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Impressive resumes, and not-so-impressive candidates

Published: 03/15/2009

Several years ago, I worked in the Customer Care / technical support department of my company. We were tasked mostly with supporting the server-side software of our products, getting them set up and configured for customer environments. It was a little the after the dot-com bust and business was picking up, we needed a few good support engineers, and I had to scour through a number of resumes to help management parse through the list.

I've since learned to not trust what's on the resume at face-value. This is a rather obvious statement to make, but perhaps I was a bit more naive back then. Some of these resumes were pretty impressive, and after reading through them I was scared to go through the technical interview with the candidate, even if I was the one holding the interview (although, of course, any job interview is a two-way street). In my opinion, the IT resume isn't short. While HR folks may enjoy the abbreviated, short-story version which encapsulates the job candidate's background and work history into a few bullets as well as one that easily matches with automated keyword-searching systems, I prefer the full text that provides me with a complete picture of what the person is about.

Like any good first impression on paper, the typical resume has its share of acronyms splashed across key points in the delivery. You know the ones - MCSE, CCNA, CCIE, CISSP, yadda yadda. As someone who currently holds no certifications whatsoever, I can sometimes get intimidated.

However, my initial impressions of some of these candidates changed when I did the first interview over the phone. In particular, I remember one CISSP who I was somewhat less-than-impressed with when I got off the phone. I'm not sure how he achieved his certification status, but he clearly didn't have an operational grasp on some key things any engineer with at least a few years of experience in a production environment would have. The fundamental textbook concepts were there, but it became readily apparent that even a CISSP might not necessarily be a technically-fluent individual in common, modern-day operating systems and networks.

My other complaint about credentials is in the area of college degrees. Don't get me wrong - I think a degree is a good thing. It shows achievement through a structured course of disciplines, endurance through years of hard work, etc.. However, a degree alone isn't going to mean that a person can go beyond the textbook and apply those things in the real world. Even with some experience, some people are very rigid in their approach and lack the flexibility needed in a day-to-day IT-type environment. Most of the interviewees I talked with were degree holders, but for this particular position we had open we needed someone who could also interact well with customers. Soft skills can be very important in this day and age, especially if you deal with folks who aren't technically savvy (end users, for example). Being able to translate complex material into absorbable concepts is becoming increasingly important as technology gains more complexity and most people are losing ground on understanding it.

I know that some organizations place an emphasis on credentials behind a person's name so the staffing list can look impressive (and justifiable) on paper. However, as an engineer myself, I don't appreciate having to work with people who don't really have a drive for technology other than a paycheck grade, no enthusiasm for learning things outside their specific areas, or are unable to see the big picture in getting things done. IT work isn't ultimately about turning the knobs and making sure the packets are well-scrubbed. It's about being able to leverage existing technology that can be afforded within budget to produce results that enhance the mission, whether that's a business focus, research, or whatever.

Unlike any other industry, IT evolves fast and not many people can really keep up with it. Those that do might eventually burn out. Those that are naturally sharp and talented and who are well-motivated (and enjoy what they do) will stand out as the cream of the crop. These are the people I'd rather work with because their enthusiasm and knowledge will eventually rub off on me.

In the end, it's obviously about finding the person with the right balance of qualifications and qualities to fit the existing team. This sense of balance will differ between hiring managers, and although there's never going to be a perfect candidate, it always helps to make a hiring decision based not on what's on paper, but what the individual can actually contribute to further the business at hand. Figuring that out was my job during the technical interview, but I didn't spend the entire conversation going over all the low-level details of the latest OS. I also made sure I gauged the amount of vested personal interest the candidate had in different areas of technologies and their applications.

After all, at a personal level, technology can be a personal craft that is continuously honed.

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