Contacts Help: Lessons Learned from a Job Search

I’ll be starting my new job soon at the Space Telescope Science Institute. During my job search, I kept data and took notes, so here are my main lessons learned.

Contacts Help

Contacts improved my chances for an interview by a factor of about 10. I applied for lots of positions. At companies where I had a contact, or where a contact could introduce me to someone, almost half of my applications turned into interviews. At companies where I couldn’t come up with a contact, less than 1 in 20 turned into interviews. That’s about a 10-to-1 difference: 10 times more likely to get an interview if I have a contact than if I don’t.

Contacts were no guarantee that I’d get an interview, but they improved my chances by a lot.

It was still worthwhile to apply to places where I didn’t have a contact, because some of those turned into interviews anyway. My odds were lower, but one success would have been enough.

It’s easy to see why contacts would be so helpful in getting an interview. When every job opening gets hundreds of applications, the thing that’s going to differentiate you is the person who tells the hiring manager, “You ought to talk to this person.” That is what makes your application stand out from the rest.

Yep, LinkedIn

LinkedIn was my tool of choice for finding contacts at prospective employers. For every job of interest, I looked up the company on LinkedIn to check for first-degree connections (my own connections) and second-degree connections (connections of my connections). For second-degree connections, I’d ask my intermediate connections for an intro.

I paid for the Job Seeker Basic level, mostly because it let me flag my LinkedIn profile as a job searcher. I can’t say for sure it helped. Maybe it helped colleagues see that I was looking for employment, but I don’t have any evidence that it helped (and no evidence that it hurt, either). I’ve returned to the free membership now that I’ve found a job.

Use All Your Search Resources

Most of the jobs of interest came from automated job searches and job sites. It was great when my contacts tipped me off about a job, but there were only so many of those. (A colleague tipped me off about the job I got, but there were lots of potentially interesting jobs out there that nobody had tipped me off about.) For me, LinkedIn, TheLadders, and were the main automated searches that turned up jobs of interest. Together, they accounted for almost half of the jobs I applied for.

TheLadders costs money, so one might wonder whether it was worthwhile. For me, it helped find job openings, but that was about it. Arguably, TheLadders is supposed to bring you to the attention of recruiters who know you’re serious, because after all you’re paying for the service. That didn’t seem to happen for me, and you’re more likely anyway to get a job through your network than through recruiters. Joining TheLadders might have been a bad bet, but my view was to line up a good range of job search sources.

Jobs from other online sources were, individually, smaller contributors, but in aggregate they still accounted for another third of my job applications. These other sites included, Dice, CareerBuilder, SimplyHiredNonProfitTimes, and the job sites of various trade periodicals. In each case, I set up an automated search to send me jobs.

The rest of my jobs of interest, roughly one-fifth, came from contacts who tipped me off about job openings, at their own company or elsewhere. This was the smallest group, but it’s the one that paid off in the end.

It’s Gonna Take a While

Expect your job search to take a while. (Welcome to 21st-century America.)

The Urban Institute says that as of June 2013, “long-term unemployment remains at record high levels,” with more than a third of unemployed workers out of work for six months or longer.

The New York Times reported that “The average unemployed 55- to 64-year-old who got a job last month [June 2013] had been out of work for more than 11 months, versus 6 months for the average 20- to 24-year-old.” The article quotes an economist from the Bureau of Labor Statistics who says “the older you are, the longer it takes” to find a job.

That old advice to save up to six months’ worth of income in case you lose your job seems insufficient now. Fortunately, my wife remained employed and we had savings.

CRM Lite

I couldn’t have done this search without keeping track of where I applied, what my status was, and where I needed to do follow-up. Essentially, this was a job for a personal CRM tool (Customer Relationship Management).

There are tools out there, like Salesforce, that do this on a corporate level. I even tried the minimum participation level at Salesforce. It worked, but I suspect it’s still overkill for someone who’s just doing CRM for one.

On my iPhone, I used Contacts Journal. It helped me track my interactions with various contacts, and keep to-do lists for follow-ups.

I also kept a spreadsheet listing every job I applied for. I included the job title, the company, URLs for the company or job listing, contact info, and a status description.

All of these tools required that I keep my data up to date. For me, the effort was worthwhile, because I couldn’t have memorized all that.

Good Luck!

If you’re out there searching, I wish you good luck! (Oh, alright, I’ll wish you good luck even if you’re not currently searching.)


Job Seekers: Can This Company Pay You?

Calculate the current ratio to gauge whether a prospective employer will be able to pay you, says How to Tell if that Company Can Pay You (blog at Harvard Business Review).

current ratio = (current assets) / (current liabilities)

Good and Bad Values for Current Ratio

Good sign: roughly 1.5 to 3. The company’s in pretty good shape, for now. You’ll get paid. (The Wikipedia article says, “Acceptable current ratios vary from industry to industry and are generally between 1.5 and 3 for healthy businesses.”)

Warning sign: about 1.2 or lower. The company is facing some short-term problems in paying its debts. Your salary might be at risk. (The HBR blog says, “If it’s below 1.2, that’s a big red flag.”)

Warning sign: higher than 3. This might indicate an organization that’s just sitting on its money instead of putting it to good use.

As they say, your mileage may vary. Whatever the current ratio is, keep in mind that it’s a snapshot, a moment in time. The company’s fortunes could turn one way or the other. The company could weather a current storm, or it could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The current ratio is a hint, something for you to discuss with a prospective employer. Compare the ratios for similar organizations to see if one stands out as especially better or worse than the others.

Finding the Information (in the US)

To compute the current ratio, you need to know the company’s current assets and current liabilities. Where do you get that info? It depends on the type of organization.

Publicly traded company: Do a web search for “balance sheet” and the company’s name or stock ticker symbol. You should be able to find the current balance sheet online. Look for Total Current Assets and Total Current Liabilities, and then do the math: (total current assets) / (total current liabilities).

Non-profit organization: Search for the organization at and look at the organization’s latest Form 990. You’ll need to register a free Guidestar account to see the Form 990. On the Form 990, get the Total Assets and Total Liabilities in Part I – Summary, and then do the math: (total assets) / (total liabilities).

To be precise, this calculation for non-profits isn’t really the current ratio. The total assets and liabilities cover current items (short-term, within the next 12 months) as well as long-term items. If you look on the Form 990 at Part X – Balance Sheet, you’ll find more detail, but it doesn’t distinguish which items are current or long-term. A single line item could mix both together, like investments. Also, Guidestar warns that Ratios Aren’t the Last Word on non-profits, because they don’t tell you which organizations are well-managed or mismanaged, or which ones are fulfilling their missions well or poorly.

Private company: You may have to ask the company for its latest audited balance sheet. I mention “audited” in particular because that will be the latest official balance sheet, verified by an independent auditor. If the company hands you unaudited numbers, the info might not yet be accurate and complete. I’m not saying the company is dishonest, but I know from experience that the audited numbers aren’t necessarily the same as the preliminary unaudited numbers.


Let’s try a few…

Microsoft (stock ticker symbol MSFT): A web search quickly finds the latest Microsoft balance sheet. As of June 29, 2012, it shows Total Current Assets = $85,084,000 and Total Current Liabilities = $32,688,000. Microsoft’s current ratio is 2.6. As a prospective employer, Microsoft should be in good shape for issuing paychecks.

Apple (AAPL): The Apple balance sheet, as of September 29, 2012, shows Total Current Assets = $57,653,000 and Total Current Liabilities = $38,542,000. Apple’s current ratio is 1.5. Apple seems to be in decent shape for issuing paychecks.

Wal-Mart (WMT): The Wal-Mart balance sheet says that as of January 30, 2012, Total Current Assets = $54,975,000 and Total Current Liabilities = $62,300,000. Wal-Mart’s current ratio is 0.9. Ruh-roh! Is Wal-Mart at risk of not paying employees? How does it stack up against similar companies? If you’re looking at Wal-Mart as a prospective employer, this bears further exploration.

Feed the Children (nonprofit): The 2011 Form 990 found at Guidestar shows Total Assets = $185,587,243 and Total Liabilities = $9,072,846. As I said above, we’re not computing the current ratio because the Form 990 doesn’t distinguish current from long-term. If we compute the ratio of assets to liabilities anyway, we get a ratio of 20.5. That seems very high, but it’s also not really the current ratio. Let’s drill down into Part X – Balance Sheet. I’ll guess that lines 1-9 are current assets, and I’ll leave out lines 10-15 – $112,650,766 in current assets. I’ll guess that lines 17-22 are current liabilities, and I’ll leave out lines 23-25 – $8,298,371 in current liabilities. Result: estimated current ratio = 13.6. That still seems pretty high. On its own, as Guidestar warns, it doesn’t prove anything, but it gives me something to explore and consider. I’d want to compare similar organizations to see if their ratios are also that high.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (privately held): I wasn’t able to find a PwC balance sheet online, but this is no surprise because private companies aren’t required to publish that information. If I were looking at PwC as a prospective employer, I’d have to ask for their latest audited balance sheet if I wanted to compute a current ratio or otherwise see how they were doing financially.

Calculate the current ratio of prospective employers, and maybe you’ll get a constructive dialog out of it.