As I was getting ready for the biannual career fair early in the junior year of my undergrad, prospects of finding an internship were not looking that great. My fellow engineers had decided that attending the career fair was a waste of time. Ours was a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, where tech jobs were as rare as opportunities to have fun. The tech bubble had burst. 9/11 had further cramped the economy. Surely, engineers would get a friendlier welcome at a sorority party than at the career event. Why bother going, they asked?
The princes of pessimism (being engineers, there were more princes than princesses) had made their stand. Just like they would in social situations, they had surrendered before the battle had begun. I was undeterred through. I believed that if only I could get facetime with recruiters, great things would happen. I was confident that anyone with a job opening was one 5-minute conversation away from falling in professional love with me. Plus, I did not want to spend a summer in a college town. So, buoyed by cockiness and motivated by desperation, I cleaned up my resume and myself and found myself at the fair. Then, it happened.
I saw a position titled “Financial Analyst”. I also found out that no one from the computer science department had applied for said position. The title made it seem like the position had little to do with software. I still walked up to the booth and asked the recruiter from Sprint to provide me with some details on what the position was about. She told me they were looking for someone with experience in SQL and Visual Basic to help build a billing database system. That sounded like a position a student in a computer science program should be applying for, I thought.
I told the recruiter, with a smile that lit up the Missouri morning, “I have experience in the areas you want and would love to apply. Just so you know, the title seems a bit odd for the skill set you need.” The recruiter said, “You’re right! I came up with the title in a rush since the group hiring for this is under the Finance cost center. The hiring manager is available to chat later this morning. Would you want to talk and see if there is a match?” Just like that, I was being invited to an interview at a career fair. Just for walking up to an employer confidently and inquisitively.
I was led to a conference room. I chatted with a hiring manager. We worked out a fuller job description. I came up with a better title. The manager was impressed that I did not let a label (the job title) discourage me. There was a decent skill-set match. I walked out with a job offer. At a career fair that allegedly would have no opportunities for me, I walked out with a same-day interview and a job offer for a position whose description I co-wrote.
I recognize this is a rosier scenario than most, but a few lessons are in order for anyone looking for work, young and seasoned alike.
Looking for work can be exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. The unknowns are supposed to test you. If it were easy, they’d call it football. Don’t ever, ever, ever, lose hope. Job titles are like Madison Square Garden. The iconic NY venue is neither square nor a garden. Similarly, job titles sometimes are riddled with inaccuracies and inadequacies. Ask questions, and look beyond labels. Your willingness to do so only makes you better qualified for the job itself.
I was not the most qualified engineer in the CS department for the job. I was, however, the most qualified engineer who ended up applying for the job. A lot of folks who could have walked away with the job did not apply. I was at the right place at the right time, but got there when others chose not to. If you have a tendency to undersell yourself, remember this: you don’t always have to be the best to win.
It may sound unfair that I got the job over those more qualified. Then again, how many times have you lost out to someone less worthy than you? Life is not governed by an ideal plan. A series of events, decisions and outcomes all form threads of a grand tapestry. When you do get a break, make it count and prove yourself worthy.
Speaking of proving yourself worthy, skills matter. Keep learning and growing. The value you bring to a company will help you set sail when the time is right, and serve as an anchor when the seas are stormy. For all the things you can’t control, this one you do. There is no substitute for being qualified and deserving.
For all the weight accorded to “who you know”, “who you don’t know” is important too. Introducing yourself to someone you don’t know, and asking for their consideration is supposed to make you nervous. To not feel vulnerable in that situation goes against human nature. But by asking for someone to give you their time, you are showing them respect. No heart, however corporate and cynical, is immune to sincere human outreach.
Finally, luck helped me land that job. This experience taught me the degree to which fortune, as much as fortitude, can drive hiring decisions. I remember this every time things don’t go my way. Don’t ever attach your sense of self-worth to whether a certain job works out or not. You are the sum total of your efforts, not just one failed interview. Also remember that when good fortune does come your way, consume it with relish, but for good measure throw in a pinch of humility as well.
By Nishant Bhajaria; Freelance Career Coach and Product Manager at Nike