Tuesday November 16, 2004
Getting a Tech Job; or, Breaking Out of "I Suck"
A friend of mine lead a sheltered life where he was hired right
out of school and worked for the same company for years and years
until one day he got fed up with semi-rural midwestern living and
moved to Hawaii.
The thing about Hawaii is it costs a lot to live there.
And this friend didn't move to a major city there on the big island,
oh no, he went for the pretty parts, and now he's facing something
most of us face sooner rather than later: dealing with his value.
He was talking about a job he had applied for and used me as a
reference on, and was and was anxiously wanting to know if I'd been
He commented "You have such an impressive resume. You even have to
divide it up into pieces! You've given 20 talks over the last 3 years!".
This particular friend is very seldom entirely serious and he was
of course partially mocking me, but mostly he was fretting about
his qualifications and his whole perdiciment.
This is a person I admire as being extremely intelligent and knowing
all sorts of crazy-cool geeky stuff I'll probably never learn - EE,
advanced mathematics, Mathematica, programmable logic, low level and specialized
network protocols (ethernet frames, etc), and so on.
He was the chief researcher for a small company that makes highspeed
networking equipment - essentially high speed Ethernet with switches
that buffer and route data so the "aloha" protocol can be dropped and
link utilization goes to 99% from 30-40% typical of normal Ethernet.
This is a low cost alternative to fibre that's popular with educational
This friend should has no basis for feelings of inferiority.
I explained, "On my resume are two things... 1. places where people
trusted me with some position or such 2. things i've gone out and done for
In other words, it is has nothing to do with me what's on my resume.
It's profoundly foolish to sit at home at contimplate your lack of qualifications
when you can use any small amount of time improve your resume.
In one day - perhaps a Saturday on a weekend - you can add a sentence to your
resume by putting together a presentation and talking at Perl Mongers;
or you can volunteer on a project and spend two days creating a patch
to fix a bug that irritates you;
you can spend 15 minutes a day for a month answering questions on a mailing
list or assembling a FAQ.
These are all scenarios where you can go out and do something on your own
to make your resume more impressive.
When I say this has nothing to do with me, I mean it has nothing to do
with my intelligence, my connections, my education, or anything else Christian-God
gave me other than time on this planet.
The first point in my little list, places where people have trusted you,
is a little harder and there's some subtlety.
The idea is this: when writing up your resume, don't just list the job
title and a few skills - list data you were trusted with access to,
priviledges (access control or social) you held, important people you
reported to, critical tasks you were trusted to perform, and so on.
Point number two was cases where you made a decision to do something
that reflects well on yourself; point number one is situations where other people
made a decision that reflects well on you.
Once again, however, this is not a matter of "better than"; people are both
arbitrary and act out of situations far more complex than how "good" you are.
If you were trusted with the sacred answer of life, the universe, and everything,
it wasn't because you're some kind of savior from on high and everyone felt
the immediate need to bow down to you but it was a complex set of circumstances
and coincidence and it largely doesn't reflect on you at all.
It's exactly because nothing on the resume matters that this stuff can
be put on it; the error is waiting for some clear, obvious, preordination
before putting something on your resume.
I'm not suggesting you should lie on your resume - it really doesn't
impress anyone - at least not without making them suspicious, in which
case you've told some massive lies.
Someone as intelligent and hard working as my friend who faithfully
served such a cool company with such a neat product for so many years
and knows so many cool things should not struggle to find things
to put on his resume.
That's just silly.
Nor should he second guess anyone who might hire him by not applying
when his experience matches the base requiments for a job.
You can paint yourself up however you like, using whatever evidence you like
because how you portray yourself is all that matters.
If you're pompus and boastful, employers who are drawn to that type will hire
If your resume includes a CVS $Id $ tag and unadorned lists of obscure but
cool technologies you've hacked around in you'll get that kind of job.
If you pretend like your resume isn't important, you'll do something
intersting with it because you'll feel you're free to do so.
However, if you're timid and meek, potential employers will
still draw cues on your abilities, priorities, and personality
from you, and they'll get the wrong impression: they'll mistake
you for someone who is unmotivated, not knowledgeable, and lacking
Like anything (hello Godel!), this isn't absolutely true.
Executively level resumes are most effective when they contain none of this
personality or self portrail and list nothing but previous positions held,
dates, and saleries (a no-no for resumes for non-executive positions).
Also, some places have policies in effect that rob the hiring manager
of any decision making process and hand it to a computer, in which case
total number of years of experience including education alone decides your
There are other resume styles that work well for different cases but
my argument here is tangent to these; I'm concerned only with overcoming
the no-self-value mental block that will prevent you from effectively
creating any kind of resume worth a damn.
I came to this line of thinking during a few year long slump
after the dot com blowout (a personal slump - the economic slump is
still in full force with the IT sector continuing to shrink).
Every single bloody day I'd tweak or rework my resume trying
to figure out how to work around my lack of a college degree,
lack of years at a high level position, and so on, and then mail
off a bunch of copies with custom cover letters.
I pondered the unskilled brats (teenagers and otherwise) that seem to
always make lots of money without any real skills or much intelligence,
just a little fast talking and no obstructing ethics.
I started to wonder something along the lines of, if I believe the
resume reflects your value and your value gets you a job,
these jerks would be in the bread line, but if the resume doesn't
reflect your value, then I should have a job.
Both of these can't be true at the same time.
I knew most employers weren't qualified to assess me, but I started to wonder
whether they suspected as much, and I started to think about how
apathetic they'd reportedly become about anything that can be padded or
But people were still misrepresenting themselves and getting jobs - how?
They misrepresent their confidence and they exude likability;
they give cues to their potential employer about their appropriateness
for the job, offsetting the decision making work.
They ask for trust and make promises to reward it.
I didn't want to do this because it's abusive and destructive to myself
as a programmer and a professional, but I began asking myself how much
of it I could do before I crossed the line.
I decided that making promises is not okay but exuding likability is okay.
I can't exude fake likability because I never had the practice in grade school
and such, but I can let out my real personality and let them mesh or clash
with that as they will.
As far as how to do that on topic of a resume and cover letter, well,
that's entirely in how a reader interprets my probabable attitudes
towards past jobs and technology gleaned from what types of things
and how much of different kinds of things I include on my resume.
And that's approximately how I decided it was okay to list things not
purely factual, like dates.
How I see myself, and what I value, indicates to a potential
employer that I do or don't value the same things as them or have
the kind of disposition they're looking for.
I don't mean to naively suggest that you'll find the right match
because you're limiting yourself... only that an honest but
expositioning resume is competitive with a dishonest one and you'll
of course be much happier than someone who's faking it.
Modesty and humility mean bearing your soul earnestly for employers
to accept or reject as they will, not withholding non strictly factual
information out of fear of looking like a braggart or liar when you
know you're not.