eli james

Thinking about Careers

1:08am, 2 April 2015

The following is from a chat conversation. This best represents my current thinking on careers. I’m not sure if it’s correct, but so far things seem to be panning out.

To provide some context: I had to come up with a strategy because my grades were atrocious (I graduated near the bottom of my class; I was never really good at taking exams). I knew I couldn’t compete – at least not directly – with the Honours students.

So this is what I executed on, after some thinking.

The way I think about careers is that you need skills that are highly valuable and are not commonly found. Or, to put another way: employability = having specialised, very unusual skills that lots of people value.

Sometimes having those skills are enough. Other times you may need to develop the vocabulary and the signalling to indicate that you have those skills, but I think this is the easy part. (If you do have those skills, what you’ve done sends the right signals.)

C-suite executives have a set of skills that are rare. This is one justification for their high renumeration.[1] The net result however, is that they never have to hunt for a job for very long: the best-paid recruiting firms do executive poaching, and are good at hunting down unattached execs whenever a board needs a C-level position filled.

A degree doesn’t matter in the long term because if you have those skills, people will pay for them if they need them badly enough. However, how true this is depends on which field you’re in. Some fields, like medicine, are highly specialised. In those fields the signalling is done through grades. Less equitable fields – like law in the 70s and 80s – also require the right connections in addition to good grades.[2]

However, there are certain fields like business, or computing, that are less bound by signalling for grades: if you’re a brilliant programmer, your code, projects, and skills will render your grades ultimately irrelevant. Ditto for sales and business - if you have experience and a track record of running a brilliant salesforce, or building a great business, people will somehow choose to overlook your qualifications. This is because qualifications are just proxies for actual value - your skills.

Skills that are highly valued and are rare imply that those skills aren’t taught in school. Or at least, not at the undergraduate level. Because by definition, undergraduation will produce non-rare skills.

So the most valuable jobs require skills that are not offered by any undergraduate-level school.

‘Rare’ also implies that it has to be rare for a reason. Machine learning skills seem to be pretty good right now, because they’re hard to gain without going through a PhD, and they’re highly valued. Consequently, there’s an arms race between Google, Facebook, and Baidu for ML talent.

Other skills might be rare because they’re really painful to acquire. For instance, a programmer who’s well-versed in financial control systems would likely be extremely valuable, and therefore highly paid, because not many people want to study obtuse financial regulations and be an expert in them.

The best kind of reason for a skill to be rare is, in my opinion, because it’s invisible to most people.

But not to the people doing the hiring.


[1] Whether that compensation is truly deserved is another topic entirely.

[2] It’s probably a good idea to stay away from fields that demand admission to an old-boy network.

Special thanks to Jon, who bothered to keep a copy of the chat conversation. May you live long and prosper. =)

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