Why we get hired

It can be tempting to think that we are the reason we got hired (or rejected). But I think there are many other dynamics at play.

At various times in my career I've asked myself questions about hiring.

  • Why didn't they hire me?
  • Why did they hire me?
  • Why did they hire that person?
  • How might I get hired for x?

Hiring is all kinds of complicated and there probably isn't a single "solution" to the many problems of hiring. I just want to present my own observations and perspective, as someome who has been hired many times, helped others get hired and occasionally hired.

Big caveat: There is a powerful sociological and political lens through which all hiring decisions can be viewed. Others more qualified than me have spoken and written about it. I'm going to quietly side-step that topic and focus on my own direct experiences.

Rare, sought-after, specialist skills

This ought to be an obvious one, but hey... sometimes the obvious eludes us!

If you're a Java developer and the job market is tight for those developers - i.e. there aren't many people in your area who can do Java development - then you will be highly sought after. If clients are deperate enough, they may hire you just because you hava that essential Java skill, even if you don't have all the other skills they need.

This can play out in all kinds of interesting ways. You might have very little general experience, but after 1-2 years of experience in a highly sought-after specialist field, you get chosen over a generalist with much greater experience. You might even get paid more than the generalist, due to your specialisation. In fact, you might find yourself taking that specialist skill-set and using it move from job to job, rapidly increasing your pay rate.

Geography

Ok, I said I wouldn't look at this sociologically, but perhaps there is a hint of that in this section.

Geography has had a big influence on my success in the job market. Some locations always had more jobs than others. For various reasons, companies chose to locate their workers there and hire there, and I was better off being in those areas.

Sometimes I observed that a particular company would choose to locate itself far away from a major employment hub. They would struggle to hire, but on the flip-side, those who they did hire would prefer to stay with them longer because leaving would mean increasing their commute or moving house, and it wasn't worth the inconvenience. This was an interesting instance of "lock-in" effects being applied to staff retention!

Some locations were also more competitive than others - for some reason, workers preferred to live there, and therefore, more workers were competing for the same jobs and it was more difficult to get a job or the salaries were lower.

I experienced this in various ways in both Sydney and London. In Sydney, the choice was often between more money, more walking and duller scenery vs. less money, less walking and nicer scenery. In London, there was a similar trade-off, but I also experienced a competitive spirit in both job interviews and day-to-day work, where workers would put in a very strong performance in interviews and during the job, in order to get and keep the employment contract.

COVID update: even after the great transition to remote work, location still seems to be matter to a degree. Companies often still want you to be located in the same country, if not state or major city, for various reasons probably to do with labor laws, taxes, visas, etc.

Visas

Visas seem to have a significant impact on the job market. Plenty of people want to move to another country, plenty of companies want to hire people and the visa system generates both opportunities and constraints.

Based on my experience, plus conversations with visa-holders, the primary effects of a visa on the worker were:

  • To tether the worker to their sponsoring company
  • To encourage less risky roles and projects
  • To encourage harder and longer work hours
  • To encourage longer tenures (in order to maintain the length of stay necessary to become a permanent resident)

Also important was the way the person became connected to the sponsor. Some workers already had a job with the sponsor prior to moving to another country, and maintained certain relationships within the company, enabling them to transition with more ease and possibly counteract some of the aforementioned pressures.

Others (myself included) were able and willing to take a brand new job in a brand new country.

From the hiring company's point of view, the visa factor wasn't necessarily separable from all the other factors, e.g. supply and demand of skills. For example, a company might dislike having to pay additional costs associated with sponsorship, but like the candidate's skills, but dislike the candidate's geographic location, but like the candidate's salary expectations. All of these factors would need to be weighed up until the hirers could see a clear winner among their choice of candidates.

Interestingly enough, in my own experiences as a visa-holder, I have found that the constraints of a visa don't necesarily disadvantage the visa-holder, but can actually advantage them. How so? Well, when a larger oganisation treats the category of employees who hold sponsored visas as overall having certain traits (e.g. being more reliable, holding longer tenures, etc.) they may prefer to hire them into roles which are appropriate to those traits. This can, in effect, mean that visa-holders qua visa-holders have access to roles within an organisation that they would've have had as non-visa-holders. Within these roles, they can achieve desirable career outcomes, e.g. kinds of expertise and/or relationships that can only be gained via long-term engagements. In this way, the market dynamics that the visa system generates can be turned to the advantage of the visa holders.

National and regional economy

Again, it seems like it should be obvious, but I still find it useful to think more deeply about the economy.

If your country is in a clear or not-so-clear recession, jobs generally will be less plentiful. The effects can spread to industries that mightn't seem to be affected. If there are more unemployed workers generally then more of those workers might seek jobs in your field. Then the hirers in your field will see more and better applicants and therefore salaries will adjust down and requirements will adjust up.

As a software developer I've worked alongside plenty of people whose background wasn't traditionally in software, but who moved in to software after losing their regular job, having their small business fail, etc. This occurring on a larger scale would almost certainly have impacted the supply-side of the job market.

One thing we don't always consider is regional and state level economics. Different parts of a country can be thriving or struggling at different times, as distinct from the country as a whole. The effects can surface in counter-intuitive wys - a region that is understaffed isn't necessarily short on work as much as it is short on workers.

Taking Australia as an example, there were periods where the mining boom in Western Australia attracted workers from various backgrounds, including those who might have otherwise been doing software development. This affected supply of software developers, but also generated difficulties in getting new projects approved, due to talent shortages. I can recall missing out on being hired on a number of occasions, not because the company didn't want to hire me, but because they couldn't get the project launched!

It can be useful to learn about the economic situation in your country, down to the regional level. That understanding can help you to know which areas to target to get the best possible job at the best possible salary.

Industry and financial economy

As the economy goes through cycles, so can a particular industry. An industry may go through a period of growth or transformation, so all the companies compete with eachother over who can move the quickest, and this creates demand for new jobs.

For example, digital and agile transformations had been occurring in large government departments and corporations in both Australia and the UK over the 2010s, creating growth in related job opportunities. Agile practitioners, digital designers, software developers and others cashed in on this trend.

On the other hand, one or more industries may also downsize and cut jobs, as that industry fades into irrelevance, gets replaces, gets outsourced/offshored or encounters some other damper on growth. An example of this might be the decline of the newspaper business over the 2000s and 2010s. I directly observed this in the form of announcements of this or that division being closed down, this or that manager leaving, relatively low salaries being advertised by companies in declining industries and projects being skewed toward cost-cutting rather than growth-generating.

"Decline" of course can affect different people differently. What is a lack-lustre time for investors could be an excellent time for workers and vice-versa. Some of my most enjoyable engagements were in failing or declining enterprises. Unlike a sinking ship, the worst that can happen in a sinking company probably won't involve loss of life.

Reputational

Somewhat relatd to the previous subject, another area I want to touch on is reputation. No, not your reputation - the company's!

A company or industry may have a reputation as being 'sought-after', which causes many applicants to flood the job market, making it tough for you to get in.

Equally so, a company or industry can develop a reputation as being 'unwanted'. Maybe people think it's slowing down, there's less opportunity there, it's hard work for little pay or some other reason. But the reality might be the exact opposite! It might actually be a really good 'hidden gem', which no one else knows about!

Side-note: Interestingly, this kind of "crowding out" or "mania" effect isn't only observed in the job market. It seems to also be observed in finance. In one of my favourite books, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, the author points to certain periods of capitalism as a "frenzy of money-making money, which creates asset inflation and provides a gambling atmosphere within an ever-expanding bubble".

Seasonal

Finally, a more trivial but nonetheless influential factor in hiring. Funnily enough seasons do still seem to matter! There are times of the year when people are more likely to take a break and go on holidays, e.g. Chrismas, versus other times when they're more likely to be working. Hiring activity may be greater when the weather is warm and lesser when it's cold. It's well known in Sydney that that job market tends to slow down around the end of the year and beginning of the next year, but picks up around the early to middle part of the year.

Putting it all together

Why am I interested in examining these factors for getting hired?

Well it's simple: I think by understanding these factors, I can better position myself in the job market to score my dream job!

Similar to how a pilot uses an understanding of the environmental conditions (temperature, wind currents, topography, etc) to direct an aircraft to fly in the smoothest way possible, I can direct my job search as a candidate in the most advantageous way.

I'm not a crash-hot ultra-senior Python engineer or data-scientist or AI genius. I don't (at the time of writing) have a full degree from a prestigious university or decades of experience on successful projects, or hundreds of contacts.

But the job market doesn't necessarily care about all that.

If there is a heightened demand and lowered supply of a particular skill, and you show up in the right place, at the right time, for the right company, you can take advantage of that opportunity to score yourself that dream job! By looking at these factors and matching them up with your plans, you can set yourself up to cash in on job opportunities that wouldn't normally be available to you.

Once you've taken one of those opportunities, you can use it to pivot to the next one. So you take advantage of a temporary peak in demand to get yourself into an entry-level Python developer role. Then you can transition or 'pivot' into your next role, which might be a more senior Python developer role or maybe something else that you didn't even imagine you'd be doing!

Summary

It's useful to learn and think deeply about the job market and use that knowledge to discover and take advantage of unique opportunities in the job market.

Some of the big factors include:

  • supply and demand of specialist skills (which can often offset a perceived deficit in generalist skills, educational background, etc),
  • geographical distribution of industries (companies and workers),
  • the visas open to the worker and perceived traits of visa vs. non-visa workers,
  • the differing situations of the national/regional economies and overall health and reputation of organisations and industries, and
  • even that most seemingly trivial of factors – the seasons!

I hope readers will benefit from these observations and use them to unlock otherwise-hidden areas of the job market or generate other kinds of arbitrage benefits.

Position yourself the right way and the wind will carry your sail boat!