by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff

12 Tips to Help College Grads Land Their First IT Job

Jun 23, 201414 mins
CareersIT JobsSalaries

Technology and HR pros, as well as IT recruiters, share their advice on how recent graduates and those still in college can best position themselves for a technology career.

According to research conducted by labor market analytics and consulting firm Burning Glass , the future is looking bright, or brighter, for college students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — especially if they are looking to go into healthcare, IT or engineering & advanced manufacturing. Indeed, according to Burning Glass’s findings, STEM graduates have access to twice as many entry-level jobs as non-STEM graduates — and the pay is better too, $66,123 compared to $52,299.

[ Best College Tech Majors for Landing a Top Starting Salary ]

But just because you have a four-year degree in math or science or engineering does not mean you will get your dream job in IT, or any job in IT, or even a job interview.

IT careers, IT jobs, graduates, IT job search, college grads

So what can recent college graduates and students still in college do to boost their chances of getting their dream entry-level job in technology (be it at a software company, in healthcare or manufacturing/engineering)? Dozens of IT professionals, HR managers and recruiters offer their top 12 tips for how to increase the odds of landing your dream entry-level technology job.

1. Know what you are good at — and if you want to be a specialist or a generalist, a technologist/coder or in product management or marketing. “Choose early on if you want to specialize in a certain segment, or if you want to be a generalist,” says Evaldo Horn de Oliveira, director of Business Management, FairCom, a provider of database technology.

“If you are interested in management, then consider going the generalist route, since having diversified skills can help you land an entry-level position that will eventually lead you down the management track. It’s also important to express your interest in management within an interview, which can alert the hiring manager that you are ambitious and have the drive to pursue opportunities for advancement,” he says.

“Some technologists enjoy writing code. Others enjoy managing data centers. But there are also a host of roles like product manager, product marketing and even sales engineering that require passion and understanding of the technology but may play to additional nontechnical capabilities like communication skills and leadership,” says Lilac Schoenbeck, vice president of product management and marketing, iland, an enterprise cloud infrastructure provider.

So before you start applying for jobs, she (and others) advise that you learn about the different options and career paths available and apply for positions best suited to your interests and talents.

2. Learn everything you can about the company and position you are applying/interviewing for, before you apply or interview there. “Familiarize yourself with the company,” says Jennifer Rutt, senior director of Engagement, AfterCollege, a career network for college students and recent graduates.

“Have they been featured recently in the press? Are they active on TechCrunch?” Find out, Rutt says. Then, in your cover letter or during the interview, “highlight some of the exciting things the company is doing and why you would want to be engaged in that work and how you could add to the project with your skills.”

“Inspire confidence by walking into the interview with a deep understanding of what the company sells,” says Mindy Lieberman, vice president of IT at Zendesk, a provider of customer service software. “If it’s an SaaS company, play with a free trial, if there is one. Also, “check out reviews [in tech publications], or find a friend who is a customer. [Skimming the company] website isn’t enough; go deeper.”

“To show that you’re well-versed on the company and its offerings, come up with one great suggestion for how they can improve or a new feature you would add,” adds Tarek Pertew, cofounder, Wakefield Media, which provides a content platform and produces Uncubed, a startup hiring event. “It shows you care about the company and have put a lot of thought into it. Also, always send a follow-up email, but try to add value and personalize it rather than just to check in.”

3. Know or learn the right technical skills. “Make sure you are concentrating on current and marketable skills,” suggests Esther Shih, head of U.S. HR and Operations at Mirantis, a pure play OpenStack company. “Commonly sought skills include programming in Python, PhP, C, Java, JavaScript, Ruby and Perl. Understanding databases based on both SQL (such as MySQL, Oracle and DB2) and NoSQL (such as MongoDB, Cassandra [and] Couchbase) is also key. Skills that set you apart might include understanding Linux internals, or working in a data center to gain hands-on networking and storage experience.”

“The job market, especially in IT, is becoming increasingly specialized,” says Matt Sigelman, CEO, Burning Glass. “Students who can match their portfolio of skills specifically with what employers are looking for will have an easier time gaining employment,” he says. “Based on analytics from Burning Glass, big data skills such as Hadoop and data management, scripting languages such as Python and Perl, and skills that bridge software development with other fields such as graphical user design are among those skills employers find hardest to recruit for.”

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4. Hone your “soft” skills. “[Soft skills] are nontechnical, interpersonal skills, like effective communication, strong teamwork, leadership, problem solving and negotiation skills,” explains Abhijit Pansare, head of recruitment at Collabera, an IT staffing and services company. “Even if you have proficiencies in a hard- to-find technical skill like Java, those skills alone won’t land you a job in IT. It’s these soft skills that will make you more employable and well- rounded to a potential boss,” he says. “Identify the skills where you may not be strongest and invest in improving them. The best way to do this is with practice. Network as much as possible and take as many interviewing opportunities as you can.”

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“Coming directly out of college, I am hiring for intellect and attitude rather than expertise,” says Patrick McGuinness, CIO, Global Risk and Compliance, GE Capital. “I want to see that you understand your context and that you are educated about GE Capital — what we do and how we use technology in innovative ways for our clients.”

So in addition to technical skills, or aptitude, grads looking for a hiring advantage, or who want to get on the management track, should have solid research, communication and listening skills.

5. Gain practical experience in your discipline. “One of the best ways for college seniors to improve their job prospects is by building relevant experience with an internship,” says Sigelman. “Internships help job seekers develop and demonstrate the specific skills employers are demanding, and serve as key stepping stones to full-time employment,” he explains.

“This is especially true in IT, where internships constitute 13 percent of all postings calling for IT-related skills, which is greater than all other skill areas besides engineering. Moreover, in the past 12 months IT internships were the second-most demanded, with employers seeking interns who already possess expertise in multiple IT skills such as JAVA, C++, and Python,” Sigelman says. “For graduates without internship experience, a strong portfolio is another way to demonstrate relevant skills and experience.”

“Community service projects are another excellent way to achieve real-world know-how,” says Mary Dobransky, dean of the College of Science and Technology at Bellevue University. “Look in your local community for organizations that need help designing a Web page, creating a mobile app, or setting up a network, and volunteer your services.”

“Look for programs [or internships that offer] hands-on training,” adds Anjul Bhambhri, vice president of Big Data at IBM. “The best way to learn and prepare for a job in IT is to train in real-world scenarios using the systems employed in the business world today,” she says. “So it’s important that soon-to-be graduates take steps to gain hands-on training before applying for a position. For example, San Jose State University offers an Advanced Certificate in Business Analytics from the Lucas Graduate School of Business. The program incorporates IBM software and project-based collaboration with IBM big data and analytics clients.”

6. Showcase your work, or at least your knowledge. “Set yourself apart with a sample of your work, whether it is from an internship or a class project,” says Rutt. “Create a SlideShare, blog post or YouTube video of what you have done and how it would be relevant to the position you are applying to. (You can see a great example of an intern from Khan Academy’s work here.)”

“As a recruiter, reviewing an applicant’s website or portfolio is a great way for me to get a better understanding of who they are,” explains Brian Long, talent advocate, The Nerdery, a developer-driven interactive production company. “Create a blog where you can write about things you are learning or trying, your thoughts on the newest JavaScript framework, or the process you went through for a class project.”

“Build a digital presence on industry-specific websites, such as GitHub, Quora [or] Stack Overflow,” suggests Pertew. “GitHub will allow you to show off the projects you have already worked on and Quora and Stack Overflow can help you exhibit your knowledge by answering other’s questions (and asking your own),” he explains. “Recruiters are looking beyond the resume for knowledge, and will often look to GitHub or Quora for potential applicants.”

“Demonstrate [your knowledge] by citing examples of how you’ve jumped in, tackled tasks and been successful,” says Michael Waclawiczek, vice president of marketing and operations for distributed database startup NuoDB. “At software startups, a can-do attitude is a quintessential and necessary talent,” he explains. Similarly, “demonstrate your ability to lead and take calculated risks. With concrete examples from your personal or professional life, show your strong desire to succeed” — and how you are will go the extra mile to do so.

Finally, be sure to have a LinkedIn profile, so prospective employers can easily find you — and you can find and network with prospective employers.

7. Network: Find a mentor or become part of a tech community. “Create a strong network of affiliations, including classmates, faculty and professionals in your discipline,” says Dobransky. “Attend meetings held by professional organizations, such as AITP, IEEE and ISACA. These meetings are a terrific way to network with people in your field and learn about potential positions,” she says. Then, when looking or applying for tech jobs, “prepare a concise message that describes the type of position you are looking for, and take every opportunity to share your message with your contacts.”

“Take advantage of your student alumni network, professors, career center, volunteer opportunities and other community affiliations,” agrees Josie Perez, senior vice president, Human Resources, Narus, a cybersecurity solution provider. “Attend industry events to make connections with people. Even if the connections you make now don’t lead to a job right away, they may be useful in the future.”

“Even if your professors aren’t cofounders of a tech company like I am, they are often connected to employers looking for grads,” says Giovanni Vigna, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, and the cofounder and CTO of Lastline, which develops software that protects against malware.

“Whether the hiring manager is an alum or the hiring company is their former employer, your computer science professors are more hip to the IT job scene than you think,” Vigna says.

“Connect to them on LinkedIn and keep their email addresses. They will be a resource for years, and who knows, perhaps they’ll invite you to speak to future classes about launching a successful career in IT, or will refer a candidate to you, years from now,” Vigna says.

“Find a mentor,” says Jesper Helt, chief human resources officer, CommVault, a provider of enterprise backup and recovery, data management, data deduplication, data protection, archiving and eDiscovery software. “Having a mentor who is knowledgeable in the field of study you wish to pursue is imperative. This allows you insights into what your future roles will entail and help you grasp the concepts of the materials in a new light, beyond the walls of the classroom,” he says.

“Mentors include professors, advisors and even other students with experience in the field,” Helt says. “They are there to inspire you and bring out your confidence in the subject matter, are aware of new trends and future predictions and in the job hunt are a more important resource than just a resume.”

8. Participate in local industry events, like hackathons and coding competitions. “We search for talent at tech-related events and competitions like hackathons,” says Dorie Blesoff, chief people officer, kCura, which develops Web-based e-discovery applications. “It’s a chance for students to demonstrate their skills while networking with peers and potential employers. Recently we hosted the National Day of Civic Hacking at our office, which aimed to solve local organizations’ challenges with technology,” she says.

“There are also great organizations like the Illinois Technology Association, which convenes Midwestern college students each year for a programming skills tournament, giving students an opportunity to engage with great tech companies,” Blesoff says.

“For engineers, participation in coding competitions is also a good way to make your programming skills stand out,” says Mike Jennings, senior director of IT at LinkedIn. “Highlight them on your LinkedIn profile [blog, or website] with clear and concise descriptions. Consider competing on sites such as TopCoder.”

9. Tailor your resume to each position — and avoid jargon and simply listing keywords. “Develop a resume that reflects the IT professional you want to be by detailing every project you’ve completed or been a part of, regardless of its size or scope (even that college coursework demonstrates your skills),” says Jennifer Doran, consultant program manager TEKsystems, an IT staffing firm.

“When writing your resume, make sure the content is detail- oriented and focuses on the skills you’ve applied, technologies you’ve worked and, especially important, the results you’ve generated,” Doran says. “Too often I see resumes with a skills summary section that’s simply keywords with no details about those skills within the candidate’s job descriptions.”

10. Don’t just apply to the cool startup in Silicon Valley. “Don’t be afraid to make your search wide-ranging, not only geographically but in the kinds of things you might like to work on,” says Stephen Pimentel, technologist evangelist at database software startup FoundationDB, a data storage technology provider. “Look for companies solving difficult, interesting problems.”

“Job seekers in IT fields should look beyond the technology industry as sources of employment,” adds Sigelman. “Over half of all job postings for IT roles are outside of the IT sector, in areas such as manufacturing, healthcare, finance and retail.”

11. Know your interviewer. “Prior to an interview, ask with whom you will be meeting and use LinkedIn and the Web to learn as much as you can about them,” says Doran. “This shows initiative and provides an opportunity to identify similarities you might share with your interviewer (e.g., attended the same college or played the same sport).

The most positive feedback from hiring managers comes when a candidate is able to make a personal connection,” Doran says. “Also, take note of the professional paths of the IT managers with whom you interview. Asking how they got to where they are today is an excellent icebreaker and shows career initiative.”

12. Finally, be realistic about salary. “Be realistic and don’t expect that you are going to get $100K+ because that’s what you saw that job position pays at the high range,” says Brad Roth, IT manager, EZSolutionIT, which provides computer and IT services. “That high range is meant for people that have years of experience in the field.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.