Hacking the Job Search

After months of struggling, I got job offers from Facebook, NASA, Salesforce and Oracle in the same week … here’s how I did it.

... But first, stats:

First application: March 30, 2018
Last application: Sep 28, 2018
Total days of job hunting: 182
Total applications: 165
Total recruiter phone interviews: 21

Sources of the 21 recruiter phone interviews:
Online application (no referral): 9
Referral via personal contact/network: 5
Job fair: 7

Percentage of phone interviews received from online applications (no referral): 6% (9/157)
Percentage of phone interviews received from referrals: 62.5% (5/8)
Percentage of phone interviews received from job fairs: 20% (7 out of about 35 personal interactions)

Number of phone interviews moving to a video call or in-person interview: 1o/21
Number of in-person interviews leading to formal offers: 5/10

Most interviews with a single company needed for one job offer: 11
Fewest interviews with a single company needed for one job offer: 4
Longest application-to-offer time: 10 weeks
Shortest application-to-offer time: 2 weeks

Best thing heard during an interview: “It’s very clear to me you’re brilliant” (didn’t get an offer)
Worst thing heard during an interview:
     Me: “I’m not a journalist, but I’ve worked with reporters for 15 years and understand the business and news cycle.”
     Interviewer: “We’re not looking for a journalist”
     Me: “I know, I just said I’m not one.”
     Interviewer: “But we’re not looking for one.” (rejected two hours later)

Who’s this article for?

This article was written for a very narrow subset of job seekers: specifically, senior military officers with 10-25 years of experience who want to start a new career at the mid to high-level in the tech or business industry where they have few or no personal contacts. If that’s not you, proceed with caution.

The Plan:

I started my job search six months before the end of my retirement from the military. After those six months were up, I would stop getting a paycheck and my monthly income would no longer meet my monthly debts. I thought I had a brilliant plan: For the first three months I’d only apply only to my dream jobs: exciting, fulfilling, rewarding jobs that I would feel lucky to have.  If I didn’t have a job at the halfway point of my search, I’d then begin applying to “regular jobs” – i.e. just something to pay the bills (probably as a DoD contractor or a GS).

At the three-month point I had submitted about 70 applications, receiving four phone interviews and zero job offers. Luckily, one interview was so bad (I got a rejection email two hours after the phone call) it caused me to re-evaluate everything I was doing. After three months of job hunting … I completely started over. And this time there would be no Plan B – I was only applying to the dream jobs.

I realized that everything I did for the first three months was terrible. My resume stunk (I was using same generic resume for a wide range of different jobs). And I was unprepared for the interviews – often taking 15 minutes to rehash my entire career rather than having specific STAR examples ready. It took me three painful months to learn the system. Hopefully this will help you avoid the same frustrations I experienced.


Lesson 1: Figure out what you want to do.

“I’ll just get my foot in the door” is a tough sell to any recruiter. My initial approach to finding a dream job was to apply for mid-to entry level positions at prestigious organizations like Facebook, NASA or Google. Then – once hired - work my way up once they discovered how brilliant I was.  I thought every company would want to hire someone overqualified for a position, since they’d be getting a ton of expertise at a huge bargain in salary.

It doesn’t work this way. I was rejected from 99% of these jobs, even though I was supremely overqualified. Why? … most organizations are wired to hire people at the appropriate level, not above or below it. My 16 years’ experience and resume full of awards actually prevented me from getting these entry-level jobs, because my resume didn’t match the expectations of the Applicant Tracking System, or, the hiring manager thought I’d quickly leave for a better job once I was hired.

If you’re in a position of wanting a job far below your experience level – perhaps for better quality of life or because of a large pension – then you have to completely change your resume to match the level of the position. Your resume will be dumbed-down; it will look strange to you; but that’s the only way to get in the door. Better yet, just apply to jobs that match your skills and experience.


Lesson 2: There are three ways of getting an interview with your desired company: online applications, referrals, and job fairs. Your goal is to use one of these methods to speak with an actual human being. Here’s my experience with each:

“Applying online doesn’t work.” That’s not 100% true. About 6% of my online applications led to live interviews. It doesn’t work if you have an average resume and are competing with superstars, but if you’re at the top of your field, many of the best companies will find you. Amazon and Google both found me directly from an online application (no referral and no personal connections whatsoever). The reason they find the best candidates – even those without referrals of personal connections – is they have thousands of recruiters looking for the absolute best candidates. Each recruiter is only looking to fill a few specific jobs, so they can afford to take the time to read resumes of every qualified applicant. Anyone who says applying online doesn’t work is incorrect. 6% is way better than 0%

Use your network. I received eight personal referrals, and five of those led to live interviews (what’s actually surprising is three referrals were completely ignored). The numbers don’t lie … a referral is your best bet, but it limits you to the jobs within your personal network.

How to get a referral: Hacking LinkedIn

Job fairs are key. Even those with the biggest networks don’t know someone at every company. Here’s where job fairs become key to making a personal connection. Job fairs got me interviews with Tesla, Facebook, Oracle and many other terrific companies. In many cases, a job may not be open at the time of the job fair, but a good recruiter will save your resume and call you when a position opens up.  That exact scenario led me to a great job offer two full months after meeting a recruiter at a job fair. My interview rate for job fairs was about 20% (7 interviews out of 35 interactions).


Lesson 3: Get past the ATS

A software algorithm in the hiring company’s online Applicant Tracking System scans your resume to match key words, job positions, education and years of experience. The ATS screens out 70-90% of the applicants.  If you know you’re exceptionally qualified but are not getting phone calls from recruiters, it’s because your resume was never seen by a human. You need a plan to get past the ATS algorithm.

First, match your skills exactly to the phrases directly from the job post. For example, if the job description asks for expertise in Microsoft Excel and Outlook, don’t write Microsoft “office” or “suite” on your resume. To you and me these words mean the same thing, but since they don’t match the ATS may reject your resume. Yes, this means you need to change your resume for each and every job application.

If you’re like me and get infuriated when you upload your resume as a word document, only then to see you’re also required to copy and paste the entire thing into the website line-by-line, it’s because the company doesn’t trust their ATS to accurately scan your resume from the word doc. This is their way of ensuring their ATS can read the text of your resume. My advice is to be patient become a master of copying and pasting.

My approach was to have a long master resume (about five pages total), then pick and choose the best lines to create a 2-page resume specific to each job.  I ended up with about 40 different versions of my resume.

A good ATS will screen out 80% of the online resumes and provide the best to the recruiter for their review. In this example, if there were 200 online applications, the recruiter may actually read 40 of them.

If you have a referral, you skip the ATS and your resume is guaranteed to be read by a human. Think of it this way: a referral immediately places you among the top 20% of the field. If you don’t have a referral, at a minimum try to find a second or third connection on LinkedIn and ask them to forward your resume (just search “recruiter at xx company”). People active on LinkedIn like to see outstanding resumes, and they usually get a bonus if you’re hired. It may not be a personal connection, but it may get you past the ATS and directly to the next step.

One final note about online applications. The calls and interviews I got from my online applications were from some of the biggest and most selective companies (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, NASA, United Nations). This is directly related to investing in a lot of talented recruiters; those who have the most experience in selecting the best candidates. Unfortunately, smaller companies, non-profits and government agencies often lose out on the best candidates due to poor applicant screening systems, inexperienced and overworked HR personnel acting as recruiters, and an overall lack of profit motive to find the best candidates. Applying online may not be ideal not ideal, but if you’re near the top of your field, applying online at the top companies works pretty well.


Lesson 4: Be ready for first human contact

Regardless of how your resume arrives at a company, the first step is contact with the recruiter. Even with a personal connection and referral, the hiring manager (your future boss) will hand off the initial details and paperwork to a recruiter.

Let’s assume that you’re applying online or through a job fair, without a personal connection into the company. If this is the case, you’ll deal exclusively with the recruiter for everything except the actual hiring interviews. Here’s how it works:

In the example of a job opening receiving 200 online applications, let’s assume 160 were screened out by the ATS.  Initial phone calls (screens) will go to maybe 10-20 of the best candidates, based on resume only. This call will be with your recruiter. It’s your one and only chance to get your foot in the door in hopes of a real interview with the hiring manager.  Think of it as a 20-minute performance that needs to be perfect. Remember, your recruiter isn’t an expert in your field – they probably don’t know the technical details of your job. This call is to assess if you can answer 3-4 basic questions in a concise and articulate manner, how well you speak, and if you’re a good match for the role.

Typical questions:

“Tell me about yourself.”  You need to have a 3-5 minute summary of your experience ready and nearly memorized. Since it’s a phone call you can use a notecard, but it needs to be smooth and tailored for the specific job you applied for.

* Important: Since you only know about the job from a brief online description, ask the recruiter to first tell you as much as he or she possible can about the role. The worst interviews I had were when I didn’t fully understand the job description, and I ended up highlighting personal qualities that were not relevant to the job.

“Tell me about a time when …” These are called behavioral questions and are used by the recruiter to determine if you have the experience they’re looking for.  You need to have at least a few 3-4 minute scenarios ready.  Use the STAR method when answering. Situation – Task – Action – Result. Your goal here is two-fold: show the recruiter you’re articulate, enthusiastic and well-spoken, and demonstrate to the recruiter you’re an expert in the field of the job opening.

* For the initial screening call you’ll only need a few of these stories, but for later interviews you’ll need 15-30. Yes, 15-30 unique scenarios.

“Why this company?” We all know the real answer to this question: “I applied to 50 different companies and you’re the one who happened to call,” or “because I need to pay the mortgage.” Obviously you need to have a better answer than those. Study up.


Compensation discussion: If things are going well in the recruiter screening call, your recruiter may do a quick check on salary expectations. The desired salary question puts you at a huge disadvantage. If you tell them a number too low, you’ve just lowered your bar for an offer. If you come in too high, you may scare them off. It’s a no-win situation. Some people will tell you not to answer this question, but from experience I know that’s not realistic. Unless you have competing offers, you’re at their mercy. My advice is to give as big a range as possible, with the lower end low enough to avoid scaring off the recruiter but the higher end high enough to reference if you ever get to a salary negotiation.

Writing sample: For those jobs requiring advanced writing skills, you may be asked to submit a writing sample. During my job hunt I was asked to write a 2-page communications plan, an Op-ed, and a speech. You usually get 2-3 days to write these, though one of mine was actually timed for two hours.

References: Yes, the most competitive companies check references. I had three exceptional references who were all called and emailed during the final stages of my interviews. The best way to help them is to provide a detailed description of the job you applied for (send the actual link if possible). That way they know which of your strengths to highlight.


Lesson 5: Prepare for technical questions from the hiring manager

Four to six of those getting a recruiter phone screen move on to a technical screen (i.e. the field has narrowed from 200 to the final 4-6). This is a phone call or VTC with the hiring manager or another expert in the specific field the job is in. At this point the company is investing not only the recruiter’s time, but the time of employees who have an actual job to do. Using the 200-application example, 97-98% of the applicants have now been screened out at this point.

The hiring manager is usually the person you’ll be working for, so you’ll need to be even more detailed in your STAR scenarios.  By this point I’d have 6-8 scenarios memorized. In addition to examples of your successes, you should have stories about challenges ready also.

The key to remember here is you can’t use the same generalities you used with your recruiter. You need to be detailed and specific in your accomplishments.


Lesson 6: You made it! It’s time for the Loop (on-site) interviews

Only two or three of the best candidates will be invited for on-site or “loop” interviews. These typically last all day, with you sitting in a small office and 5-6 senior employees cycling through 45-minute interviews with you throughout the day. Do the math: 6 interviews x 45 minutes x 5-8 questions per interview means you need to have between 30-48 STAR examples, scenarios and stories to tell. These stories are examples of your accomplishments, challenges you’ve overcome, leadership style, expertise in your field, and numerous “tell me about a time you” and “what would you do if” questions. Of course, you’ll repeat a few examples throughout the day because of question overlap, but you can’t recycle the same 2-3 stories and get away with it. You need to be prepared with 20-30 scenarios encompassing every type of question.  

There are hundreds of behavioral questions so it’s impossible to list every one, but you can organize them into four general categories:

1. Successful situations and achievements
2. Unsuccessful or stressful situations
3. How you reacted to a situation in the past
4. How you’d handle a hypothetical/future situation

Some typical behavioral and leadership questions:

Tell me about yourself.
What was your biggest challenge?
Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss.
How do you deal with a problem employee?
What is your biggest strength?
What is your biggest weakness?
What’s important to you in your career search?
How do you handle conflict within a team?
Tell me about a time you set and achieved/didn’t achieve a goal.
How do you handle competing priorities under a strict deadline?

You should get a call from your recruiter 3-5 days after your interviews. By that point all the interviewers should have submitted their input, with a recommendation to hire or not to hire, along with a degree of their certainty. If you received recommendations to hire from every interviewer you may get an offer immediately, though sometimes a more senior hiring committee reviews the feedback.


Lesson 7: Evaluate the offer

Congratulations! You got an offer over 199 other people. Your recruiter should send you a formal offer letter clearly stating your total compensation. At larger companies total compensation (TC) can include your base salary, an annual bonus, a signing bonus, and possibly stock units that vest at some point between 1-4 years (called RSUs).  Understand there is virtually always room to negotiate the offer, just be professional and not such a jerk that you lose the offer altogether.  My advice is to ask just one time for additional compensation, then accept whatever the recruiter replies with. A 5% base pay increase is usually an acceptable request, or a $10% increase in signing bonus or stocks.



Searching for a job is a struggle, especially for those military officers who desire to escape the military-industrial-contractor complex and broaden their horizons in a new industry. But if you follow the steps I outlined above and approach your job search like it’s a full-time job, great things will happen. Good luck! 


William Marks is a community development regional manager at a major tech company. He retired from the Navy in October 2018 as a Commander with 16 years’ experience in public and community relations. He’s a six-time winner of the Navy’s highest public affairs awards, and is the former Chief of Media for the U.S. Navy as well as spokesperson for the Department of Defense Intelligence Agency.