In-demand grad takes a very big gamble

Thomas Schluchter is about to graduate with a master's from UC Berkeley's School of Information. He spent weeks preparing for a grueling set of interviews, and discovered he's a very attractive candidate. But quality of life may be more important than money.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

Editor's note: This is the fifth story in an ongoing series profiling college graduates throughout the United States as they hunt for technology jobs. Click here for CNET's special report, "Wanted: A job in tech."

Imagine your professional future on the line, and a group of six people you hardly know standing between you and a great job.

With national unemployment at 9 percent, and the economy still teetering between a double-dip recession and a very modest recovery, you could forgive Thomas Schluchter for being anxious as he readied for what might prove to be one of the most pivotal days of his life.

That day took place earlier this spring. Schluchter was a finalist for an interaction design position at a Bay Area social-networking company--the name of which he asked CNET not to publish given the NDA he'd signed. But despite the fact that he was about to put his fate in the hands of six strangers who had the power to derail his professional plans, Schulchter was keeping his cool.

Thomas Schluchter

It may have had something to do with how prepared he was.

The I-School
This weekend, Schluchter will graduate with a master's degree from UC Berkeley's School of Information, known affectionately as the "I-School."

Said to be UC Berkeley's newest and smallest professional school, the program has already established its reputation for turning out talent. Among its alumni are famed social-networks researcher danah boyd, as well as Matthew Rothenberg, Flickr's former product head and current bit.ly's head of products. The I-School's mandate is "expanding access to information and to improving its usability, reliability, and credibility while preserving security and privacy."

For Schulchter, 31, whose undergraduate work centered on musicology and cultural studies at the Germany Free University in Berlin, the I-School was definitely an academic departure. But with an interest in an interdisciplinary process and an appreciation for a new German program called the School of Design Thinking--modeled on Stanford's Design School--as well as an interest in mobile applications, Berkeley's program seemed like a perfect fit.

In February, while some classmates had already lined up great gigs, Schluchter found himself without a job waiting for him after graduation, and facing the fact that a lot of companies in his field weren't looking to staff up in early summer when he'd have just finished at the I-School. Those bleak employment prospects bucked a trend in the information technology field, which that month had an industry-wide unemployment rate of just 6.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, well lower than the nationwide number of 8.9 percent.

But as winter turned to spring, Schluchter said, things started looking up. Companies indicated they would soon be hiring, and he found that people he contacted about employment were being "more responsive."

Related link
Special report--Wanted: A job in tech

During the summer between his two years at Berkeley, Schluchter had had an internship at enterprise software giant SAP. There, he worked on a project designed to give shoppers in retail establishments personal recommendations and discounts based on their purchasing histories and individual store inventory. The system would be integrated with SAP point-of-sale systems. Schluchter said that SAP is now developing a product based on the system he helped design.

Clearly, he won over some of his SAP colleagues, because, he said, "the most leads and opportunities for full-time jobs came from recommendations that [SAP] people passed on for me." Indeed, he had made the contact that led to his being a finalist, and the day of interviews at the social-networking company through someone from SAP.

First step
The path to this potential job began with an interview with the director of user experience. The two spoke for half an hour, Schluchter recalled, mainly about the company and what it was looking for in potential recruits, as well as what Schluchter was interested in.

Having impressed the director, Schluchter was then contacted by a company recruiter who arranged the full day of interviews.

One thing that was clear to him as he studied up on looking for a job and prepared to take on his six interviewers was that employers in his field are more interested these days in hearing candidates talk about how they work than they are in "seeing pretty pictures of finished work and not knowing how I got there."

So as he got ready for the interviews, Schluchter decided to gather samples of his relevant work at the I-School--including a proof of concept for a smartphone app that could allow someone to find another person purely based on audio signals--and from his time at SAP and to explain to the panel the thought processes behind each project.

The interview
On a Thursday earlier this spring, Schluchter put on his game face and walked in for his six-hour grilling.

Prior to the interviews, he had been giving a design brief based on a problem he might face on the job, and after giving a quick presentation of his portfolio, he spent half an hour presenting his design concept based on the brief.

Next, he broke off with three members of the team he was seeking to join, and the four of them spent time brainstorming on his design concept and developing it further. "Then we presented that to a broader circle of people," Schluchter said, "including the vice president of engineering and [some] product managers."

Then it was time for six back-to-back interviews with individual members of the team.

All told, the process lasted about six hours. And while it was a tough hill to climb, Schluchter now says he sees the value, especially in the context of companies looking for people who will be good fits for small, tight-knit teams.

"They're really committed to finding people who fit into the team," he said, "and I think that's a good thing. At first I was really scared of the six-hour process, but I realize now that it makes a lot of sense, because now I have a feeling I know the team pretty well, and they have had a chance to interact with me as well."

Interestingly, despite the fact that he'd read that employers are interested in talking about candidates' work process, Schluchter said he was caught off guard when he was asked to explain his design process. Still, he said he felt he did good job of answering it.

At the same time, he also hadn't spent much time in advance thinking about traditional interview questions like describing greatest strengths and weaknesses. "And it worked," he said, "because they didn't ask [those] classic questions."

What's next?
Based on Schluchter's performance, he was asked back for one final round of interviews, which he said lasted about 3.5 hours. This time, he was talking to people a bit higher up the management chain at the company, including the director of product management.

And it clearly went well. The next day he got a phone call from his recruiter with a job offer. A "very, very good" offer. In fact, the company was throwing even more money at him than he'd asked for. More "by a significant margin."

"I've been talking to people, and my type is in high demand right now. The fact that they offered me a lot more than I asked for is kind of a sign as well."
--Thomas Schluchter, recent grad

Given how much time and effort he'd put into this potential job, and how much the company obviously wanted him, not to mention that he seemed to really like the people he'd be working with, it would seem that the natural ending to this story was that Schluchter took the job.

But he and his fiance live in San Francisco and the position would have required him to spend at least three hours a day commuting to and from work. And that turned out to be a quality-of-life problem he wasn't willing to accept. No matter that the job was pretty much exactly what he was looking for; he decided to turn it down. "I really had a hard time letting that go," Schluchter said, "but ultimately, I think that's the better decision."

For someone about to finish graduate school, you'd imagine that turning down an attractive and highly lucrative job would be a hard thing to do without a backup offer from another company. But what with the time he'd already spent trying to get the first gig and the work he still had to do to finish his I-School degree, including his master's project--called Meet Market, a mobile app designed to "lower the barrier to networking at conferences by giving people bits of info about other attendees that they can use to start a conversation"--Schluchter said he'd had "no time" to track down anything else.

But is he worried? Hardly.

"I've been talking to people," Schluchter said earlier this week, "and my type is in high demand right now. The fact that they offered me a lot more than I asked for is kind of a sign as well."

Next week, then, with school finished, he'll get back to looking. He's had previous conversations with people at Google and Salesforce.com, he said, places that met his standards of working for a company that has "a strong culture of user experience, and [which have] good processes so that you [are] able to learn from their organizational knowledge and organizational history."

Ultimately, though, Schluchter seemed to have his eyes on the prize, and with companies hiring again, he hoped he'd be in the position to choose what could be the most important perk of his first job. He knows he wants a position where he'd end up with strong mentorship, something he sees as key to his professional development. "Good designers just don't come out of school," he said. "You learn a lot on the job....I'd like a position where I can work with someone with a lot more experience than me and [who] is willing to engage in an apprentice relationship."