sometimes this is exceptionally unfair because the perception may have been caused by you getting assigned to a project doomed to failure by factors outside your control. Keep an eye out for signs of project failure and explore transfers if things start looking bad. Always keep your resume up-to-date because we've already seen that HR cares more about the company's needs than yours.

5) Strive to give the company good value for their money. It's really your best hope of getting glowing referrals from your manager and co-workers. Part of this requires that you make sure they know how good a job you're doing. Suffering silently doesn't serve anyone except for a boss who isn't interested in trying to reward good workers.

6) Network with former co-workers. No job lasts forever so it pays to always be thinking about what you would do if circumstances were to suddenly change.

7) (courtesy of my friend Chard) A company never treats you any better than they do when they're trying to recruit/hire you. So if they're unresponsive, evasive, or misleading during the recruiting and interviewing process, you should see that as a preview of how things will be when/if you're hired.

6 comments:

Chard said...

Somewhere nearby should be this other rule: A company never treats you any better than they do when they're trying to recruit/hire you. So if they're unresponsive, evasive, or misleading during the recruiting and interviewing process, you should see that as a preview of how things will be when/if you're hired.

That's true of both individuals (recruiters, interviewers, and managers) as well as companies as a whole.

Laura E. Goodin said...

I wish I could say that things are better in the artistic fields, but they're sort of not. Except that the people are often wackier, which offers the compensation of endless entertainment.

Rod said...

That's pretty disappointing to hear. I'd been assuming that the poor treatment was at least partially due to schedule pressures from an overly competitive marketplace for the high tech products we engineers so frequently get stuck developing. I had hoped that someday when I flee the high tech world, I'd be able to escape the madness.

Laura E. Goodin said...

The worst part of the artsy life, based on my own experiences and observations of Houston's career, is the personal squabbles that play themselves out as competition for grant money and the rare university job, and/or disparagement of another's art when what you really don't like is their personality.

Not that either Houston or I would ever do anything like that ourselves.

bryan said...

Hey Rod,

I was wondering if I could get some advice. I am a 24 year-old engineer. I have 3-ish years of engineering experience (2 years full-time, 1 year part time, and about 7 months worth of internships). I applied to a job that sounded very interesting and perfect for me, but it required the candidate to have 8+ years of experience. Regardless, I was invited for an interview, I nailed it, and the next day I was offered the job. I believe I was offered the position because my accomplishments, projects, recognition, GPA, school attended, etc. On top of that (and perhaps most importantly) I demonstrated a strong passion and interest for this job. My problem is HR only wants to offer me a salary that is average for someone my age. They think I'm "unrealistic" for expecting something higher. The job would have paid over $100k for someone with more experience. After running a basic salary report to match my experience level, I believe I should be paid in the low-to-mid 80's. HR wants to offer me below 70. Do you think I am being unrealistic in my expectations? I really want to accept this job, but I don't want to undercut my worth. After about 6 or so months of training, I will be expected to perform at a similar level as someone with 8+ years experience. Could you give me any advice in this situation? I really enjoyed reading this article and found it quite relevant to my situation.

Rod said...

Bryan,

It's hard for me to determine whether your expectations are unrealistic without details that I would urge you not to disclose in a blog comment. I can tell you that HR departments frequently have guidelines about the maximum percentage salary increase to offer prospective employees. Large increases over your current salary (and they sometime ask for pay stubs to verify current salaries) can make them nervous and possibly for good reason. If they do offer an increase that's outside of their normal ranges for the position they're trying to hire you for and other employees find that you're making as much as they are with less experience, it's bad for morale. Also, any potential new employee is essentially an unknown quantity. No matter how closely they check references or quiz you during your interview, that's no guarantee your future performance in the job they're trying to fill will live up to their expectations.

You must decide whether the salary discrepancy is worth the possibility of losing the new job. If you're not willing to risk this position, the negotiation techniques open to you are somewhat limited. The most effective technique is to get the hiring manager involved and this usually won't jeopardize your offer. Provided he/she is not living with a salary budget for the group, he/she may be open to your problem. This works best if you felt a strong bond with this manager during the interview process. If you contact the manager and explain your concerns, sometimes they can work to change HR's mind. If you choose this method, I'd encourage you to not appear too pushy or demanding (I apologize if this sounds obvious but I want you to understand all possible risks up front). Handling this in a less than graceful manner could reduce your desirability in the manager's eyes.

If the discrepancy is worth taking a risk, and believe me it is a big risk, you can try playing hardball. Your negotiations will be stronger if you have another employment option. If you had a second job offer, it sometimes makes you appear more valuable to the hiring company and they may be willing to raise their offer in the spirit of competition. If you have another company close to making an offer, you can sometimes speed their decision process by disclosing the fact that you have an offer in hand. Another option, and this is incredibly risky, is to approach your current company and tell them about your offer in hopes they'll make a counteroffer. I'm sure you can imagine the myriad ways this technique could backfire on you.

Another approach is to tell the hiring company that after consideration, you've decided to hold out for a salary closer to what you feel you're worth. Of course this may cause them to look at other candidates and may even prevent you from being considered there in the future. HR departments sometimes maintain files of people who have turned them down in the past.

Good luck with your decision about this. A lot of us have faced similar problems at some point in our careers.

- Rod