I’d like to talk about people, relationships, and the most effective steps I’ve taken on my short journey to the tech industry. This post is for everyone, but aimed especially toward new, inexperienced developers. If this could help one single developer land their first job, well, that would be cool.

I went to a Meetup last night in Dayton, OH. It was a panel discussion on the topic of careers in the web industry. As a new developer, I’ve only just crested the first foothill of “Mount Web Dev.” Needless to say, any information I could take from this discussion would be valuable to me as I move forward along my new career path. The panel consisted of a couple recruiters, a lead developer for a large company, a small software company owner, and a teacher. They brought a nice melange of viewpoints to the talk. It was a good panel.

When the question of what makes someone employable came up, one important point was made repeatedly—culture. There is a need for employee/employer to be aligned on a social and value-based level. The recruiters didn’t have much to say to that end, but the speakers who worked within development teams and made direct hiring decisions seemed to agree that a personal connection was as important as, if not more than, a technical skillset.

When I first began my job search as someone with zero industry experience, it was difficult. I didn’t know how I could possibly convince someone to give me an opportunity to interview, let alone hire me. On paper, I had nothing. No degree. No company experience. Online, I had some small projects and work examples, but my portfolio was lacking any real depth. How in the world would I convince anyone to give me more than a passing glance?

I started by looking for smaller companies near me that I thought might be open to bringing on a green developer. I sent them messages that explained who I was and tried to convince them that I had all the passion necessary to learn what I needed and become valuable to them. I had one quick hit right out of the gate—a phone interview that was, ultimately, fruitless. Other than that, crickets. To add to the challenge, I could only find so many companies that seemed like a fit, but that well quickly ran dry.

Not sure what else to do, I started dropping lots of applications for corporate gigs, even though I knew I wasn’t very interested in any of those jobs. I didn’t expect to see results from this approach, and I was right. Zero, zip, nada, although, ultimately, for the better.

My next move was to connect with some outside recruiters. Even this was difficult, as they almost always want to see the same things as the large companies. Corporations are, of course, primarily who they work with. I try to avoid blanket statements, and my limited exposure to this process doesn’t warrant my judgement. But I’ll say this… For me, the process of working with outside recruiters has been not only disappointing, but a legitimate turn-off. I don’t expect to travel that road again in the future.

At this point I was not feeling very optimistic. But there was one major thing I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t talking to strangers. Fact: companies are made up of people, and one (maybe) obvious thing about people is… they/we are predominantly good. Strangers will generally go out of their way to help other strangers. I had a mutual connection with a project manager at a growing start-up and I reached out to him as a complete stranger asking for advice. He graciously met me for dinner, and over the course of a couple hours, we had a great conversation. I was able to ask him questions and learn about his process. And he exposed me to more small company opportunities that I wasn’t aware of. He was impressed enough with me to contact people he knew at these companies and put in a good word. I say he was impressed, but that’s not really true. The reality is that there was a cultural alignment between us. We made a personal connection and that was all it took. The very first direction he pointed me in was fruitful. I landed an interview, did a partial day of work, and was offered a developer position. It was a small start-up that had so much more to offer than any of the corporate jobs that wouldn’t even consider talking to me. It was a great fit and I would have been more than happy to start my professional journey at that company.

However, something else, a gift we’ll call it, landed in my lap the same day I was offered that position. I turned down the offer. Crazy right? Maybe not. I hope to write about that gift soon. But that’s not the point of this. The point is that the only thing that has helped me make inroads in the tech industry has been talking to strangers, face to face. At the very same Meetup that prompted me to write this blog post, I met two new people, both individuals with many years of developer experience. Both offered to help me in different ways. People are good. So my advice to anyone wondering how to “get in”—seek out the individuals who work for the companies you admire. Go to Meetups and talk to strangers. Reach out to people you don’t know and make that personal connection. You have nothing to lose.