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When interviewing, it seems that employers are trying to ascertain, among other things, your level of technical ability, and 'being able to do the job', motivation etc, as well as whether you are going to stay in the role long enough to be providing value to the organisation.

When I say 'staying the role long enough' - the idea is that it may take several months for the new hire to develop specific technical skills (more common for recent graduates), learning the domain, and not taking up time needing to be supervised. It's after this point that the employee becomes 'worth their salary', and so employers are going to want to avoid an employee that's going to take off after a year.

This will be especially true for recent graduates, where the employee is going to be there not just for the salary, but for the experience and training.

It seems that there can be a trade off between these two things; highly motivated and capable employees may be more inclined to move on to bigger and better projects, while less capable employees maybe more inclined to 'bed in' and stay in it for the long haul, being happy to have a regular salary.

So it seems that some employers may have this impossible dream of having highly motivated and capable employees, who also going to stay around forever.

The way I think it actually is - is that some companies are able to attract and retain the good talent (through being able to pay well, having interesting work, or being a centrepoint of talent that other talent wants to be surrounded with), while the other companies, with more mundane work, or lower budgets, simply have to make do with what's leftover.

For these employers, it seems unrealistic the expect employees to both be the top of the talent pool and stay around for a long time.

It seems that their options could be:

  • Make do with less capable employees
  • Be ok with higher employee turnover, extract value from employees while they can.
  • Do what they can to make themselves appealing to more talented employees ('Fun company culture' etc).
  • Interview a lot of people, and pick the ones that seem like the best suited mix of talented vs is going to stick around.

The question I have is - how do I as employee looking for a new job, handle this trade off when approaching employers?

I'm concerned that if I advertise my talents too highly, then employers become concerned that I'm not going to stick around, while if I advertise that I'm going to be a loyal employee, then they'll wonder about my abilities.

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    I think you're overthinking it. For every one employer who says "nah, he's too good to stay here" there are probably 10 who will say "we need to get this guy if we can". Even employers who have no realistic prospects of retaining top talent still dream of it (and you don't want to work at the ones who have given up on that dream, anyways). You want to sell yourself as strongly as possible so that the ones who do make you offers give you a better deal. – aroth Apr 30 '14 at 10:37
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    If you advertise your talents too highly, be more concerned that your prospective employer thinks that you are full of it and pass you up in the first place. Needless to say, if the prospective employer decides to pass you up, the issue of whether you are going to stick around doesn't come up. It does come up if the position you are a candidate for is the kind of position where those that can do the job don't want the job and those that want the job can't do it. The concept if "employee loyalty" in a right-to-work state where you can be dismissed at will or at whim is downright funny. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 30 '14 at 10:50
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    You know most devs who I personally know who are really at the top of the talent pool (people with a national or international repuation) tend to be picky about the jobs they take and tend to stay a long time. – HLGEM Apr 30 '14 at 15:00
  • @aroth - my experience is the opposite. At least around here, employers will happily forego a great employee who will leave in 2 years for a mediocre one who will leave in 8. I've heard more than once "they won't be happy doing (our mundane job)" as an excuse not to hire good people. – Telastyn Apr 30 '14 at 15:51
  • @Telastyn Their loss. I am not losing any sleep over it :) If want to get smart, hang around smart people. Conversely, if you hang around idiots, eventually, you will become one of them :) You get to choose which way you want to go - it's your life. – Vietnhi Phuvan May 1 '14 at 2:08
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You've set up two possible kinds of person:

  • highly motivated and capable employees may be more inclined to move on to bigger and better projects
  • less capable employees maybe more inclined to 'bed in' and stay in it for the long haul, being happy to have a regular salary

But really it's a grid:

     |capable| not capable|
     |-------|------------|
stay |  CS   |    NS      |
     |-------|------------|
go   |  CG   |    NG      |
     |-------|------------|

You've identified the CG and NS cases. But there are two others as well:

  • less capable employees may consistently blame their environment when they don't succeed, and move on looking for "a better fit".
  • more capable employees may be more likely to engage with the company's goals and improve their abilities while achieving what the company wants, eventually being promoted within the company to higher and higher roles, bringing their knowledge of the "grass roots" with them.

Your goal in an interview is to show them that you are CS. Trying to downplay your strengths because you believe everyone is either CG or NS, and companies would rather hire NS, is just foolish. Show them your strengths. And tell them you're looking for a place where you can grow while staying with the same company and building up your expertise.

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Let me restate the problem - when I look to hire, I am looking to hire someone who's goals are aligned closely enough with mine, my team's and my company's enough that the employee will outlast the "investment period" and be able to deliver a return on the investment in as long a term as possible. Maybe not even the standard 3 years, ideally I'd like to shoot for even longer - but with promotions and transfers along the way so that the employee has changed "jobs" but remained an asset to the company.

I do not want to hire someone who is so unmotivated that they will not leave. That will result in someone who is unlikely deliver on the return on investment proposition, because they are so under-skilled and under-motivated that the learning curve will be extraordinarily high and long.

The key here is the alignment - when I interview, I want to know what the employee wants in terms of their career and to get a sense from his reaction that what I can offer will meet a substantial number of his goals and expectations. I want honesty and I want some level of serious thought and perhaps even soul searching. No one is psychic - people fail all the time at making career changing moves and finding they hate them. But I'm looking for someone who's actually given some thought on what they want now, and what they are moving towards - because if the answer right now is "I don't know" - then that's my same answer when I ask myself "what's the likelihood that I can give this candidate a decent career opportunity in 2-3 years?" - "I don't know".

The other key is that I won't even bother to ask the "So what do YOU want, what do YOU like, and what are your thoughts for long term happiness?" until I can answer for myself that I like the candidate enough to care - and for that they have to pass my muster in the terms that Joel Spolsky introduced me to - they have to be smart and get things done. So if being smart and getting things done is your talent, please don't downplay it - all you will do is make the interview process unpleasantly short.

Do, however, maximize your interview efficiency by spending some time thinking about what the company would have to do for you in order to keep you interested over the next 3-5 years. Please don't stick to the money. In all honesty, the company will pay what it has to pay to hire someone like you - not you, per se, just close enough to the going rates that they can retain most people, because most people won't get a better offer elsewhere.

Instead, think about the intangibles:

  • Do you like this business? Does being part of it excite you? Does being part of a different business excite you more?
  • What parts of your job do you love? Hate? If you could rebalance the tasks in your world, what would you do more of/less of?
  • What kind of relationship do you want with your management and your team? Stick to the positive here - "independance over consensus", "learning opportunities", "close collaboration", "a focus on impecciable quality", "an ability to move agilely" - the negatives are usually too generic to be useful. A good source of inspiration is - what you liked in the past from leaders and peers?
  • What work/life tradeoffs are a want-to-have/must-have? Keep in mind that everything has a tradeoff - Work at Home means more flex, more independance, but less cohesive support, core hours are a pain to adhere to, but very useful for getting people together to meet, offices are great, but take money to finance and money is finite. What tradeoffs really help you?

Note that I'm skipping the "what is your next career goal?" - sure if you just know that you MUST get an advanced degree, or be an architect, or a manager - put that out there... but my general experience has been that as a manager: - I can't guarantee a promotion, and there will be many limiting factors - the person, their ability to respond to feedback, and the availability of the opportunities they want will make predicting this hard. - People really have no clue. They usually answer with what they think sounds good.

What I want to do is to find the intangibles that will make this a "good fit" - it'll make the person less inclined to take a risk on being equally happy in that new job, and also it'll keep them happy and motivated to do good stuff while on my team.

CAVEAT - there is one time I saw ambition as a deal breaker. I interviewed a great guy. Smart, eloquent and experienced - I had no doubt he could the job. However, when I listened to his career goals for the near term - they were were more aligned with my boss' - who was 5 ranks higher than the individual contributor position I was hiring him for. I was fairly sure that if I hired him, he'd be gunning for a different role in the organization so quickly that I wouldn't get the useful 2-5 years I was hoping for.

When it comes to ambition in terms of position (rather than the challenge of the job itself) - be aware of the role that you are interviewing for, and be interested in the nature of promotions. You'll never get a clear sense of "it would take an act of God for that type of promotion to occur", but you should get a sense of how fast and what level of effort are required. Be aware that if you seem to think the job is beneath you, or "fine ... for now but I'm really looking for something better" - you may well come off as a candidate who is unlikely to stay. This isn't a matter of talent, it's a matter of different expectations.

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The question I have is - how do I as employee looking for a new job, handle this trade off when approaching employers?

I don't buy the premise in your question - that it's either be highly capable and motivated or stick around for a while. I see many counter-examples to that in my current company every day. I've been here 8 years, and most of my co-workers have been here almost as long.

Still, when you interview at a company, just ask about the team you will be joining. Ask how long people have been around. And ask if you can talk with some of them. Ask what kind of career-progression occurs in the company, and what kind of growth is available if you turn out to be highly-capable and motivated.

Then you can draw your own conclusions as to their capabilities and motivation, and your desire to stick around for a while.

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    Enh, I've seen tons of places where people have been there for years and have "career progression" because they've been there for years - and are completely horrible. – Telastyn Apr 30 '14 at 17:12
  • @Telastyn, sure we have all seen that if we have been around for awhile, but I have equally seen lots of places where people only stay a short time, they all think they are great and have no clue that they are not and that their code is horrible becasue they have 3 months experience repeated multiple times in multiple places and their senior people have less than two years experience and cannot eveluate how bad the problem is because they never stick around long enough to see the poor results. Startups are often like this. – HLGEM Apr 30 '14 at 19:06
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In an ideal world, your company will continually challenge you so that instead of leaving for bigger and better projects, you simply stay and do bigger and better projects. And frankly, this is the sort of thing that both you and your company should strive for.

So sell yourself as a solid employee looking for a company that has opportunity for growth. Companies want to have growth, so will be happy to have an employee looking to grow with the company. When they inevitably pigeon-hole you into mundane work, then you can look for work on your own terms.

And if they actually provide opportunity for growth, so much the better.

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