The Definitive Guide For Leaving Your First Software Engineering Job

This morning I was browsing Reddit when I stumbled upon a post in /r/cscareerquestions titled Is there a guide on how to move on from your first job? At first this seemed like a strange request, why do you need an entire guide around how to do this? Then I started thinking a bit more and remembering what it was like when I first entered into the industry and I realized it probably would have been incredibly helpful had a guide existed (or if I read through one), since a lot of the questions the person asked made perfect sense. I wanted to take the chance today to respond to the questions they asked.

How do you find time for interviews?

Finding time to interview can seem fairly daunting at first but it really isn’t too bad, especially if you are selective with the places you’ve applied at. This all starts with what type of interview you are doing which I’d break up into three different types which have an increasing time commitment.

Interviewing with the recruiter.

I’m a little hesitant to bucket this into an interview since the time commitment is so small but you are still talking about your experience and this is typically the first step companies take to vet candidates. In these cases you are safe to block thirty minutes on your calendar during the day to take a phone call. You likely work in an office so stepping away to take a phone call is common, maybe you are talking with a family member, you have to talk with a delivery person, or one of a million different reasons you could have to talk on the phone.

I use this opportunity to step away from my desk so I can divulge in my experience without worrying about a co-worker eavesdropping. If your office has a common area that’s probably fine, or you could walk to a coffee shop, or you could go sit in your car for a bit. The only thing to keep in mind is this is still an interview, and you should make sure it will be easy for the person on the other end to hear what you are saying. If all goes well you are likely heading into a technical phone screen.

Technical phone interviews.

At this stage the recruiter is happy with your answers and you have graduated to speaking with a member of their engineering staff. At this point in time it’s a good idea to be sitting at a computer where you can answer questions (the recruiter should have given you specific instructions with what to expect). During these interviews I’d recommend working from home, if your company has a relaxed policy around remote work then don’t worry about coming up with an excuse.

On the other hand if your company needs reasons for working from home this is where you unfortunately will want to start coming up with some reason for why you need to work remotely and it should fit into a narrative where you can work remotely several more times to accommodate for technical phone interviews from other companies too. If you need ideas think of vague illness or home improvement projects.

One thing to keep in mind is you should still complete the work you are committing to. If you generally are working eight hours a day and this interview takes an hour away from that then you should try to work a little longer that day.

On-site interviews.

Once you are at this point you need to start coordinating and planning things out a bit more. During my last job hunt I had four on-sites with my top three companies. In general this is where you need to start taking time off, fortunately for myself my company had an unlimited PTO policy and since I was getting my work done there wasn’t much push back when I requested days off. When I worked at companies with fixed buckets I would take a half-day for each on-site which typically was enough. It’s important to keep this part in mind though because you don’t want to overbook with on-site interviews and find you are unable to take the time off.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have to travel for your interview then I’d recommend trying to do that on-site on a Monday so you can travel during the weekend and ideally fly back that day or Tuesday.

There are exceptions though.

I will preface this by saying if you have a good relationship with your manager then there is nothing wrong with letting them know you intend to interview outside of the company. In the past I’ve had managers that I trusted enough where I would have informed them of this, except by the time I started interviewing elsewhere they were no longer around so I haven’t had the opportunity to try this myself so your mileage may vary.

How long should you stay at your first job?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question because in short: it depends. You should stay at your first job (and any job) as long as you still find yourself learning and you are happy with the company. Once you start becoming bitter about a company it’s best to start planning your exit strategy because it’s not good for you and it’s not fair to those around you (just because you’re unhappy doesn’t mean others are).

I stayed at my first job for four months before moving on. My manager had sixteen direct reports and didn’t sit anywhere near me (I didn’t know where she sat for my first month). To no fault of their own I just never felt like we had much time to build a relationship and ultimately if you don’t trust your manager it’s hard to talk about career goals. They were hoping I would become a Tibco developer and continue to work on an internal C# web app that ran on IE6. I wanted to pursue a career as a mobile developer so I found another company that allowed me to grow in that area. On the other hand, had I started as a mobile developer (or even a web developer working on interesting projects) I likely would have stuck around quite a bit longer.

Are you looking for an actual time frame?

If you want an actual time frame then I’d say as long as you stay at your first company for one year you are in the clear. It’s easy to make a narrative around why you only stayed for one year and there are plenty of people that leave before their first year.

If you are approaching the three year mark at your first company then it is a good idea to start reflecting on where you are now and if you are still happy with that. Typically merit salary increases aren’t incredibly competitive as the largest I’ve received was just shy of five percent. On the other hand the lowest salary increase I’ve accepted from another company was fourteen percent with the highest being a little over twenty.

A fairly normal number I’ve seen thrown around is to stay with your company for two years. This gives you enough time to build compelling relationships with others, you can complete a few projects, and your salary shouldn’t stagnate. If you find yourself in a position where you don’t really care about making more money then feel free to ignore this advice (although I’ve found most people at the start of their careers complaining that they don’t make enough).

How do you handle references?

This is another situation where it really depends on your specific company and the circumstances around it. If this is for a background check then they will usually just call your employer to ask if you work there and if your title lines up with what you told them. In these cases I’ve never encountered any issues, if you’re fired out of retribution there is likely a lawyer that would love to work with you.

No, I need actual references.

In my experience this is a fairly rare occurrence. I think I’ve only had one company request references from me and in this case you’ll want to make sure the people you give will talk highly of you. If you have friends at work that know you are interviewing elsewhere or you are comfortable asking for a reference then start there. Outside of that search your network, see if you have professors that remember you or other employers from your college days.

How do you make sure promises are kept?

This can be filed away into the category of you live, you learn. My rule when it comes to employment agreements is anything on paper should be kept, anything not on paper may have never been discussed. In the past I had an employer that required I relocate for my position and I was locked into a rental agreement. They told me they would cover my rent at my current place until I found someone to sublease and I would not sign the agreement until it was in writing. Thankfully I did because this unfortunately was a topic of discussion for several months and they would have backed out on it had it not been in writing.

If you find yourself in a situation where the company promised something and it was in the contract and they are now backing out of it then it’s best to bring it up to your manager. In these situations there might be things that can be done, but ultimately you have to decide if it’s worth finding a lawyer over.

Which brings me to my side note.

In general I look at everything outside of money as very flexible things which may or may not stick around after I join the company. I go into a new job knowing my base salary, if I am eligible for a bonus, and what their retirement plans look like. Outside of that I assume most things will change overtime and I set my expectations accordingly.

How do you tell your boss once you accept an offer?

Once you find yourself with a signed offer in hand and successful background check behind you it’s time to notify your boss. I have always broken the news by handing my boss my resignation letter in person and in private. If you are able to schedule a short meeting that typically works the best, but if you are having difficultly finding time pulling them aside in the morning can work too.

During your conversation you should explain how when you’d like your last day to be (typically two weeks from that day is fine) and make sure you clear up everything revolving around your employment with the company during this time. Expect them to try to keep you at the company, if you are open to negotiating then make sure you sort that out in this meeting. If you are not interested in negotiating then make sure they know up-front, the worst thing you can do is be vague in this moment and have to let your boss down when they come back with a counter offer several days later. If you are looking for a script this is generally what I have said.

Hello Boss-Person, I have received an offer to join another company and have decided to accept it. My final day will be (day of week), the (date of month). I wanted to say that I appreciated everything this company has provided for me and all of your help. I want to make it clear though that this decision to leave is final and I am not open to negotiating against the offer I have received.

In this moment it’s important to remember less is more.

I’ve made it a personal rule of mine to never discuss where I am going with others at my current company. There is really no value you can get out of divulging this information and it can actually be detrimental. Just think what could happen if your boss is spiteful and knows someone at the company you’re going to. Another scenario could see people speaking badly about the company you are going to and completely killing your new job rose tinted glasses.

Bonus advice!

While answering those questions I found myself wanting to add more but it didn’t seem directly relevant to the question at hand. I wanted to offer some small bits of bonus advice for all job seekers out there which will hopefully help you with your future endeavors.

Build a relationship with your manager.

Managers should be looked at as job coaches. They should be able to help you navigate your current company and assist you in achieving your goals. You should build an open and honest relationship with your manager so you can vent your frustrations and ideally have problems solved before you have one foot out the door.

Collect your negative thoughts and be productive.

I’ve found it fairly normal to grow bitter of your company prior to leaving. I’m not sure if I’ve left a company that was doing everything right and I was happy with (if that were the case I wouldn’t have left). It’s important to figure out why you are leaving that company so you can use that during your job search to find companies that aren’t like this. You can use this information to build out questions to ask the interviewer to determine if the company would be a better fit for you.

Be honest during your exit interview.

You are leaving the company, and in most cases you are talking someone from the HR department. While I’ve never had much luck with exit interviews changing anything I still think it’s important to be honest during these. The worst case is nothing you say turns into actionable items, however in the best case you could make life easier for the co-workers you are leaving behind.

Save documents from your final two weeks.

This is something I wish I would have started sooner, but you should really save the documents from your final two weeks. I like reading old resignation letters to see if I still have those same feelings or if my new employer has helped to extinguish them (if you still have those same feelings either you picked the wrong company or you need to look inward because the problem might just be you). I file away all of the documents my former employer gives me along with things like offer letters and general information from my future employer. Saving job descriptions can be useful as well since you can usually use that to assist you in updating your resume. I have a folder in the cloud title Career, and within that folder I have other folders with the company name on it. Throw all of those boring documents in there, chances are you’ll thank yourself for doing that in the future.

Don’t jump into the new company after the old one.

I made the mistake of leaving a company on a Friday just to start at the new one on Monday. Don’t do this, for the last month or more you’ve been working full-time and interviewing. You are likely tired and burnt-out at this point. Take a week off between jobs so you can relax and feel energized when you start at the new place.

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