What separates me from other candidates

2020/06/18 - work

I’m appalled at how common this question comes up. It seems like every recruiter, and every manager, and everybody wants to offer this advice on LinkedIn these days. I find it annoying, so I’ll channel that frustration into a blog post.

A little background

I’ve written about my ridiculous employment history before, maybe I deleted it or maybe it’s still laying around. I’ve been programming for 20 years. I watched Microsoft invent .Net and release it to developers in the year 2000. I’ve watched it evolve, going from version 1.0 to 1.5 to 2.0 to 3.0 to 4.0 to 4.5. Every iteration of their product brought in new features. Metro, Xaml, GDI, Unity, J#. All very cool technology.

In college I was in a “filter” class. Basically, they offer a few entry level courses, but the work involved in a class to be accepted into the Computer Science program was a little harder than the other intro classes. I was one of the few people in class that had a huge background in programming entering the class. To say the least, it was child’s play. So like any student with mental sloth, I did as minimal work as possible to get a passing grade.

This changed when I took 4x 400+ level courses in the same semester. User Experiences, Compilers, Principles of Languages, and Automata Theory. I nearly failed Autonoma theory, if anyone is interested, Dijkstra’s book is incredible and cryptic and full of unexplainable mistakes even by a seasoned professor. Can’t remember exactly who wrote it, but this is a good start. In the languages class, I learned that all languages are essentially the same. Eventually the language has to compile down to something a microchip can understand and process. This makes it frustrating to me when a recruiter says I am not qualified for a job because of a specific language. What they really mean is “we don’t trust you can learn a framework and be useful to a company.” Maybe companies don’t even realize they are doing this?

User experiences class was neat because we set up a laboratory to measure people’s reactions to software we built. We could see a full cycle software “iteration” where a user would get stuck on a task, and then we modified the software to make the task easier. Some people used a little tap and drag motion, some people used buttons to add items to a list. Compilers was also a great class. We got to understand the inner-workings of microchips, how each byte (8 digits of 1s and 0s representing 0 to 255 or -127 to 127) correspond to specific logical gates on a chip. When the gate is activated, electrons can move from different places in memory, combining gates allows us to do things like advanced math.

How do I stand out

This is a hard question for me to answer. Understanding that there is something we can learn from everyone, I saw a lot of passion in my fellow collegiates. But there was also a lot of apathy and lack of passion. The Ethics class was lacking, so I relied on some advice from friends. We explored hacking together, how a website could be abused in doing things it wasn’t supposed to. Ultimately, and to our benefit, revealing these kinds of abuses to the website author, was supposed to come with a monetary reward. This work earned me a spot on Google’s Security Hall of Fame in the Fall of 2012.

Unfortunately, I also knew students who graduated without ever having built a computer. I don’t think this makes them a bad scientist, but now they could be considered “being more specialized”. I had been buying computer parts with the help of my parents and working other jobs for years. When I bought a computer part I would install it into my machine myself. I didn’t rely on “The Geek Squad” at best buy. I was my own geek squad! Years before, I helped faculty in highschool with their computer equipment. I worked for the college too, helping faculty debug hardware, and software. I repaired computer monitors by replacing busted capacitors and failed voltage regulators. I saved the college $2,000 without thanks. Of course there were a dozen engineers in the department that could do the same thing.

I also worked for a radio station. I rebuilt the entire station with 2 other coworkers. Some nights we were up until 1AM soldering XLR cables together. But how does this make me stand out, when I was accompanied by so many talented people?

Straight out of college I worked for 4 startup companies. All of them failed spectacularly. All of them were mismanaged. The first used Microsoft ASP and Master Pages. If anyone recognizes that platform they’d probably scoff at no surprise of it failing. It was a bit “much” meaning there was more code than what was necessary, and not enough user testing. Another platform we built was a service to business owners to virtually “hack” their own website. It would print out a status report of any tests that passed, meaning they had a vulnerability. My partner went on to earn over $15,000 in rewards from companies including Google.

I started an education company that never really got the attention or funding it deserved. How do I stand out? I’ve experienced every possible failure of computer design and ITSM (information technology systems management) that was possible early on in my career. I’ve watched over-complex systems being built, rigid systems, burden of process, budgeting problems, user experience failures. It is hard for me to get excited about repeating the same mistakes.

Repeating the same mistakes

This is one of the reasons I am whole-heartedly disappointed when an anonymous recruiter reaches out to me with THEIR PROCESS. They must love their process. I don’t really understand it. It’s like they are trying to pick a fight. They expect me to be extraordinary, while putting me through the same boring method. Let me outline the most common recruiting method, from my perspective.

  1. Connect with me on LinkedIn, I respond quickly, wait a day
  2. Suddenly, some sense of urgency, “Schedule a meeting so we can talk for 15 minutes”, looking for friendship? Probably not.
  3. “We really need to fill this position quickly, send me your resume”, I send me resume
  4. “Looking at your experience, it doesn’t look like you have experience with technology X, let’s chat about it.” I explain where I already used technology X, and now I know they didn’t read it.
  5. “Take this quick online assessment.” I take the online assessment where for the next 30 minutes they try to trick me into answering wrongly based on technology X.
  6. “Well, you failed the online assessment so this role probably isn’t a good fit for you. But we will keep you in mind for the future.” This is the recruiting company making this decision, not a hiring company.

Sometimes, we will reach step 7) Submit my resume and never hear back from anyone.

This pretty much summarizes what it means to “compete” for a job in today's economy. Here is where my failure comes into play. I’ve never seen a successful startup company work, so I don’t know how to build a product that other people will want to buy. I know a bunch of other very smart engineers in the same position. Some engineers were heading straight to Silicon Valley out of school, they got stock options, the company they worked at grey, and they hit it big. Now, 10 years after graduating with me, they decide to start their own business. They spend all their hours wasting away in front of the computer building products that nobody wants to buy.

America “The Land of Opportunity” is a lie. There are plenty of boomers to fill management and director positions. Yet, they wonder why “the right skills” are being passed down to younger generations. I’ve proven this in one of my later roles, I used the company reward system enacted by HR to create more enthusiasm, to buy lunches with my bosses. None of them were able to give me advice that would eventually prevent me from getting fed up and quitting. The only thing that all of this experience really has in common is that nobody really knows what they are doing. We go to work, try to do our best to follow instructions, but there is no real growth or change.

Can’t keep up

How is it that there are so many people out there in the world applying for jobs who are most qualified than me? I have so much experience, exploring new technologies every single day. Let’s list some of the things I’ve learned recently, each day at a time:

  1. Yesterday, I started learning Discord’s API, to read messages, build a better interface so I can see a full message roll and jump to the channel people are chatting on. Automate some messages and create a connected service to start game servers based on people’s chat. Business proposition: create a subscription service for hosted game servers using Discord to manage it.
  2. 2 days ago, I re-learned some Google Sheets formulas to parse names and email addresses. I learned how to use the Google Search API to dig up some information automatically using a script by connecting the Sheet to Google Search. Business proposition: scraping data to create a competitor to rocketreach/Salesforce/insert bullshit marketing company here.
  3. 3 days ago, I re-learned how to use Web Workers, I completed a personal project goal to remove load on Chrome by putting a game server in a Web Worker. This is some of the most complex and advanced work I’ve ever done. It includes 3 different languages, Javascript, C, and Web Assembly. Business proposition: create new online high fidelity 3D experiences complete with graphics streaming and offline mode.
  4. 4 days ago, Read 5 different Wikipedia articles on law, and participated in conversations about how the law could be changed and improved to better accommodate people hurt by them. Read about 4 different disabilities. Not sure how it applies to my life, but sometimes just knowing things is good enough. Business proposition: find people that fit the description above and direct them to appropriate professional services. Benefitting both the individuals and the professionals. Raising awareness?
  5. 5 days ago, Researched race wars in many different cultures. Learned something about history. Business proposition: don’t know, better education in the future maybe?
  6. 6 days ago, I read and understood other people’s code. This is one of my favorite things to do. I could integrate dozens of features into a game engine just by reading it. I learned a ton about HSGL shaders, networking protocols, how technology companies are using the web to create new gaming platforms. Business proposition: create a new gaming platform using existing technology.

All sorts of fun stuff I learn. It would appear I have no problem learning a diverse set of skills. But I can’t figure how any of this is relevant to a recruiter with a one track mind. How does my knowledge have anything to do with their ridiculous little quizzes and filtering process?

I guess I’ll just have to keep learning until someone comes along who can really appreciate it. I met a former Army officer on a plane from Chicago to Phoenix one time that told me he worked for the military. I told him “I would love to work for the military, but I’ve never been The Best of The Best of The Best.” He said, “that’s ok, it just depends on what you know.” Elon Musk stated on Twitter “You are paid according to your contribution to humanity.” That is absolute bullshit. I helped build a medical device that could replace $100,000 procedures with a $10 finger scan. Like a tricorder from Star Trek, it could diagnose an entire human body using Kirlian imaging. Sounds like Voodoo, but I built it, and I rebuilt it, and I saw the technology work on dozens of people. I understand the inner-workings of the device. It made complete sense, but it will never see the light of day, and I’ll never make my millions from MY CODE.