The following article got published in the EME Alumni Newsletter (2011), i’m posting it here for the wider audience of all fellow NUSTians. (Special thanks to editor of newsletter Ms. Aneeqa Ishaq (2009)for editing and Mr. Muzammil Butt (2006) for valuable feedback)
In the frustrating times of recession the word ‘Pawa’ haunts many talented folks who, over the period of time, have developed a firm belief in fair play and expect everyone to be following systems and processes. This article is a case in point for the infamous ‘pawa’ system- which seems to have infested our society. Lets be clear at the outset that the aim here is not to justify or laud the system. Its just an existing system and we intend your better understanding of it so you can hack it! (yeah smart NUSTians)
The first lecture I attended by an IVY league career office on job hunt was less focused on resume writing than on ‘networking’, something which we so conveniently ignore as ‘unfair pawa tactic’.
One of the key misconceptions is to confuse the term ‘networking’ with our broader term of Pawa, which refers to the situation when you receive some order from up above (for recruitment), and usually you can’t do anything about it and you have to hire that guy. Favoritism on the other hand is to favor one person over another.
Alumnus of any institution has a natural tendency to favor his own juniors; it is a universal relationship that holds true for any part of the world. Therefore, a job seeker should hit that nerve. It is very important to know about your seniors and to stay in contact with them after they graduate so that, you know the right people in right places at the right time who can help you.
Unfortunately, our set of beliefs (that we hold so dear to us) do not allow us to even consider the fact that networking is an essential tool of survival in this chaotic and fast paced world. The idealistic and deterministic processes (under simplifying assumptions and zero initial conditions) to which we are so conveniently used to, in our engineering studies, are not very often the true representative of the modern day’s world. Today’s is a world, which is overwhelmed with information and bounded by the constraints of space and time, essentially relying on the concept of ‘better is the enemy of good enough’.
Lets face the facts, you may be a super guru in your field, with your best in class skills, extra-curricular and a sharp personality but HR folks out there searching for recruiting ‘smart folks’ won’t come and reach out to you in your nice and cozy ‘microcosm’. Instead, one has to hunt the job down with same level of ferociousness as one prepares for scoring pointers in academics.
Most of the companies do not come and visit campuses in fact, only a few of them do, and more often than not, they do it to create a buzz and to publicize their company. Some of you might have noticed that a few companies come and hold sessions and after all brouhaha, they do not hire anyone! Simply because they did not have any vacancy but at the same time they did not want to leave the opportunity to publicize their brand to the young graduates and leave out room for their competitors.
Concerning off campus recruitment, one of the common practices across the globe is to target and apply to big names in the corporate sector. Now, you may ask why not… Everyone wants to be at Google, IBM, Microsoft, P&G etc. Sure, you may be best in class and deserve to be at an excellent place of work but wait a minute: is not it what the mob is doing? Applying to top companies websites is a very common practice, and we all know it. Consequences: Hundreds of resume are piled up at the HR inboxes and we are told in our career counseling sessions to have a smarter and ‘standing out’ resume which makes its’ mark. No denying of the fact that it is the first thing you should be investing your time in, but the essential question is “it is the necessary condition but is it sufficient condition as well?”
Let us think of this situation in terms of engineering. If my optimization (or numerical analysis) algorithm has to find the maxima or minima what is the probability that it will find the absolute global minimum or maximum? It really depends on the ‘quality’ of the algorithm. Is the algorithm exhaustive? Does it search through all the possible solutions? We very well know the fact that all algorithms thrive on approximations and the benchmarks on these approximations depend on the application for which they are designed. Some folks may have the advantage to take eternity and consume infinite amount of memory and system resources to find the absolute maximum or minimum while others (majority in real world situations) would put some limitations on resources and try to find the results in minimal time!
Come back to our dear HR offices. They want to find ‘good enough ‘smart folks’’ in the given ‘hiring timeframe’. This gives us only a few windows to get past all these ‘barriers’ and ‘limitations on resources and algorithms’ to land us a job.
Passing through the first firewall
Another important factor that we need to consider is the overwhelming value we humans put on ‘trust’. All HR folks take pride in their processes, claim that they really find the ‘best folks’ for their job and they ‘trust’ their system. They trust their employees (subject to their reputation and performance) as they are the ‘hand picked ones’. If these bunch of ‘trusted’ and already employed folks ‘recommend’ someone they know (possibly a colleague or junior) the HR people have a tendency to attach more importance to that recommendation as it comes ‘internally’ from a ‘trust worthy’ source. I can bet you on this that even Google follows this strategy!
Another startling fact is that those ‘trust worthy’ folks in the company don’t have to pitch in an extra effort, all they have to do is to forward your resume to HR (with some decent wording appended for recommending you) or more simply place your resume on their ‘internal server’.
Put these pieces of information together and the essential message is to find some HR ‘trust worthy’ folks in company you are targeting and they will most likely be your alumni, friends, family or 2nd degree connections (acquaintances). Does it ring a bell? Ragging 101… ‘Senior is always a senior!’ Well its payoff time folks. They had their share of fun to make fool out of you when you were new and you subjected yourself to the tradition in the hope to make friends with them. Cash these ‘connections’. These connections help you get across the HR filter after which you meet the technical people who would test your skills. If you are confident on your skills, you certainly have more chances now since you have got past the first trap already.
Majority of our students are not well versed with resume writing (despite the fact that we study communication skills subject – maybe the instructors themselves have never been related to HR) so we need to improve on both dimensions of job hunt: effective presentation (resume, interview skills, elevator pitch, cover letter) and networking. I believe that we can easily overcome our first deficiency by spending more time with the resume reviews and critiques. There are hundreds of online resources for that and the best tool I would recommend here will be to search for ‘career guides’ or resume samples on the ‘career services’ portals of all top schools like MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Cornell (to name a few in engineering). These samples are very detailed and have all the guides (e.g. use of action verbs in resume etc.). The biggest hurdle, which I admit is always a hard thing for engineers, is to learn effective ‘marketing’ and ‘networking’ skills. I would rather say that it’s not wrong to suggest that our good GPA students have marketing and engineering skills on the separate axis (they never tend to go along).
Extracurricular activities (how important are they?)
Extracurricular activities in the form of hoards of societies and clubs at university offer brilliant prospects for networking. Most people just do not join them in first two years thinking that they will be treated like secretaries. You should brush that notion aside and think of this as an opportunity to work with the final year students (who are managing a society/ club) who have a lead-time of 3 years on you and when you will be near graduation they already will have established a good footing in their organization. Apart from networking, these platforms also provide you with several other opportunities of developing your social skills, which come in handy at workplaces. These skills help you rise up the corporate ladder quickly than others would.
Does GPA matter?
Despite the fact that my peers love to quote examples of low GPA graduates rising up in their careers, getting high salary jobs and surpassing their peers, I would refrain from quoting them. There are exceptions everywhere. Besides, what really matters at workplace, is the ‘right attitude’ (at least at entry level when companies spend resources to train all new hires). In such conditions the low profile folks, who loved spending time in societies feel the urge to prove themselves with extra load of work and responsibility, which takes them higher.
I am a firm believer in extracurricular activities but at the same time, the importance of high GPA is undeniable. Companies hire you for your skill set and for engineers technical skills are indispensible. For an outsider the first benchmark of your performance will always remain to be your grade point. Call it shallow or whatever, they will look into it seriously. Therefore, the rare combination of both grade point and social skills is the killer ‘competitive advantage’ that you all should develop over your peers.
One good way of making connections in companies you want to interview with, is to reach out to your alumni through ‘informational interviews’. Make sure you connect with your alumni through peer network. “Influence is often best exerted horizontally than vertically”. (Cialdini, Harvard Business Review). Simply stated, I would pay more heed to you if you come through my peer, classmate or friend (whom you happen to know already). After providing the right reference, subtly refer that you are about to graduate and are looking for employment opportunities and you are considering XYZ company (where your guy is) for opportunities. Your sole purpose here is to establish connection in a professional and formal way (just like a real interview) and ask the person about the work atmosphere, job responsibilities, growth opportunities, performance reviews and bonuses. In first email only establish connection and request an appointment for informal interview (on email or phone, whatever convenient to that person). Be sure to follow up after interview with letter of thanks.
“An informational interview is less stressful for both you and the employer than a typical job interview. You are the one in control. Questions can be asked that may not be strategic during a first interview (i.e., questions regarding salary, benefits, vacations). You can discuss what is done on a day-to-day basis and relate it to your own interests and feelings. Beyond the advantages of gaining valuable career information, the informational interview provides the opportunity to build self-confidence and to improve your ability to handle a job interview.” (jobsearch.about.com)
Informational interview is only for information and if you specifically state that upfront, it lifts pressure, from the person you are writing to by stating explicitly that you aren’t really asking for job but rather for information that might help you learn about that company and their hiring process. More often than not, the person you are communicating with will provide you with extra tips and may agree to refer you somewhere down the line, if you manage to execute it excellently. Good preparation of interview, by listing down questions you want to ask is a key to good informational interview. (For reference, visit career services websites of MIT, Stanford, Harvard… etc.)
LinkedIn is the most powerful tool for professional networking (no wonder it got valued so high in recent IPO). This recommendation comes with a caution: LinkedIn is more useful for mid-career and ‘experienced’ jobs, so i don’t want you to pin false hopes on linkedIn. Still i would recommend readers to start early with LinkedIn to be able to cash in their college connections. Put all your useful technical projects on LinkedIn. If you worked in some lab you can even get recommendation of your adviser (once you graduate). This is only possible if you start early (once you graduate its hard to get recommendations of your work you did at school after years pass by). A guide for recent grads by LinkedIn can be seen here.
Power of LinkedIn and connections can be seen in video.
Harvard Business Review Article
A case in point for professional networking is “Managing yourself – a smarter way to network”. It is certainly worth a read for everyone.