It’s job fair time, again. There is always a smaller one here on the UAS campus, organized by the department of automotive and aircraft construction and dominated by that industry, followed a week later by a big one at UHH where all the IT companies are. Last year my programming partner and I went to the former and emerged from the hustle half an hour later comparatively disillusioned. We had always been told that IT specialists were in high demand, yet on that job fair most employers were looking for automotive or aircraft engineers. And with those few who conceded that they were at least principally interested in computer scientists, invariably the second question was “can you do embedded?” (i.e. program microchips in C or Assembly). No, we are not that kind of computer people. That would be technical CS.

But then I was not actually looking for a job in the second term–I was just checking the market. My programming partner, on the other hand, was. He applied to both companies who had indicated that they would employ applied CS students, sat out the summer vacations rather bored at the one, and then in the fourth term started working two days a week, and happily for all I know, at the other.

This summer however I am rather serious about getting a job. Now that I have ditched the research project, and with my wife always prodding me to work somewhere, anywhere in fact, just so I would not end up an overage theoretical computer scientist with no chance for employment after graduation, I suddenly thought, oh well, we might as well at least start looking.

The small job fair on our campus turned out to be not nearly the disappointment it was a year ago. This time they had all the IT companies concentrated in a large marquee, though they still had that tucked away in the backyard behind the car lab in the subbasement of the automotive and aircraft construction building. Once I had discovered it, however, I found myself in high demand. It may have been because I had a clear purpose this time and actively approached the representatives of the firms present, saying I was studying applied CS in the fourth term and was looking for a place to work one or two days a week during the term, and more in the term break. We must have appeared rather shy and tentative a year ago, I suppose. Not to mention that a second-term student is of rather limited use to any IT company–we may have thought the world of our programming skills back then, but didn’t have the first idea of software engineering, or frameworks, or anything beyond doing business logic in small programs without either frontend or persistence. This time, I could confidently say that I knew quite a lot about these things, and then some. What’s more, I could credibly ask questions, for instance regarding the software development process practiced and the tools used by my prospective employers, and understand and discuss the replies.

But in fact it seems to me that the industry has simply grown more desperate about getting software engineers, and preferably getting them early. Because let’s face it, a student who starts working at a company and likes it will usually stay there at least for his first job after graduation. I talked with the representatives of five companies. All but one didn’t wait to be asked but basically engaged me in conversation the moment I so much as glanced in their direction. And all five were immediately interested when I said fourth term and applied CS. Of course, I could come work for them, here is a business card and would I please send my résumé to the address indicated on it? Two companies also immediately took down my name and contact details. Rather as an afterthought they added, did I have any questions?

Wow. This got serious rather fast.

Once home and over my initial excitement, I sorted my priorities. There was this small IT service company I had picked out from the fair catalog primarily because their offices were halfway between our home and the campus. Talking with their head of development at the fair stand it sounded all rather friendly–a small development team, a project leader who saw his role as keeping the team clear from interference, and a pragmatic approach to agile development, plus they were flexible about working hours, which is rather important for a student who has to fit in work between lectures, practica, and examination periods. I thought that in a small team one would learn rather a lot about many different things.

Then there was this big international company with offices in several German cities that I had already found interesting a year ago. They are one of those employers who make a great effort to advertise their comfortable and flexible working conditions, and according to the reviews on the relevant internet platform it appears to be true. They also have quite a number of students working for them. The downside is that they are at the other end of the city from where we live, but apparently they are very relaxed about office hours. Coming in one day a week and doing another day’s worth working from home would be quite alright, they said.

I talked with three other firms, one of them a big IT consulting firm right downtown near the harbor. It sounded all very interesting, and their representative emphasized their elaborate trainee program; basically it seems they would make quite an effort over a lot of time to train you on the job. Only later I realized that I really didn’t want to be an IT consultant, spending a lot of time with customers and probably wearing a coat and tie to work. Another firm I talked with rather failed to make any impression on me–they seemed to be not interested in any serious conversation on issues. Finally there were these two desperate guys in a corner representing a very small business who basically wanted me to sign something there and then–on reflection, that didn’t sound too promising to me.

So in the end I settled on the first two companies only, at least for a start. That evening I wrote a CV and cover letter summarizing my software skills, my experiences, my interests, and rather playing down my earlier professional life. In fact, apart from my Swiss PhD I basically condensed 20 years of researching, publishing, and teaching as a historian into three lines in the CV and one in the cover letter, in which I tried to put a positive spin on that record by saying it had provided me with social, communicative, and organizational skills that would not come amiss even for a software engineer. You see, I am not quite sure how much of an impediment my being about 20 years older than most of my peers is going to be–or whether at least some potential employers will be prepared to consider my previous life (or at least my PhD) an asset. But that too is something I better find out now, rather than after graduation.

I sent it off to both firms and waited expectantly. Would they reject me out of hand once they realized I was in my late fourties? Even though my grades (I provided an excerpt) prove that I must have a lot of work discipline and at least some brains? I don’t know yet, because in the end both companies rather dropped the ball. The small one didn’t reply to my application in over a week, not even saying they got it (they finally did two days after I inquired); and the big one acknowledged receipt, but then proceeded to ask me for a lot of information that was clearly already provided in the cover letter and/or CV, leaving me rather baffled. I replied patiently, and now I’ll have a telephone interview with one of their HR guys ten days hence.

So with no concrete job offers yet to show for my efforts, I went to the big job fair at UHH the following week.

It was like a big tent camp, all in all–three large marquees buzzing with people, pouring rain outside, and a rather ruined soaked lawn in between. And there were plenty of potential employers, at least 50 who confessed by means of five big ruby balls that they were looking for IT specialists. (There was a color code for areas of expertise and demand; but unlike with other areas, nobody who wanted computer scientists at all wanted them less than 5/5, i.e. really urgently.) For fun, I went and talked, incognito, with my wife’s employer, a big financial software company, and with the IT consultant firm that employs the husband of my wife’s closest colleague, but I wasn’t serious about working for either, though I must say the latter sounded rather professional. In any case, if I wanted to work for my wife’s employer I wouldn’t need to go to a job fair to get a contact.

This time I went with a co-student and we talked with I should say nearly 20 companies–so many that in the end even with the help of the catalog and collected business cards I could no longer recall anything about at least half of them. Even more than at the UAS job fair, those we saw represented the whole gamut of the software business, from consultants to service companies to the in-house IT departments of logistic businesses and so on, and from small firms with a dozen people to big international companies with hundreds of employees even at their local branch. A few said right away they were not interested in students, only graduates–rather myopic I should say, considering what I said above about people probably sticking with their employer after graduation, unless they have a good reason not to. On the opposite end, some seemed to employ so many students and were so insistent about our working the full 20 hours legally possible for students during the term, and full time in the term breaks, that I had the suspicion they were deliberately exploiting students as cheap work force.

In the end only two potential employers stuck in my mind as being worth a try. The one was a very small IT service business at the airport whose two representatives had been so pragmatic, reasonable, and likeable that one instinctively wanted to hope the whole firm was that way.  (I later found they had a really unconventional website.) The other was a rather big downtown company with whose head of software development we had a rather intense half-hour. The company is doing time-sensitive financial tools using Scala, a programming language based on Java but  with additional functional programming elements that I had always wanted to learn. And they have problems finding Scala developers because the language is not taught at any university in the metropolitan area. The guy we talked with sounded very competent, and very no-nonsense. Unlike with some of the other firms, there was nothing relaxed or flexible about their process–on the contrary, he said as students we would be put right into a development team and expected to be there and do real work. While they were not doing Scrum by the book, they wanted people to be in a room together so they could really work together. I don’t know, but somehow it immediately sounded attractive. Working there, I thought, you probably couldn’t avoid learning a lot, and learn it the hard way, even if you tried. What better way to get a foot in the door of software engineering in the real world? And the conversation ended on a rather serious note: He had us fill in a form with contact details and relevant skills and interests, and we promised to send our applications.

I went away from the fair after three hours rather overexcited (and hungry because I had skipped lunch). In the evening I right away sent my application to the firm last mentioned, so I wouldn’t drop the ball, and at least they immediately confirmed receipt. I had quite forgotten that I had also left my contact details with the IT consultant firm I had seen first, but then they contacted me, asking for my résumé. Even though I am quite confident I do not want to be an IT consultant, I still sent it, because they really look attractive, and maybe there is a way to work for them, at least as a student, without doing any actual consulting.

And other than that, I am now just waiting to see what happens. The funny thing is that my co-student found quite different firms interesting. He applied to the one company that, at the UAS fair, had left no impression at all on me, and at the UHH fair he thought the one business attractive that had be too hip (they had a life-size pink tiger at their stand–what the hell for?) and too automotive-centered for my liking. Well, to each his own. We shall see what happens.

Mind you, I still have no idea how this will turn out, or even what I want. For instance, I am not sure whether I want to work for a big or a small firm. At a small firm, you will probably learn and see a lot of different things, but on the other hand there might be pressure, overtime, poor pay and all the other side effects of a company’s just scraping by. A big company on the other hand is presumably a lot more regulated, with fixed hours, better pay, overtime compensation, and so on. Maybe even a dedicated trainee or mentorship program. But on the other hand you will probably end up in a small compartment, doing the same thing day in day out. I have seen it both, indirectly, as my wife just went from a rather small to a really big firm. Not sure which one I prefer. Probably best to try both. In fact, as they say, in IT you have to change jobs every second year, just so you stay current and don’t get bored. The one thing I am certain of is I do not want to work for the in-house IT department in a non-IT enterprise. I believe those are on the way out, and a dedicated IT company is sure to be more up-to-date on technologies and more versatile.

In any case, working will mean a change of pace in the study program as well. You see, with a wife working and three kids at home, unlike some of my co-students who work I can not compensate for that by studying more in the evenings or on the weekend. Working two days will mean dropping two courses, as with five courses per term each means about a day of work per week. Which means I will study at least one term longer, though in fact with courses and sometimes exams from different terms overlapping, there is no guarantee this will work out. It might be two terms. So I will be six months to a year older at graduation. To compensate for that, I will have real life experience in software engineering. And I may loose contact with our semester group, at least in some courses. Though of course now with elective courses and projects that contact is growing looser each term anyway. And besides, this way or that way it will be over soon. Quite a thought.


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