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What I’ve learned from Aisha Tyler and “Girl on Guy” about managing your career

You probably know Aisha Tyler. She does nearly everything: Standup comedy. Played Ross’s girlfriend on “Friends” for a season. Currently on daytime TV as a host of “The Talk” and voices Lana Kane on the hilarious adult cartoon show “Archer”. Wrote and directed a short film. She is a contributor to Glamour and Entertainment Weekly and just finished her second book. She is also a hardcore gamer geek which endears her to an entirely different demographic. She voiced a character in Halo Reach and is a regular participant/presenter at geekfests Comicon and E3.

Aisha developed and hosts the #7 podcast on iTunes (with over 4 million listeners), Girl on Guy. Girl on Guy is an often hilarious 1:1 conversation with some of the most interesting guys in the entertainment industry (with a few women guests thrown in for good measure), hosted by a guy’s girl. I’m a religious listener because Aisha is extremely articulate, well-spoken, whip-smart, and the dialogue is almost always provocative. Aisha often walks her guest through their back story–how did they get where they are today?

As I listened to a recent episode, I realized that there at some constant themes that emerge from these dialogues:

  • Most of her guests didn’t have a clue how to get into their business (mainly TV, movies, or music). But they were always clear about their objectives.
  • They fail. A lot. It could be months or years between even small gigs. But they didn’t give up on their objective.
  • Many people were horribly naive about what it meant to work in TV/movies/music–at first. But they sought the advice of every industry vet they could to better understand how to succeed in what is a very difficult industry.
  • They work. All the time. They don’t turn work down. They aren’t too self-important to think they are above work–because if they turn it down, the work might dry up.
  • Most importantly–a universal theme is that her guests are always thinking about their work future. What will they do when this commercial or TV show ends? What are they learning/doing now that will give them another career path if/when they stop getting acting jobs?

These insights are directly applicable to managing your career.

  • You need to have goals and be relentless in how you work to pursue them. What are yours? And what are you doing, every day, to make them reality?
  • We all have failures. We don’t get jobs/promotions we want. We’re laid off. Sometimes even termed for cause (aka fired). But you can’t let them derail you. If you’ve had a recent career failure, what are you doing to pick yourself up and get focused?
  • Your work might not be roses and sunshine, but you have to double down on your work ethic and do what’s asked of you–and then some. Do you raise your hand when a new project is offered up?
  • You also have to manage your career–and what comes next. Learning at work is critical–but often that learning is going to happen beyond your 40 hour workweek and your daily job tasks. Creating a career future for yourself often requires choices of how much time and work you invest now–are you making the right ones?

The importance of being yourself in job interviews

We are a culture that, by and large, does not welcome self-promoters.

Many of us are good at what we do in work. But we’re not good at telling others how and why we’re good at what we do. We’re taught not to brag to others about our accomplishments or achievements. Which, in a way, is exactly what we must do at every step of the job search process–and especially in interviews.

Hence, most people are uncomfortable with having to ‘sell’ themselves. Lacking practice, far too many job seekers come across in interviews as stiff, uncomfortable, anxious, nervous–not who they are in a normal conversational exchange.

As a recruiter, I interview a lot of candidates. I quickly assess whether a candidate is being their genuine self with me or not. It’s not the only factor that matters to me; I’m assessing whether they have the right mix of skills, experience, education, and knowledge as well as whether there are any potential red flags regarding compensation expectations, etc. But as I am evaluating the 5-7 people I’ve phone screened for a position–all of whom are similarly qualified–I will often give the edge to someone that I know is going to present themselves well to a hiring manager.

An interview loop assesses if you can do the job and whether you will work well with the team/manager. Hiring managers and their teams want to know if you’ll add value and not be high maintenance. If  a candidate comes across as overly nervous, talks too much (or too little), or is a self-important, arrogant ass (I’ve seen all three recently) they’ll likely be given a no hire–even if that’s not who they are most of the time. (Remind me to tell you the story of the guy who once said, “Unlike women, I understand numbers” to an SVP in Finance during an interview…)

Do you know how you come across in an interview?  You need to. Here’s how:

  • Go to a WorkSource center or your college career center and take their mock interview workshop. Ask that they video record the interview so you can watch yourself. Ask for feedback from the interviewing professional as well as other workshop participants. No, it’s not easy to hear that you used the word “literally” 22 times in a 5 minute interview. But if you don’t know you’re doing it, guess what the only thing a hiring manager will remember about you will be? (That’s a real-life example.) Also ask if they have access to web-based tools that would allow you to practice video interviewing from home.
  • Ask someone you know that interviews people as part of their job to help you practice. Use your smartphone or digital camera to capture it on video. Ask them to give you honest, constructive feedback and review the video with them for specifics. (I know–nobody, including me, likes seeing themselves on camera. But it’s a hugely useful tool.)
  • Consider asking for constructive feedback after you complete an interview loop.  A thank you note is a good opportunity to do this.
  • Practice. There are a number of common interview questions, including the dreaded, “Tell me about yourself?” Ensure you know what you’ll say to them–but don’t rigidly script it as it will sound canned (and will ruin any chance of coming across as your real self in the interview).
  • Research–the company (using tools like Glassdoor, Yahoo/Google Finance, Hoovers, WSJ, their Investor Relations website, industry blogs/sites like GeekWire, etc ), the hiring manager (review their LinkedIn/Facebook profile; see what a Google search produces). The more you know, the more any anxiety you have (which is fear of the unknown) will be reduced. The in-person interview loop is the final exam of your job search: Prepare accordingly.

More than anything, though–remember this: An interview is a conversation. It’s a two-way dialogue where both parties should be looking for information from the other. You need to assess whether this is the right job, type of manager, company/team culture, etc for you just as much as they are assessing you. Always have that thought top of mind in every interview situation; it should be empowering to you. The more you can strike a balance between being professional but genuine, the more the interviewer is likely to think positively of you.

How big of an issue is ageism in the tech community?

My awesome sourcer/senior recruiter, Kristen Fife, sent me an interesting blog post about Morgan Missen’s recent tweet. For those who are unaware, Morgan Missen is considered one of the most influential recruiters in Silicon Valley. She has worked in recruiting at Google and built the teams at Twitter and foursquare. Expert guest on Bloomberg TV, CrunchBase, TechCrunch, and others.

On Wednesday, she posted this to Twitter:

Saying you have twenty years of experience on your résumé only means you’re forty; and, much like being forty, it’s nothing to brag about.

— Morgan Missen (@mm) January 23, 2013

Silicon Valley has been the subject of recent stories about ageism, where one worker stated:

“I don’t think I would have been able to get this CEO job if I hadn’t shaved my head,” says Adams, who has founded eight venture-backed companies. . .Adams has supplemented his makeover by trading in his button-down shirts for T-shirts, making sure he owns the latest gadgets, and getting an eyelid lift.

In 2010, TechCrunch reported that UC Berkeley professors analyzed BLS data for the semiconductor industry and found that after 50, the mean salary of engineers was lower—by 17% for those with bachelors degrees, and by 14% for those with masters degrees and PhDs—than the salary of those younger than 50. Ouch.

I’ve never recruited in Silicon Valley. I have been exposed to multiple startups in Seattle,  and the dev culture is often very young. It makes sense in certain practical ways:  In a market where the average tech salary is now $92,290 a startup may not have the dollars to hire a lot of experienced mid-career devs.  You want people who are hungry to learn, are excited to build something new (and hopefully profit from its success down the road), and who will trade personal life for a job that requires working 12+ hours a day 6-7 days a week to build, test, and launch that groundbreaking new mobile app. (Speaking as someone who lives with a dev, I know those kind of hours aren’t uncommon. It’s likely a lot harder to juggle that schedule with parent-teacher conferences, neighborhood watch meetings, house remodels and the like.) But it’s a problem if a mid-20’s CEO only wants to hire people who look like they do and they don’t  have anyone counseling them as to why that’s not only a bad idea from a business perspective, but it’s also illegal.

As a recruiter who hires for software dev/test/PM positions, age isn’t a factor for me. As long as they have the right skills/experience, there aren’t any red flags in the interview process, and their comp expectations are in alignment with what we can pay it matters not if they are 25 or 55. I’ve not run into overt ageism while working with any of my tech hiring teams. If anything they often start out wanting someone more senior/specialized than, after I qualify them, we agree they likely need.

I’m curious to know whether people reading this have experienced overt ageism in the tech community–either inside Silicon Valley or in places like Seattle.

  • What have your experiences been either as a hiring manager or candidate?
  • Have you encountered it yourself?
  • If yes, where were you (geographically–obviously I’m not asking anyone to give up company names)? What did you do about it?

Situational Leadership and job search: Are you stuck in Stage 2?

In my last post, I discussed the 3+ Million ‘hopelessly unemployed’ people in the United States. This category is defined as people who would like to find a job, but haven’t actively searched for a job in a year or more. In short, they’ve given up hope.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and most are not easy or simple. I don’t claim to have a fix for this problem, but I do know what it is to be unemployed for a few months and how discouraging it can be.

There’s a management theory called Situational Leadership. It has 4 stages that a new employee (or existing employee taking on a new project/role) will likely pass through:

  1. Low competence/high commitment: The enthusiastic beginner
  2. Low competence/low commitment: The disillusioned learner
  3. High competence and low/variable commitment: Capable but cautious
  4. High competence/high commitment: The self-reliant achiever

I think the SitLead categories are very transferable to the stages of job search.

Stage 1: Many job seekers new to the market find some jobs online that are possible fits and apply. They send a few emails to people in their network and receive back positive messages (“Wow, sucks to hear you’re looking, you were better than that place, sure I’ll keep my ears open for you…”) that bolster their confidence and spirits. They pass their resume to a couple of people who tell them that they will pass it along ‘to the right people’. It seems like there is a lot of positive movement without a ton of heavy lifting; spirits are good. Then…

Stage 2 hits. Those resumes you forwarded to friends don’t produce a result. The only thing you hear from the jobs to which you submitted resumes via an online application site are emails entitled “Thank you for your interest in. . .”. Those friends you emailed a few weeks ago must have all been deaf, as their ears don’t seem to be hearing anything that’s resulted in a job lead. Weeks pass without much positive response.

It’s easy to get stuck in Stage 2. The rejection can be a big blow to self-worth. “I am pretty good at what I do–so why aren’t I even getting an interview? I thought I had a better network…why isn’t it helping me find my next job?” Also, it seems like the options most available–searching online, contacting a few former colleagues–just aren’t working. It’s hard to get past that–trust me, I’ve been there. But it’s critical to push through, because otherwise it’s an infinite loop of less investment, even less return, and greater disillusionment. So you soldier on to…

Stage 3: Frustrated and discouraged, but realistic, you recommit and redouble your efforts.

  • Create a schedule for yourself each day.
  • Get up, get EXERCISE, shower, and dress like you’re going to a business casual work environment.
  • Leave the house (I cannot stress how important this is): Go to a coffee shop, the library, or to your local WorkSource center (or similar in your state).
  • Get professional help. How are you presenting yourself? Are your hair style or clothes out of date? Remember, you don’t have to spend a lot to look good. Target has great, contemporary clothes for men and women–and a suit there will set you back $100. For that price it ain’t Prada, but it’s sure as hell better than that thing you dragged out of the back of your closet from 1994.
  • Have someone at the WorkSource center review your resume and give you feedback; while you are there, practice interviewing (because we ALL could use practice interviewing–trust me).
  • Are you part of a professional association for your industry? Good–go to their monthly meetings and network like crazy. No? WTF? Join ASAP! Find ways to add value to your community (and resume) by putting your skills to use in a volunteer capacity.
  • Spend quality time on LinkedIn building a killer profile and ensure you get recommendations from key people you’ve worked with; Join and add value to professional groups; following your target companies; and answering questions in the Q&A section.
  • Research the crap out of the companies you are most interested in on sites like Hoovers and Yahoo Finance, and figure out who are in key positions within the departments you want to work.
  • Most importantly: You are CEO of your own job search firm. This is a startup business, and you have to work at it like someone that’s just been given $5 Million in venture capital with the expectation you multiply that figure by an exponent in a very short time.

Did you do all of that? Congratulations. You’re a Stage 4 job seeker. You are connecting with people and talking about future opportunities that aren’t posted yet. People in your professional community know what an asset you are–and what you could be to their company. Board members of that non-profit–which happen to be CxO’s of companies in your area for their day jobs–are getting a taste of your capability. More than that–your self-worth no longer hinges upon an email reply that begins with something other than, “Thank you for your interest in. . .”.

Discouraged workers and the ‘hopelessly unemployed’: Will life always be like this?

I recently took a trip to Spain. Two days before departure, I got a nasty head cold–which meant flying 11.5 hours sick. I arrived, had one great day–and then got the stomach flu. (I know–I sound like a ton of fun to travel with, right?) The upshot of this is my sleep schedule was totaly screwed up and remained that way for weeks after I arrived home. I was waking up at 3-4am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Nothing I tried–exercise; no exercise; melatonin; reading with low light; watching C-SPAN–helped me sleep more/better.

One night, when sitting in the living room at 4:30am, both exhausted and wide awake, I had that fleeting thought–“What if this is the new norm? What if I never sleep more than 4 hours a night?” Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be reality (as is often true); a week later and I’m back to sleeping 6-7 hours a night.

I think we’ve all had these moments when something in our lives suddenly changes in an unexpected or negative way. We injure our back/knee/etc and hobble around for a week or two. We deal with insomnia. We have a sudden allergy attack that doesn’t seem to stop for a week or two.

Or–we lose our job. And/or are have difficulty finding the next one. If someone stays in this category long enough, they are considered a discouraged worker by the DOL, and there’s a lot of them. What’s worse is a new category being deemed the hopelessly unemployed–people who want a job but haven’t searched for one in at least a year. And there’s over 3 million people in that category.

We, as a nation, have to do better.

There are promising signs in certain sectors: There is some evidence that manufacturing jobs are starting to return to the US from near/offshore. Housing starts hit their highest number in December 2012 since their peak in 2008.

But it doesn’t explain why 3.25 Million people have become so hopelessly discouraged that they don’t even look for work–and haven’t for over a year.

What is the right solution, hivemind?

January 2013
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