My current position at the MIT Humans and Automation Lab is as fulfilling a job can be, without having the presence of media technology that I crave. I have learned and accomplished more in this position than anywhere else, but unfortunately once the project I am on ends next fall, my time there will run out.
I’ve also joined the ranks of Together Boston 2012, New England’s premier Music/Art/Technology festival. My role as Technology Director has me planning, scheduling, and booking participants for daytime panels and events. I wish this were my day job, but unfortunately it’s not a viable full time position (and I work as a volunteer, so that’s out).
That’s two jobs, 5 classes, and a nationwide job search. When they said music technology was a niche industry, they were right- and there are no “How To” guides for working in it. So here’s my 2 cents.
How To: Get a Job in the Music Technology Industry
Are you the right person?
So far I have gather that there is no ‘right’ way to get into this field. You may be a musician with hax0r skillz, or a developer who moonlights in a band. But what really is important is to understand the cross section of music and technology, and where you fit in.
When I toured at Stanford and met Chris Chafe, director of CCRMA, he was impressed that I had an idea of how I can improve the world of computer music. Sit down and ask yourself: “Why does the music tech industry need me?”
For me it was a long and arduous trek to realize my goal: I want to make an impact on how music is created and consumed using technology. Whether I’m designing a new music interface, creating a music programming language or working on a music recommendation algorithm, I want to be a part of the new wave of audio tools, not just another rehashing of the same tired paradigms. What do you want to do?
Do I have the experience/skills?
That’s a tough question. My resume (linked over here), which has gone through at least 50 different major edits, is almost always described as impressive. I have had multiple phone interviewers who thought I had made a mistake by putting my graduation date in the future. This is because I have spent my summers working up to three simultaneous jobs, took a six month full time paid internship, and always kept busy with my own projects. I have accrued well over 2 years industry experience as an undergraduate. Employers want to hear that you work to relax, as it shows you’re serious. Everyone who asks “how do I get experience when all jobs require experience?” needs to examine what they’re looking for. Maybe a full time job is your end goal, but in the mean time you have to spend 6 months interning or in an apprenticeship. If you were too busy partying in college to rack up real world experience, you’ll be paying when the parties end.
As for skill sets, it is important to know the job description you want. I’ve spent hours researching development positions, learning the expected skill sets and inherited responsibilities. The secret, as I have found, is to have a wide range of skills within a specific job description. A hiring manager sees hundreds of applications for experts with language X, but developers are expected to know more than just a specific language. Source control tools, development patterns, and domain knowledge are all key. However, being a musician with some coding skills won’t cut it. Certain skills are primary, and others are secondary, and it is essential to realize which fall into each category.
What types of jobs are out there?
I’ll break this up into two categories:
Start-ups are everywhere, and are constantly hiring. They do not pay as much as corporate positions, but with the latest trends in venture capitalism and angel investing it isn’t hard to find a decent salary. Most are looking for experts in scripting languages such as Python and Ruby, or most commonly C/C++. Interviewers also like to hear that you have experience with SVN, Git, Perforce or another source control tool, and most require experience with DB tools such as MySQL and NoSQL. Right out of college you can expect a Jr. Developer position, or an internship which could very well lead to full time employment.
Start-ups want to see your side projects, and will ask you countless questions about every minute detail. These jobs are for jack-of-all-trades, and they want to know that you can keep up. The ability to demonstrate an understanding of the Model-View-Controller paradigm, agile development, and user experience is preferred. Remember that not everything is about being able to code. Feel free to be yourself, start-ups want to hire people who can easily assimilate into a relaxed culture. List your hobbies and interests, and make sure they come up in conversation during an interview.
Fresh out of college? Start climbing the ladder! Corporations are snatching up computer science graduates left and right. But putting a resume in the pool can feel like throwing it in the garbage. How do you get noticed?
Most corporations use software that detects buzzwords in resumes. Make sure nothing is misspelled, or you could be thrown out immediately. List all your languages, tools, and experiences, and hope for the best. OR, be strategic: contact your local recruiter from the company, go to a career fair they’ll be presenting at, or try to use your LinkedIn network. LinkedIn is the new standard by which tech companies judge applicants. In fact, referrals have a 7x more likely chance to get hired at tech companies (Forrester Research, March 2013, Study of 58,000 consumers across EU and US).
When applying for a corporate job it is important to show that you are the #1 expert on whatever they’re looking for. Looking to design UI’s? Better have taken courses in HCI, Human Factors, Psychology, etc. Want to step into a Jr. Developer position at a Python shop? A small project for a class isn’t enough, they expect that you’ve been using Python exclusively for years.
Working at a corporation means you will have to work your way up to the desired role in most positions. If you haven’t spent time fixing and regressing bugs, apply for a QA job. It isn’t unheard of to cross the thin line between code maintenance and development. Just know that this field is full of people who are like you in some way, and want the same job as you. If you are willing to work your way towards your goal, it’s more likely a company will put the time and money into training you.
If you’re such an expert, why don’t you have a job?
I have learned a lot in my experiences, both as a student, employee and job applicant. In the 3.75 years I’ve been coding, I have completed a lot, but I am up against people who have been at it their whole life. The transition left me with a sparse composition portfolio, and a lot of work to do in my computer science classes. I realized that my greatest fault is that while I know a lot of things, I don’t have the experience to back all of them up.
I have spent years studying programming languages and the means by which they make the computer complete tasks. While I know the principles behind C++ and its crazy pointer and memory systems, I don’t have any completed projects in C++ to show this. I spent a semester learning database tools like JDBC, JQuery, and general SQL querying, but don’t utilize databases in my personal projects. Knowledge is nothing without implementation, and while I have scripts and experiments, I have nothing that can prove the extent of my abilities in these areas. Grades are awesome, and a good GPA has granted me respect from potential employers, but they only go so far.
Also, as someone who composes music in addition to code, I find it difficult to build two healthy portfolios showcasing the two fields I study in. It is important to figure out how important your exploits are, and to budget time accordingly.
I’m still sending my resume out to as many places as I can, and keeping my fingers crossed as I wait to hear back from the other graduate programs. In the end, I have a lot more work to do, and I don’t expect the perfect job out of the gate. I just wish that I knew what I know now to better prepare myself. The real world is a scary place, and it can be daunting to think that the training wheels are off in just a few months. Regardless, I’ll keep blogging. That’s all for now.