How to make the best of a technical interview without any directly related experience?
July 3, 2008 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Upcoming interview for a technical Dream Job. Problem is, I've been working in a similar-ish industry, but don't have any professional experience directly related. How can I better emphasize my broad technical background, autodidact tendencies and passion for the industry to help assuage concerns the interviewer may have?

I've been in contact with the COO of a company I'd *really* like to work for. Sent him my resume, he said it looked good and someone would be contacting me for an interview soon. It's a Dream Job, emphasis on capital D, capital J. It's a programming position in a relatively small company (40-50 people) doing some absolutely fascinating and innovative work. About six months ago, they hired an industry veteran who's work I really respect and admire. Being able work at the same place and learn, even indirectly, from this person is also tremendously exciting.

Unfortunately, I have plenty of semi-related experience, but nothing in their exact segment of the industry. I wanted to work for this company just after I got my Masters about a year ago, but couldn't due to immigration issues (I'm an American in Canada). I had to find a job before my study permit expired or be deported. I talked with the Dream Company briefly, it was too close to the deportation deadline to set anything up, so I took a job somewhere else. I've got permanent residency now though, so I can work where ever I want.

I've got a BS and MS in Computer Science. My undergrad work and the start of grad school was all gritty, systems projects, but in working on my thesis, I transitioned a little bit more towards ubicomp/HCI. In short, I've done everything from building custom linux kernels with experimental SDR drivers to conducting a significant user study entirely by myself. I don't have specialization in any one area, but I've got a solid foundation in building abstracted, readable, maintainable software (or so I like to think).

I'm intensely excited are the mere possibility of working in this industry. I a pretty good autodidact as well. I get up at 5 AM every day (sometimes 6 on the weekends) and spend 1.5 to 2 hours reading, coding, learning about the area I want to go into. I won't be stopping this when I get the job. I've heard most technical employees spend less than 10 hours on year on training (something like that was mentioned in Code Complete v2), and I spend over 10 hours a week of my own time doing this. Would a potential employer be more interested in someone willing to learn or will mentioning this just make me look like an intellectual braggart?

Additionally, I've been working on open source-esque project that is more related to what the Dream Job does for about a decade. My commitment has ebbed and flowed with my other obligations, but I've always been contributing something for almost 9 years now. Will employers take unpaid experience like this seriously? How can I best use this to help address my lack of directly related experience?

What other ways can I address my lack of specifically related experience in the interview? I'd imagine being passionate, driven and willing to learn are all appealing, but how can I communicate that more effectively?

Anon since I haven't told my current employer I'm leaving yet, but I'm perfectly happy to respond to any specific questions. Mildly recycled throw-away email -
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (3 answers total)
I think you just need some more self-confidence, it sounds to me (I have 16 years in the business, and routinely interview candidates for out team here at Microsoft) like you are a perfect fit:
- enthusiastic, motivated and highly interested
- well educated
- have programming experience (9 years on a related/similar OSS project is awesome!)
- have your "head-in-the-game" and already understand that you will have to continually learn in this field.
- I don't have specialization in any one area, but I've got a solid foundation in building abstracted, readable, maintainable software

Excellent, specialization is for insects...
posted by jkaczor at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2008

our team here... (I blame my wireless keyboard)
posted by jkaczor at 11:05 AM on July 3, 2008

What other ways can I address my lack of specifically related experience in the interview?

Most of the skills that add value for an employer are transferable, such as project management, leading teams, estimation, etc. However, knowledge base in a technical position is critical. You can't just say you're an autodidact (it's unwise to do so anyway, because it sounds unprofessional; use the word "lifelong learner" or something). You have to demonstrate that you have achieved success in your new technical environment, or be prepared to accept a junior position.

If a junior position is okay (and if they have one) just say that you may need some supervision at first, but over time you intend to be more autonomous, etc
posted by KokuRyu at 1:28 PM on July 3, 2008

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