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Get a Job, if You're a Programmer or Engineer

[Excerpted from my free ebook, It's Not You, It's Your Strategy]

“Technical Skills” <= “Soft Skills” + Business Savvy

If you’re a computer geek, scientist, technician or other techie, you probably understood the chapter title to mean that, in a job search, your technical skills are less important than – or, at best, equally important to – your so-called “soft skills” (e.g., communication, teamwork, leadership) and your understanding of, and ability to support, the overall business environment in which your skills are used.

And that probably made you mad.

Dilberts of the world, listen closely: I know you have spent years developing your technical skills, and are proud of them. But these skills should not be the be-all and end-all of your application, for two very good reasons:

First, there are probably many candidates out there with skills equal to yours, or even – gasp! – a little better. In fact, the hirer will probably only be considering people with great technical skills, so technical skills alone will not be a strong competitive differentiator for you or any other candidate.

Second, most employers want to hire well-rounded employees. Sure, they’ll welcome technical brilliance, but only if it’s part of a strong overall package. (Many have had the experience of hiring an over-focused “genius,” with bad results.)

It’s a common human foible to overestimate the value of assets we own just because we happen to own them. There’s even a name for it, the “endowment effect fallacy.” In a job search, the EEF tends to make you overvalue the skills you think you’re good at (often, your technical skills), while undervaluing others. This not only causes you to misread the hirer’s needs, but makes you arrogant and complacent. (The EEF, incidentally, is also what causes you to try to sell your house at a higher price than the market will bear.)

This problem is not limited to “techie” techies, either. Every job includes a technical component – be it hair styling, carpentry, accounting or cooking – and thus any applicant is at potential risk for overvaluing his technical skills relative to other job requirements. ***In practice, this frequently results in an “upside-down” resume and interview in which the candidate emphasizes his least-important qualifications (the technical ones), while neglecting or omitting his most-important ones.*** I see this mistake *all the time*, and discuss it further in the next chapter.

Whether you’re a techie-techie or some other kind of techie, if this discussion is hitting home, I recommend Dr. Lois Frankel’s fabulous book Stop Sabotaging Your Career: 8 Proven Strategies to Succeed – in Spite of Yourself, in which she discusses how over-relying on one or two key strengths can derail your career. “There is no substitute for technical competence…” she writes. “Without [it] you build a career on quicksand. The problem is that most people who derail rely on technical competence to the exclusion of all other necessary behaviors. They think that expertise in their field should be enough to maintain their careers. This may have been true in 1960 or 1970, but it is far from true in today’s competitive workplace.”

The typical mistakes over-focused techies make, according to Frankel, include: overlooking the importance of people; not functioning effectively as part of a team; not focusing on image and communication; insensitivity to the effect they have on others; difficulty working with authority; too broad or too narrow a vision; indifference to customer or client needs; and a propensity for working in isolation.

Most of us are good at certain things, and because we’re good at them we like doing them – and because we like doing them we do them a lot and get better at them. It’s a positive-feedback loop – and not a bad one, either – except when you get so caught up in it you ignore other important tasks or skills. To avoid that problem, devote at least a third of your professional development time to shoring up your weaknesses, as opposed to building your strengths. Instead of taking yet another programming class, for instance, take one on communications, presentation skills or marketing (which will be a revelation, I assure you!). And don’t just guess at what your weak areas are – ask trusted advisors and mentors.

Often, by the way, our weaknesses aren’t even weaknesses: we often get labeled erroneously (especially by incompetent teachers and bosses), and those labels have a way of sticking. I have met many techies who believe that they are “not a people person,” for instance, when the reality is that they are kind and charming and a pleasure to be around. Some of this is a form of perfectionism in which the techie defines a “people person” as an extroverted, life-of-the-party type, and anyone who doesn’t fit that narrow, and somewhat outlier, profile falls short. But there is a whole spectrum of likeability out there, and even many supposedly uncharismatic techies are well along on it. (For more on perfectionism – a serious problem that can undermine your entire career – check out my book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.)

Also, we are often weak in an area not because we’re inherently unsuited to it, but because we haven’t devoted enough time to mastering it. This can happen out of fear – for instance, when you avoid writing because you were told as a kid you were bad at it – or just because you were busy with other stuff. Sometimes, only a small effort is needed to turn a weakness into a strength, or at least a neutral quality.

It’s also a good strategy to assume your competition is at least good as you are, technically. That will keep you humble and encourage you to do your best at all aspects of the application process, instead of over-relying on your technical skills. Just don’t go overboard and devalue yourself.

Don’t Commoditize Yourself

No matter how great your technical skills are, they should really be the starting point of your application, not the end. A programmer who over-relies on his alphabet-soup list of languages and certifications has pretty much ensured that his resume will be placed in the “nothing special” pile along with those of many other alphabet-soup applicants. What he’s done, in sales terms, is turn himself into a commodity, which is a product or service that the customer (in this case, hirer) feels she can obtain from many sources, and therefore devalues.

But the programmer who can convey the following message is anything but a commodity:

“Well, yes, I’ve been doing Java programming for fifteen years, and am Sun certified. And I’m also highly experienced in XML, HTML, Perl and Ajax. But what I’m really good at is leading teams that deliver high-reliability, low-maintenance code, and applications that are really intuitive and easy to use. We did a giant customer service application, last year, and it was so easy to use that there were practically no training costs. It got written up in ComputerWorld, and led to our company getting three new accounts in one month.”

Ditto if you’re a hair stylist, carpenter, accountant, cook or anyone else. A good message for a short-order cook to convey, for instance, might be something like this:

“Well, yes, I can prepare anything that comes off a grill, and for two out of the last three years I’ve gotten a Best Chef award from the local newspaper. But what I’m really good at is building kitchen teams that work together well and can handle really high volumes. In my current job, we’ve got five people doing 150 lunches an hour, from 11 till 2:30 every weekday. And they’ve all been with me for at least two years. Before I came on board, the restaurant were only doing 80 lunches an hour with three employees, and the turnover was huge…”

Please note that, in both examples, the candidate is “doing it like Dudley” (see Chapter 17): speaking to the hirer’s needs and goals. That’s reduced code maintenance and training costs, and increased revenues, in the case of the programmer; and reduced operational costs and increased revenues, in the case of the cook. (See a pattern?) It’s definitely important to mention your certifications and awards, since they may be a required “checkmark,” and also because they might distinguish you from other candidates and help the hirer feel safe hiring you. But they probably won’t be the deciding factor that lands you the job. Rather, it will be your ability to listen to, understand, and speak to, the hirer’s important needs or values.

This balancing of your technical and non-technical qualifications should occur throughout the application process. It should be very obvious in your resume, interview, thank you notes, and the things your references say about you. Please note that it’s not simply a matter of telling the hirer how great you are, but showing her, through a careful framing of your experience and skills.

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