April 7th, 2020


advice for this year's graduates

my engineering communities right now are full of very unfortunate posts from the class of 2020. I bet that had a nice ring to it once! but now thanks to the pandemic this is the absolute worst year to graduate college, and I feel awful for them. This is the worst thing that's happened in my lifetime and none of us can relate to them. BUT if it'll help just a tiny bit, I thought I might tell about the year I graduated.

It was the spring of 2002. The year before as a junior, I'd listened to graduates debate about which of the 6 or more job offers they would take, it was such a hard choice! I'd had a summer internship, and we all got back to school of our senior year talking about the wide variety of exciting places we'd worked. The market was down a little bit, the dot coms had made some stupid choices so hey, we knew not to go there. But everything was going pretty well.

Then 9/11 happened and everything stopped. We spent a few weeks worried that the whole world would end, watched gas prices skyrocket, watched news about wars and terrorism and casualties... and finished school.

The career fair on campus that year was useless. Every company I talked to smiled and said they were taking resumes, and you never know, but not interviewing, and they were basically just here to keep their spot and show support for the college. This was not the year to join up. Hiring frozen.

By the time summer hit the stock market was half what it had been and none of us had jobs. what's worse, our friends from last year were laid off. I asked one guy for advice, he said to buy a videogame console with a steering wheel to play racing games, and just drive laps to kill time all day.

here is what I did:

1) I went home to live with mom and dad.
2) I got really depressed and didn't get dressed for a while. not advice, just saying.
3) I sent out applications and resumes
4) Every reject letter got me more depressed
5) I did some freelance web design, like I'd already done in school. the little side gigs were at least some spending money, and I felt productive.
6) I was also applying for web design jobs, thinking maybe this engineering thing just wasn't going to be? I had different resumes tailored for different things I could be.
7) I sat in my car and listened to "In The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World, everything will be alright, everything everything will be alright (egads that song was released in Fall 2001 and I still hear it all the time!)
8) I went over my project work that I'd bring to interviews, tried to think of improvements and better ways to present it.

In September, a company I'd interviewed with randomly called me. Their hiring freeze had lifted, did I want to come on campus? They had an offer for me that day. It was amazing. It meant relocation, I accepted immediately. Two months later they were laying off again, but I dodged that round somehow, and just kept working. I'd heard advice that you were more likely to be kept on if you stayed a little late every day, jumped into the new stuff, made lots of relationships, helped people... so I tried that. I wasn't perfect, but I stayed employed. At that company. For 18 years. It's weird for my generation to stick with one job for so long, I frequently think that the hard first year made me fiercely loyal, like clinging to the one stable thing you can find on a boat in a storm. But here I am.

I don't know what the future brings for me or anyone. Now I have been on the hiring side of the equation too. Looking back, I'd hire myself, but I ask myself a lot what those companies were probably looking for.

There was an interview I went where my web design work came up, and it make the interviewer skeptical that I really wanted to be an engineer. I assured him it was no concern. But later on I thought I should have been more blunt about it - look man, this is all I've got that pays right now because no one is hiring engineers, do you understand that? have you been me? I am trying to open as many doors as possible right now, but hire me and I promise I will be dedicated to this job.

That is not what I said though. I was not confident. That was another job I didn't get.

But for me... I'd rather hire a kid who spent the summer designing websites than one who spent it playing videogames all day. I have always said that interviewing for jobs is about having something to say. So whatever you do to kill time during these months, make sure it's something you will be proud to talk about. Self-driven projects, technical hobbies, additional research... anything to prove your initiative.

It doesn't have to take 8 hours a day. We are all taking care of ourselves as best we can right now. Being jobless, especially after years of thinking that all your work would get you a career, is depressing and hard. Sometimes getting dressed is all you can do. Recognize when you're not mentally healthy. Check in with friends. Push away toxic people who raise their eyebrows about your employment status. Challenge them to help you. Update your journal!

And someday, a long time from now, when you're an employed engineer in a job you love, remember this struggle. Help every new hire have the best experience possible. Have compassion for them and what they're going through. Be human. Help them succeed. They are stepping out into the ocean and it's scary, even on a good year, but even worse on a bad year. I still remember.