Referrals in the Software Industry are A Double-Edged Sword

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In the software industry, it’s very common to find work through referrals. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a referral is essentially when a colleague or acquaintance recommends you for a vacancy in their company or one they know. For a long time, I heavily relied on this method of job seeking.

Now, it’s crucial to note that some companies even incentivize their employees to bring in individuals they’ve formerly worked with. At first glance, this may seem like a great strategy. After all, who better to evaluate a candidate than someone who’s already worked with them? However, these incentives can sometimes backfire. By encouraging individuals to hire within their circles, they may cultivate a homogeneous work environment and limit the diversity of thought and experience.

Referrals provide a sort of false security. In my case, I no longer had to actively seek opportunities. They came to me through individuals I had already worked with and who trusted my abilities and experience. Sounds ideal, right? However, there are several problems in placing all our trust in this system.

First issue with relying solely on referrals: Not-so-great experiences once you’re in

One of the main issues is that the work experience may not always be as great as you hoped. If every part of the company is primarily hiring through referrals, without a standardized interview process, you’re likely to encounter a work culture where everyone is pulling in their direction.

The most challenging experiences of my professional career have been when I’ve taken jobs through referrals, but without a process of validation to determine compatibility with the company culture. If there’s no interview process to assess this, there probably isn’t a defined company culture. Consequently, you find yourself in an “every man for himself” environment, where each person is left to fend for themselves.

Think of it this way. In a product development environment, if the engineering department is hiring solely through referrals and without a standardized interview process, it’s highly probable that other company departments are doing the same. What’s the issue? Each group is creating, in essence, echo chambers that are incompatible with the rest of the company.

A successful product is developed through collaboration between different areas of the company. How can this be achieved when engineering is pushing a development philosophy, the product team isn’t concerned about that and only wants to roll out new features, and marketing just wants to sell?

Believe me, you would rather not be in that situation.

Second issue with relying solely on referrals: Stepping out of your comfort zone

The second problem arises when you want or need to change jobs, switch industries, or grow on your terms. You’re going to feel out of your element. The industry changes quite rapidly, and you can be let go at any moment, without the need for a clear justification.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a downturn in the market for companies to make massive layoffs. As I explained in my article, many companies are laying off staff today simply because larger companies are doing so, and they won’t face many issues.

A friend recently told me: “In addition to the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect, I’ve never had to interview like this; I’ve always gotten in through referrals.” If you’re always moving with referrals, when you have to face the “real world” of interviews and job hunting, it can be quite a shock.

So, is getting in through referrals bad?

No. It’s perfectly acceptable and indeed beneficial to have referrals and a support community. Having a solid reputation in the industry that makes people want to work with you again is valuable. But if you don’t have a counterbalance that grounds you in the reality of the industry constantly, when you have to go out and seek your opportunities in unexplored horizons, you’re going to have a hard time.

It’s also crucial not to confuse being someone’s referral with having a mentor. A mentor is someone who guides you, offers advice, and helps you grow professionally, regardless of whether you work directly with them. You can learn from others even without working with them.

Here are some tips to maintain a balance and not be caught off guard when you can’t rely on your referral network to find a job:

  1. Develop your job hunting skills: Don’t limit yourself to only accepting job offers that come through your referrals. Be proactive in job hunting, prepare your CV, and practice interviews. This will keep you agreeing with the reality of the job market.
  2. Cultivate a diverse network: Don’t rely solely on the people you’ve worked with before. Attend events, network, connect with people outside your usual circle. This will give you a broader perspective and open you up to new opportunities.
  3. Maintain a mindset of continuous learning: The software industry changes rapidly. Make sure to keep your skills up-to-date and stay aware of the latest trends and technologies.
  4. Don’t forget about company culture: While it’s true that a referral can open the door to a new opportunity, it’s crucial that you also do your research about the company’s culture. You won’t want to end up in a place where you don’t feel comfortable or valued.
  5. Seek a mentor, not just a referral: A mentor can provide valuable guidance and perspective in your career. While a referral can help you get a job, a mentor can help you navigate challenges and grow in your career eventually.

In conclusion, referrals can be an important tool in your job search, but they shouldn’t be your only strategy. Maintain a balance, and you’ll be prepared to face any change or challenge that comes your way. Remember, in this race, it’s not just about surviving, but thriving.