Engineering Interview Prep Q&A: Career Coach Iyad Uakoub on helping veteran programmers get jobs and higher salaries

Part I of our wide-ranging conversation.

Iyad App Academy

Iyad Uakoub left Syria seven years ago, before President Bashar Al-Assad began a notorious purge of civil liberties that would end in atrocities. With his wife in tow, the young career services expert, who’d risen up the ladder to create one of the region’s top Human Resources centers, had to look for opportunities abroad. He would focus his attention on furthering his education and ended up with a Fulbright scholarship and a job at Stanford University. Then, after a few years working in tech, he landed a position as the career coach at App Academy’s Engineering Interview Prep, the accelerator that helps programmers land better jobs with higher salaries.

Throughout his long journey, Iyad has kept a positive attitude and an abiding sense to help people in their careers. With his latest position, Iyad says that need is fulfilled.

In a conversation at the App Academy office, we talked to Iyad about his previous work in career coaching, his current assessment of the engineering job market, and much more.

The following has been amended for accuracy and length.

Let’s talk about your career before Engineering Interview Prep. You had a TV show in Syria and ended up in the U.S. as a top career coach. How did that happen?

My undergraduate was in computer engineering. After my undergrad, I worked with the United Nations [where] I helped governments and institutions [with] their business processes and built the first city government website for Syria. I was offered, by the first lady of Syria, to build the first Career Center, [which] helped thousands of young people. I also ran the first live TV show about community development. Doing mock interviews, resume reviews, business plans, how to behave, how to enter the job market. I was [then] offered a Fulbright scholarship and came to the U.S. [where] I did my Masters in Human Resources at Purdue University. [That’s] where I worked after my graduation, then I moved to Stanford University as a career coach, then joined ThousandEyes, the network monitoring company. 

Now I’m at JUUL Labs, where I’m a business partner and lead HR for three divisions. JUUL just got a fund of $1.2 billion dollars. I help managers and leaders and employees in their HR needs. It’s coaching, mentoring, performance management training, development and employee relations for strategy. On the side, I do my doctoral studies on meaningful work and how [people] can define meaning. I bridge between higher education and startups, especially Valley startups.

How did you get involved at App Academy and the Engineering Interview Prep?

I left my last job at ThousandEyes and wanted to coach. That’s what I consider myself — I wear the career coach hat more than any other hat. So I decided to walk the talk [and] went on LinkedIn and found the job. One or two aspects of the job description weren’t on my resume, which is great because, you know, [they’re] not supposed to be. You should match at least 70 to 80 percent of the job you’re applying for. So I emailed them and said, “I’m interested in the job. Do you have time to talk or can you connect me?” A day after that, I had the on-site interview and got the job.

What was the thing that interested you the most about Engineering Interview Prep?

App Academy in general, and Engineering Interview Prep specifically, is very practical. I can relate to that. My wife is a working tech professional and wanted to move up the ladder of software engineering but said, “I cannot do a full-time program. The only program I can do is after work.” She’s coming from a technical background, so I know engineers who can’t afford to leave their jobs. The flexibility of the program is practical. The other thing is the quality of the instructors and the financial model. What I noticed is a lot of people look at App Academy [because] you can be upfront with payments or defer.

Let’s talk about how the Engineering Interview Prep accelerator focuses on impact and how that’s connected to your teachers’ role.

So what probably attracted me to App Academy is that everybody who works here works like in a beehive. You have career coaches, the staff, instructors, and students. It works like an ecosystem and my experience is that this is the way you can build. People with the right skills for the job market need that ecosystem and the community of support to challenge them and support students. I [wanted to find a place I would enjoy working].

[At App Academy] everyone is driven by three things: By the impact on students, where the mission is finding software engineering jobs in a limited time frame. Second thing is we are here to tell a story based on data. That drives my passion. It’s about connections [and] community. So they’re not a traditional job search bootcamp. [Then] you need to work with employers, with recruiters. It’s a great value, closing the loop.

I’d love to get an example of something Engineering Interview Prep students are working on that is directly connected to this ecosystem.

So you have a system that targets students from different angles, right? It’s connected and seamless and talks to different components. So when you talk about the instructor, instructors are trying to provide as much value as possible in a very, very short time. This is very hard because you’re saying, “What are you signaling to employers, to students, that we provide you with the technical skills?” It’s through training, right? It’s not just through lecturing. It’s being able to work and be valuable to future companies. So targeting different types of Computer Science knowledge and skills in a short time. [And] a core component of the program is this support through technical and behavioral coaching. My job, then, is using all of these resources to build this knowledge system, [which is then] showcased when recruiters come here and talk to our students.

Tell me about the specifics of the job search curriculum. What are you actually teaching at Engineering Interview Prep and why?

Let’s talk about the four pillars I use in my coaching.

Number one, I focus on applications. Resume, LinkedIn cover letters, different platforms like AngelList. We help with the whole application and digital presence. Your portfolio on your website. What I do with students is I let them critique or review their profiles from a recruiters’ perspective. So I build empathy with the recruiter, with the employer, and tell them, “You’re a recruiter. Do you hire yourself?” And then they go through these aspects of what we are trying to do because, in my opinion as a coach, students know what they have to do. Your goal is [simply] to facilitate the conversation.

The second thing is the presentation. So the interview, on the other side, is screening calls. The recruiter calls in an informational interviews requires [good] verbal communication.

The third one we talk about is helping them with connections. I have 10,000 professional contacts [and] I can connect you to somebody who works at a company. I tell them why I would pass on to the second round, or why not, and give them the evaluation so they can take on more ownership.

The last one is motivation. It’s a very overlooked aspect of job search [because] it is demotivating. We’re not designed as humans to work on something for a long time and not see results. So I help them putting in goals and to hit milestones. Let’s say “How many applications are you going to put in this week? Let’s do 40.” This is a thinking process. It’s going to take a lot of your energy but you’re not going to see results immediately. So focus on how you have this motivating part of your job search, on what you what you have control over, working on your skills, working on your portfolio, working on your resume.

Tell me about the Engineering Interview Prep assignments. What are they?

I would say [they] is situation-based and student-based. Context-based. When I talk to students, the first meeting sets rules, talking about aspirations and needs. We’ll talk about their time frame, how many hours they can put in a week into their job search and try to design the program based on their needs. Let’s say I meet with the student this week and said we were done with the application part. “Now let’s go and work on your presentation.” At this point we don’t have the application, we can work on their communication, and their connections. So the foundation has to be the application part. They have to put a lot of effort at the beginning. Then we can work on other skills.

What about the technical aspects?

They’re very important. I tell students that keeping your skills sharp is important and signals to the employer you’re doing that. So you get all the benefits from the perception [angle] of the employer.

When you apply to a company, they look at two things: the labels, because it’s the fastest easiest way to understand what your abilities are. Let’s say you graduated from a prestigious University with a computer science degree. This is a label and not an ability because a lot of people graduate from Universities without skills. A label is very important. So you have to work on the abilities part. You can add how many times you commit [to Github or something like that.]

What is Engineering Interview Prep doing that other accelerator accelerator programs are not?

I think we are trying to solve the problem in a way where students want to get jobs, where it’s more meaningful to them, and to help them with solving challenging problems [like] the aspects of meaningful work. We have the coaching part. We have the resources part. We have the technical coaching. We have the the community of other students. So the ecosystem we have here at App Academy is [good]. The right solution for the problem definitely is not perfect, definitely there’s a lot to do on that…We’re trying to provide what’s meaningful. 

Tell me more about the types of students that Engineering Interview Prep works with.

My Engineering Interview Prep students are working professionals who have full time [work] commitments and they’re doing Engineering Interview Prep classes at night. After they finish the program, they work with a coach like me, or other coaches at App Academy, to help them find the jobs we promised them if they put in the effort. Working professionals have between one to two years of experience or more.

They work in the tech industry or other industries but in general they’re people who are interested in becoming software engineers for higher pay and a more challenging job. Students also are trying to find jobs that help them be more engaged at the job.

Let’s talk about the market. What is the current job market today for veteran programmers you’re working with?

I will start with the bad news before the good news. The bad news is the market is competitive. There are a lot of people coming to software engineering from different fields and different majors.

So more and more people are interested in software engineering. There are tons of resources and resources are democratized. So that’s adding competition. The good news is that the market is the best since 2001, it’s booming, especially for software engineering.

So companies, big companies, small companies, want to have software engineers, data scientists, project managers, and qualified people that can scale the business. So opportunities are there.

What is needed right now are the right skills for the right employer. That’s what we’re trying to do here and can try to connect between what employers are looking for and what, unfortunately, higher education institutions are not doing and try to bridge the gap.

How are you teaching students to market themselves to take advantage of that market?

You have to work on the skills of today and the skills of the future, if I want to define the two broad categories of skills. You have the analytical skills, the technical skills, and then the behavioral ones,  like communication skills. I don’t like the word soft skills because they’re not soft. They’re really fun and really important. So the two categorical, golden combination of both, is what the employer is looking for. They’re looking for leaders who have the technical abilities who [also] can build things and lead other people.

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