June 12, 2016

The Qualifications Game

It’s common for someone just starting out in their career to think they’re hopelessly unqualified. You look at all of blank spaces in your resume, and compare them against the list of features asked of you in job ads. Perhaps worse, you might look at too many of the LinkedIn resumes of people already working in the industry, or already inside the companies you’d like to join.

How did you end up so far behind your peers? Where did all of the people that meet the list of required skills on those job ads develop all of these skills?

The not-so-secret secret is they didn’t. After gaining a few years of experience working and interviewing in industry, you’ll start to get a more accurate picture of the job market.

Job Ads Draw an Ideal

The first thing you’ll notice is that very few people already working the job you’re thinking of applying for meet all of the listed requirements. Perhaps they do in a hand-wavy, well-they-could-learn-it-if-needed, sort of way. By extension, this means that people in that job are not actively using all of the skills described. At least, not regularly, or without help.

Go look through a bunch of job listings looking for software engineers. You’ll start to think that to be qualified for a good job you need to be able to architect and implement the data model, craft the third party API, build out the website or app, manage the continuous integration process, as well as design and maintain a scalable logging system. Oh, and it sure would be nice if you have experience with machine learning and data visualization.

Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it resembles reality. Job qualification lists seem to describe either that organization’s strongest employee, or worse, an ideal they’re hoping might exist. In practice, most people tend to focus on 1 or 2 of the desired functions in the ad. It’s not uncommon to need to accomplish something outside of that realm of knowledge, but that will most often mean you’ll be getting help from someone else who knows how to do that thing already. Good companies and managers don’t throw you into a dark forest unless it’s clear you want to go exploring and already know how to survive.

Resumes Are Only Accurate to the Degree They Can Be Proven False

It isn’t news that people embellish on their resume. We’re all told we need to “sell ourselves” on our resumes. Perhaps to the surprise of some, many people took that advice to heart. In general, people do not lie about companies, dates, and titles. There are simple ways for hiring managers to falsify claims regarding those. But you can be confident that when lurking through LinkedIn, many of the resumes you see will exhibit a distortion between their descriptions of past roles and what the writer actually did day-to-day in those roles.

It’s not that people flat out lie. That’s rare. It’s that they describe their contributions in ways that lead readers to believe their responsibilities, level of leadership, and general impact were larger than they really were.

It’s hard to tell what a person really did based on their resume. Or at least, I certainly don’t know how to do it. This is probably why interviews for software positions are famously unpleasant. An applicant typically has to solve several analytic, design, and general algorithm problems with an audience watching their every misstep in order to prove they know how to solve problems and communicate their thought processes to co-workers. This is because the person on the other end of the table has little idea if you really were the primary contributor to and designer of the recommendation system at your last job, or if you were encouraged to look for other opportunities. And they certainly don’t know how to judge the ability level of fresh graduates or new-to-industry candidates. The only information on those resumes they can go on is how hard it was to get into the school the candidate went to. But this is a noisy signal as well.

Don’t Worry So Much About Filling Every Skill Desired

Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs that feel like a stretch. You may find out that the real bar was set lower than expected. The superhuman peers we assume get all of the best jobs mostly don’t exist. A few do, and you should hope to meet them and learn all you can! Applying to stretch jobs isn’t a bad way to try.

Obviously, this is not to say that learning and real qualifications don’t matter. Learning is what allows someone to level up and tackle bigger, more interesting problems. The value of constant learning and reading is hard to overstate.

Anyone that’s read a dozen resumes or given a few interviews learns that resumes can’t be taken at face value. It probably doesn’t give a candidate much of a boost to exaggerate past contributions. If it does, the company that candidate landed at may not be filled with the sort of co-workers they had hoped it would be.

Looking for your first or second job can be a nerve-racking and self-doubting experience. You will get rejected. And send quite a few resumes into the void. But there isn’t an army of better qualified candidates out there. Learn from interviews that go badly and keep trying. I went from not knowing what a for-loop was to writing software for Google 3.5 years later. So I suppose I have experience being highly unqualified. I’ve never applied for a job I was confident I would get.