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Tag: career

Brainteasers are a Complete Waste of Time

In hiring that is.

At least that’s what Google’s Head of People Operations (the Google-y term for HR) Laszlo Bock said in a recent interview with the New York Times. While most of the article is about the fascinating data-driven approach Bock’s group has taken to try to improve how they hire and retain the best employees, his point on the lack of success with using Fermi problems (brainteasers that physicist Enrico Fermi was apparently known for enjoying) that Microsoft and Google were famous for asking in job interviews caught my eye:

On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

[emphasis mine]

I personally loathe brainteasers and have walked away from companies who have dared to use those questions on me (I’ve been asked the golf ball question by two interviewers at one company). While they supposedly push the interviewee to demonstrate intellectual horsepower, the complete irrelevance to the important functions of the job, the lack of information this type of question shines on the character or ethic or work experiences of the job candidate, and the fact that many of these are easily looked up online make answers to these questions pretty useless in determining job fit.

So, if you’re an interviewer – do your interviewees and your company a favor: skip the Fermi problems and focus, instead, on ways to probe relevant knowledge and a candidate’s cultural fit in a rigorous, repeatable process.

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Gaze Into Your Crystal Ball

crystalballIn the Pipeline’s Derek Lowe wrote a very thoughtful opinion piece for the ACS (American Chemical Society) journal Medicinal Chemistry Letters where he does something which I encourage all career-minded working people to do: hold up a mirror to his own industry (medicinal chemistry … obviously) and then gaze into his crystal ball to see where it might go in the future:

it is now the absolute worst time ever to be an ordinary medicinal chemist in a high-wage part of the world. The days when you could make a reliable living doing methyl–ethyl–butyl–futile work in the United States or Western Europe are gone, and what mechanism will ever be found to bring them back? There’s still a lot of that work that needs to be done, but it is getting done somewhere else, and as long as “somewhere else” operates more cheaply and reasonably on time, that situation will not change.

This means that the best advice is not to be ordinary. That is not easy, and it is no guarantee, either, but it is the only semisafe goal for which to aim. Medicinal chemists have to offer their employers something that cannot be had more cheaply in Shanghai or Bangalore. New techniques, proficiency with new equipment, ideas that have not become commodified yet: Those seem to be the only form of insurance, and even then, they are not always enough.

I may be slightly biased as much of my work has been in the technology industry where large industry changes happen a little faster than in other industries so I’m particularly attuned to how those will impact companies, but very rarely do I notice people – in and out of the technology industry – give some careful thought to how their industries will change over time – and I think that’s a shame.

In the same way that the medicinal chemists from 5-10 years ago that Derek Lowe is writing about were caught off-guard by the impact of globalization, people in the postal service are watching technologies like email and internet advertising change the foundation of their jobs, people in the healthcare industry are watching new laws and regulations slowly come down the pipeline, and people in the book publishing industry are watching as eBooks and eReaders take off. I’m not claiming that these changes were obviously predictable – that’s what makes my job in venture interesting! — but, changes in science & technology, in globalization, and in demographics have and will dramatically impact every aspect of life/business and, frankly speaking, its the people who work in an industry (in the case of medicinal chemistry, it was guys like Derek Lowe) who have the best shot at gazing at a crystal ball, predicting and understanding the changes that will come down the pipeline, and, then, figuring out ways to get ahead of it (whether that means changing jobs, learning new skills, etc).

So, do yourself a favor 5-10 years from now – and gaze into your crystal ball.

(Image credit: PE2011 Facts)

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Some Career Advice for Students

Many students trying to pick classes/majors in college will end up consulting with their counselors/academic advisors who, in turn, will almost always reply with very generic advice along the lines of: “study what you love”.

But as my girlfriend once pointed out, the problem with asking academic advisors that question is that academic advisors tend to be academics – and in academia, you can make a career out of studying anything. Outside of academia, that is not so true. Look no further than the paradox of how we have record high unemployment for recent college graduates despite almost every startup I’ve spoken with expressing concerns about finding and retaining qualified employees?

Obviously, our education system is failing to meet the needs of our students and employers. But, other than hope that the system miraculously fixes itself, my advice to students is this: take classes that teach broadly employable skills. You don’t need to take a lot of them, and nobody’s asking you to major in a something that you don’t want to – college is, after all, about broadening your horizons and studying what interests you. But, in a competitive job market and a turbulent economy, the worker that is in the best position is the worker who can move between industries/jobs easily (getting out of bad jobs/industries and moving into better paid/more interesting ones) and who can quickly demonstrate value to their boss (so as to make them indispensable faster).

So what sort of skills am I referring to? Off the top of my head (I’m sure there are others), three come to mind:

  • Accounting – All organizations that deal with money need people with accounting chops. From my experience, the executives/employees who are the most versatile across industries are the CFOs — they can plug into almost any business or organization and can quickly help their employers out. You may not want to be an accountant, but in a pinch, having those skills can help you get hired or find work as you figure out your next move.
  • Programming – Programming as a skill is relatively generalizable. While I wouldn’t necessarily get an iPhone developer to write an operating system (or vice versa), folks with programming chops can quickly get up to speed on new projects at new companies, and, as a result, can quickly crank out functioning code to help with their employers.
  • Statistics – You don’t need to be a math genius to be hireable. But, as computers become faster and more important, more organizations are turning to number crunching as a way to stay competitive. Not only will “data scientists” and statisticians become more in demand, individuals who have familiarity with those tools will be in a better position at their companies and be able to quickly help out a new employer.

The skeptic will point out that a lot of this can be outsourced. And, that’s certainly true – but in my experience, there is not only a limit on what companies are willing to outsource, there is also just huge value for any employee to tack those skills onto what they are already doing. A salesperson who is also good at crunching statistics on who to sell to next is far more valuable than a “regular” salesperson. A marketing guy with programming chops probably has a better understanding of a product or a technology than a “regular” marketing guy. And, a operations guy who also understands the nitty gritty financial details is going to be able to do a better job than an operations guy who doesn’t. Not to mention: the skills are broadly applicable; so if one company doesn’t have a good spot, there’s always another organization somewhere that will.

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This is how you make a resume

The best recruiting advice I can give is to make your resume exactly like this fictional representation of what Sergey Brin (one of Google’s co-founders)’s resume looks like (HT: Pierre Lindenbaum):

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Why do we like it?

  • It’s unnecessary, in a good way. Does anyone really need to read Sergey Brin’s resume to know he’s sharp? You are unlikely to be Sergey, but there are things you can do (doing informational interviews, networking, being recommended) which can help make your resume unnecessary in a good way
  • It’s simple. I can’t tell you how many resume’s I’ve read where the writer has tried to pack every last detail of his/her life into it. No. We don’t use resume’s to judge you as a human being – we use them to judge if you could be a good employee, worthwhile to interview.
  • Big font. Easy on the eyes. Memorable. To the point.

Rock on, Sergey Brins of the world.

(Image credit)

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4 criteria

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Because of the New Year and the rough economy, I’ve been giving the following four criteria for career happiness to new graduates and young “careerists” who are wondering what to look for in a job:

  1. Work with people that you actually like and want to be like. Even if you only work 9-to-5, you are still spending ~50% of your waking life at your job. If you can’t look around and find people that you like and admire, you need to get out, or you’ll wind up either upset about the job all the time, stuck in a rut, or both because 50% of your day is spent with people you either hate, can’t learn from, or worse, both. That doesn’t bode well for your emotional happiness, your performance review, or your career progression.
  2. Do something that interests or motivates you. Like I said, you are likely to spend at least 50% of your waking life at your job. If it’s not something that interests you or motivates you, that’s 50% of your life spent not developing. To be clear, you don’t have to be passionately in love with what you’re working on to be happy in your career, but if you can’t even say you’re “kinda” interested in what you do, that lack of interest will eventually show when you don’t go the extra mile for a promotion/raise or when you apply with a lackluster resume for a new job.
  3. Be in a field that’s growing, not shrinking. A rising tide lifts all boats. In this case, a field that’s growing is not likely to be downsized and much more likely to have plenty of promotions, raises, and growth opportunities, even for people who wouldn’t make the bar at a less rapidly growing field. Conversely, a field that’s shrinking, no matter how profitable, will eventually find itself firing more people than it hires, cutting back on salary more than giving raises, and killing projects rather than providing workers with new opportunities. Try to get on a boat that’s in a rising tide.
  4. Do something where you can set yourself apart. Almost all of business strategy is motivated to respond to or shape one thing: “commoditization.” In the same way that tissue paper is a commodity and hence very cheap, job skills can also rapidly become commodities. And when that happens, the person with those skills will find their salary and prospects disappear. Someone with skills which set them apart from the flock will find plenty of prospects and plenty of salary.

Any person who has a job which fulfills all 4 criteria above will be in a good position career-wise, regardless of starting salary or sector. Many people I’ve spoken with focus on just one or two of these, oftentimes ignoring #4, or they focus only on things like the reputation of a company or the starting salary. The danger of that is that you may find yourself in a job where you are not valued or not developing or just plain unhappy with what you do on a daily basis, and regardless of the short-term benefits of that course of action, it leaves you in a bad position longer-term.

(Image credit)

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