Job hunting for developers: Shifting from skills to solving problems

The hiring process is not borne out of altruism.

A hiring manager doesn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, we have a bunch of money sitting around and we’re getting a bit lonely … what if we brought another developer on board?”

Bringing someone into a company is a very serious decision that boils down to this: In order to make money [by scaling for new customers, building new features to retain customers, etc.], you need to bring someone onboard to help you make more money (I won’t speak to non-profits).

So why, as job seekers, is this so easy to forget? You can prove that you’re the best gosh darn developer in the world. But will it make them money?

It’s about taking your skills and matching them to problems to solve.

If you were hired on skills alone, every development project would consist of a series of checkboxes, and you would check each box off as you coded it to spec.

The developers who make the big bucks don’t check off boxes – they solve business problems.

You should be able to enumerate the skills you have, and how those skills could benefit your [potential] employer.

This means taking an interest in the business of the firm. What are their challenges in the near term? The long term? What are their competitors doing differently that worries them?

What you can do as a candidate (and eventually doing so as an employee) is to offer solutions to these problems, drawing from your skillset.

You can find out what a company needs with research into the industry and a conversation. Something like “What’s the biggest project or challenge you see coming for this team in the next six months?” works very well.

Additionally, there are a few areas you can usually assist with, often by virtue of being someone coming in from outside the organization, bringing an external perspective and experience.

For example, most any organization will benefit from someone who can take a hard look at their operations and virtualize, automate, or otherwise find a way to run their machines for less. There are very few places that do this phenomenally well, and they always want to make it better.

Or if you excel with working with other people, what if you bring teaching and mentorship skills as a senior developer, and increase the level of the team with you, allowing the team to be more productive?

If you aren’t sure of things you are great at, it can help to ask other people. Yes, you might think that’s embarrassing, but ask a few people you work with (or have in the past):

  • What sorts of problems do you run into while coding that you think to ask me about?
  • If someone asked you what I bring/contribute to the team, what would you say?
  • How is this team better because I’m on it?

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