Let me set the scene: it was Demo Night at Hackbright Academy in late 2016 and I was SO EXCITED. If you don’t know much about software engineering bootcamps, “Demo Night” refers to the night where students present the projects they have been diligently working on for several weeks to prospective companies that are looking to hire junior engineers. The process varies by school, but our Demo Night consisted of 3 minute presentation from each student, and then 3 minute speed-dating style interviews with each company. It’s an exciting, yet stressful, night for all; for many students, it’s their first time interviewing as an engineer!
As I looked around the room, it was apparent that many of my fellow classmates were terrified, but I was thrilled. As a former musical theatre performer, speaking in front of a crowd was second nature to me. I had been performing in front of an audience since age 4, so “stage fright” wasn’t something I had experienced in over 20 years. In fact, a year ago to the day, I was performing at the venue in which we were holding Demo Night. A large poster of me as Rosemary in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was on the side of the building for months at the Marines Memorial Theatre/Hotel. It was a wonderful yet bizarre moment of happenstance where my old and new life were colliding. Instead of a 1960s secretary costume, I was wearing an “engineer” costume. I felt very much at home.
This was a sort of a cartoon light-bulb moment for me where I figured out where my skill-set fit in the engineering world. I thought to myself “I’m an engineer who loves to talk in front of a crowd… this is clearly not the norm”. I could hardly wait for Demo Night to begin, while many other women could hardly wait for Demo Night to be over. “That’s my gimmick”, I thought to myself.
If you’re not a musical theatre nerd, like myself. You’re probably not familiar with the wonderful musical “Gypsy”. The TLDR version of plot is: ugly duckling child grows up being overshadowed by her much more talented sister/their stage mom forces them into vaudeville/ugly duckling ends up being a famous burlesque performer. It’s a true story based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, and one of the best pieces of American musical theatre ever made (it also, has the most beautiful overture ever written, but I digress).
So, what do a musical about burlesque and a software engineering bootcamp Demo Night have in common? Well, I’ll tell you!
As I mentioned, Demo Night (and interviewing, in general) is stressful. Everyone is the room is vying for the same jobs, everyone has made an app, and everyone has completed the same bootcamp curriculum. The only real things that differentiate you are your app, your background, and maybe the sparkle glasses you decided to wear that night (see photo above). So, as I prepared what I would say while I was onstage introducing myself and my app, it became apparent that standing out and being memorable was important. In other words “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”; which is not only a fantastic song from Gypsy, but also great words of advice for the job search.
So, What’s a “Gimmick”?
As Tessie, Mazeppa, and Electra explain: a “gimmick” is what makes you special. In my case, it was that I was a musical theatre actress pre-Hackbright. For my other classmates it was a variety of things: a degree in Molecular Biology from UCLA, a former teacher, a previous life as an environmental engineer, etc. While presenting yourself and submitting your resume to companies- showcasing your gimmick is key. Recruiters and hiring managers see hundreds of resumes and cover letters- but if your gimmick stands out, it may be a great way to get your foot in the door.
How Do I Leverage My Gimmick?
During my three months of job searching as an engineer, I noticed a significant change in responses once I started showcasing my gimmick in my cover letters, LinkedIn, online presence, and resume. Instead of hiding my background as an actress, I decided to highlight it.
Developer Evangelism was a role that I had great interest in. If you’re unfamiliar with the job title of “Developer Evangelist” (also referred to as “Developer Advocate”, “Dev Rel”, etc.), it is “a spokesperson, mediator, and translator between a company and both its technical staff and outside developers (thanks http://developer-evangelism.com/ for the great description!). In other words, it’s a much more front-facing engineering role that often involves speaking at conferences/meet-ups/events, writing blogs, working with documentation, and dealing directly with developers. It requires a unique blend of engineering knowledge, but also the ability to communicate effectively and have “stage presence” so-to-speak.
As an experienced performer who had just graduated from a software engineering bootcamp, developer evangelism seemed like a pretty great fit for me. As I applied for these roles, I made sure to highlight my theatre background “gimmick” in my applications… and guess what? It worked! Turns out people want people with a good stage presence to represent their companies. I went from an empty inbox to getting a significant spike in responses almost overnight.
Have Some Examples?
Of course I do! Here are a couple examples I have seen from other people using their gimmicks to their advantage:
As a former admin or office manager, you likely used quite a bit of scheduling, sign-in, catering, and HR applications. Are any of these places hiring for a role you’d be suited for? Product knowledge in a niche space is extremely valuable at companies, and can be a great gimmick to help you get in the front door. Often times with products that have a very specific demographic of users (let’s say, an office catering app, for example), insight and background into the product itself can be a fantastic gimmick.
Or, let’s say you’re applying for a drone company and you love drones. In fact, you fly them all them in your spare time. Why not mention that in your cover letter to that drone company you’re applying for? In fact, why not send them that video you have of you flying one in Corona Heights? It not only shows that you know the product/industry, but it makes for a memorable application.
How Do I Find My Gimmick?
It can sometimes be difficult figuring out your gimmick. The art of subtle humble bragging can be awkward, but the key is to own your awesomeness. If you don’t have a gimmick that immediately comes to mind, ask a friend! Or, if it’s too weird to ask your friend, brainstorm by writing down your hobbies, previous jobs, and passions; with a little bit of digging it’ll be easy to spot that thing that makes you stand out (hint: usually something that you think is boring or “not that cool” is probably really cool and interesting). Maybe that time you spent as a flower arranger can land you that front-end role at BloomThat, or your experience as a mother of 2 can get you an interview at LeapFrog. As the ladies in “Gypsy” (and Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics) wisely say, “You’re more than just a mimic, when you’ve got a gimmick”. Stand out from the pool of talent by showcasing your gimmick; I highly recommend it to help you get noticed!
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