The Hunt: Job Search 101 During the Pandemic

Photo by N. on Unsplash

“I’ve learned quickly in this job search that I don’t know anything”

Roxy, the Hunter

Sadly, COVID-19 is pushing many, including technical communicators, into the stress of the job market at an already stressful time. The good news is that we are not alone and we can learn from others’ experiences. The following is from a conversation I had with one of my previous students about her adventure with job hunting during the pandemic. We will call her Roxy, but that is not her real name. Roxy started job hunting a few months before the pandemic broke out.

Erika:  Roxy, why did you decide to look for a new job?

Roxy: I can thank my desire to expand my education on that one. Little back story:  I finished my BA at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in May 2017 and “wandered” around thinking about whether I wanted to work towards my master’s. NAU has a pretty darn great English Department and it offers up options for English master’s degrees, one of them being Professional Writing. Well, I took the bait and they were nice enough to let me in, ha! 

So, I had an epiphany one day while performing some “other duties as assigned” at my, then, current job. I stopped and asked myself if everything I’m working for in getting my second degree is going to be used in my current position. All of the time, out of pocket money, and hard work wasn’t going to get “used.” There wasn’t any growth in the environment I was in either, so that by itself was a huge factor. I had a long talk with my husband and he simply told me that we would go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. I will tell you without a doubt that having a good support system is a big plus when looking at your situation.   

Erika: What is your background?

Roxy: My job title has been “Technical Writer” for about three years. However, I’ve been writing for the government and contractors for over ten years. I am predominantly a Department of Defense writer, so I know military standards, proper formatting, and what is expected. I know that a document header is set at this specific font size, margins must be this way, and a plethora of other things. I learned to communicate with recruiters that even though my title was not always “technical writer,” my job duties were what tech writers do.

Erika:  Tell us about what it was like to start a job search for a job as a tech writer—not for your first job as a tech writer, but for something different

Roxy: I started by searching on LinkedIn and Glassdoor using the term “Technical Writer.” What I found was that there are a lot of jobs either with staffing companies like The Job Network or with businesses with fancy and cool-sounding names like Prescient Edge, or Defense in Depth Solutions. You’ll start to notice the use of the word “Solutions” or you will see acronyms for super long names that, under normal circumstances, you would not associate with the field you are looking to break into. Clever really, those acronyms. I work with them all the time in my dealings with the DoD. All of these companies speak in acronyms, even the hiring companies, and if an interview happens, do the research and learn those acronyms if you can.

Many of the staffing companies offer assignments that might become permanent. Many of these jobs are in far-away places. That would be great if I were single, but since I have kids, and I have a husband who just lost his job, the words “Could lead to possible full-time offer” were not comforting. I really wanted a permanent position if I had to uproot my family.

Erika:  How did you feel when you saw the requirements for these jobs?

Roxy: Pigeon-holed. Meaning that the requirements that one organization might list are not worded exactly like what people in equivalent jobs do in other organizations. The words they use in these requirements are obviously the “key” words that their automated resume search program will search for, and if you can’t figure out a way to incorporate them into your resume or cover letter, you may as well not apply at all. I was actually told that by a wonderful recruiter who saw my resume and called me specifically to walk through my resume and give me pointers. That was a blessing really because it turned everything around. She gave me pointers specific to contractors or to those of us who may remain with a company for many years and get promoted within.

Speaking of the cover letter, make sure that if you are cutting and pasting addresses or anything else, read over the letter to make sure that it is going to make sense to the company you are applying to! I can’t tell you how many times I forgot to remove or edit something and wasn’t able to get it back.

Erika:  What advice do you have for tech writers who want to find a new job in this environment?

Roxy: If you are working as a writer and don’t know Agile, HTML, and the latest software tools for technical writers, you better learn quick. Some job descriptions read like the company is looking for an engineer and not a writer, so dust off the college cram sessions and educate yourself. The worst thing in an interview is being asked about something you only have a vague, at best, knowledge of. My suggestion is to check out YouTube for tutorials on things in the job requirements you need to get a better understanding of. LinkedIn is also good for this:  they offer what I would call classes on things like understanding HTML, sections of Office 365, or Adobe products.

Erika:  Right! And because you are an online student at NAU, you have free access to the LinkedIn Learning tutorials—this used to be called Lynda.com.

Roxy: Thanks! True story:  I interviewed with Amazon in Seattle during the first part of my job hunt, before the pandemic.

When you get an interview with Amazon, you are literally given homework to assist in getting past the first phone interview. I studied like my life depended on it, and for over $120,000 a year, this job was life or death in terms of future planning and being able to help my son through college with as little debt as possible.

My homework turned into a week of taking notes and printing out everything possible on the “Amazon way” of interviewing and how to answer questions using the STAR method. I had no idea what the STAR method even was, so I had to begin a whole ‘nother level of studying.

Erika:  Can you tell us more about the STAR method?

Roxy:  The STAR method is simply Situation, Task, Action, Result – STAR. When an interviewer asks you a question, the STAR method helps you to answer in a focused way.

Erika:  Oh, you mean answering those behavioral questions that ask you something like, “Tell us about a time when you made a mistake.”

Roxy:  Right!  Actually, there is a P before STAR, which you can do before the interview:  P is for “Prepare.”  Before your interview, make a list of the job requirements and “desired qualifications.”  Things like “works well on a team” and “is able to multi-task.”  Bring those with you to the interview and bring some notes about stories you can tell to answer behavioral questions about “works well on a team” and “ability to multi-task,” for example.

OK, so STAR.

Situation: you think of a situation where you did something great or not so great. Remember that they want to know about you, how you work, and what you’ve done. When you tell your story, you start with the situation or context of your story. Something like, “I was working for a defense contractor.”

Task: For this part of your story you can say what your responsibility was. Something like, “My boss asked me to create a presentation for him to give at a meeting. I provided an excellent overview and presentation for my boss. However, when I was watching him present it, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t defined some terms correctly.”

Action:  Then you explain how you fixed the problem, “Instead of saying that my boss should have previewed the presentation, I made this a learning experience for myself and saved my boss from embarrassment. I immediately spoke up and took complete responsibility for the mistakes, and explained that I was learning how to make presentations and that from then on I would have someone proof our presentations.”—that’s your action.

Result: You can say, “Because I took responsibility for my mistake, my boss was able to trust me and delegate more work to me. He also knew that I am confident to admit I’m not perfect and that I’m more than prepared to fix problems rather than blaming others. He knows I care about our team and about him as a leader.”

The result can become a positive for you no matter what, so don’t worry if what happened during the situation wasn’t so great. Talk about how you grew, how you helped customers, and how you helped your organization to become better or to make more money.

It’s a simple example, but it shows them the task, your actions, and how you took control and fixed it. Also, if you use the STAR method you are able to keep control of the question, and I found that it keeps me focused. I have a strong tendency to fall off into a tangent, or chase the pretty squirrel, if you will.  

Erika:  So, what happened during your interview?

Roxy: During the interview, I froze and got confused (more on that) when they asked about me and what I do, how I work, and what I’ve done that I’m proud of that made the customer feel “number one.”  Amazon focuses everything around the customer and making them happy. At Amazon, the customers are truly “Job One.”  You have to understand Amazon’s customer focus to get through the first interview because that first interview is an assessment of who you are as a person and not just what is your best or worst experience. They operate in the exact opposite way compared to other companies I have interviewed with.

Erika:  You promised to tell us more about what confused you during the first Amazon interview…

Roxy: The confusion… every company has their own lingo. For example, when I would simply say that I edited or wrote a test plan, created test incident reports, and verified and validated a flow chart, a hiring manager says, “Do you have any experience writing, “Interface Control Documents,” or ICDs? ICDs are a record of all interface information, so it’s literally everything that I just mentioned above rolled into one document. Sadly, I learned that lingo in  that interview, but I must have been strong enough in other elements because I got an interview with the Amazon hiring manager. That next interview didn’t lead to them offering me a job, but this experience helped me with the interview I had for the job that I eventually did get.

Erika:  So, how are you feeling right now?  This must have been a very trying time for you and your family.

Roxy: The toll job hunting takes on you:  I was stressed, elated, depressed, and numb all at once. I had knots in my shoulders that felt like sharp daggers aiming for my spine. I put my family through the roller coaster of emotions with me:  after having a great first phone call I’m on cloud 9. And then nothing happens and I don’t get a second interview, I am depressed. My husband tried to help and encourage me, but sometimes if I allowed myself to get encouraged, when the rejection notice came, the depression hit even harder.

Erika:  So, if you get a second interview, does the roller coaster end?

Roxy:  No way! 

Then there is the excitement of getting through a second interview and hearing the hiring manager say that this person liked your resume, or this person is very interested in you. I start to think, “They love me!” So I now start looking at apartments in the area (because I’m searching outside of my home state) and plan and plot ways to get to work if we live in this neighborhood versus that one.

But then …wait for it… depression hits after I don’t hear from them for over a week. It isn’t out of the ordinary for a company to take their time and the hiring process can take a while, but when you are on the other end of the phone call, waiting a week seems like an eternity. I actually waited to hear back from one interview for over a month, and then the pandemic added more time. Finally, I heard back from the company I now work for. It was worth the wait, though; my new company and I are a terrific fit.

Erika:  What did you do while you waited to hear back from companies you applied to?

Roxy:  I spent hours looking on job sites, perfecting my resume one sentence at a time to match what a company wants. I meticulously rearranged my terms to match theirs. And I spent energy getting nervous about the few pieces I have in my portfolio:  my previous job was sensitive, and I can’t show anyone the result of my hard work. I wrote for a military entity and my stuff is all FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY!

Erika:  Is there a way to beef up your portfolio without using classified material?

Roxy:  Wow, um… I think that is a decision that the writer should look into. If they have a good relationship with their current employer, they might be able to include some simple SOPs (standard operating procedures) they’ve edited or written. If you can use redacted work that’s great!  I would take a good look at the document(s) you want to use because you could end up showing them a title and date with nothing more after that except conjunctions and “Lt” or “Appendix A.”

I decided that since I was a contract worker and I was applying for jobs with other contractors, they should understand that I don’t have examples outside of college work or at best a few things I might have done for friends. For example, I edit and proof a lot of term papers and projects for my son, his friends, and family who are also in school. Ultimately, I think it’s a conversation NOT to have with the recruiter. They are only there to get the information that is asked for on the job description and what the hiring manager may have told them in a meeting.

Save any conversation about a portfolio for that second interview with someone like the hiring manager or, if you’re lucky, a person who you’d be working under or with. That’s the best thing you could ask for, honestly. I interviewed for my new job with a recruiter first, then with the hiring manager, a lead and the person who would become my supervisor, and then finally I had an interview with just the supervisor. By then, the last interview was pretty much “When you start, you’ll be here, doing this, come down to our office…”  

I ended up getting the job with that company that took months to get back to me. My family packed up and moved 3,000 miles with the cat. It was in the beginning of the pandemic. Now I’m working at a new job, in my new town…from home!  Going through orientation remotely has been interesting and could be the topic for another conversation soon.

Erika: Thank you for sharing about your job hunt, Roxy. Keep us posted and best wishes in your new job. You give us all hope!

What do you think?


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