How is it possible to score a job without having the required experience? It’s the problem faced by recent college graduates, and it’s a problem I face in my current job search, twenty-five years into my career. As a recent college grad with no experience, I attempted to lie, but succeeded with luck. Now, my approach is more complex.
Experience Dilemma (1996)
Twenty-five years ago I lied in an attempt to get my first tech job as a support technician at the CompUSA call center. I had some experience fixing computers. Okay, a single computer, my own, and I frequently failed at this effort. But the job qualifications were way beyond anything I had to offer.
Still, I knew with total certainty that I could kick ass at the job if given the chance. I wouldn’t recommend lying to anyone, but this was how I justified it back then.
CompUSA ignored me for weeks after I applied for the job, but I had a friend on the inside who elevated my resume to the top of the stack. I got an interview. Twenty-five years ago I still didn’t feel totally comfortable having adult conversations, let alone communicating in a serious business context. It’s funny to think about now, but back then it was awkward as hell. Some people are effective communicators upon graduating university. I was not. By this time I had spent a year doing customer service at Boring Office Job One (BOJO), but before that I had spent the maximum amount of time avoiding adulthood and the so-called real world.
My initial interview with CompUSA was uncomfortable for both the interviewer and me, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliating train wrecks I had endured in the previous two years. This was where the lying happened. I exaggerated my experience fixing PC’s.
Then came the technical interview. I’m not sure what I was thinking. This was information technology. Lying did not work in situations where solutions were either right or wrong. My answers were so half-ass the interviewer cut it short.
To complete this painful ritual I was then asked to take an assessment test (a practice test for the industry-standard A+ certification for PC hardware repair, as it would turn out). Most of the questions were multiple choice with four choices. I guessed on most of them, somehow scoring under twenty-five percent. On average, a chimp would have done better on this test. The technician who escorted me through the process shrugged and said something like, “don’t call us, we’ll (probably never) call you”.
Just then my friend happened to be walking by. He took the printed assessment test results, disposed of the incriminating evidence, and escorted me out. Later he got me hired and brought me into his group. It was my first tech job. I was part of the team!
I may have started as the most incompetent employee CompUSA call center had ever hired, but I was determined to disprove the imposter syndrome that hung over my head. I devoured new problems and collaborated with other technicians, discussing various tricks of the trade. Within a year I became one of the most awesome technicians that place had ever seen. I received a Technician of the Year award at a ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new call center, attended by over a hundred call center staff.
Of course, social capital is very important, especially when you’re first starting out. For me, having social capital in the right place at the right time was a stroke of luck so improbable that it seemed miraculous.
I learned that it’s never a good idea to lie in an interview, even if you’re a master of deception. Lying might boost experience by +1, but it comes with a penalty of (at least) -1 to both personality and luck (bad karma). People will sense when you’re not telling the truth.
Experience Dilemma (2020)
Looking for a job with twenty-five years’ experience under my belt is way easier than starting with no skills at all, but surprisingly it’s no guarantee of success.
“Twenty-five years’ experience” doesn’t mean much in an industry fueled by rapid change. Employers need someone who can solve problems with the technology they’re using now. There’s never going to be a time when I can say I have twenty-five experience doing exactly what they need me to do. The technology changes too quickly for that to be possible. In fact it’s rare that a candidate will have even five years’ experience doing all the things a job posting wants. This is partly because individual technologies evolve quickly, but also because it’s there are just so many more technologies today than there were a couple decades ago.
“Twenty-five years” can also scare employers, suggesting that I’m set in my ways or over the hill. All the job search advice I’ve seen says to omit any mention of experience that’s more than ten years old. Fair enough. Most of the technology I worked with ten years ago is obsolete. At best, twenty-five years’ experience translates into good technical wherewithal, a broad understanding that allows me to see the most likely troubleshooting paths, and to learn on the fly.
Employers want to see a job change every two to three years, indicating ambition and a desire to stay challenged with new tech. This is weird because a long tenure at a company used to be a good thing, indicating loyalty and dedication to the job. This year I got a compliment from an interviewer on my long tenure at the only two places I had worked between CompUSA and now, and I got the feeling he was old school.
Job recruiters always want to know how many years’ experience you have with a certain technology. I understand what they’re getting at, but in many ways these types of questions don’t match the real world. The real test comes when you speak with someone who knows the tech.
For example, I started working with SQL Server in the year 2000. Does that equal twenty years of experience? It depends on how you break it down. The technology has changed so much since then that only certain core knowledge (e.g., T-SQL) and general understanding (ACID, RDBMS concepts, e.g.) are still relevant. In some ways ten years’ experience might even be better than twenty, if the candidate has shown resistance to adapt.
Then there’s the problem of how to calculate years. Using the example of SQL, some years I worked intensely with the product, but other years just a few days per week, or not at all. What is the quality of experience? For example, I’ve used some type of server software almost every week in the past twenty years, but some features I might only have to mess with once per year, or never.
My answer to all these weird problems? It’s a fifty-page document (yes, another journal) that I call Metamorph.
Metamorph isn’t lying. It’s to help me remember what I’ve done.
Metamorph is a journal of every technology I’ve worked with, with an elevator speech for each. Interviewers want details. They want to know you can solve problems now.
It should be good enough to say “I can’t remember how to do that, but if you let me do some research…” It’s very weird this response is unacceptable in an interview, it’s exactly what you’d end up doing if given the task on the job. There are some things I did with a high degree of proficiency just a couple months ago, but I can’t remember the exact details of the top of my head. Metamorph is to help me remember, to keep things fresh in my mind.
So, we’ll see if my Metamorph strategy works. This morning I had a technical interview for a job that calls for experience working with technology I’ve never worked with in a production setting. I’ve played around with it quite a bit in my own sandbox, but as for real-world experience? Zilch. I was honest about this in the interview. All I could do was express my enthusiasm for the technology, and focus on my strengths. With any luck I’ll get an offer based on deep technical wherewithal and an ability to quickly learn.