Monthly Archives: December 2014

I ran a career-coaching “Ask Me Anything!” at CSIX on Dec 18, 2014

CSIX founder Hamid Saadat took a chance and OK’d my idea to run a Ask Me Anything on career coaching. The large majority of young people are aware of reddit and that everyone from vacuum salespeople to President Obama have run AMAs, but the large majority of boomers that I work with do not even know what reddit is. So, thanks Hamid! And thank you to everyone who showed up and asked questions!

The session went well. I recorded it and below is a transcription. Before starting the recorder, I gave a brief description of reddit and AMAs.


Q1: I have a hobby. Do I have to wait until I retire to do this, or can I do it concurrently while looking for a real job.

A1: Let me expand that question because that way it may apply to almost everyone. There are people working careers now who are concerned that their jobs or industries will go away and want to learn something new. Others are bored with their jobs and may have other interests.  Another version: I have a job now, but I want to get into running my own show. Do I need to quit now to get the other started, or do I have to wait until I retire before starting up a new business? So the general question is, can I do things in parallel? Is that possible or not?

As with all complicated questions, opinions will vary. I’ve heard some speakers say that going parallel is not the right thing to do. You need all the expertise you can possibly muster in your most current skills, to compete in the work world today.

I don’t see it that way. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) maintains several sets of unemployment data. You may have heard of the 5.8% US unemployment rate. That’s the U1 dataset. There’s another dataset, U6, that measures the usual U1 line plus people who are so discouraged about trying to find a job that they’ve stopped trying. These people are considered underemployed. U6 is at 15.8% for California, the highest of any state in the US! So while there are fewer officially “unemployed” people than one or a few years ago, there are a tremendous number of people who don’t have enough work, and need to work more, whether it’s in addition to part-time work or an otherwise inadequate job, or while they’re applying for regular work. For any of the reasons you’re not fully employed, and especially if your industry is insecure (being off-shored for example), you’ll want to learn new skills as soon as possible.

So I believe you should go after that hobby unless you’re so fully engaged in something else that you have deep passion in, that you don’t mind putting it off. If you really love your main work, sure put the hobby off. Otherwise go for it.

There are other reasons. If there is something you’re passionate about but you’re not pursuing it, that will probably have a negative impact on your energy level. By the way, there is another related question to whether you can successfully pursue two parallel paths: Should you aim for work you’re passionate about, or work where you simply have the skills to get a job, regardless of whether it’s “following your bliss” or not. This is a good topic for a longer discussion, but to summarize, I’m a strong believer that you should follow your passion, among other reasons, because people become better, faster, at the things they love doing.

Finally, there might be some synergies between your hobby and your regular work. In my own case, I’m pursuing dual paths, career coaching and solar power. You might think those are completely different, but solar is a new, somewhat chaotic industry with a lot of job turnover, so a lot of solar people need job coaching. And solar is booming, which means it’s a great industry to consider transitioning to, making it worthy of consideration for people seeking coaching, who are not in solar. So, look for those synergies. Don’t stomp out your hobby; when you thwart your creative expression, it takes a toll.

So… my answer is yes, go for your hobby!

Q2: You mentioned solar is growing. Which way is it growing, why is it growing? What could be the new jobs in solar if people are looking for good options?

A2: Solar is booming. There’s a lot of misinformation about it. But for example, there are more jobs in solar in California today, than there are in the three big California investor-owned utilities (PG&E, SCE, SDG&E).

What kind of solar? It’s booming at the residential level where you can get panels on your roof. It’s booming at the utility-scale level, where utilities will buy electricity from very large solar plants in the desert. It’s growing, though more slowly, in the commercial and industrial scale. If you think about what jobs are needed in residential, start with salespeople. Customer acquisition costs are $2000 or $2500 per rooftop system, where the system may now only cost $20,000. So if you can bring warm leads to a solar installer, you’re very valuable because it’s so expensive to generate qualified leads.

There are also design jobs, where you layout where the panels go on the roof. There’s working with the building department on permitting and connecting the system to the grid. Of course there are installer jobs. More upstream, many manufacturers are trying to vertically integrate, so there are a lot of supply chain jobs. There are materials science jobs. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.

Q3: Networking seems to be the best way to get a job. Let’s say I have a lead at a company. What’s your take at how much I should pursue the lead? It’s not the hiring manager, just a contact there. How often I should ask for an update and how much should I ask of him? How much is too much, how much is too little?

A3: There’s a more straightforward side to that, and a more complicated side to it. For the straightforward side, it’s like during an interview you never want to be less well dressed than the interviewer. That’s a simple rubric. In your scenario, you never want to wait longer than necessary. So I’d pester a little more rather than less. Action is better than passive waiting. If you think you need to wait between 4 and 7 days, wait the 4. You can of course use different modes – phone and email – to mix it up. Also, always ask what are the next steps, and make sure they’re specific and clear. Not just that he’ll call you, but that he’ll call you within 3 days. Then you know exactly when to follow up.

The more subtle piece to the answer depends on where you’re at in the process. If you’ve already had an interview and are just waiting to hear, that’s different. But if you just have a connection and want to call him up and ask about a job, I advise doing some homework, so that when you talk to the contact, you already what kind of person the hiring manager wants to hire, you know his/her biases – age bias, gender bias etc. You know about the company, its challenges and competitors, where it’s trying to grow. Are others chasing its tail lights or it chasing theirs? Of course you want to gain general interview skills, but you also want to go in knowing a lot about the company. The more you know before you speak to a contact (or hiring manager), the better your questions will be. You can be proactive in acquiring contacts. Use LinkedIn to find employees, contact them and talk to them. Get your resume and LinkedIn profile together so that they’ll both confirm that you’re qualified for the job.

Employers are interested in your knowledge of the company, and in your experience and ability and commitment to the job.

Many  people miss something in the dynamic of asking someone for a favor. Often you’re doing people a favor to ask them for something. Not always – I don’t want to be asked to take the trash out. But it makes them feel appreciated. People like to express what they know, so ask them about the work they do as well as what the company does. This way you’re doing your homework, too. Don’t consider that you’re just grabbing something from your contact. You’re providing him/her something of value, as s/he is providing you something valuable.

Q4: The rollercoaster. One day I talk to someone and I’m excited, and I’m feeling good. Then they call you and say the next appointment is a month way. As a person who needs to pay bills, I crash. What is a good way to deal with the roller coaster of a job search?

A4: The main reason I got into career coaching is because I faced 150 people whose lives were crashing around the discouragement and depression of trying to get a job. And that conditioned the way I like to advise people going about getting a job. Inevitably of course, if you get an interview and it goes badly, then you’ll feel bad. But the traditional way of getting a job where you send out a lot of resumes and don’t hear anything back, or finally you hear back but it doesn’t get you to an interview – it’s reinforcing discouragement. You send out 100 resumes this week, and then commit to driving harder and sending 200 out next week. Each one is pretty likely to be discouraging. Each is not necessarily vicious and horrible, but it’s de-energizing at best to get no response after such effort.

There’s a better approach. If you narrow the companies you want to work for, and you learn a lot about those companies, then each step you take towards learning about that company makes you more valuable, such that when you finally meet the hiring manager, you know damn well you’re the right person for the job because you’ve done your homework. As you prepare along those lines, each one of those steps is energizing. You meet a new contact at a company you’d like to work at. Great. A little scary maybe, but it’s a positive. In my coaching I advise people to take these little positive steps, which add to each other to give you a much better shot at the job when you do meet with the hiring manager.

Of course you may still not get the job, and that’s rough, especially if you’ve done a lot of preparation, but you’re still left with the value of the homework you’ve done, which could be valuable to that same company later on, or to a competitor. And you’ve made contacts that you can probe later for opportunities.

Q5: What about a person who’s been working one area, like a project manager, and you want to move to another area. How do you take what you’ve done and make it sound like you’re going to walk right into this field and everything’s going to work great? How do we transform ourselves so they want us in the new area and not just say oh, you been in that other area all these years?

A5: This is a really important question. It probably applies to most of the people here, who have a chunk of years doing something which for whatever reason doesn’t work anymore. There are a few ways to approach this.

One way is, for lack of a better word, reductionist. I don’t mean that as a negative. Use a tool to select and discover your strengths. I learned of one earlier today talking to a career coach here in the audience, the Highland Ability Battery. This is an example of a tool (there are many others) that guides you through a structured process to understand what your strengths are, then rolls that back up into a set of potential jobs or careers where those strengths would be beneficial.

A second approach is along the lines of introspection. Think hard about who you are in the world, not just what you’ve done and what your resume says you are. Gather all the skills you’ve developed in your life, sort them by what you’re really good at and what you really like, what’s worthy in the market. Throw out the ones you don’t like doing. Scan job openings and see how your strengths match up to the requirements.

Third, and I think most important, is get some help. That can be a spouse, or a family member or a friend. You can ask someone to write something about you. Ask, “Who do you think I am in the world? What are my strengths?” Get others’ opinions because cognitive bias is ever-present and we’re all awash in it. So ask some friends, say you really want and need their honest opinion.  What do they think you’re good at? What would you be good at? Etc.

These are just brief summaries of sometimes complex and difficult processes. Consider getting a professional career coach who can give insightful advice about who and what they see in you. Become the employer and interview some coaches about what they can offer you. Many of us offer a complimentary get-to-know-each-other session.

A pause in the questions, so … Book report: Tony Robbins wrote a book, his first in 25 years, Money: Master the Game. He gives an example of a seminar he led. He asked his audience to consider how much money they really think they need for total financial independence. One guy offered up it would be $1 billion. Robbins dissected how the guy had come up with that amount. Well, he needed his own island. Robbins probed and the guy agreed all he’d need is to visit it 6 weeks a year. So rent an island resort for far less than an outright purchase. How about owning a private jet? Why bother? It could be chartered multiple times per year for far less. And so on down his list. After doing the arithmetic, the guy would only need about $10 million to satisfy all his financial dreams. That’s still a lot of money but it’s only 1% of what he thought he’d need. The point of this is that we live in financial fear. Number 2 on the baby boomers’ list of worst fears is death, number 1 is running out of money! It’s crucial to assess carefully what you really need, to translate this fear into actual need. The rest of his book is about how to get to what you really need. It’s a great book, strongly recommended.

Prompting for more questions… Asking questions in this AMA is reflective of the same kind of skill needed to do the outreach necessary to get work today. Getting work is really different now. Back in the old days, you’d see an opening in the paper and send your resume off. Now it’s all about networking. And you need to know because your colleagues or manager might be 30 years old. …

Q6: I worked for Cisco for 8 years, now want to go to a smaller company to have more of an impact. How do I transition from having a well-defined role at a large company to a startup or a much smaller company?

A6: Start researching what are some of the companies you might be interested in. I had a client who wanted a smaller company than she was used to. She didn’t want the chaos of a startup, wanted it to have some established revenue, wanted it to be growing (not cutting costs to survive). It looked to her like about $100 million in revenue, and growing, would be right. So she narrowed her search and was able to find a handful of companies, out of thousands in the Valley here, that suited her.

Then start learning about that handful of companies; aim to find more about what kind of company you want to work in and whether any of the handful come close. Check company culture as well as size and growth. Are the employees encouraged to share their projects with other employees, or is there an ethic of need-to-know secrecy? Is it too hierarchical? Or bureaucratic? Etc.

Once you’ve found some companies that look like they might offer what you want, then test them out. Take action to meet employees or ex-employees and see how they report what it is or was like working there.

Q7: I have 20 years of contracting experience that’s worked well for me. But I have a hard time convincing employment agencies and others that I’m worthy of hiring, and that the reason I wasn’t hired at the end of the contract was because they didn’t want the position to be permanent.

A: First off, they’re just wrong to make that presupposition. More and more companies are going with contractors to avoid having to pay for benefits and training, and because the kinds of workers needed varies so much more quickly than it once did. It’s less and less about contractors being less capable than permanent employees. For example, contractors can often ramp up very quickly on a new project, because they’re so used to learning brand new material.

Next, do you have recommendations on your LinkedIn Profile? These are important for many reasons, including that recruiters are more likely to recommend people on to hiring managers, if they look good on LinkedIn. If the hiring manager finds the candidate unappealing, the recruiter can say, “But look how good his LinkedIn profile looks.” You’re insuring the recruiter’s safety in recommending you if you have several recommendations.

It can be very hard to change people’s biases, such as if they think contracting means a person is unworthy. There are some strategies to accomplish that, but they’re subtle and definitely not always successful. However, if you assert that you did a great job fulfilling a contract, and can prove that with recommendations from the people who worked with you, a hiring manager would be foolish not to value that praise.

Q8: Do recruiters really look at recommendations? Do they really scroll down a LinkedIn Profile to read the recommendations?

A: CSIX runs recruiter panels periodically and that’s a common question. So go to those to hear directly from recruiters! Typically the answer will be that recruiters get hudnreds of resumes per opening and they can’t afford to spend more than a couple of minutes, or less, on each. So the odds are that a recruiter won’t spend much time on your resume, or anyone’s. This also reflects the statistic that about 70% of jobs are gotten via an inside track, through employee referral or utilizing a contact (networking is important!). So just sending in a resume is not such a great way to get a job.

Another answer to your question is it depends on the recruiter and on the opening. Recruiters differ widely and will behave differently, so beware overgeneralizations. But many will look for reasons not to forward a resume, such as a typo. Better to go with something that doesn’t have obvious flaws, even if they’re small ones. And they certainly don’t want to forward someone on if they don’t feel insured by the candidate having a solid LinkedIn Profile. So to determine if that insurance exists, they’ll look through your recommendations before sending you on to the hiring manager.

Q9: Say we understand what our criteria are and what we’re looking for. We’re told we need to learn all about the company. But I’ve also heard people say how hard it is to know about that company. It’s hard to get the cultural and other information. You can go online and study, but it’s hard to know what it’s like in this or that division.

A9: I think it’s scary but ultimately not hard. If you approach people who work at the company, or did, they’re generally willing to share. If you scratch the surface, they’re often willing to share a lot. Not trade secrets, but how they feel about the company or their manager. If you ask directly about company culture or other questions, you’ll often get good honest answers.