You Have Enough Hours in the Day, You’re Just Not Using Them

I’ve recently realized that my workflow can be a lot more efficient.

I thought it was fine, but as it turns out, it was just what I was used to. Humans can get used to anything, and if we don’t have anything outside us telling us that these conditions are unacceptable, we tend to just, well, accept them.

I started feeling like I didn’t have time to do anything shortly after I arrived in SF. While it’s gotten somewhat better, it still feels like I want to get more done than there are hours in the day.

I didn’t actually realize that was a warning sign for a while, because I had no reference group. I don’t succumb to the usual time traps: I open social media approximately twice a year, I don’t watch TV, I don’t make a habit of being intoxicated, I have no time-consuming hobbies that aren’t contributing to improving my career.

But I realized that not succumbing to the obvious time-sucks doesn’t mean you’ve evaded them all.

I’d previously learned that when something about your life feels chaotic, you’re probably just bad at predicting it; it feels from the inside like the thing is inherently unpredictable, but it isn’t. In the same way, I realized, when you feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, you probably have some energy/time sink somewhere. That’s what an inefficient system feels like from the inside: not having enough time.

That was what I was missing: there is a difference between being actually good at efficiency and simply not shooting yourself in the foot. I had to do better than just not screwing up. I had to actively work on being better.

I’m currently in the process of optimizing my workflow and trying to get stuff done faster. There’s a decent amount of up-front work to make it happen, turns out.

Instead of taking notes in my plain-text no-frills Notes app, I’ve started taking notes in Vim. Learning the keyboard shortcuts for navigation, then forcing myself to actually use them, took an hour or so. I’d be reaching for the mouse to highlight and delete something, or reaching for the backspace key, but then I’d stop myself, push caps lock (which I remapped to escape for convenience), and type the shortcut instead. After I got the knack of it, I felt myself working faster as I laid out the steps I’d need to take to build an iPhone app I’ve been working on.

I also recently forked my friend Lahwran’s dotfiles repository, which downloads (among many other very useful tools) an excellent window tiling program called Amethyst. No more switching between tabs while trying to hold something in my head!

I’m making better use of my train rides to and from work now, too. I’ve found that physical books are good, because they don’t require wifi, so I’ve been steadily reading through the small collection I brought with me on the plane, plus borrowed a biography of Elon Musk from my boss, which I’ve been reading for life trajectory inspiration.

Finally, I’ve felt like I had no time to sit down and write blog posts on here. But I realized, I don’t have to. There are other methods of documentation that are faster to jot down: for example, Twitter. I was hesitant for a long time, because I was worried it would be a net negative for time, but I’ve been posting quick updates about projects and publishing quick thoughts on there, and it seems to work out well. (My handle is @JenyaLestina, if you’d like to take a look.)

The moral of all of this is that if your life is hard for some reason, it doesn’t have to stay that way. People like to complain about life, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck. If your life is difficult – even in a minor way – don’t stand there and take it. Fix it.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

Another Reason to Get Straight to the Work World

I’ve discussed in previous posts some reasons you should get a real-world job either before or instead of going to college. For one thing, college has an extremely high opportunity cost, in both time and money. For another, the purpose of college has become muddled to such an extent that the reasons people tell you to go are almost entirely desynchronized with the actual reasons you may want to go.

Today, I have another reason that you should at least take a gap year to work a bit first. And this one applies even if you’re 100% sold on college.

When I took a marketing job, I expected to do, well, marketing. Yeah, the job was in San Francisco, so I expected (and wanted) to do marketing for tech companies, but that didn’t change my fundamental assumption. My job title was “Digital Marketer” and so I thought I was going to do digital marketing.

As I found out over the course of the next few months, an employer will use any skill you have if they can find a use for it. By the four-month mark, I had done everything from graphic design to sales to web design to JavaScript programming.

This isn’t just because I work for a micro-company, although this probably happened faster and more thoroughly because of that. Any company will do this. And that’s the key distinction between the work world and college.

If you sign up for a college class in marketing, you won’t accidentally end up programming in JavaScript or creating website wireframes. You’ll do the coursework – nothing more, nothing less. When you go to college, you get exactly what you sign up for. When you get a real-world job, your responsibilities may start out as what you expected, but eventually you’ll probably end up doing a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the original job description, based on a combination of what the company needs and what you can do.

In short: College is static; the work world is flexible.

Often, the fact that college works this way feeds the harmful “that’s not my job” mentality, which will poison your career and dampen your options. If you’re reluctant to take on any responsibility beyond the bare minimum of what you were hired to do, you’ll never be given any additional responsibility. Even if you avoid this mentality, getting some real-world work experience early on will serve you well, in or out of college.

If you’re in the sort of profession where you need a college degree, or you’ve otherwise decided you’re Going To College, consider taking a gap year, or getting a part-time job in your field early into your degree. The flexibility you acquire from doing real work is worth its weight in gold.

The Value of “Just” Showing Up

My siblings are pairs skaters. Every day, they wake up at 5am to skate for three hours. Sometimes, after returning home to do school and work, they return to the ice rink to skate again. Even when they don’t skate twice a day, they frequently do an off-ice workout in the afternoon. They’re devoted. They’re serious.

Still, they’re hardly the best team out there. They are now at the third-highest level, and will stop being competitive before advancing, because they started late. Unlike many skaters, who devote all their time to the sport, my siblings have significant academic commitments which they refuse to sacrifice to spend more time on the ice.

And yet, they get to Nationals. Recently, even, a few internationals. They didn’t expect it, but it happened. How?

They “just” showed up.

Putting in the effort every single day to keep up with the blistering pace of competitive figure skating is hard. The age brackets for the levels work such that if you’re not putting in as much effort as my siblings are, you just plain don’t get to be competitive. Sorry, have a nice day! The requirements for pairs are even harder, because not just one, but two skaters have to be devoted enough to put that much time in. Not only that, both of them need to be good at doing jumps – if you’ve ever watched the Olympics on TV, you know jumping is hard.

My siblings get national and international assignments, because they are one of less than twelve pairs teams at their level in the country. They show up. There’s no “just” about it.

They say it’s not enough to just show up. But is that really true? To “just” show up, you need to have the necessary skills to get in the door, you need to be reliable and consistent, you need to be able to put in the work every day. That’s valuable. That’s important. And those are skills a lot of people don’t have.

When people hunt for jobs, the focus is on the job-specific skills: what programming languages do they know, how proficient are they with Excel, do they have the appropriate certifications, etc. And those are important. But many job-seekers act as if those things are all that matters.

In reality, being reliable and dependable is just as important. There are tons of people who have the job-specific skills, but who aren’t reliable. They get tired, they get bored, they see a shiny object, they would rather be doing something else. They don’t show up. If you “just” show up, you can be better than them.

Show up.

How to Write a Value Proposition

How much do you like getting things you want for free? Probably a lot.

A value proposition makes a business owner want to hire you by giving them something they want for free.

It’s really that simple. And it’s the best way of getting a job, because it’s the best way of getting an employer to like you.

Most people don’t write value props because they’re not willing to put in the necessary work. But there are still some people who are willing to put in the work, but since they don’t write good value props, they don’t get to.

I really can’t fix the former problem—that’s a self-motivation issue—but I can help fix the latter. So here goes.

A good value prop is clear and concise. Most value propositions are emailed, and busy business owners or hiring managers have negative eleven minutes to answer email. Make answering yours easy. Write short sentences and short paragraphs. Don’t include too many parentheticals. Be specific and direct, and don’t use the passive voice.

And for the sake of all that is beautiful in the universe, don’t make typos. Typos in any professional email don’t say “I’m not a writer.” They say “I don’t give a shit about you.” The Grammarly app is good at catching most spelling and grammar mistakes (though I’ve noticed it has a bit of a hard time recognizing the grammatical correctness of general nouns).

On top of making your writing style clear, make your actual points just as clear. You want a job, right? Say so. After you’re done making your value prop, say something like Charlie Hoehn did: “In exchange for these things, I hope that you’d consider taking me on as an intern (real-world or virtual). I would love to help you out on future projects. Let me know what you think, and I look forward to hearing from you.” Be this clear and direct about everything you say.

It doesn’t make the recipient feel defensive. One of the key principles of sales is that you never want your prospect to feel Not-OK in any way. So when you write a value prop, never say that their existing product sucks (even if it objectively does). It could have been designed by the owner’s son. Instead of saying it sucks, say it could be better.

Overall, your attitude about your recipient should be positive, and that includes your attitude toward their current product.

It has a clear demonstration of, well, value. Say exactly what you’re going to do for them. “You’re not utilizing Facebook ads for marketing, I can run an ad campaign.” “You’re not marketing on Craigslist, I can do that for you.” “You don’t have a personalized website, I can code it for you.” Whatever it is that you can do for them, spell it out.

It shows projects, not credentials. For them to take you seriously, you’re going to need to demonstrate that you can do what you say you can. But tell me, if you’re a business owner and you want to know whether I can really code a good website for you, which of these would you prefer to see?

“I have many years of experience with web programming (including detailed knowledge of the inner workings of HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, and SQL) as well as web design, and I’ve both designed and built a number of websites previously, including a website for a non-profit called Speset.”

“I built the Speset website using PHP and CSS. The mailing list I added using MailChimp currently has over 100 subscribers, with no marketing besides the existence of the website.”

The former tells you what I can do. The latter shows you. It is always better to show instead of telling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the same way, a project is worth a thousand sentences.

You should only tell them something if they can’t feasibly know it just by looking at the project. (Ex. my details about the number of subs to the mailing list and the languages I used to program the website.)

It has a very small and specific ask. Remember, these people are crazy busy. Don’t ask them to think of ways they could use your help. Come up with ways you could help them, then tell them about those ways.

Overall, a good value prop makes it easy for the recipient to say yes. When you’re writing anything, says Isaac Morehouse, founder of Praxis, “you want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to do what you want them to do. Whether it’s understanding an idea, whether it’s taking a specific action, whether it’s emailing you back, make it easy for them.”

Value Proposition Example

Here’s a value prop I wrote to the board of directors at my local skating club (the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club, or PFSC). Their website is pretty atrocious, so I wrote about how I could improve it.

Dear Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club Board members,

My family and I have been members of the PFSC for many years, and I frequent your website for information about club news and events. I’ve noticed two ways in which your website could be improved to better provide its services.

First, your current WordPress theme isn’t optimal for your website. The PFSC color scheme is black and gold, as anyone can see if they go to Skate Pittsburgh, but the website’s color scheme is primarily mint green and dark blue.

I would fix this by either modifying your existing WordPress blog or by creating a brand-new website for you from scratch. I’ve created several blogs using WordPress, including the one on my personal website. Additionally, I’ve designed and developed several websites, such as Speset and Ellis Wyatt.

Second, while the site contains a wide variety of interesting and useful content, it could be better organized. For example, the landing page contains information about the club’s history, recent news, and congratulations.

I would rewrite and/or reorganize your content so your visitors could navigate your site better. For example, I would reorganize the content on your landing page into several separate pages, then write a cohesive introduction for your landing page that welcomes both potential and current club members.

Throughout this process, I would involve you in my design decisions so I can make sure you end up with a website you love.

Lastly, I would be happy to provide you with a significant discount on my normal rates, since I’d like to help the club.

Let me know! I look forward to hearing from you.

– Jenya Lestina

This may not be the perfect value prop, but that’s the point. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. And once it is good, put it out there. One published sentence is worth ten novels sitting on your hard drive.

What Should I Learn?

The world of technology is very fragmented, or at least it looks that way to a young techie. It’s hard to know what is and isn’t in demand, and therefore, it’s hard to know what to focus on. If you’re equally good at three different languages, which one should you pick?

At the time of this writing, I have solid entry-level skills in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Java, as indicated by my MTAs. I’ve also got some skill in SQL, though I haven’t taken the MTA exam yet. For some time, I’ve been trying to decide what area to focus on.

My general idea was that I would focus primarily on web development (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) because it was really difficult for me to learn all three languages, and I figured that the difficulty would make it a highly marketable skill. I knew from my mom (who works with SQL and SQL programmers) that SQL was also a pretty marketable skill, so I thought I’d put some effort into learning that.

I never put much systematic effort into learning Java. I took the AP Java and a class in Java from CCAC, and I did difficult projects for each, but that was it.

The reason I wasn’t big on Java was that I’d heard from a number of sources that Java was on the decline. I only learned it at all because it was one of only two computer-related APs, and at that point, I still wanted to get into a top-tier college with a major in tech, so I needed it.

This is why I thought it was really weird when a bunch of recruiters started asking me about full-time Java positions on LinkedIn. I have all my skills listed on my profile, and it’s not like Java is the most prominent in that list, so I didn’t know why they would want me for Java in particular if the market share wasn’t that big. Why weren’t they asking me about JavaScript instead?

I caught a glimpse that my perception of reality might not match reality—in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s words, the map might not match the territory—so I started looking for where I might have been wrong.

I found all kinds of stats saying that JavaScript was the most popular programming language. That should mean that it doesn’t pay as well since it’s more abundant. But still, I wasn’t looking for popularity among programmers. I was looking for demand among employers.

In comparison to the huge number of articles talking about language popularity, there were relatively few talking about actual job postings. But when I did find some, I was pretty astounded. In most of the lists I found, Java was solidly in first place. Some lists put SQL first and Java second. But JavaScript was almost never ranked higher than third, and it was frequently ranked lower, below languages like Python and flavors of C.

As I looked at the colorful bar graphs, I realized what I’d done wrong. I’d falsely assumed what many people assume: that because something was hard for me, it’s hard for everyone else (and thus will pay well since it’s scarce), and likewise, that because something was easy for me, it’s easy for everyone else.

Further, I’d also committed the fallacy of base rate neglect: when I’d read that Java was on the decline, I hadn’t considered where it was on the decline from. Evidently, it was declining from a truly overwhelming majority on the market.

With this knowledge, I decided to change my path. I’d stop worrying so much about web development and split my efforts between the languages with the most market shares: Java and SQL.

If you’re considering going into tech, take a quick look at those articles I linked. There’s a lot of advice out there, with a lot of hidden assumptions behind it (ex. assuming that just because you’re a beginner programmer, you don’t want to try a language that’s difficult to understand, such as SQL). Figure out what pays and make your own judgments. It’s never too early to start: my sister, who’s halfway through her accounting certificate, decided she wanted to be an accountant at the age of 6.

The Purpose of College, Past and Present

A lot of people complain that college isn’t doing a good job preparing people for the workforce. They toss around statistics like “only 27% of college grads have jobs related to their majors” and “only 62% of college grads have a job that requires a college degree”. Evidently, the only goal of college nowadays is career preparation, and colleges (or maybe college graduates) are failing at this goal.

Why is that? What’s wrong?

To answer that, let’s look back 200 years, to the Revolutionary War. When the first publicly-funded colleges came into existence, their purpose was to educate the top 5-10% of highly gifted white boys, so that they could become leaders and exceptional men. Our modern sensibilities might be offended by the exclusiveness of “small percentage of highly gifted white boys”—it leaves out girls, people of color, and non-highly-gifted white boys—but for the time, it was very progressive. In Britain, college was explicitly a privilege for only the very wealthy. The Americans, then, wanted to move away from that; they decided that college should be available to any highly gifted white boy, regardless of income.

One of the main contributors to this ideal was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote Bill 79, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”, which was presented numerous times through the 1770s and 80s before a heavily revised version was put into law in 1796.

This was still the general attitude through the 1800s. When W.E.B. Du Bois argued for the education of African Americans, he expressly said that college is for only the “talented tenth”, or the “best minds of the race”, so that they can “reach their potential and become leaders”.

“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races.”

This view remained until the turn of the twentieth century, when it gradually started to change. College became a status symbol; after all, it was only available to the top 5-10% of people, so having gotten into college meant you had something special. Something special that employers wanted working for them. College graduates, then, got their pick of the best jobs.

Since everyone wants great jobs, everyone wanted college. As such, the GI Bill was passed, opening college to a much larger population following WW2. The problem was that college itself was not causing people to get great jobs, it was a status symbol that was merely correlated with getting great jobs, and people committed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hocI’ve written about this before.

As college became available to more and more people, it became less useful as a symbol. The symbol was, after all, about being part of an elite few. When this happened, college stopped guaranteeing good jobs, or in fact any jobs at all. But yet, the cultural zeitgeist had shifted: college was for jobs now, not for educating future leaders. It doesn’t matter that the curriculum has hardly changed at all since 1851. College is supposed to magically procure jobs, despite the fact that it has absolutely no way to do that.

College had never been designed to prepare people for specific careers that required specific skills. For the elite future leaders it was designed for, it taught more generic things like developing a cultured and educated and intellectual character. This is great and all, but it doesn’t give you diddly for actual marketable skills.

During the actual time period, when the top 5% were going to college to learn how to be great leaders or whatever, everyone else was learning actual job skills through trade apprenticeships. In fact, many of the leaders did this too: they both went to college and apprenticed at a trade, so they could have a means of making a living while they worked on shaping the nation. Being a person who shapes a nation doesn’t come with a paycheck.

So. Why is college failing at getting people jobs? It wasn’t designed to do that in the first place. During the brief period that it did do that, it was because of correlation based on rarity and status, not causation based on education. And now, despite being basically the same thing that it’s always been, college is saddled with the artificial purpose of getting jobs for graduates, which it is incapable of doing.

Once you know the real history, all the artificial, retroactive explanations of the modern day fall away. All the justifications of the continued existence and high price of college fail to make sense. You start to notice that there is literally nothing that colleges do or pretend to do that can’t be done more effectively somewhere else for a tiny fraction of the cost.

You want a liberal arts education? Sure! Go to the library. Read the classics. Read Shakespeare and Dante and then learn Latin and read Caesar and Catullus and Cicero. Go to museums and learn about art. Go to symphonies and learn about music. You don’t need a university for a liberal arts education.

You want to learn more pragmatic stuff, like math and coding and writing? Sure! Take some online courses. I recommend Gotham Writers, Udemy, Free Code Camp, Edhesive, and Khan Academy.

You want a great career? Sure! Look over the job market, see what kinds of skills are marketable, see what kinds of skills you’ve got, and start looking. If you’re just getting started, I recommend the Praxis program.

You want to network with other smart, interesting, accomplished people? Sure! There are a huge number of online groups and forums, as well as tons of conventions and other in-person gatherings.

You want a status symbol to put on your resume? Well, okay, maybe for that you want college. Get good grades in high school, get 5s on APs, ace the hell out of the SAT, get National Merit, don’t forget your extracurriculars… basically work your butt off for four years in high school, then apply to a bunch of colleges. If you’re both lucky and successful, you’ll get the opportunity to pay a bunch of money in order to work your butt off for four more years so you can put Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or whatever on your resume. And yes, this is a very useful and valuable status symbol. But it’s taken eight years of your life and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In case you want a different route than that, try this. Go apply for a job at prestigious companies in your chosen field, and if you don’t get in, develop your resume and skillsets until you do. It’ll require about as much hard work as college, but unlike college, you’ll actually learn useful skills in the process. Also unlike college, you won’t be in debt by the end; rather, you’ll have been paid for your trouble.

The only reason you should consider going to college is if you’re planning on going into a field that is very, very strict about requiring one. (“All the job listings say they require one” does not count.) For example, if you want to be an accountant, you need a CPA. You cannot sit the CPA exam without 150 credit hours of college, so you’re kinda stuck there. Similar concept with doctors, lawyers, and the like.

Still, in those circumstances, it’s just because the world hasn’t caught up to the uselessness of college yet.

So, should you go to college? Maybe. It depends on your specific goals. But is college the right path for everyone? Absolutely not. And is it a surprise that college isn’t doing a good job at preparing people for careers, given the history? Absolutely not. Actually, it’s a surprise that it’s doing as well as it is.

For everyone to have a good path, the entire educational system needs to be overhauled. But for any given individual, just think long and hard about your career. Don’t march in lockstep down the college path just because college.


A version of this post was published on Praxis’s blog on Nov 5, 2018. Check it out!

What Is a Tech Cert, and What Is It For?

Last month, as a part of my portfolio project, I got three MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) certifications, in Java, JavaScript, and HTML/CSS. I documented this fact through my project updates, but if you don’t know what those are, I didn’t offer a lot of explanation.

So, let me take this opportunity to explain what a technology certification is, why it matters, and why if you had to choose between some certs and a college degree, you should choose the certs.

There are a wide variety of different certs, offered by a large number of companies, which demonstrate proficiency with a ton of disparate technologies. Each cert is accorded a certain level of respect in the tech space, based on how central the company offering the cert is to the area of technology tested by the cert. For example: SQL Server, one of the most common flavors of SQL, is owned by Microsoft. As such, the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) in SQL is one of the most highly respected SQL certs.

Most companies who offer certifications offer them in tiers. I’ll use Microsoft as an example. The MTA is the lowest level of Microsoft certification. After that, the next level is the  MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional), and then the MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate). To get an MCSA, you need to pass three or four related MCP exams. The top tier is the MCSE. To get an MCSE, you need to already have an MCSA, then pass one or two additional (much more difficult) exams.

These certifications demonstrate specific things to employers. For example, “I have an MTA in this” means “I am skilled enough at this to get an entry-level job doing it”. “I have an MCSE in this” means “I am an expert at this and have a lot of experience using it”.

Tech certs and college degrees occupy very different niches. Where tech certs demonstrate that you have a certain level of hands-on skill with a specific technology or technological area, a college degree demonstrates (hopefully) that you have a broad proficiency with technology in general. Where a certification is product-specific, company-specific, and clearly leveled, a degree is more subject area focused and doesn’t necessarily include any particular language or technology, and while it does  come in levels (AS, BS, MS, PhD),  the levels correlate to time spent, more than skills earned.

If I say “I have a CCIE”, you know that I have a very high level of technical knowledge about routers and networking in general, and Cisco routers specifically (Cisco being one of the main manufacturers of routers). This is incredibly useful knowledge to employers, who now know exactly what I can do for them. If, however, I said “I have a Master’s degree in computer information technology”, you only know that I’ve spent six years immersed in technology. You don’t know what kind of technology, and if you’re an employer looking to hire someone who knows how to work with Cisco routers, you’ve got no clue if I can do that. My degree might have required one class in networking, or ten, or none at all. You have no idea.

It’s not just that degrees can be highly unspecific and not very useful to employers looking for specific skills. When someone says “I have a degree”, you don’t even know if their knowledge is up-to-date.

Certifications are always up-to-date, in one of two ways. Some certifications are only valid for a certain amount of time. For example, the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional, a cybersecurity certification) expires after three years, at which point it needs to be renewed. Other certifications are version-specific. For example, if you get an MCSE in SQL Server 2012-14, you have it forever, but you’ll probably want to get one in SQL Server 2016 as well once the newer version becomes ubiquitous.

But a degree doesn’t work like this. Once someone is taught a thing in a class, there is no requirement that they maintain that knowledge to keep the degree up-to-date. Furthermore, the thing taught in the class may not even have been up-to-date at the time it was taught. A lot of colleges have reputations for teaching things that are out of date, not out of malice, but because tech changes faster than colleges can. It’s rare to find college classes that teach the latest and greatest, and it’s common to find colleges teaching material that’s out of fashion, unnecessary, or just plain obsolete.

There’s yet another problem with degrees: they aren’t vendor-specific. I mentioned the CCIE before: the networking certification offered by Cisco. That last part is important. The benefit of a CCIE isn’t just that it says “This person knows routers.” It’s that it says “This person knows routers. Sincerely, the guy who makes the routers.” With a degree, it’s like “This person knows how tech works. Sincerely, a college that you may or may not have ever heard of.” So it’s not just the lack of information, it’s also the lack of credibility behind that information.

It is also important to note something kind of unique about tech: many of the seasoned working professionals in the tech space don’t have degrees in tech. This is because when these professionals were starting out in tech, the field was so new that there weren’t many degrees in it. They got degrees in other things: math, electrical engineering, underwater basket weaving, whatever. The thing that made them tech professionals was their technical knowledge, not what came after “BS in” on their resume. And nowadays, with the advent of certifications, these professionals have MCSEs or CCIEs, not college degrees.

Basically, if you have to choose between a candidate for your job who has a college degree in technology, and a candidate who has no degree but has several certifications and a good portfolio, you’re going to pick the latter. Even so, there is a reason for degrees in tech to exist besides “colleges wanted to jump on the tech bandwagon”.

Firstly, college degrees in tech demonstrate a commitment to learning technology over an extended period. Since you can get certs over however long you want so long as you keep them up-to-date, an employer has no idea whether the candidate with three certs has spent one year or five learning that material. College, by contrast, has a consistent, fast pace, so an employer can infer from a college degree that the candidate is capable of maintaining a high workload for an extended period of time.

Second, college degrees are designed to give you an understanding of the fundamentals of the field you’re entering, including at least the basics in the breadth of the field, plus some significant depth in at least one area. A major downside of having only certs is that you may not have a good foundation: you may be a one-trick pony who knows only one thing, and may do that one thing well, but may not know about how it fits into the bigger picture, what it depends on, or what depends on it.

The big advantage of a degree is that you’re going to come out of it with a general understanding of every major sub-discipline. You come out of a degree in tech with a general knowledge of networking, operating systems, electronics, math and logic, and programming. This is generally how every degree works, and it is in fact a valuable service that colleges provide.

The theoretical ideal candidate has both a degree in technology (for the breadth of knowledge and commitment) and multiple certifications (for specific, up-to-date knowledge about vendor technology). Often in the real world, though, employers will pass up someone with a nice shiny degree in favor of someone who has the right certs and a good portfolio.

Why to Start Early: An Example from My Youth

When I got my first job at the age of fifteen, I’d already had seven years of volunteer experience. I didn’t know that this was unusual at the time – after all, my siblings and many of my friends had this too. I’ve since realized not only was it unusual, it was awesome.

For some time, my family has been running a learn-to-ice-skate program in Schenley Park, PA. (I’ll be colloquially calling it Schenley from here on out. It’s what we call it in my house.) In many respects, it’s a pretty standard learn-to-skate thing: we’ve got 10 lessons over 10 weeks from December to February, our instructors are volunteers from my skating club, we teach anybody over the age of 3, and we follow the standard United States Figure Skating (USFS) approved curriculum, with minor variation.

The only notable difference is that we have no age prerequisite to be a teacher. Our only prerequisite is skating skill: we require instructors to have passed the pre-preliminary field moves test, which basically just makes sure our instructors are much better skaters than the students they’re teaching.

This means that we regularly have instructors who are as young as 6 or 7. You may think this is a recipe for disaster and chaos, but actually, both our program and the kids get a ton of benefit from this arrangement.

When we take on any new instructor, of any age, we start them teaching “tots” – toddlers <5. We frequently have a large number of tots, who are completely incapable of doing anything as a cohesive group, so having as many instructors as possible teaching tots is important. However, it takes almost zero skill to play with toddlers, and that’s essentially what we’re doing (just on the ice, the goal is to get the kids used to being on skates).

As it turns out, 6 and 7-year-olds are actually brilliant for this. If you pair them up one-to-one, a bunch of young children teaching a bunch of even younger children actually works incredibly well, for a number of reasons.

First of all, children are so much more capable than modern society gives them credit for. If you expect a young kid to be responsible enough to help teach tots to skate, they’ll rise to the challenge. I’ve seen this over and over again, with so many kids. They come to us at the age of 6, 7, 8, hesitant and not knowing what to do, having no experience with being taken seriously, and we say “there’s your group, go and help teach them how to fall properly”. And they do it! Not only do they do it, they do it really well!

In a way, children are better at teaching tots than adults, because they themselves were tots not too long ago, so it’s much easier for them to intuitively understand how best to teach them. Adults have more capacity for complex thought, and we can frequently let that cloud our perception of young childrens’ behavior, attributing much more intent to childrens’ decisions than the children actually had. The children themselves don’t have that problem.

In addition to giving kids responsibility from very early on, volunteering at Schenley lets them improve their own basic skating skills by virtue of teaching them. The best way to learn is, as they say, to teach, and these kids (who are all ice skaters) are teaching ice skating fundamentals.

Still, I think the coolest part of the way we run Schenley comes after someone’s been at it for a while. As a young kid gets more experience with teaching tots (and simultaneously gets older and acquires more skating skill), they can take on larger classes, higher levels, and more responsibility. They go from teaching one toddler to 5, 10, 20 kids; from teaching how to fall down and stand back up to more advanced skills like gliding on one foot, jumping, and skating backward; and from merely showing up and helping teach the lesson to helping organize materials and coordinating with other instructors.

And after having worked with us for years, a 16-year-old can look back and say, with complete and total honesty, that they have ten years of experience working somewhere. At a time when many young adults are just starting their first jobs, a teen having an entire decade of work experience, even as a volunteer, is huge. Since entry-level jobs are an area where soft skills are arguably more important than literally anything else, the kids who’ve worked with us are more prepared than most others.

I don’t just see kids doing this. I was a kid doing this. And honestly, working as a volunteer skating coach for so long was one of the best things I’d done with my childhood. I had the opportunity to do something valuable from a very young age, and I’m immensely grateful.

But it wasn’t anything special about Schenley. Coaching ice skating doesn’t magically create capable children and accomplished young adults. The important part was starting kids at doing something useful (that they could handle, of course) very young, and then progressively giving them more responsibility as they could handle it.

If you have kids, try to find a place like Schenley. Or, even better, make one. Very young kids can do household chores, address envelopes, and organize files. The key is to not give them make-work. The work needs to actually be useful, even in a small way; they will know their work really matters to somebody or not. And as they’re able to do more useful things, let them. Maybe a three-year-old can’t do the dishes, but a ten-year-old certainly can. Lastly, don’t worry if they’re in over their head a little bit. If they can’t really do the thing, as their parent, you’re there to help them out. But on the other hand, you don’t know for sure. Maybe they’ll surprise you. I think fifteen-year-old me surprised my mom by building Speset.

If you run a volunteer organization, seriously consider removing age requirements if a skill requirement is all you need. Young kids are an immensely under-utilized resource in modern society, and you can benefit greatly from utilizing them. And perhaps more importantly, the kids themselves will benefit from it. After all, the next generation is our future, and all that jazz.

See you tomorrow!

Don’t Just Be The Best, Be The Nicest: The Importance of Soft Skills

Many people think that the best thing you can do if you want a job is to be better at the job description than anybody else. If it’s a sales job, be an amazing people person. If it’s a tech job, know more about computers than anybody else. And on one hand, this seems obvious. The most important part of a job is the job itself, anything else must be incidental. Right?

Surprisingly, no. Let me show you why.

My mother used to work in a big company with a sales team. And there was one guy in particular on this sales team, let’s call him Leonard.

Leonard was a very energetic and incredibly competent salesperson, who was very good at persuading. He did the mechanics of sales exceptionally well. He wasn’t brilliantly charismatic, but he was really, really good at the simple mechanics of selling. Prospecting, understanding politics within the prospect’s environment, getting in front of the right people at the right time… he was brutally competent.

The problem was, he knew it. To prospects, Leonard was charming. To people above him in the hierarchy, he was at least civil. But to everyone at his level or below him, he treated them like deficient peons. It was obvious he thought that he was so much better than them. He treated the back office and support staff as if they were his personal servants. Nobody inside the company liked him, but they had to be nice to him because he just Kept. Landing. Contracts. Over. And. Over.

The only reason nobody fired him was because he was literally twice as good as every other salesperson, combined. But if he ever slipped up, stopped being so gobstoppingly brilliant, or if the company ever found someone as good, he would absolutely be drop-kicked out the door in an instant.

Why is that? After all, isn’t your competency at the job description supposed to be the most important thing?

We all know instinctively what Leonard did wrong. He was a jackass. And if you’re a jackass, there is very little you can do to redeem yourself except be leaps and bounds better than literally everyone else, because that way the company can’t afford to get rid of you. We all also know instinctively, therefore, that your competency at the job description isn’t the single most important thing.

Still, we probably still think it’s one of the most important. Surely you’d choose someone who can do the job well over someone who can’t, even if the someone who can’t is cheerful, reliable, and hardworking, right?

No, not really. Here’s an example from my own experience in sales.

I’ve written before about my sales job, and the fact that I applied for it, got it, and had it for months despite being severely under-qualified in every notable area. Circa the time that I started the interview process, if you’d asked me what a sales funnel was, I wouldn’t have known. Not only that, I was super socially awkward.

Here’s why none of that mattered, why they hired me anyway, and why they proceeded to not fire me.

During every interview (there were three), I showed up ten minutes before I was supposed to be there. I was cheerful and enthusiastic. I wore my utter lack of sales knowledge on my sleeve, accompanied by a “but I’d love to learn!” and a big grin. As I moved through the interview process, I listened to sales podcasts when I drove. When I had down time, I read sales manuals like You Can’t Teach A Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar. I was determined to learn as much as I could before I even got the job. In my third interview, I asked the hiring manager for her suggestions for sales books. She suggested some. I read them.

After I got the job, whenever they taught me something, I would spend all my available down time practicing it. Listening to podcasts on drives turned into reciting my sales pitch. I continued to read sales manuals, now in the context of what I’d learned. And when I was working—aka, when I was walking around knocking on doors; this was a door-to-door kind of a sales job—I asked questions, I watched and learned from the better salespeople I shadowed, and I tried as hard as I could to make working with me easy. Essentially, I made up for my complete lack of charisma with a great attitude. In an environment like sales, where we had on-the-job training, that was the most important thing.

Both of my examples have been about sales so far, and while this has been a coincidence, it does mean that I need to explicitly note something here. While half of the important background for sales (namely, the understanding of how sales itself works) is commonly taught on the job, that’s not the case for a lot of other jobs. So, it’s important to note that unless you meet the bare-minimum prerequisites for the job in question, no amount of attitude will get you the job. Even the most cheerful prospective neurosurgeon won’t get the job unless they’ve got a medical degree.

Still, once you’ve reached that minimum level of competency, soft skills like punctuality, reliability, cheerfulness, willingness to learn, etc. become much more important. Companies frequently hire people (like me) who are objectively worse at the actual job, but who are more pleasant to work with.

All of that said, here are some of the top soft skills which are more important than your competency at the actual job.

  • Enthusiasm. Companies like nothing more than seeing that someone wants to work for them.
  • Willingness to learn. Especially if you’re under-qualified, but honestly in any circumstance, this one is important. This one is extra important if you’re planning on going into tech, just because of how fast the field moves: even if you knew everything there was to know yesterday, something might get invented today that’ll make that old knowledge useless.
  • Ability to take criticism and improve. This one goes hand in hand with the previous one, and is just as crucial.
  • Humility/kindness/otherwise being a nice human being. This one is a bit less important, because sweet people still get fired if they won’t learn and improve (since they’re a drain on the company), but if you’re already pretty good about learning, you’ll want to make sure people like you, too.
  • Working hard. Basically, make the absolute most of your time at the office, and feel free to take the job home, too. There are tons of people who refuse to take their work home (something about “work life balance”, which seems to mean “I’d rather watch TV than achieve my goals”), so you can get ahead of them by doing simple, easy stuff like listening to a podcast on your drive home instead of the radio.
  • Be willing to do the grunt work. Somebody has got to fetch the coffee, make the copies, move the furniture, order more sharpies, and organize the company lunch. If that person is you, then you have made yourself invaluable. If you think you should be “above” that kind of work, and so that person isn’t you, then it’s probably going to end up being the CEO, or the VP of something or another. Nobody is “above” grunt work. Forward Tilt actually has a great episode about this.

Everyone knows that all other things being equal, soft skills are important. If you’re just as competent as the next guy but you’re more fun to work with, you’ll probably get the job. But what most people don’t know is that all other things don’t even have to be equal. Companies hire people all the time who aren’t as competent, but are easier to work with. Obviously competence matters, but once you’re over the minimum competence level, soft skills matter more. Being more competent doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to get a job if you don’t have the soft skills.