When you’re searching for your first job as a developer, there is one thing you can never get enough of. The time you have each day to find and apply to jobs, build your network, and keep your skills sharp is limited. You’ll want to use your time wisely, but it’s usually not obvious what that looks like.

What can you do to figure this out? Should you focus on working hard? Or working smart? The answer: you absolutely need to do both.

There’s a common reason most people don’t take this approach: it’s so much easier said than done. Think about it. Would you rather spend the time you have today assessing what you’re doing wrong and why, or working heads-down to get as much done as possible?

It’s easy to get into a routine based on what you initially thought would work, when in actuality, it doesn’t.

Evaluating your progress without getting defensive is difficult, but adjusting your strategy as you go is critically important to your success. Here’s a story from my past to help illustrate my point.

I was a sophomore in college looking for my first co-op (or 6-month-long internship). We had a class that prepared us for the process with pointers and what to expect. I started applying to various companies, and a handful reached out to me to schedule an interview. In total, I went on six or seven interviews. Every single one turned me down. But in response, I just kept doing my thing. Even though most of my friends had already landed their internship, I was relatively unconcerned. Until I received an email from a school counselor about scheduling a meeting.

When we met, he started by asking me a super direct question:

Ken, what are you doing wrong?

I thought for a moment and I responded with something like:

I’m not really doing anything wrong… not that I know of, anyway.

He continued on, asking me a number of pointed questions and drilling down to the two major causes of my troubles.

  • First, I was applying for all the wrong jobs.
  • Second, I was terrible at interviewing.

I had been applying to the positions that sounded flashy and exciting. This included places like video game companies that were looking to hire more experienced developers for a second or third internship. The positions sounded super compelling, but I was competing against developers who already had tons of experience. I was competing way outside of my league. My counselor showed me examples of job listings that matched my level of experience. He pointed out specific ones and suggested I apply to them. They were a lot less flashy than the ones I had been going for.

He then gave me a quick mock interview.

Let’s do a quick exercise. If I was an interviewer and asked about your biggest weakness, what would you say?

I forget what I talked about, but I remember being very candid and a pretty harsh critic of myself.

You’re being too honest, Ken. You need to show yourself in the best light possible. You should be taking every possible avenue to demonstrate why you’re an awesome candidate. You don’t need to go in-depth about your flaws; look for ways to spin it into an opportunity to talk about what you’re good at.

I went home and applied for the positions my advisor suggested. I scored a couple more interviews, and even got some job offers. I accepted my first job in the field helping other developers as a developer in test, ensuring that the product the team was building worked. In no time, I started working on the core product, writing a lot of code every day.

Often times, it can feel more comfortable and effective to go on autopilot than to take a step back and address whether what you’re doing is really working or not.

In our meeting, Mark asked me some really hard questions that forced me to think about what I was doing and realize I needed to change things up radically. The job search process can be tough, but achieving success just requires you zoom out, reflect on what you’re doing, and try to learn from the process. Until you work smart, your hard work won’t pay off. And if you only work hard, you’ll never know how to work smart.

Here are 4 questions you can ask yourself to audit how you’re using your time:

How have you become a better developer in the past week?

You should constantly be honing your craft and becoming a better developer. If you focus all of your energy on the job search and none on actually coding, you’re inherently moving in the opposite direction. It’s a terrible feeling when you’re asked a question in an interview that you would’ve been able to answer a few weeks ago had you not neglected to spend time doing what you really care about. Make sure you’re pushing forward in the right direction on all accounts.

What have you learned about the job hunt process in the past week?

At the end of the day, the process is what counts. Once you learn how to navigate the job market, you’ll have learned the most valuable lesson. It’s a lot like coding in that you can only really learn by jumping in the deep end and actually trying it.

What are you going to do differently in the upcoming week?

The only way to learn more about the job search process is by trying different things. When you’re not making the progress you expect, try new things, like:

  • Applying for positions that work with programming languages you don’t know. Most hiring managers care more about experience with programming in general and the foundations that never change!
  • Using different methods to source available jobs. Mix everything together– from the people you meet at coding events, to traditional job listings and your network. Always use multiple approaches in tandem and have a strategy for managing your job search funnel.

Lastly, when you find yourself having trouble, don’t hesitate to ask the hard question:

What could you be doing differently to make the process easier or better?

For me, it was facing that question honestly and really understanding it that led me to my first position as a developer. My hope is that asking a similar question can help you, too.

AuthorKen Mazaika

Ken Mazaika is the CTO and co-founder at Firehose. Previously, he was a tech lead at WHERE.com (acquired by PayPal) and a member of the PayPal/eBay development team in Boston.

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