Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Career Positioning Ironies: Creative vs. Cog

Every job listing that you see always features the experience section, that list of prerequisites that a prospective employer is looking for. While we all have a sense of the importance of this section, it's in the nuances of how it's implemented where you can find a certain amount of irony.

As a prospective employer, we want to screen our candidates and narrow the field. After all, just because a million monkeys banging on keyboards might produce Shakespeare, why should waste your time talking to all of them.

At the same time, our hiring infrastructure is often designed such that the only candidates that pass the screening are monkeys that have typed Shakespeare. Forget about monkeys that have typed plays by Tom Stoppard. And no monkeys that, bored with theater, decided to author movie screenplays. Not monkeys that have written original, meaningful works. And definitely not that monkey that typed Tropic of Cancer.

I know that I've written about this before, but it's always disappointing when you see job screening done in this way. A couple of years ago, the buzzword theme was webinar. Everyone screening for a marketing job always wanted to know if you'd done any webinars. No webinars and you were out. It didn't matter whether you'd done anything of similar or greater complexity. It didn't matter what the corporate environment you were in was like or what the needs of your product were, it was a simple formula -- webinars, yes or no.

Experience is Valuable
There is a kernel of truth in this screening OS. When you do stuff a lot, you get better at it. Like making food. Make the same dish over and over again, and you'll have a sense of how it tastes before it reaches your mouth. Make it enough times and you'll probably have added some steps that you might not have followed the first time -- or maybe you stripped some out.

Conversely, if you've never done something and it's complicated, you'll probably have no idea where to begin. If I ask you to design and build a four-story house? Even if you have a sense of where to start, without some basic experience you're going to have a hard time answering questions like, how much will it cost, how long will it take, and what other kinds of things will be required.

At the same time, endless repetition does not equal better. If you've designed a thousand business cards, you're probably better than someone who has only done one or two, but does it make you better than someone who's done a hundred? Just because you've fried lots of eggs, it doesn't make you a better egg-cook than someone who may have done fewer, but with more methodology might have done. Who would you expect to make a better egg, the cook at your local Denny's or Wylie Dufresne?

What Experiences Are We Measuring?
The real problem is not screening for experience, but having a clear understanding of what's actually being measured by that experience. Are you screening those monkeys for writing or just for experience banging on a keyboard? The both look a lot alike, but faced with new challenge, your writer will produce interesting content -- on his best day, all you can really hope for from the keyboard banger is that he'll be able to replicate his keystrokes.

And to make matters worse, you can't ask the monkeys. Because once one monkey has banged out Shakespeare, you've got 999,999 others that also think that they are writers because they worked with the other monkey on the project.

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