drink the sweet feeling of the colour zero

On commitment, and new jobs

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Someone noticed my new job, and asked me the following on LinkedIn: “what advice would you be willing to share with a young person who is looking for Networking work experience while continuing to learn?”. This is a topic on which I have a bit to say, so here we go.

Job postings need to be viewed in much the same way that a bachelor’s degree needs to be viewed: a gating system designed to winnow out anyone who isn’t committed. This requires a little explanation, so bear with me. First, let’s start with something nearly everyone knows:

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree means different things to different groups. To many employers, it is a sign of a basic level of commitment. You were willing to invest the time and money into something, so you are worthy of consideration.

In most cases, the degree itself is meaningless. I can learn everything a bachelor’s degree in anything will teach me using free resources online, and have. Numerous times. I can – and do – go toe-to-toe with people who have doctorates in their field, let alone a simple bachelor’s degree, despite having none myself.

That’s because these degrees don’t indicate knowledge, or a level of achievement. They indicate commitment. A willingness to submit one’s self to a social structure that tightly constricts behaviour, scheduling, and ways of thinking.

A willingness to think and do as directed is incredibly valuable for a great many jobs – especially the tedious ones – and this is the primary reason why so many positions that used to be something you could obtain right of high school now require a bachelor’s degree. The knowledge imparted by the degree isn’t overly meaningful; most of what’s needed will be taught on the job.

But by restricting one’s hiring to people with degrees, the employer is engaging in risk management. “Do you have a bachelor’s degree or not” is a blunt instrument for narrowing candidates down, but with almost 8 billion of us on the planet, employers can afford to let otherwise qualified candidate be rejected.

What we need to bear in mind is that demanding a bachelor’s degree – and other gating mechanisms – (demanding 10 years’ experience in something that’s only existed for 5 years, impossible combinations of skills, etc.,) are all more “suggestions” than hard barriers. You need to bear in mind the purpose of these gating mechanisms: to determine commitment. There are other ways to demonstrate it, and if we understand why it’s demanded, we can understand how to cope with it.

Academia

Let’s examine academia. A person can be a perfectly good scientist without a doctorate. They can be a perfectly good scientist with a bachelor’s degree, or no degree at all. Despite this, bachelor’s students are treated as little better than slaves within academia, and even someone with a master’s degree isn’t quite entirely a person until they’ve finished their doctorate.

Competition in academia is fierce. This isn’t helped by hiring practices at universities that make employment there precarious. People in academia commit decades of their lives, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to their education, and they live with the constant threat of not having a stable income for decades. It’s insane.

The result of this insanity is that the gating mechanisms in place to determine one’s commitment are unusually intense. You have to show more than skill, or intelligence. More than simple, rational commitment. If you want tenure in academia today, as someone coming out of high school, and choosing that career track, you had better be prepared to demonstrate absolute devotion.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt if you regularly came up with patents that made your parent institution several times your annual salary in income.

The way around this gating mechanism in academia is to demonstrate unexpected excellence. Be the kid that creates a portable widget that detects cancer in 5 minutes or less, with a consumable component of no more than 2$ per test. Be the person who invents modern machine learning, and creates entire new branches of computer science.

You can do these things without a degree, but it takes more than just knowledge or skill, it takes incredible commitment. Demonstrate that adequately, and you get let into the academics’ most exclusive clubs, complete with honorary doctorates, and even those coveted tenured positions at research institutions.

Being accepted as an academic is about more than just getting a position that provides a paycheque. Acceptance is a group of people who have put decades of their lives into getting tenure saying “you are exceptional enough to deserve the same type of job that we fought, and bitten, and clawed for, and that we guard so very jealously”.

An extreme lack of non-precarious job availability makes for an extreme selection process, and the commitment that is required to be demonstrated in order to get around the “regular” process – getting a doctorate, and enduring decades of precarious work – is significant.

The private sector

The private sector is fundamentally the same as academia, but the pressures aren’t (yet) quite so great. Yes, there certainly are positions where the initial gating of applicants is starting to demand a master’s degree, or even doctorates, but there are still so many positions available, even at this level, that bypassing these requirements remains relatively simple.

Simply having the willingness to apply for positions that you do not qualify for (on paper at least) is itself a sign of commitment. We are trained out whole lives to take job requirements on job postings at face value. We are taught to respect potential employers, and to fear wasting their time. We are conditioned not to apply unless we believe wholeheartedly that we could knock that job out of the park.

The problem is, in the real world, nobody knows what they’re doing. The higher up the totem pole you get, the more it’s safe to assume that everyone around you suffers from imposter syndrome. We’re all just faking it, and it takes commitment to push that voice of self-doubt down, and take a chance on applying for a position we’re not qualified for on paper.

How you apply matters. Like it or not, the private sector still operates on the old boys’ network. Credentialism is a façade that corporations employ to placate advocacy-prone youth, who aren’t old enough to see the value of experience, and are at a disadvantage competing against those who have it. There will always be a tension between the utility of credentials, especially for youth, and the value of experience and networking. In many cases the real trick to getting will always be who you know, not what you know.

To be clear, I’m not implying any sort of conspiracy here. Nor is this a sexist plot by the patriarchy, a means to perpetuate racism, or old people clinging to their jobs at the expense of the youth. The real secret to private sector employment is that the “who” that you need to know needn’t be someone with a fancy title, or the ability to make hiring decisions.

A private sector employer doesn’t actually care about your credentials. What they care about is your knowledge, your skills, and your reliability. They want to know that if they dump a bunch of time and money into training you, that you’re not just going to disappear. They want to assign you a task, and have your effort generate more revenue than they pay you, all while having to manage you, or even think about you.

Demonstrating this with smaller employers usually requires nothing more than the ability to put on a false sense of confidence during an interview, explain why you are committed to the job, and won’t flake out on them. Demonstrating this with larger employers usually involves research.

The research entails finding people who already work for the target larger employer, befriending them, and convincing them to submit your name via the internal talent acquisition system. In midsized companies this might mean your friend mentioning your name to HR. In enterprises, this process is usually formalized; many organizations even offer bounties. Bring in someone they eventually hire, and you get a bonus.

The key here is that in advocating for you, these people are in effect putting their careers on the line. They’re “vouching for you”, in the mafia sense. Whether or not we admit this to ourselves as a society – and in many cases there are complicated laws which supposedly aim to eliminate this behaviour – this is exactly how most employment works. We still rely on trust. Sometimes that trust is something earned through an interview process. Often times the trust comes in an employer trusting the employee that’s vouching for someone.

If you convince someone to vouch for you, they’re essentially saying to their employer, “this person is committed enough to the job that you can – and should – look beyond the absurd credentials you’ve requested in the job posting”. The employer is seeking commitment from employees, and if they trust the person saying you’re committed – via reference or interview – then this is what gets you hired.

Putting aside any moral or ethical debates about how fair this is, look at what the reality of hiring tells you: the credentials requested by these employers _don’t matter_. They’re a demonstration of commitment, and nothing more. People can be – and are – quite capable, even without magic credentials.

For that matter, in today’s world, technology evolves so quickly that formal education and technical credentials can be rendered meaningless before someone has even completed them. Even governments around the world have started to change their hiring practices to recognize this.

Any means you can use to reasonably demonstrate your knowledge and commitment to an employer serves the same purpose as credentials. Credentials are just a shortcut, and a widely recognized imperfect one at that. Taking the time to grind up friendships, learn about the corporate culture, and find out how to “pitch yourself” at them is a demonstration of commitment. It’s showing you want that job, and that you view it as something other than an irrelevant, interchangeable source of income.

Parting thoughts

The question that triggered the above was “what advice would you be willing to share with a young person who is looking for Networking work experience while continuing to learn?”, and I think the word “Networking” in that question is superfluous. It doesn’t matter which employment path you’re taking. What matters is that you figure out how you’re going to prove to others that you’re committed to what you propose to do.

If your goal is networking, then learn networking. There are a squillion online courses, ranging from Lynda.com, to actual universities, to the online courseware of the various technology titans. Immerse yourself. Learn.

Get hands on experience by playing with networking virtual appliances. Learn to do neat networking things in Linux. You can get the hands-on experience in the comfort of your own home. Ain’t the internet great?

But getting the job is about more than that. Your best hope is through the community. Join local user groups. Join online communities. Get on Twitter. Spend time learning information security, because the future of IT is information security.

Make friends, and learn to influence people. It doesn’t take long. The community is full of mentors, and if you’re honest about your goals, you’ll find someone to help you.

Yes, the internet is dark, and full of monsters, but that’s merely a function of scale. Most people are actually kind, decent folks who genuinely want to help those around them. The fact that there are so many monsters on the internet is simply because there are 8 billion of us: give everyone a platform, and the loud ones crowd out the rest.

If you want a job in tech, they’re out there. But, like any job, to get anything beyond the most bare-bones minimum wage job, you need to demonstrate commitment. In today’s day and age that’s more than just a willingness to sacrifice your time.

You can obtain an arbitrary credential, thus demonstrating skill at rote memorization and your willingness to submit to seemingly arbitrary rules and rigid regulatory structures. You can demonstrate exceptional skill through invention or research excellence, or you can demonstrate a willingness to play the social game. Each takes commitment. And different people will find different paths easier. None is more valid than the other.

I wish I could say to today’s youth “it’s going to be okay, here’s a magic wand, there’s hope for an easy life”. But I can’t. That would be lying.

Today’s youth are going to have it hard. There are more of them than in my generation, and the accelerating pace of automation will mean that they have to face pressures to constantly adapt that I have not faced, and likely never will. They will have more careers than I will, just as I’ve already had more careers than my parents.

But there is hope. What drives employers to select employees is the same everywhere: employers seek commitment from their employees. Figure out how to demonstrate that, and you’re set yourself apart from the competition in the way that employers want,.

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