Lack dev exp, lack tech writer exp, at a loss as to what to do
February 9, 2021 8:57 PM   Subscribe

After a Covid-related downsizing, I've been searching for a new job for several months, with little success. I thought I'd be ok, switching gears to technical writing from working as a pretty junior developer, but the feedback from a few interviews either swings towards "not technical enough" or "not writer enough." At this point, I'm wondering if I should try the dev track again, but I don't know enough there either. Help?

Apologies if this is a bit of a mess - super-frustrated and feeling absolutely defeated by the repeated job rejections after spending so much time and effort with nothing to show for it.

Several years ago, I went back to school and completed a B.S. in Computer Science, but didn't get an internship at the time due to lack of confidence. I constantly kick myself for not doing it, because now my inexperience is really, really hurting my job search. After school, I ended up in some technical writing-adjacent jobs, one eventually led to working as a backend software dev. So I've had work experience doing technical writing and content, and some work experience as a software dev.

My lead ended up taking some family medical leave, and I acted as "glue" on the team, despite being more of a junior developer (I had lead experience from other roles that mapped well). Turns out, this was another big mistake since it meant that I wasn't getting as much hands-on dev experience again. I was able to create onboarding documentation and guides for my coworkers that everyone appreciated, but since it was internal documentation, I don't have anything to show for it come interview time.

This brings us to more recent Covid-times. Our group was downsized and laid off from the company due to Covid concerns and projected losses, and I fortunately got a bit of severance pay. I took some time off to recover from that, enjoyed funemployment, and decided to try for technical writer positions around 10 months ago.

I've sent dozens of applications in, written nearly as many personalized and customized cover letters for each, and have made it to several Zoom interview loops only to be rejected at the very end. I've literally been told that I'm both "not technical enough" and "not enough of a writer" for technical writer positions where I met the requirements and additional desired skills.

I've read repeatedly that I need to try to apply "with the confidence of a mediocre white guy" (their words, not mine), but I'm finding that even when I try, I get shuffled out of the application process.

I really don't want to "work for free" to prove myself via doing writeups for GitHub open source. I'm also conflicted about trying again as a dev - I'm so inexperienced and put off by the gatekeeping and knowing that techbros actively work to block people like me, that I don't want to put myself through that.

How do I find a job I like and can grow my skills at, given that the tech industry doesn't seem to want me there?
posted by Irony to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, until I got to second-to-last paragraph I was going to suggest you try working on some open-source software, either developing or documenting. I don't know why you're strongly against doing that, but I would suggest thinking about things like that as part of the interview process instead of "working for free". When I quit my first development job after college and was looking for my next one, I was way overconfident and bombed several interviews in a row. Working on some open-source stuff helped me get my confidence back and definitely helped my resume look more impressive. The other thing I did was spend a few days working on some example google-style abstract "programmer interview questions" because that was the style at the time (I think that's less true now).

When interviewing for either a dev or tech writer position, they're going to want to be convinced that you can produce something to completion, even if the end result isn't super amazing. This can be very difficult if all of your previous work is owned by your old employer or kind of awkward to describe. Some people can get past this with pure confidence (not me), but you can also use open source, private projects, or paid contract work to prove you can complete things. If you've never tried paid contract work that might be a good place to start as I know there is demand for that in tech writing (it generally does not pay well).
posted by JZig at 11:52 PM on February 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'd wonder if there's a way to widen your search. For example, I suspect IT, corporate security, or business automation departments might appreciate your CS degree, communication skills, and modest dev experience in a way that typical software teams might not. On your current path, I'd suppose getting interviews at all is a pretty good sign something will work out eventually. Maybe the job advertisements that have appealed to you or the interview questions you've been asked offer some relevant and concrete domains / technologies you might enjoy practicing? I get the 'free work' thing, and I'm glad to have seen some backlash against the assumption people ought to show stuff on GitHub. At the same time, it might be possible to conceive of a personal project as something more like a continuation of school (if it doesn't make it to GitHub) or like genuinely making the world a tiny bit better (if it does).
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:00 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

As someone who worries extensively about his employability in tech, my heart goes out to you.

To widen your field of options, have you looked at QA Analyst positions at all? Many folks have used that as a stepping stone to development positions in the past. (Though you shouldn't tell a prospective employer that; at the time they're hiring you for QA, they want to believe you're going to stay in QA a while.)

In a recent search for QA analysts, my company was looking for:

- A CS degree (check!)
- SQL/database knowledge
- Knowledge of an automation tool (like Selenium)
- Familiarity with informal agile processes (like scrum)

The requirements were much more flexible than for a development position.
posted by commander_fancypants at 12:18 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry, this kind of tractionless rejection is so dispiriting.

I can't speak to tech writing, but since you're wondering about maybe dev, could you expand on this? Turns out, this was another big mistake since it meant that I wasn't getting as much hands-on dev experience again.

Maybe I'm missing something, but that doesn't sound bad in a candidate to me as a SWE interviewer. More a positive, actually. If the issue is that you got rusty with hands-on dev, do brush up somehow, but I wouldn't expect this to touch anything about your underlying aptitudes or skills.

If you get a whiteboard-coding style interview, they'll be oblivious to what you did for that period. If you get a more talk-about-your-past style, this may come into it, but "glue" is good! As you allude to, a lead role is often being glue, can be hard to write up afterwards but valuable. It might not support a strong positive just because it's so hard to evaluate how you did by interviewing you, but it would be a positive to me.

Writing high-quality technical docs is also of immense practical value in devs (for the sad reason that the employer doesn't value tech writers enough to hire them to do it so devs do it and may not be good at it, but a sad reason is a kind of reason), as well as being a signal in my experience for clear thinking about interfaces and the people on each side of them, but I'm getting on my hobbyhorse now. Anyway, you sound like a good person to work with to me.

Whether you want to work in tech, I don't know, I won't blow rainbows about how it is because you know how it is, but I would suggest... first, the advantage of tech writer over dev is that tech writers are structurally screwed as a class in the industry, so at least you have solidarity there, so: prefer corporations large enough to have a tech writer class. Second, consider employers like university staff as well -- there's zero guarantee they aren't shitty in any particular axis, either, but they tend to show differences so it's another roll of the dice. Third, employers do vary, as gormless as that may be, so the next roll might be different.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:25 AM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am in a similar situation, not quite identical. I have multiple strikes against me, basically:

* I am a bit of a loner, who doesn't have much of a network I can ask for job references on.
* I switched careers a couple times, and the last time I really did dev work or IT was 10+ years ago
* I have a touch (never formally diagnosed) of ADHD as I tend to go in phases. A few months I want to write. A few months I want to play games. A few months I want to do webdev. A few months I want to do A+.

As a result, I have a crapton of knowledge (my name is in the Star Trek Encyclopedia, when I was in my geek phase), and I am a certified full-stack webdev, among many other things, but little to no resume or certificate to PROVE I have any of that knowledge. So most places bin my resume almost immediately.

With that said, from reading about your experience, it sounds like you should pursue a position as product manager / product owner / project manager.

As "glue" that keeps the team going, you're adept at managing other people and keeping things done, despite a relative lack of dev skills. You know what your devs are talking about, even thought you may not be able to actually do the dev yourself.

Larry Apke of "The Job Hackers" (and Jefferson Award nominee) does an Agile Bootcamp every few months completely for free (but asks people who found it useful to volunteer or contribute otherwise to keep the non-profit going) The Spring session is currently in progress, but you may be able to get some details and at least listen to a few lessons and join the Zoom session and the after class discussions to see if Agile / SCRUM training will help you in that career direction. Supposedly 95+% of class attendees can pass the test on the first try, which counts a lot as a project manager.
posted by kschang at 2:38 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Make sure your LinkedIn is set to "Open For Work" or whatever it is. In-bound recruiters may prove more helpful with landing something, especially if you tell them what's up. In any case, it's a low stakes way to get more interviews. Plus, someone recruiting for a short-term contract role might be more open to taking a chance on a candidate with less experience. You just need to make the technical writing piece very clear on your LinkedIn (but it already should be). Good luck!
posted by Text TK at 6:02 AM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't speak to your dev situation, but I've been a tech writer and interviewed/hired tech writers, so I can speak to that.

I will take a chance on a tech writer who can naturally write well, because you can teach technical skills, but it's much harder to teach someone to be a good writer. But without any kind of portfolio I have no idea if you can write well.

I really don't want to "work for free" to prove myself via doing writeups for GitHub open source.

And nor should you! Your time and effort should be rewarded if you're doing it for someone else. However, the key clause in that sentence is "if you're doing it for someone else". If you want a job, you need to have a portfolio. Doing tech docs for an open source GitHub project will give you such a portfolio. Therefore you would not be "doing it for someone else", you would be doing it for yourself.

If you don't want to write technical documentation for an open source project, then write a blog, write articles on LinkedIn/Medium, write a lot of answers on Stack Exchange, or even just write some examples you can bring with you to an interview. But write something you can point to as evidence of your writing skills.

If you are unable or unwilling to do any of those things then I won't criticise you for a moment, but technical writing is not for you.
posted by underclocked at 9:13 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: From reading your question, I'm not 100% sure if you really want a technical writing gig or that you'd rather do programming but are too overwhelmed by the interview process/gatekeeping. I have been there; when I was breaking into tech, there were several roles I tried for that would have been tech-adjacent but not programming. I ended up getting a programming gig and I'm really glad I did, since I think that keeps more doors open for me, but I understand the frustration and urgency and wish you the best on this difficult journey!

Re: Technical writing, you said you don't want to work for free; how about freelance tech writing while you are interviewing? I've heard of at least one large tech company that pays freelancers for technical posts on their blog. MeMail me if you want me to dig up my contact for that. You can also write your own Medium blog posts on any technical topic you'd like, and the bonus is that you could have been learning a new skill while researching the blog post. If it's a hot tech topic you can reach out to some tech newsletters to include the link (although they get lots of submissions so YMMV).

By the way, the tech writing role can now blur into the "Dev Evangelist" role, and I know applicants for those type of roles are expected to have Twitter, retweet/give opinions on tech news, etc. You might want to brush up your social media profile if there is any expectation of marketing/PR in the roles you are applying for.
posted by rogerroger at 9:15 AM on February 10, 2021

Response by poster: Firstly, sincere thanks for all the responses so far, the wound was fresh when I wrote this, so your kindness and some sleep has helped.

  • On QA roles: I did QA in the past (non-code, black box type testing), but was treated so poorly that I don't want to do it again.
  • On PM roles: While I can organize and keep everyone in the loop and on track, it's incredibly draining and also not something I want to pursue. I work best as a point of contact or right-hand person for a lead, because being "on" for people wipes out my batteries pretty quickly.
  • On supporting a GitHub project: Part of me knows this is the right thing, but I'm feeling incredibly petulant and angry that I have to prove myself over and over again. There is a friend's project that I'm interested in helping out, so maybe going that route will sting less.

  • I'm definitely thinking more of a role that requires understanding and explaining APIs and reading through source code from devs for other new devs, not so much the marketing or social media route.
    posted by Irony at 2:43 PM on February 10, 2021

    Best answer: Then you need a job in DevEx (developer experience), sometimes called Dev Evangelist. Though sometimes they are filed under "customer experience" or "customer success" in the API-heavy companies.
    posted by kschang at 5:36 AM on February 11, 2021

    Best answer: If you're looking for "a role that requires understanding and explaining APIs and reading through source code from devs for other new devs" then that is straight up technical writing.

    And it's VERY good news if that's what you want to do, because as I said in answer to a similar question a little while ago, " If you have had *any* exposure to, and OMG actual experience using, APIs then you are gold dust. Tech writers who can document APIs are some of the most sought-after tech writers (along with finance and medical) because the combination of strong writing and strong technical skills is a really rare nexus."

    (You might find some of the other answers to that question helpful as well).

    If I were in your shoes, I'd look to do some API or SDK documentation contracting. Contracting is easier to get into, because if you're rubbish they can just get rid of you, so there's less risk for them, and more chance for you. You need less of a portfolio for contracting, but be prepared to talk about APIs/SDKs to technical people when they interview you. You do NOT need to be a super API expert, just competent. They don't need a super API expert, they need someone who can explain all that stuff to people, so focus on your communication/writing skills and how much you love explaining complex technical things to people.

    Give it a shot, because if it goes well you will have a very successful and lucrative career ahead of you. And if it doesn't work, at least you won't wonder. Good luck!
    posted by underclocked at 7:06 AM on February 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

    With that said, rewriting some open-source stuff's docs on GitHub can be a simple yet powerful entry in your portfolio.
    posted by kschang at 3:30 AM on February 12, 2021

    Response by poster: What a weird month! Update to the situation: The company that inspired this post ended up reconsidering and I’ve accepted their offer! I have never seen this happen before, but being considerate and thanking everyone politely might’ve helped leave a good impression. Whatever inspired the change of heart, I’ll take it!
    posted by Irony at 12:20 AM on February 20, 2021

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