Ruby Bhattacharya joins us again to share some perspective on the historical dips in the job market for software engineers, specifically the dot-com bubble of 1999 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Some of the topics we cover:

  • what jobs in tech bounced back first
  • what happened to software engineers through both job market downturns
  • how job placement and interviewing for engineers is different in a recession vs. today


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For the text transcript: 

Max: Hi guys, Max with the Accidental Engineer. Today we have the good fortune of having Ruby Bhattacharya join us. Ruby is a Senior Technical Recruiter with Coinbase. Something like 15 years experience in the recruiting space.

Ruby: That’s right, yeah.

Max: With titles like Director of Recruiting, worked with 500 Startups, the large incubator for startups. So, a lot of experience with recruiting in the startup space. But today, after the last interview that we had, you mentioned when you started in the engineering…or excuse me, in the recruiting business, it was right after the dot-com bubble in like 2001 or 1999.

Ruby: Right. Yeah, 1999 after the Y2K rubbish that happened, yeah.

Max: For sure. So, I know that a lot of our audience is relatively younger like if you were maybe in your mid-30’s you might have encountered the dot-com bubble, but for people in their 20’s today they did not live through a big recession in the market for…in the job market, for engineers in the late 90’s. So I wanted to ask you a few questions about how the job market looks like from the perspective of a recruiter, and maybe from the perspective of an engineer, when employers were not eager to try and find people to work for you.

Ruby: So, I’d say what happened during that time period is business units were deciding “what was the most critical positions to fill?” “What do we need minimally to make this product really good?” And in order for us to do that we are going to need the best people. We can’t have “average”, we can’t have “you’re okay”-we need absolutely exceptional people to come in and take those positions and they’ll normally be senior level positions. A lot of time business groups will try and reorganize, obviously reorganize the group so people can get laid off due to that business units shut down, and so on and so forth. So the types of roles that will be available will be high-level jobs, experienced people with eight to ten years of experience, who can manage that on their own and not need a huge support system to be able to, you know, move forward with that product.

Max: So, among your group of friends at the time, I guess… Had you moved to the San Francisco Bay area at that point?

Ruby: So, during the Y2K I was in the UK, and so I experienced what happened in the UK after that, what happened to the job market. When I came over here it was 2005 so I believed there was…we were just coming out of a dot-com recession. So seeing…

Max: That’s five years.

Ruby: Yeah, that’s five years. So 2005, things started improving. The way you know things are improving is because companies start not only hiring sales people, but they start hiring recruiters before they hire anyone else. So recruiters were being hired, some of the major players in San Francisco at the time were people like Wells Fargo, Charles Schwab, these are the people who you work for typically, you know, it was mostly financial in 2005. And then they started hiring like crazy. People started hiring like crazy again because the recession was lifting, we started hiring a huge amount… I was hiring a huge amount of developers, project managers, QA, it was obvious these people were starting to build stuff again and they had the money to be able to hire people.

The way you know things are improving is because companies start not only hiring sales people Click To Tweet

Max: And then maybe three, four years later, from 2005 was the Financial Crisis.

Ruby: Yes. So then it was good for a little bit, and then 2008 hit me as well as a lot of other people. So companies were laying off engineers and, computer science folks left right and center. And what it was left with, what the company would be left with, was really strong superior level engineers who they knew would be able to, you know, take the load. They could work minimally on their own without the support, and that’s how people got jobs. It was still a job markets, people were still looking for things, but they tended to be very niche roles and they tended to be high skill level and with a lot of experience, and then those sorts of people ended up getting roles. So really what I would say is, try and have as much breadth of experience as possible and get that experience coming now because you don’t when it’s going to happen.

Max: Yeah. You were telling me earlier that after the dot-com bubble burst, and, I guess, after the Financial Crisis, the first jobs to come back, the first roles that recruiters are hiring for whether in tech companies or elsewhere, were sales roles. Do you mind sharing why that might be the case? Like why that happened?

Ruby: Yeah. It seems like the most bizarre thing to do is to hire salespeople when you’re starting off. But what has tended to happen with a lot of startups have the attitude that if we hire sales people first, we’ll sell the product, we get traction, then we build more of the product, and it’s more like we have something minimal, we’re gonna sell it, and then we’re gonna build it after we’ve sold it, and start customizing it for the customer. I’m not saying this is the best way to do things, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a CEO hire a bunch of salespeople. I’d much rather see a CEO hire a bunch of engineers first and make the product happen and then… A lot of the time it’s that Google attitude of “it will sell itself.” The company I work for currently, I mean, we bring in like, you know, $3 million in revenue a month, you know, we haven’t got any sales people. So, and we don’t have any marketing. So at the end of the day, if the people are smart enough and they build a good enough product and you stay with focusing on how…not how sexy the company is, but what are they doing? What are they doing technologically wise? Are they at the forefront of the business? Do we need to work for trendy companies? What technologies are these technologies companies using? They may not be using the best, but if you wanna really nail it down, you start going for the companies that are using the latest technologies in an innovative space that no one else is dealing with. That’s a very advisable thing to do.

Max: Very, very different business models like I know that it’s common… there’s kind of a spectrum of how many or what proportion of employees are in engineering versus sales, and that’s maybe…that’s generally a pretty public number about employers, but as engineers who are job searching, is there any kind of takeaway that they can make or judgment they can make regarding your company?

Ruby: Yeah, definitely. So, there’s someone I’m trying to recruit currently who is working for an organization that has ended up being a sales heavy organization. It’s a sales company, right? That’s what she’s working for. So what she has noticed at working at a sales company, is that if they have that as the focus, engineering kind of takes a backseat. So, therefore, they don’t get to use the latest technologies, they’re just keeping things running as a basic minimum. They’re not gonna be innovative, they’re not gonna have the projects that are juicy because they’ve got the people behind it and they’re often using people instead of technology to do the job.

Max: So manual work versus automation.

Ruby: Manual work versus automation. Now, a company can choose to do that. They can choose to like have people doing some stuff that it would take a group of engineers, you know, a bit to figure out how to automate all these processes. But the fact that they’re not automating it, you know, means you’re not going to get into these juicy problems. It means you’re supporting a sales organization. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with working for an organization that’s sales heavy, but it’s a question to ask, how many sales people do you have? How many engineers do you have? And then you can cut…and then you can get a sense. Because if I was to tell you, like, we’ve got 50 engineers and 110 people and no sales people, you see it’s kind of…it kind of makes a difference, you know, between another company saying, “Oh, yeah it’s 50-50 “ or “We’ve mostly got salespeople.”

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with working for an organization that’s sales heavy, but it’s a question to… Click To Tweet

Max: So in the recruiting process, in our last interview, you briefly mentioned about the 360 recruiting process. So, for those people who don’t know what the 360 recruiting processes is, what that entails about the process by which employers find employees, do you mind kind of sharing what that means?

Ruby: Yeah. Okay, so it’s more like…it’s really more a recruiting term than anything else. 360 recruiting means that you’ve got one point of contact right from the beginning. So the person who reached out to you or you apply to starts working with you through the process, they take…they just try and prep you, take you through each interview, or sync up with you during that time. Then if you get the job, they’ll make the offer, close it out, give you the offer. So they’re involved for the whole process and they will organize, facilitate everything that needs to happen in order for you to get the job. So that’s really what 3…you just get one person. And in bigger companies you don’t always get one person, it can be a couple of people who you’re gonna be going to. And I wouldn’t worry about that, it just means that organization is being very efficient at finding more candidates, finding more suitable people, we’re able to talk to more people, and that’s what that means. So it’s nothing to worry about when you’ve been handed off from one person to a different person. It’s actually a good thing because you’ll be handed over to a recruiter who will be your advocate throughout that whole process.

Max: In contrast to having a phone screen with Ruby, and then another screen with Max, and then onsite with Joey, and then another onsite with Sally…

Ruby: And then me coming in every time to check in how you’re doing, and then we have the salary discussion, and then hopefully you get an offer, and then I work with management to come up with a comp package, and then I’ll give it. At the moment what I’m doing is mainly going from dealing… Once the person is deemed technically competent and they’re good at what they do, I take them from there and put them through the process.

Max: I think the scariest aspect for a lot of engineers in applying for jobs and going through the 360 recruiting process is dealing with a technical screening or a skills test. And the best engineers may be less fearful of that step, but I think everyone has apprehensions about what might get asked of them. So, one of the things I’m curious about, and I think our audience is curious about, is how skill tests or technical screenings might have changed from post dot-com, post-financial crisis to now. Like, are there…is there more of an emphasis on technical screens these days? Or are the nature of questions or the amount of time that other pretty process focuses on skills tests changing?

Ruby: I would say that depends from company to company. There’s one company that I know that takes three months to hire people. That’s the way they wanna do it. And if you wanna…if you’re okay with that, that’s great. But there’s other people do wanna get through it very quick so it’ll happen in a week. It depends on the company. For example, with Coinbase, what we do…it has a very high technical bar. So we do need to incorporate a huge amount of coding and architecture challenges to make sure that this person has the adequate amount of knowledge to be able to work on the products that we’re asking them to work on. So what will happen is, the first tech screen will be…tends to be an hour. This differs from company to company obviously, but it will be around this kind of process. You get the Google Hangout tech screen and don’t worry about these things. The best thing to do, don’t try and pick a language that you don’t know, or you’re not sure about, or you just want to impress someone with. Use the language you know really, really well, then do the exercise. Because the whole point of that is to see how you’re thinking and how you logically can to go through a problem. That’s what they’re looking for. Not necessarily how many stages of this interview you got through.

Yeah. And then further on from that, like there’s further technical assessments. You come on site and you do a further onsite coding challenge with an engineer. You do a further onsite challenge with an engineer on architecture. Okay? And then you have a take-home exercise which is a challenge that you have to do. You have to do all of these things before you’re even gonna be coming in for your last interview, which tends to be with our company, it tends to be a panel interview, sorry, a paired programming interview, where you come in for the whole day, you’re paired up with two people from the team, you get to meet the team, you get to meet management senior leadership as well. And then after that point, we make the offer. But you can see along each stage of the way technical coding, coding, it’s part of every single interview that we do. So I don’t know if every single company does that, I don’t think so necessarily, but I think when you have a very innovative company with a high engineering bar, expect that that’s what’s gonna happen. And don’t be, you know, too worried about it.

Max: I think one of the reasons that applicants for engineering roles are apprehensive about skills tests is the time investment in comparison to a conversational screening call. I know that one signal, one big tip to job seekers and people going through these application processes, is that you should definitely feel free to judge and vet employers by whether you have a partner on the inside while you do these assessments. Because it’s a very strong signal that that employer cares about seeing how you’re thinking, but also that they have skin in the game and that they’re paying a cost in having of an employee sit with an interviewee, a prospective candidate, through your skills test. That is a huge signal in contrast to the kind of take-home problems that I think a lot of people get turned off by. And there’s a reason you guys get turned off by this and I…we both get it. So that’s something I think changes depending on the job market and depending on how overwhelmed an employer is with…

View the interview directly on YouTube here.

If you have experience with the tech job market taking a downturn, please share it with us in the comments below!