8 Strategies for Acing Your Next Career Opportunity

A friend was promoted? Don’t get jealous. Get moving with these ideas and suggestions for putting your best professional self forward.
Lisa Bertagnoli
April 30, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021
Lisa Bertagnoli
April 30, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021

Last year, Chris Ingate applied for an enterprise account executive post at Overhaul, an Austin, Texas-based real-time visibility and risk-management tech provider for supply chains. A friend had made the referral, and the initial interview with Overhaul’s HR specialist went well.

A week later, Ingate received a “no, thanks” email from the HR person. End of story? Hardly. Ingate found contact information for and reached out to the vice president of sales at Overhaul, pleaded his case and secured a discovery call with her. This time, Ingate progressed along the hiring process. Three months after that unsuccessful phone screen, he landed the job at Overhaul. The move, bundled with an improved title and better compensation, marked a career boost for Ingate.

Ingate doesn’t have a secret to success — he has many. Keep an eye out for opportunities. Don’t let your resume grow stale. Prepare for job interviews, particularly those open-ended questions. Research the job before you apply, and learn to say no when it doesn’t fit. Here you’ll find advice to move on up from tech professionals across companies in e-commerce, data science and software engineering.

How to grab that next career opportunity

“Chance favors the prepared.” When it comes to spotting and securing career opportunities, “prepared” covers a lot of territory. It means having an updated resume, not one that’s been moldering in a folder. It means stepping outside your comfort zone and banishing self-imposed limits. To be prepared for career opportunities, talk to your networks, do some sleuthing; before interviews, prepare by researching the company, the role and even your interviewers. A great opportunity might come along tomorrow; it might present itself next year. If you’re prepared for it, you’ll ace it.

 

Don’t Limit Yourself

Sarah Moy had been a senior marketing manager at San Francisco-based Modal, which provides e-commerce capabilities to automotive dealers. In 2019, she was promoted to marketing director, despite having little management experience. “Just because you haven’t held a certain role or responsibility in the past doesn’t mean you aren’t more than capable of embracing more and different responsibilities,” Moy said.

While she didn’t have direct reports as senior marketing manager, she had effectively managed freelancers, agencies and vendor relationships. “Going above and beyond my job description helped prove to my manager that I was ready for the next level,” she said. The takeaway: “Explore beyond your own functional area to understand how other parts of the business work, so you can easily see the bigger picture and improve collaboration cross-functionally.”

 

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Deanna Emery had been working at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics when she attended a meeting at which research projects were shared. One group of fellow astrophysicists was investigating the presence of a particular chemical in a particular nebula, neither of which were connected to Emery’s research.

“I felt disconnected from their work — and to an extent, my own — because it seemed too distant,” said Emery, who holds a degree in physics and astrophysics from Harvard University. “I wanted to make more of an impact on people’s day-to-day lives.”

When Emery realized that she most enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of her work, she stopped applying for Ph.D. programs and started looking outside of academia for a role in which she could fully use those skills. Two years ago, she took a job as a data scientist at Aon, the global professional services firm. Emery was promoted to lead data scientist in March. Emery, who’s based in Philadelphia, urges other tech professionals to consider stepping outside their bubbles to look for new opportunities. “You might find something you truly love that you might not have otherwise,” she said.

Further Reading Yes, a Chef Can Become a Software Engineer

 

Keep Your Resume Updated

Madalina Pavel knew she should keep her resume updated, but neglected it until a new opportunity presented itself. “When it was time to make the change, updating it felt incredibly hard,” said Pavel, a studio experience consultant at Cognizant Softvision, the software product engineering arm of Cognizant. “I was out of practice and lacked the knowledge about how to write a good resume.”

Facing a blank screen, Pavel seemed to forget everything she’d accomplished in her career. Nowadays, she keeps track of everything that’s relevant about her work and updates her resume accordingly. Keeping track also helps her during her annual review conversation. Pavel also suggests sticking with a resume style you like; for her, it’s bullet points, metrics and “really short sentences.”

More resume tips: “Limit it to no more than two pages, highlight quantifiable achievements through action-verb bullet points and tailor buzzwords to each job description,” said Chris Ingate of OverHaul. Fred McGill Jr. suggests highlighting your best contribution to a previous project or employer. “Instead of listing your tasks and responsibilities, share your accomplishments, for example creating a new user interface that increased customer engagement and satisfaction by 20 percent,” said McGill, CEO and founder of Atlanta-based real-estate tech firm Simple Showing.

 

Do Some Sleuthing

If you’re thinking about a career change, talk to the people in your network that you’re closest to,” said Casey Renner, a partner at OpenView, a Boston-based venture capital firm focused on business software. “Not only are they good sounding boards, but chances are they’ll have some good advice on what your next adventure should be or even know of an open role somewhere that could be a fit for you,” she said.

Renner also suggests proceeding gracefully with contacts. “If you haven’t spoken to them in a while, don’t reach out and say ‘can you put in a good word for me?’” she said. Instead, explain that you’re thinking of applying for a role at the firm, and you’d like to ask the person about their experience there and any advice they might have in pursuing the job, she said.

To score that second interview, Ingate researched LinkedIn to find another Overhaul executive. He advises doing the same and trying to secure an introduction to a current employee. Sending a cold message on LinkedIn, acknowledging common ground or seeking advice, also works. “People are more likely to respond positively to others who are seeking their advice and guidance,” he said. “Offer to take them to coffee or lunch, even if only virtual — you can even have lunch delivered to their home before your chat.”

During the chat, ask them how they like their role as well as what they don’t like, and what they’d change about the company. “Ask the questions you would need answered in order to make a thoughtful decision,” Ingate said. If you can’t find someone working at the company, find people who have recently left and ask them why.

Further Reading Here’s How You Should Follow Up After a Job Interview

 

Prepare for the Interview

Elena Onofrasc, a business analyst at Cognizant Softvision, researches the company, the position, and her interviewers in advance of a job interview. “This way, you can feel like you know the people, and you might find something in common,” she said. She suggests being yourself during the interview, and seeing it as an opportunity to meet interesting people and perhaps step outside your comfort zone. Finally, “you don’t need to be the best in the world — you just need to be the most suitable person for the job,” she said.

Ingate has solved the tough-question problem: He drafts his own FAQ with the questions already answered. Among them: Describe a time when you demonstrated leadership, resolved a conflict issue with your manager, went above and beyond your role, value you’d bring to a company’s culture, your core values and how they align with the company, where you see yourself in five years and a time you failed and learned from it. Before the interview, he jots down key “memory joggers” from each answer so that during the interview, he doesn’t sound like he’s reading from a script.

He also conducts his own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis. “Ask your former colleagues and supervisors, as well as friends, for answers on the tough ones, for instance your weaknesses.” A big piece of advice? “Never say you have no weaknesses or that you’ve never failed,” Ingate said. “Showing vulnerability is a strength.” He also suggests personalizing answers and relating them to specific job and real-life experiences.

Go into the interview knowing what the company is looking for, McGill suggested. “That way, you can tailor your answer to why should we hire you based on that by highlighting how you can be valuable and a good fit to their team.” As for weaknesses, McGill suggests turning them into strengths. For instance, I’m too nice in the workplace can be a strength, because it means you’re easy to get along with.

 

Dress Confidently

Skills, not interview outfits, land jobs in tech. Still, a little strategic pizzazz never hurt anyone. Renner of OpenView likes the surprise of a red blazer in lieu of the standard black; a headband or fun earrings can also help you stand out. “Keep it professional, but add your own flair for confidence,” she said.

Onofrasc of Cognizant Softvision suggests a “clean and smart outfit, with clothes that represent you.” She prefers the office-like look of a suit or a jacket at the very least, in combination with nice and comfortable shoes.

 

Feel Free to Say No

What if it’s the job you dreamed of, but something seems a little off? Turn it down and wait for the next opportunity. “Although I have yet to decline an opportunity, I will always prioritize my family and work-life balance,” Ingate says. He suggested writing down short-term (six to 12 months), medium-term (one to three years) and long-term (five-plus years) goals, as well as your values. To determine whether you’ll accept a job, score the job opportunity against those goals and values, he said.

 

Adopt a Career Motto

A career motto can help you crystallize your goals and muster the courage to take next big steps. To create your own, use these as a jumping-off point:

If you’re not networking, you’re not working, Renner said. “A lot of people laugh when they hear this, but as it relates to your career, your networks are everything.... These days, if you don’t have a network to leverage, moving forward in your career is going to be more of a challenge than those who have a network they can lean on,” she said. “You never know when somebody you meet could go on to be your next boss or work at a company you’ve been trying to get into.”

Life is short and desire wins out, McGill said. “When you have dreams you want to achieve, be willing to take risks and get out of your comfort zone,” he said. “Be prepared to take the long road, and when small things don’t turn out the way you expect them to, don’t panic.”

Looking for something more straightforward? Pavel keeps this motto top of mind: Be honest and keep learning.

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