This the opening chapter of the book Get a Better Developer Job. The link to the next is at the bottom.

There are two things the tech industry rewards:

  • specialization
  • prestige

I’m not defending these things, but this is reality. Two decades ago, the dot com bust caused a sea change. So many developers flooded the market that recruiters could ask for ridiculous things. Sometimes they asked for the impossible, but usually just hyper-specific, due to the buyer’s market.

Note: whenever you see indented text, pay attention. I’m about to share something that’s going to get me in trouble.

Have you ever seen a job description (JD) that requires a ridiculous array of skills? Example: 5+ years of system administration with Linux and Solaris, extensive Perl programming, 10+ years of Java, 15+ years leading teams, 10+ years in aerospace (with active or prior clearance), 5 years in enterprise ecommerce with revenues >$10MM, CTO experience with multiple startups, and has learned 15+ different programming languages. Who the hell has a resume like that?!


Well, I do. And if you see that in a JD, it’s what we call a “fake req” (requisition). It means a friend copied my resume into the JD because corporate policy wouldn’t allow him/her to hire me directly. This has never happened to me (or by me), but it does happen. All. The. Time.


On the flip side, a super generic JD is a honeypot, especially if it’s for a senior engineer. Internal recruiters want you in their system so if an agency recruiter submits you, they don’t have to pay them a fee. (In fairness, it might have been a legit posting, but internal recruiters did not recognize a qualified candidate right under their noses. I’ve lost 5 figures of placement fees this way.)


But the agency recruiters might do this, too. For one, it allows them to legitimately say that they have a private resume bank of X million resumes. And when times are tough, they might remove the contact info of the cream of the crop and send their resumes to hiring managers to entice them to sign a recruiting contract.

Now we’re in a seller’s market, but we also face an increasingly complex development environment. Your favorite platform has a rich set of features and conventions, but also a number of gotchas. Your specialization saves companies time and money. This means you are more employable and can command better compensation. Of course, it may also mean fewer opportunities in your area. Like all design, your career is about tradeoffs.

The reward for prestige shouldn’t be a big surprise, but I think its importance is underestimated. We’ve internalized the prestige and long-term benefits of top CS schools like MIT, Caltech, Stanford, RPI,1 etc. And we know there is benefit from working at companies like Google and Facebook.

But is it the same? Let me break it down this way. The most selective school in the US is Harvard University, which accepts 6% of applicants. And Google?

Google hires 0.2%.

The leading zero is there so you know the decimal is in the right place. It’s 30 times harder to get into Google than Harvard and this is not lost on recruiters. To be clear, it’s not, “They do hard things at Google, so she must be qualified.” But rather, “Great Caesar’s ghost! She passed a Google interview? Then she’s got a great shot with these yahoos.”

A big reason that Google is so much more selective than Harvard is because high school seniors have a better sense of whether they can get into Harvard than programmers do about whether they can get into Google.


Part of this is because Harvard charges you to apply, but also because of recruiters. There is a widespread assumption that FAANG2 recruiters know more than agency recruiters. Many even think they have a technical background. So when they approach you to apply, you assume you are qualified. Do not make that assumption. I know one coder who was so humiliated by the interview that they developed a seething, lifelong hatred for all things Google.


Tech recruiters are salespeople, not programmers, no matter where they work.

You don’t need to work for Google, the same way you don’t need to go to MIT (or even college) to have a great career. But you want to be mindful of your choices and the trade-offs they bring.

Help somebody's career:

Next chapter: Specialization

  1. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – my alma mater. Shameless, I know. []
  2. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google. Microsoft belongs, but it would ruin the acronym. []