Thoughts on Skill Sets Outside of the Domain

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I recently had a conversation with a VFC member has had completed Training Camp and is about to head into the job market. This is their first job out of school, and they are nervous about trying to jump into a startup in the midst of a pandemic.

This individual is truly exceptional across the board: top grades at university, internship work experience, real life experience in extra-curricular activities, and has even started their own side-project company using their skills in the midst of a difficult job market.

In any other condition, I would say this person was off to the races.

But we’re in a pandemic. Startup funding has dried up considerably. Companies are cutting back.

All that said, this isn’t why I’m worried about them. It’s that they have a tangential technical skill set, which makes decisions like this difficult.

I believe there is a spectrum of technical roles at companies, from deep and specific, to surface-level and generalized.

Trying to keep things anonymous, let’s say this person has a background in medicine. Let’s call them Jane.

In some organizations, and in some roles, that might be the exact skill set they are looking for. We are a medical device company looking to hire a medical expert in the field of cardiology, and that is what your background happens to be. It’s a match made in heaven, and you’re off to the races.

But what if you have a background in cardiology and you’re interested in working at Fitbit?

This has got me thinking about something I’ll call tangential technical skills.

To me, tangential technical skills are when you have a deep understanding and skill set of a discipline that is not directly related to your job, or a job you hope to have. Some examples might be: civil engineering and working for a construction software company; material science and working for a 3D printing company; cardiology and working for a wearable company, etc. etc.

My point here is that Jane clearly has a depth of understanding and know-how that is helpful to this organization, but not in ways they may directly appreciate.

I’m a mechanical engineer. I have built consumer hardware products. If I apply to a job at a consumer electronics hardware startup, my experience is pretty directly applicable. But what about if I apply to a robotics company that sells to large organizations on infrastructure projects? Clearly my experience is not directly related.

The challenge for any applicant, let alone Jane, is to convince the company to hire them by telling a story that links past experience, current skill sets, and a future between them and the organization.

I have told other VFC startup-hopefuls in the past: “no one cares about your experience, they care what you can do for them”. I don’t fully believe that, because ultimately I do care about your life experience and I want to work with people I enjoy getting to know and hanging out with (the Layover Test), but ultimately it is up to the applicant to express why their experience has value in this scenario.

This is where I get into deep versus surface-level technical roles.

I worked for a 3D printing startup for 3 years. Prior to joining, I had completed maybe 5 3D prints in my entire life through school and work projects. I understood the concept and how the machines worked, but I was far from an expert.

But I had nearly 2 years experience through my co-ops at 6 different organizations, and could bring a wealth of design intuition and organizational experience to the team. I had worked for 6 organizations, of various sizes, and saw how they structured processes, ran meetings, solved problems, and made a profit. That had tremendous value to a small team at the stage I was joining.

The role I was hired into was a surface-level technical role.

I’m confident anyone with some mechanical background and a lot of enthusiasm could have been a great fit for that job. Not that everyone would have been successful, but that the right person could have had a huge variety of backgrounds. I’m fortunate that person ended up being me.

But consider a much larger organization, say a company of 100+ people, hiring for a mechanical engineering role. They aren’t looking for someone to come in and be a generalist; they are looking for specific skill sets to fit within the larger machine. They are trying to find a specific puzzle piece, a right-sized gear, to help the organization grow through a very specific challenge.

This is what I would describe as a deep technical role.

If you’re a machine learning company, you probably want to hire people with deep technical knowledge of machine learning (at least for a machine learning computer scientist role).

Now take this one step further. Say you have a Ph. D. in Material Science, but you’re interested in a junior mechanical design role. I would say you have tangential technical skills to the role. Should you apply? Are you likely to get it?

This brings us to the heart of this problem.

If you believe you would be a good fit for the role, you should apply. That is a given regardless of the situation.

Does it interest you? Does it leverage your talents and skills? Can you provide value to the organization?

If you answered yes to all 3, you should apply regardless of your situation.

But are you likely to get it?

That depends a lot on you, and whether it is a deep or surface-level technical role.

But here’s how I would approach it.

If you can put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager: ask yourself ‘what are they looking for?’ They likely have a long list of requirements they would like to check off, such as experience designing electronics, understands their way around Solidworks, can code in Python, etc. etc. They also have a second checklist of things that would be nice to have, like experience working for a startup, a go-getter attitude, design sense, etc. etc.

In many cases, your goal in the interview is to check as many boxes off the first and second list as possible.

Then there is the third list, which I would describe as open-ended culture and team fit. Do they like you? Do you like them? Are you interesting to one another? Will you fit with the team? The Layover Test. These are the intangibles that many small companies care about.

Here’s what I would recommend.

With the first list, my best advice would be to show all the things you’ve done that would check the requirements boxes.

This can often be as simple as going through the job description before hand, and writing out examples of things you’ve done that met that particular requirement, and then doing some clean-up to package those stories nicely. A good friend who is willing to listen is helpful here.

Also don’t feel like you need to meet every requirement. No one does. If you do, you’re aiming too low, and the job won’t be an area of growth for you!

You are also likely to have much more success with surface-level technical roles, not deep technical roles.

If you’re a Material Scientist applying for a Junior Mechanical Design role, describe the projects where you had to build a jig, reset a machine, tinker with something, or otherwise use your mechanical knowledge to get the result you wanted. In this phase, a hiring manager wants to see that you can do the job required and have enough experience to get up-to-speed quickly. No one wants to babysit, but they don’t expect you to be an expert on day one either.

With the second list, delve into the way you solve problems.

Developing a technical skill set — any technical skill set — is primarily about problem solving in structured, repeatable, measured ways. The techniques may differ, and obviously the specific tasks will be different, but the methodologies, and most importantly the mindset, is (relatively) consistent across disciplines.

These are also sometimes called transferable skills, or soft skills. Seth Godin has an epic rant on them here called Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills’.

My experience throughout my degree and now into the workforce has been that the technical details — solid mechanics, fluid dynamics, stress calculations — are significantly less important than the methods of problem solving I learned along the way. Knowing how to break a big problem down into its constituent parts, how to think from first principles, how to run an experiment, how to develop new insight, how to think probabilistically, how to make an argument and gather evidence to support it which could lead to a thoughtful decision; these are the real skill sets of value to an organization.

This is ultimately what tangentially technical applicants must convince potential employers: their experience and skill sets have merit beyond just the acute, domain-specific technical details.

The third list is really up to you. This part is about 2-way fit, and that’s the topic of another blog post.

So back to Jane: what is she to do? She has a skill set that is tangential to many of the roles she is applying for.

First, I would recommend she be open-minded about the roles she considers. Startups are ultimately looking for smart, ambitious, relentlessly resourceful people to help them on their journey. If she has skills and experience that aligns with that journey, that’s a bonus, but that shouldn’t preclude her from joining along if they can be useful.

Second, I would recommend she make an air-tight case for list number 1. How does one meet the job requirements? Be specific, practiced, and thoughtful in that response. Make it easy for the hiring manager to check all the boxes on their list here. In this case, it’s not about blowing their socks off, it’s about meeting the bar.

Third, and this is the most important part, show them how the tangential technical skills bring value to the organization as a whole. If she’s up against another candidate who meets all the requirements, but doesn’t have her depth of background, the choice should be easy. Would you rather hire the analyst in operations who has a business degree, or the equally qualified person who has a Ph.D. in an unrelated field? All things equal, I’m taking the Ph.D.

Fourth, consider what it really means to learn and adapt. If she could learn an entire range of tangential technical skills, what’s stopping you from learning a new set? In her case as a new grad, she’s only been learning about this tangential career for 4 years (maybe longer with grad and post-grad degrees) but there’s nothing to say she can’t learn a new set of skills. If she thinks back to herself entering university, I’m sure she could have gone in a huge number of directions. Now that she’s older and more experience, she is no less intelligent and just as capable of learning something new. She should make the case for herself that she can grow into the role as needed. She’s willing to learn and adaptable. It may not work on all recruiters, but those two sayings are music to my ears.

So that’s what I’d do: search broadly, check the boxes, show the value of existing experience and skill sets, and learn to adapt.

Best of luck.

This article was originally posted on BrendanCoady.com on June 25th, 2020.

Brendan is a Mechanical Designer at Nymi, and blogs about startups, mental models and why hardware is hard here. He’s a Venture for Canada alumni, coffee aficionado, and cookbook collector.

Mechanical Designer. Hardware Enthusiast. VFC 2015 Alumni.