Too skilled for support, but not enough for engineering. What now?
July 7, 2021 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Apparently too skilled to get a job like my old one, but too green to get a job as anything else. What do I do now? I'm a software support guy with junior-level programming skills, mid-career-level database skills, and tons of customer-facing experience. Trying to find a new job after getting my degree and have faced nothing but rejection for the last two months. At a loss as to what to do next. Many details inside.

So in May I completed my degree in computer science. Prior to that I did six years of work in an enterprise support role that also involved a great deal of programming and database work because our department handled EVERYTHING involving legacy customers.
We did the requirements gathering, programming, deployment, the whole deal. Usually we're talking adding a button, a business logic change, a new filtering method, a change to format of the data files we import.

So I'm in this weird position where I did a tiny bit of every job one can do in a software company, but never at scale. Just small stuff.
The one exception is SQL Server databases where I learned enough to actually teach classes to engineers on basic administration, index maintenance, performance tuning, and reading query execution plans.

I ended up with the ambiguous title of "Senior Software Services Engineer", which has left me in this weird spot where I can't even get a phone interview for developer or DBA positions, but I'm getting rejected for support roles outright, or after a phone interview.

Recruiters have told me I'm overqualified for support roles and that's why I'm not getting anywhere there. I'm getting pretty desperate. I've applied to something like 60 jobs that I though I was a good fit for: Implementation engineer, customer success manager, DBA, data engineer, database developer, business analyst, support engineer, software engineer. Nothing is working.

This is taking a psychological toll. I expected with 6 years of experience that includes customer-facing tasks and programming, plus a degree, I would be able to find something within a few months, but I can't even get a phone interview most of the time.

I don't think I'm pricing myself out of these jobs. I'm looking for work in Chicago and asking for $70,000, which I was making in my last role based out of Pittsburgh.

If I'm not good enough for these roles, who is? Are we in a job market where people are settling for roles they're overqualified for? Are roles I'm best suited for being filled by people making lateral moves from similar jobs?

I'm shocked at how difficult this search has been and I'm just trying to figure out how to proceed in a job market that I apparently grossly misjudged.
posted by UrbanEye to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You sound perfectly qualified for an entry-level software developer position. I’m wondering whether there’s some way you’re presenting yourself in interviews that’s getting you tossed in the reject pile. Software interviews are a particular kind of beast, and interviewers can be pretty narrow-minded in terms of what they want to hear from you. If you don’t have a lot of experience in a traditional developer role, you might be presenting yourself in the wrong way and not even realizing it. But the good news is that doesn’t mean you’re unqualified, you just need to practice software interviews in particular. Do you have any friends who work in software who would be willing to give you advice or do a mock interview with you?
posted by mekily at 12:03 PM on July 7, 2021

Response by poster: Gah, I wrote a stupid title. Should have been "Too skilled for technical support, but not enough for anything else. What now?"

I've been applying for jobs OTHER than straight up engineering jobs. Things that are more customer facing like business analyst, implementation engineer, application support engineer. Also data-centric roles due to my SQL experience like DBA, database developer, data engineer, ETL engineer. I haven't tried for engineering jobs because I'm not that confident in myself as a programmer and I don't think I have enough project experience to impress anyone in an interview. Just little snippets of C# here and there modifying or extending code other people wrote.
posted by UrbanEye at 12:21 PM on July 7, 2021

You sound like you could be a great BA.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:22 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My first piece of advice would be to try to stop blaming yourself; there's plenty about the hiring process in the tech sector that is broken and pathological. Very good candidates often get overlooked. As one example, some companies only look at 'cold' applications that come in to their website after exhausting the pool of candidates which have been referred in by current employees.

I have over a decade of software support experience, and my search last year took about six months, which was longer than I was expecting, too. I got to the initial phone screen stage semi-regularly, but seemed to fall into a similar donut hole with respect to my qualifications. Plenty of experience, but not fitting neatly into a pre-existing job title.

Refusing to internalize the blame and putting it back on the broken system that was producing the outcome helped me keep my morale up.

I never got much use out of LinkedIn connections, but because of the prejudice against cold applications, my advice would be to try and leverage any referral connections, or try to expand other affinity group connections that may lead to a gig.

I landed my current job when my future skip-level posted in the Support Driven Slack group regarding an opening for engineering managers at their startup. I don't know for sure that name-dropping the VP that made that post in my cover letter got me the interview, but I don't think it hurt my chances.

If you aren't already doing so, I'd also encourage you to include remote jobs in your search. My employer is headquartered in NYC, but only a small fraction of the employees are located there. A company that's decided to be fully or largely remote is already showing some flexibility of thinking; with any luck, they'll be similarly flexible in their thinking when evaluating applicants.
posted by FallibleHuman at 12:49 PM on July 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I agree with others that on paper anyway, you seem like a strong candidate for a Business Analyst position. And you might be a contender for an entry-level developer position also, although those positions tend to lean heavily on how well you do in a technical interview process. But BA positions ought to be attainable on the strength of your degree, communications skills/style, customer-facing experience, and professionalism in an interview.

I don't know much about the Chicago market, but at least here on the East Coast, I know lots of people that are getting unsolicited offers from various consulting companies and stuff, mostly via LinkedIn. It ought to be a pretty good time to be on the market.

First of all, how's your resume? That would be the first thing to look at and optimize. If it's not representing you well, that could be a reason for the lack of callbacks. Make sure you put your CS degree up top, and then I like to have a "Relevant Experience" section that calls out particular projects/clients that I've worked with (i.e. not an exhaustive list of employers) with a sentence or so highlighting what you did. I put the actual chronological list of employers as "Employment History" and kick it to the back/second page.

Definitely, definitely work your personal network and try to get referrals, rather than sending in applications cold. Lots of tech companies have big ($5,000+) recruiting bonuses for their employees in-house referrals, so people ought to be happy to send your resume along to HR with a good word for you. Don't hesitate to hit up old college friends / past colleagues / whatevers on LinkedIn at companies you're interested in. I've never gotten a job without a personal referral, so this is fairly important IMO.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:53 PM on July 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Sales engineer - there are never enough of them, they require a wide mix of abilities between technical and customer facing. They tend to require some amount of travel, but it usually isn't extreme - and you will struggle to find better money in tech.
posted by iamabot at 1:46 PM on July 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for Business Analyst. You actually sound like a dream come true for any IT group (I've been a SQL developer for over 20 years). Are you working with any recruiters? Make sure that your LinkedIn profile is publically visible and that all of your skills and specific languages/applications are listed (so that they'll be picked up by recruiter searches). I'm not actively looking for a new job right now and I still get contacted by recruiters at least twice a week. If you're interested in having me refer you, please memail me.

If your preferred salary range is listed anywhere on your LinkedIn profile, remove it. I actually think that given your experience and degree you should be aiming more for $100k+. If you feel that you can be competant in the role you're applying for, don't try and soften your background by saying that you've worked with the tech "a little" or that you're junior-level. Now is the time to boost yourself. And don't forget to cater your resume to the specific role that you're applying for. You should have a different resume for developer than you would for a DBA, for example. Good luck!
posted by mezzanayne at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2021 [10 favorites]

Yes, referrals from your network is the way to go--gives a huge leg-up. Roles like: sales engineer, implementation consultant / engineer, expert services (sort of, at my company, a consultative support group), and even advanced support roles come to mind.

In that vein, check your MeMail. :)
posted by chiefthe at 1:57 PM on July 7, 2021

Best answer: It's not you, it's the market. It's a PAIN finding a job as a generalist rather than a specialist.

I'm a bit of everything myself. I had done database admin, business application development / software engineer, web design, technical support, senior support, even a few months as consultant and implementation specialist.

My main problem was I left tech for a while, and have trouble getting back in. Lost my non-tech job as COVID hit, and I can't find a job (any job) for 18 months, even after spending 12K at a webdev bootcamp (and learned a few things I didn't know but quite I bit I already knew). I've applied for dozens of jobs every month... and got in on a tech-related (but not my field) job unrelated to my job search.

With that said, it's a matter of finding the right job, and a lot of applications. Your resume is better than mine, so perhaps you're just not applying to the right companies or framing yourself the right way to fit into those roles.

I personally don't think you sound too senior for support jobs. You sound fine for tier 2 or tier 3 support depending on what you're specialized in. With your customer facing skills you should be also good for onboarding new clients (i.e. client success team) or ongoing support, as well as tech sales.

With your database skills, you can do a bit of pivot into data science and related fields such as data engineering, where your customer and support skills can only help. It's also related to business analyst (it's a pretty loose term).

I would apply to smaller instead of bigger companies where employees tend to wear more hats, with the risk of job being not as stable as it could be. Though larger companies can have smaller divisions that acted more independently.

If you have a trusted recruiter who can critique your resume, do so. Most companies now use ATS and those work off keyword analysis on job matching. If you don't write your resume a certain way to "fit" the ATS you'll never be selected for an interview, unless you bypass the system by getting an internal referral through your own network.
posted by kschang at 2:29 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you enjoyed the support part of that role, but want to keep a foot in code as well, you could do well to consider a devops position. There's a real shortage of people willing to have their foot in both the support and code camps around that at the moment - and the missing skills are reasonably easy to learn.

Also: you say you're not that confident as a programmer, and I respect that, but I also suspect that, like many starting out in the industry, your bar for what a good progammer actually is might be higher than the reality.... I've been an enterprise software developer for a decade and a half, and I recently had to google how to sort a list. In ruby, a language that provides a sort function.

Also: you might be _under_ pricing yourself, if you're coming in at only 70k upfront. I actually had this problem where recruiters wouldn't call me back because I was coming in under their bands. The chicago market might be more sane than where I am though...

Also: I have to agree with the people talking about having someone give your resume (and goals) a lookover, because if you're not getting call backs with 6 years of experience in the industry right now, I feel like something non-obvious is going on. I wonder if you're being pre-filtered for missing some keywords they're expecting or something similar....
posted by jaymzjulian at 2:42 PM on July 7, 2021

Best answer: If you were in the Bay Area I'd reach out to try to recruit you, because your profile is a great fit for my Technical Product Operations team (unfortunately only hiring locally!). While the title can cover a variety of things at different companies, ranging from "senior support rep not really handling any actual technical issues" to "actually mucking about in code to fix small issues", it's most often senior tech support with a generous side of program management and analytics. I sort of fell into this world because I have a technical and support background but don't want to code or lead support-only teams, and I really enjoy it.

So if you're looking for roles where you still do support but get to use your technical skills, I recommend checking out listings for Product Operations and Technical Product Operations roles. In the Bay Area, at least, these roles generally pay well over your asking price (depending on seniority and industry and company).

Technical Account Manager is also worth looking into, though those roles vary widely on whether they're more heavily focused on support or engineering.

+1 to Business Analyst or Insights & Operations-type roles, too.

Caveat these are all Bay Area Tech Company role titles, which may not translate to other industries or your location--either the role exists but with a very different title, or the role doesn't exist at all. But I do know big tech companies that hire for roles like these with Chicago offices, so there's definitely hope.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:16 PM on July 7, 2021

Best answer: It seems like everybody is telling you to take your brand-new CS degree and use it to bolster a career doing more support with some coding mixed in. (And it sounds like you should be qualified by that, based on how many people are saying they want to hire you for that type of role!)

Is that what you want? Or do you want a job where your primary responsibility is writing code?

Looking at how you pitched yourself in this Ask, I think you're way over-emphasizing your support experience if you want a software job. Be sure you're framing that experience in terms of why it'll make you a better dev.

However, you should *also* be emphasizing what type of tech or application domains you like and what type of career arc you're aiming for. From reading this, I don't know anything about what you learned during that CS degree, whether you did internships or any interesting projects, etc. That's the stuff that's relevant to me when I'm reviewing a resume for a fresh grad CS position! I know that you may be getting desperate, and thus willing to look at any type of job, but I think you'll be more successful at *any* of the applications if you can really explain why you want and would be good at that specific type of work.
posted by Metasyntactic at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I will add to my comment above that I know this is a difficult profile for recruiters to recognize via a resume or LinkedIn (I struggle with this as a hiring manager!), so I strongly recommend:

- Always including a cover letter that clearly draws the line between the role you're applying for an how your experience fits, and
- Developing an "elevator pitch" that covers the same thing, that you can use with recruiters, at networking events, and during initial phone screens

Maybe even update your LinkedIn headline to say that you're looking for these roles and include your short pitch.
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:49 PM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

My employer is hiring a lot of junior devs from bootcamps. AppAcademy is one that we've been using. A lot of the people who go through these bootcamps have some kind of peripheral experience with software or programming but don't really have the right package of skills or experience to get hired. When they come out they are frankly pretty well-rounded and well-trained and they're out-competing the non-bootcamp candidates.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:42 PM on July 7, 2021

With real job experience in a related field and a brand new comp sci degree, you are eminently qualified for an entry level developer role. You really need to adjust the way you look to recruiters by changing your resume and online presence to specifically target the engineering roles you’re looking for. You really don’t need to spend more money and time on a boot camp.
posted by chrchr at 7:12 PM on July 7, 2021

How about project management? Good project managers have a good basic grasp of the technology and a good grasp of the business side, such as what customers want, etc. Not a whole lot of people are well qualified to have one foot in each of those skill areas.
posted by Dansaman at 7:31 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite] is a fabulous resource in terms of job hunting, resumes, the lot

Also think about whether you want to stay in the tech industry - a lot of businesses have a massive inhouse IT footprint - the obvious ones, finance etc, but also professional practices, so if you are interested in, say, architecture, there would be businesses who would want inhouse IT support.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 8:48 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of the underlying questions is always "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Even if you're 45 years old. Try to present yourself as being directed toward a goal.

Different resumes for different kinds of jobs. One for programming, one for database work, one for collaboration with others (including teaching). It's a matter of emphasis and telling the hiring manager what experience you have that matters to him without him having to discount what doesn't apply.

Don't be afraid of smaller companies; with a small IT department they need people who can fill multiple roles.

Do something, however little, every day. In one of my times on the bench, I sent a cover letter and resume to every company in my local Chamber of Commerce, about 60 in all. I got several immediate answers, and one guy held on to my resume for a year before he got in touch. That led to the best job I ever had.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:24 AM on July 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Support/Cust-ops engineering is a role that exists in a lot of companies, doing technical analysis of customer problems to find bugs and also workarounds (including scripted solutions). It's often a role that is enterprise facing, since enterprise customers often need ad-hoc solutions that don't necessarily make sense for the mainline product. Support engineering was my first serious role as a self-taught programmer and was very helpful in my path towards Senior Engineer at a publicly traded company You've Heard Of.
posted by dis_integration at 6:27 AM on July 8, 2021

Best answer: Yeah I guess we're kind of piling on at this point but your experience looks pretty similar to mine (I've been in the field longer) and I just finished a job as a system analyst in a hospital and am starting a new job as a business analyst doing mostly SQL. I would definitely second the idea of working with a recruiter, who took my experience and placed me in a job that was basically tailormade for my skills (the hospital job). The other job I just got came through a personal referral. But I don't think your background is bad at all so I agree you need to get someone to look at your resume. At one point I had a helpdesk resume and a coding resume and I would send them out to different jobs depending on what they were asking for. Good luck!!
posted by possibilityleft at 6:32 AM on July 8, 2021

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