Welcome to our bi-weekly Office Hours series! This week we're talking to Merit mentor and investor Arjun Kannan about negotiating your first offer, spotting red flags, and the importance of looking beyond LinkedIn to network.
Arjun Kannan is co-founder of ResiDesk, helping rental buildings build better businesses by understanding and improving the renter's experience. Previously, he was Chief Product and Technology Officer at Climb Credit, which helps people increase their earning potential by giving them tools to find and finance great education (often helping them break into tech). He started his career working at BlackRock, building product and engineering teams and products focused on everything from portfolio analytics (making sense of the money) to developer experience.
Want to talk to Arjun more about acing the interview, negotiating an offer, or finding your first job? Book some time with him on Merit.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: Finding your first software job has never been easy, and we're entering new and uncertain times. What advice would you give software engineers entering this job market?
Arjun Kannan: So a couple of things, and I'm going back to the story of how I ultimately ended up with my first job. I had a very tough time with it. Two things that really help are A) try and get to know your hiring manager, not just a recruiter, especially if you're just out of school. Try and establish a personal connection. And B) try and do as much research as you can on—not every company [because] sometimes you just need a job—but on the five or six companies that really make the most sense to you. That [research] helps you reach out to the hiring managers outside the context of the interview process.
The thing that worked for me—and I'm sure if you ask the hiring manager for my first job at BlackRock, they would tell you it was very annoying—but, the way it worked for me was I had gotten an interview for the job, went onsite, got rejected, really liked the team, said we would keep in touch—and this is while I was still in school—kept bugging them about it, and then at some point, they were like, "Hey, actually, we might have another opening here somewhere else. Would you like to interview for the role?" And I was like, "Yeah, I just need a job."
That really helped. The only other thing that I'd say—which I think is everybody says but I think you can differentiate yourself—is to highlight your side projects in a way that shows not just the fact that you did the extra work, but that it’s yours, because it seems like everybody and their mom has a GitHub repo right now and they all have projects; it's really easy to clone things and work on a few small things and say that it's your side project.
But try [to] have something that was fun for you, because if it comes up, especially with an entry-level job, most people are looking for evidence that you can actually figure out how to do things without needing 100% guidance. Sharing the side projects is significantly easier if you can also demonstrate that you took initiative and you had something to talk about with those projects.
One of my favorite interviews was with somebody who made something that was just like, “How should I dress for this weather?” Everybody has a weather app as their side job. That's no big deal. But they had something personal to them because they were like, "Oh, should I take an umbrella today? Or should I wear a jacket?" That made it personal to them, which then led them down the path of being able to talk about it in a way that was much more personal and relatable and, frankly, more in depth than somebody who would've just said, "Oh, here's the weather thing. Here's a weather data source. I plugged them together. This is how I deal with it."
In summary, try and know the hiring manager and try and build a relationship. Do some research on the company, and, if possible, have a side project that speaks to your personal passion. It doesn't have to be big; it just has to be personal.
Sharing side projects [in an interview] is significantly easier if you can also demonstrate that you took initiative and you had something to talk about with those projects...it doesn't have to be big; it just has to be personal.
RS: I really love that advice, particularly about the project. When I was thinking about becoming a software engineer for a hot minute, that was the advice I got: “Don't just work on a project. Think about something that's interesting to you, a problem that you would want to solve for yourself.” Pick a simple one, obviously, but pick something that you would be interested in having for yourself.
You mentioned looking at five or six companies that would make the most sense for you and then doing the additional research on top of that. One of the things that we think about a lot at Merit is how candidates can get, as much as possible, a good feel for the company before they accept an offer. So, my question is: what are some red flags candidates should look out for when interviewing or researching? What are some signs of a toxic environment?
AK: There are a few signs. I would say Zoom makes this a little harder than meeting people in person. This is always going to be personal. I think it's important to understand what kind of culture you do want, because things that may be a red flag to some are not a red flag to others. So let's start by getting the obvious stuff out of the way, which is paying attention to the way that your interviewer talks about their projects and their team.
I always found that if [the interviewer] said they accomplished them, like, "I accomplished this by myself" too much, that tended to be a red flag to me. You're interviewing the company as much as they're interviewing you, even though it never feels that way, especially when you're looking for your first job.
I think it's important to understand what kind of culture you do want, because things that may be a red flag to some are not a red flag to others.
I found that it's usually a red flag if they don't tell you why [the project] was important. If they say, "Hey, I don't know. My managers just gave me this task, and I did it,” that tends to be an unsatisfactory answer because it can hide a lot of other things around the workplace—maybe they don't share credit or they don't share context or they hide things or there's no pushing back on ideas or work that doesn't make sense, which, ultimately, ends up being dangerous to the company and the employee.
It is, of course, very hard to have one or two magic questions that pull all the red flags out, so one of the other things that really helps, at least in my opinion, is to ask multiple interviewers the same questions and to mention, potentially, talking points from the previous interview and see if they're consistent, too. Inconsistencies aren’t necessarily a red flag. You might be interviewing with four people from four different teams, so maybe [inconsistent answers are] just fine. But it does help to notice how they react to things that their coworkers said.
Another red flag is if they don't give you time for questions. It’s a really basic thing that you should look out for. Sometimes they're just pressed for time, but if you ask, "I have a couple questions. Can we stay five extra minutes?" their reaction to that usually tells you a lot.
A good hiring manager will welcome those questions because, from their perspective, an interview only gives [the hiring manager] standard signals. For them, having a candidate ask certain things might tell more about [the candidate] than they would've otherwise learned, so hiring managers should welcome that.
Those to me are the big things that apply no matter [what stage] the company is at or what it does. The culture that applies to you, I think, is a more nuanced question. Some people want to be in a company that values getting the thing done and making the financial returns from the project and moving on. That's totally fine. It may or may not be for everybody, but companies usually tend to advertise this kind of stuff in their culture.
Some others might prefer a more collegial environment or really liking their coworkers. So it’s important to understand which is which, because you don't want to go interview—not to name drop anybody—but you don't want to go interview at an investment bank expecting a Google culture. Nor do you want to go interview at Strava, the fitness company, and expect that they're going to have a culture of people sitting and playing video games after work. None of these is right or wrong. It’s a little bit on the candidate to find out.
You're interviewing the company as much as they're interviewing you, even though it never feels that way, especially when you're looking for your first job.
RS: That's a great point, and a lot of companies these days, to an extent, seem to try and have some materials on their website about “What it's like to work for us.” I've also given the recommendation, “Look at their LinkedIn employees and people who worked there. Headshots and their roles can tell you a lot about an organization.”
AK: The only other thing I'd say, which I don't know that people looking for their first job have enough time to do, is knowing the hiring manager and knowing the people that they're connected to. If you can talk to people outside of the context of the job process, that's when you get to learn a lot about the culture. There's no harm, especially if you have the time to start early enough, in reaching out to a couple people who work at the company and be like, "Hey, I really like what you're doing [at the company]. I would love ten minutes of your time just to learn about what you do because I would like to work there too."
And most people will be more than happy to give you that time. Engineers especially don't get those kinds of requests very often.
RS: Back to your point about asking questions with the last five to ten minutes: one thing that I've always tried to do when I've been on hiring panels is, if we do run out of time and I have a hard stop for whatever reason, I give [the candidate] my email and say, "You are welcome to reach out to me at any time." And for me, it's a red flag when no one is open to saying, "If you want to follow up, please do so."
Let's say, hypothetically, that you're a hiring manager and you're extending an offer to a junior software engineer. What are you optimizing for and, conversely, what should the candidate keep in mind when reviewing the offer? If it's your first offer ever, it might be a little bit hard to understand the motivations of the hiring manager or why the offer package is what it is.
AK: That is a great question. There's a cynical answer and a real answer that you learn over time. The cynical answer, and one that I think is challenging if you do in bad faith is, “You're a junior candidate; you need a job [and] I have a job [to offer], so I'm gonna give you the absolute minimum that I can to get you to join me.” It does happen, especially the bigger the company, the more likely it is that they have standardized all of this stuff and there's actually very little to go back and forth on.
I certainly thought that way when I was looking at my first job, and it turns out that's not actually the case most of the time. So the cynical view didn't help me. I negotiated by assuming that they were negotiating in bad faith, and that was not the right thing to do.
What actually is happening is, the hiring manager is optimizing to figure out, “Okay, I really like Rachel. I would love to bring her onto the team. Here's what I can do.” The hiring manager has constraints around them with the business. “This is what I can do in terms of compensation or vacation days or benefits or whatever else.” And the hiring manager gives them to you in the hope that [these terms] will help you sign the offer quickly.
Hiring managers need you just as much as you need them, especially if they've gotten to the point where they're giving you an offer. Until then, the candidate is obviously trained to sell themselves, but once the offer has come in, the hiring manager is also trying to [offer] something that gets the deal done for both people. Start by assuming that [the hiring manager is] coming in in good faith but they have constraints around them that are usually placed by the company. We don't know what those are. There might be a hiring budget. Whatever it is.
It's not necessarily your job as a candidate to know what those constraints are. And there's no easy way to ask a hiring manager about that until you're way deeper into the conversation. What that then means to look for in your first offer—it is totally fair, even if it's your first offer, to negotiate. Start by looking at the terms, seeing that they make sense, compared to what you see on GlassDoor or PayScale.
Hiring managers need you just as much as you need them, especially if they've gotten to the point where they're giving you an offer.
A number of sites now have other candidates sharing their first experience out of school. Especially the first offer, those tend to be fairly standardized by company. Secondly, ask the hiring manager where there's leeway. Again, I was bad about this and made the mistake of not asking where I realized years down the line that I could have asked, “Could I go to the job at this location in this office instead?” Or things like that, which the hiring manager would've done for me. I just didn't know it at the time.
Long story short, the hiring manager is trying to push the offer that they think gets the job done and brings the candidate to their team because, at this point, they're already sold. They want you on their team. So you, as a candidate, can now feel free to ask questions to the hiring manager on anything you have questions about, but do a little research around what's available publicly, especially at the entry level where the information tends to be a little more readily available and a little more accurate.
Long story short, the hiring manager is trying to push the offer that they think gets the job done and brings the candidate to their team because, at this point, they're already sold. They want you on their team.
RS: It wasn't until I was more senior in my career and I started being on hiring panels that I realized that by the time you make an offer to someone, you've already invested a bunch of time and energy in identifying that this is the person that we want to hire. And internally, there's usually a huge disappointment when someone turns down an offer.
So really, both sides want to make it work. Don’t assume, “Oh, they're just extending me this offer, and they don't care if I turn it down or not.” They really do care. They would not be extending this offer if they weren't sure that they wanted you to join.
AK: One other tactical thing: it is incredibly to your benefit if you can be communicative with the hiring manager as soon as you get the offer, even if you're not going to sign it straight away. Even if you need a week. Even if you need some time to think through it. Just like the most terrifying thing for a candidate is radio silence, the most terrifying thing for hiring managers is also radio silence. So the more you can stay in contact now that they've made you the offer and you are seriously considering it, the more it puts you in a place where if you have questions, if you want to negotiate, if you need to ask for something that's not on there, the more likely they are to be willing because you've now shown them you're interested, you're professional, you are not wasting their time. You want to do this in good faith.
It is incredibly to your benefit if you can be communicative with the hiring manager as soon as you get the offer, even if you're not going to sign it straight away....Just like the most terrifying thing for a candidate is radio silence, the most terrifying thing for hiring managers is also radio silence.
RS: For people looking for their first engineering job, especially if they're coming out of an engineering bootcamp, what will help them be more successful? A lot of what we hear is, "I've graduated from engineering bootcamp. I'm trying to get my first job, but it's just rejection after rejection. What should I be doing?”
AK: I have a bootcamp-specific answer that I'll get into in a second, but it goes back to the first question. The best thing you can do is try and create an interpersonal, professional relationship with a potential employer or two.
Find people that have the job that you might want or might be hiring for the job that you want, and try and reach out to them. The most challenging thing with these constant rejections is that most of them are likely the result of you applying through the standard process. One of the most atrocious things about the industry right now is the standard hiring processes are very broken. Companies know it; employees know it; candidates know it; recruiting teams know it. It needs to change.
The most challenging thing with constant rejections is that most of them are likely the result of you applying through the standard process. One of the most atrocious things about the industry right now is the standard hiring processes are very broken. Companies know it; employees know it; candidates know it; recruiting teams know it. It needs to change.
But in the meantime, it's not gonna change fast enough that you can keep applying and get a job on your timeline. So you have to go outside the system a little bit. One of the ways in which the system is broken is, people in the industry tend to know others in the industry that are hiring before those jobs start hitting the websites, even when they're entry level.
So try to find that “in.” I dislike calling this networking because it's not the, "Let's hang out and now I know you and you're my buddy so you're gonna help me." It's a very professional exchange of, "Hey, I have these skills. I am able to do this job. I need a shot." Everybody's gone through the pain of getting that first job, so more people than you realize will be willing to help, especially if you're nice about reaching out.
The second thing, which is specific to bootcamps, is bootcamps tend to be more regimented than most about the way in which their candidates apply. There are two sides to this problem. One, they are pushing you through a system that we acknowledge is broken and, two, candidates who come into bootcamps tend to trust that the bootcamp knows what they're doing in terms of getting people jobs.
I'm not saying that they don't. There are certainly many bootcamps that advertise really good success rates and placement rates, and they're doing a really good job. But that process is still geared to push you through the rejection. The hardest thing in a bootcamp, I think, is knowing that there are other avenues open to you that—even if you don't get a job by reaching out to other people—they will help you do things like review your resume or think about what project to highlight, etc.
Everybody's gone through the pain of getting that first job, so more people than you realize will be willing to help, especially if you're nice about reaching out.
The last thing that I'll say that is also specific to bootcamps that I encountered as a hiring manager is—and this used to be much worse a few years ago that I think is slowly, slowly shrinking—there used to be this skepticism that you cannot teach software engineering to a candidate in three months.
It's not that you can't teach software engineering in three months, because people learn it on their own and they do just fine. It's not about that. It is about understanding that this person trained for this skill in a very simulated, well-designed environment. How quickly can those skills transfer to a real job where things are much messier than they are in bootcamp?
Highlight projects or areas of work even outside of engineering, potentially, if you had a previous career, which a lot of bootcamp graduates tend to have—where you have worked in real-life situations. One of our favorite hires at BlackRock who came from a bootcamp had been a lawyer before. They actually had stories around how they had to work between multiple legal teams and help them with a lot of really tough tasks.
And guess what? Those are the kind of things that you put to work even in your job as a software engineer. Any life experience you can bring to the way that you present yourself, even outside of the bootcamp, is still relevant. You don't have to erase your history from before the bootcamp to be successful at getting a software engineering job.
Highlight projects or areas of work even outside of engineering, potentially, if you had a previous career, which a lot of bootcamp graduates tend to have—where you have worked in real-life situations….You don't have to erase your history from before the bootcamp to be successful at getting a software engineering job.
RS: That's a great point: a lot of software engineering is about the hard skills—but soft skills are also important. Can you work in a team? Can you collaborate with other people? Can you communicate well? That's a really great emphasis too.
AK: Right. And use Merit.
RS: And use Merit! I was hoping that you would come around to that because one of the last things is: how do you find those hiring managers? How do you make those connections? Yes, there's LinkedIn, and yes, there's Twitter. But one of the best ways to make an immediate connection is by using Merit.
AK: That's sort of the hope. I mean, I'm going to sound like a shill [laughs] but I think that's totally fine. Professionals in the industry are much more willing to pay this forward than I think traditional networking sites or events allow them to do. They want to make themselves discoverable, so candidates, I think, can really put themselves at an advantage if they can use something like Merit.
I think [every traditional networking site] has the interest of salaried professionals in mind and that's great, especially as you move forward in your career, because you learn to use them for what they are. But that's not the hard part of the problem. The hard part of the problem is getting the people with the skills and talent, the intent, desire, into this industry. There's not much you can do there outside of potentially just joining Merit and trying to find good people in the industry on your own. But that's a very hard process.
The hard part is getting the people with the skills and talent, the intent, desire, into this industry.