How will you get your next IT job? A lot of IT people look for new opportunities on the Web and in the newspaper. But, like it or not, some of the very best jobs are only available through technical recruiters.

Recently, I talked to Kathy Mattingly, a technical recruiter with 17 years’ experience, about the job market for IT people. She shared with me her unique way of getting to know her clients, and she told me a couple of great IT stories. (Kathy works for i.t.s. Staffing.)

The three biggest career mistakes
My first question for Kathy was “What’s the biggest career mistake IT professionals make?”

“Not keeping themselves marketable,” Kathy said. “They get very comfortable with one job, one employer. They sit still instead of getting a certification, asking to move to another team, or taking a course.”

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“And if you could give advice to a veteran IT professional?” I asked.

“Take command of your own career,” Kathy said. “You cannot rely on your employer to keep you marketable. The only insurance you have is your own marketability, your skills. If you focus on keeping your skills current, you make yourself marketable, and you have better job security and a better chance of getting a job. The money will take care of itself.”

“So what’s the second biggest career mistake IT people make?” I asked.

“Resumes,” Kathy said. “The overall quality of resumes is not that great. It’s your biggest marketing tool. You really ought to invest the time needed to create a quality resume before you ever enter the marketplace.

“One complaint I have about most candidates is that they don’t qualify or quantify their technical skill set. They won’t even put technical buzzwords in [their resumes]. They’ll say ‘network administrator,’ but of what? NT? UNIX? Or they do the opposite and throw the kitchen sink at the reader, listing everything they’ve done since grammar school. That’s very misleading. It gets the resume picked up, but any good interviewer will quickly ascertain what the candidate’s strengths really are.”

The third biggest mistake, according to Kathy, is omitting information about work history or faking credentials. “I’ve uncovered felonies and people who have outright lied, said they had degrees when they didn’t or omitted a place where they’d worked because they’d been fired.” Some employers, according to Kathy, consider omission the same as a lie and will terminate employment if the truth is uncovered. (Moral of the story: Be honest, especially with your technical recruiter.)

Newbies: Look for try-and-buy employers
I asked Kathy what advice she would give to new IT professionals. She said that employers “don’t have a lot of great entry-level programs in place. So co-op, volunteer to do the church Web site, anything you can do to put experience on the resume. Many times, co-ops provide not only experience, but if you’re diligent and work hard, the try-and-buy employers may hire you.”

The “wish list”
I first met Kathy when a friend of mine suggested I send her a resume. I’m always interested in evaluating my worth in the IT marketplace, so I contacted her. When she replied, she asked me to fill out and return a “wish list” document. It wasn’t anything fancy. Kathy had assembled a dozen or so questions designed to help her get to know more about the job seeker than what shows up on the resume.

The wish list asks job seekers to answer several questions about their career goals, including:

  • All of the job titles the job seeker would consider.
  • A detailed list of skills.
  • A list of things the job seeker finds satisfying in a job.
  • The pay and other benefits, such as casual dress code or flexible work hours, that would be desirable.

Granted, those sound like standard questions one should expect to hear from any technical recruiter. When I received the “wish list” document, my first thought was “Yeah, right!” I didn’t want to fill out some questionnaire!

But taking the time to answer all of the questions on the wish list made me think realistically about my career goals. The wish list is Kathy’s homegrown form, built during 16 years of trying to get into a candidate’s head.

“I stay focused on the client’s needs and wants, not the placement,” Kathy said. “It’s kind of like in sales. If all you think about is the money and not servicing your client. The resume tells me where the candidate has been; the wish list tells me where the client wants to go.” You gotta like that attitude in someone whose job it is to find you a great job.

Kathy’s worst experience with a happy ending
I asked Kathy about her worst experience with a job seeker. “In my first year as a recruiter, I sent a guy’s resume to his boss,” she said. “I was just looking at the qualifications, and it was such a perfect fit. The guy called and said, ‘Any particular reason why you’d be stupid enough to send my resume to my boss?’”

“I was mortified,” Kathy said. So she hustled and located another great match for the candidate. “The job was out of state, but the candidate was okay with relocating, especially with the raise he was getting. Then he called and said his current employer had made a counteroffer. He was going to stay.”

“So that story had a happy ending?” I asked. “I was lucky,” Kathy said.

Kathy’s favorite placement: Programmer/pilot
Kathy says that every placement she has ever made has given her a great thrill. However, one of her favorite moments was when a company in Bowling Green, KY, asked her to locate a PICK programmer. The twist was the company only needed the person to do programming half the time and be the company pilot the other half of the time.

She started by asking around her IT friends, “Know anyone who can fly?” Her networking turned up someone who, at the time, was unemployed. On his career “wish list,” he wrote that he wanted to do programming and flying. Kathy said, “The company was amazed because they never thought I’d find a pilot who knew PICK!”