Saturday 19 July 2014

How (not) to impress potential employees

Maybe you're involved in a company that is interested in employing computer science students. Maybe one day you will be. I've just come back from a week-long 'field trip' which had little to do with fields, but involved various companies in Cape Town doing their utmost to impress me and my classmates and to persuade us to apply to work for them. Some rose spectacularly to the occasion, while others ... didn't. I couldn't help but notice some very clearly defined differences between the two extremes, so here's a (relatively) brief how-to on impressing students.

The companies we visited were BSG, Amazon, Korbitec, Centre for High Performance Computing, Bandwidth Barn, Open Box, and KPMG, and each had us in their offices for about half a day. While I won't go in to any too much "naming and shaming", there are some definite yeses and nos about how to host a group of students / potential employees.

No slides
You can't possibly explain what you're all about without PowerPoint, right? Wrong. At two of the companies, we didn't see a single presentation, and it's no coincidence that these are the two companies where the class wasn't bored, playing on laptops, or sending witty messages (largely highly insulting to the company) on the class WhatsApp group. While anyone can give a PowerPoint presentation, it takes someone with some public speaking skills to talk to people informatively without hiding behind (in front of) slides. But even if you only have one person who can do this effectively, make sure they are available when the students arrive.

Definitely no software/tutorial slides
We're comp sci students. We've seen a lot of slides about how to use software and how computers or computing concepts work. This is our vacation, and we're here to hear about your company - not about Scrum methodology or frameworks that were the latest and greatest 5 years ago and which your company still thinks are worth talking about. One company had someone present a slideshow about AngularJS - a slideshow that the presenter happily admitted to having scrounged from the top Google result because he didn't have time to throw anything together himself. He used phrases such as "I'm not quite sure what this variable does, it was declared further up, ummm, I think". 

BSG tried to give us a miniature "workshop", which involved over four hours of slides and incompetent speakers. We were highly amused to discover an article on their website afterwards, claiming that the event had been a complete success. They went so far as to say that: "When asked whether they would like to work at BSG when they graduated, the students at the event were unanimous". And we were even more amused to see that they'd put a photo of the Information Systems class instead of a photo of us.

Don't appear stingy
We're all living off student budgets at the moment. When we open a menu at a restaurant, we automatically scan the price column for potential meals, and then look to the description for confirmation. Money still has a sense of intrigue. One company provided a couple of bottles of champagne, enough pizza to carpet my diggs, a wide variety of drinks which we failed to finish, and yo-yos. We were impressed and the yo-yos were played with during boring visits to other companies. Another company asked for the name-tags they'd given us back again, as they wanted to reuse the safety pins. We started joking in horrible ways about them before we were out of earshot. 

Allow us to interact with your employees
Anyone can make a company seem glamorous for a couple of hours. If we only see one room and two people, we are immediately suspicious about working conditions for the rest of the staff. Once we've heard the (short) introduction, give us food and invite your other staff too. We want to be able to engage in one-on-one casual conversations with people who are working there to get a less biased impression of your company. 

Tell us how much money we stand to make
Money is important to us. Every company without exception offered "a competitive starting salary". This exact phrase was pronounced by presenters, provided on pamphlets, and printed on posters. When asked for a ballpark figure, there were hushed silences, nervous giggles, and a reply of "we can't really talk about that". Rumours get around - we know, or think we know, what you're paying. We may well be wrong. But none of us are going to send in our CVs if the rumours are that you've given up on South African Rands altogether and are instead counting out ground-grown legumes for your employees at the end of each month. We know that starting salaries may differ even within your company - but give us some idea. You ask for our exam marks - imagine if we put on our CVs "above average exam marks, with competitive additional achievements".

Spend five minutes finding out who we are
We're constantly reminded that the worst thing we can do in an interview or cover letter is confuse your company with your competitor. If I walk into a Korbitec interview and tell them how excited I am about working for BSG, it's over. But we had presenters assume we were from UCT, be under the assumption that we were all Information System students, and even had one that gave us a whole lecture on Astronomy and Physics. On the other end of the spectrum, one company had asked our department to send in summaries of our honours projects, and the CEO spoke to some of us individually about what we were working on (while we ate pizza and drank beer). 

Give us nice toys
We've got a lot of pens, and company-branded lip-ice is not really our thing. We're not going to walk around with our keys on your company's lanyards. But again, we're students. You don't need to go all-out and buy us all new laptops, cars, and houses. Hoodies are great; one company gave us high-quality touch-screen styluses; even the sunglasses and yo-yos were used and not just chucked in the nearest bin (sometimes even bins in your offices, though mostly we were polite enough to use the ones outside). 

And finally, avoid clich├ęs "like the plague". Every company "does things a little bit differently", they all "encourage growth in their employees", "think outside the box", and "have a strong employee focus". We know you like to think that you "empower us" to "reach our full potential"; that you are kind of into "viable solutions", "understanding culture", and "leveraging opportunities". We don't care about "sector specialists", "open mindsets" that are "essentially very powerful", and we don't believe that you are "all about people". Your "company vision" is meaningless, and I doubt you could give an acceptable definition of "empathetic" if actually asked about it. Be straightforward with us, we're all intelligent enough to smell bullshit when it's shoved under our noses.

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