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It’s Your Midwest Technology Wake, Stupid

CHICAGO – This column isn’t just for Midwestern technology job seekers. It’s also for all Midwestern technology folks. Why have we concentrated so hard on job seekers here? Because so many of us are job hunting?

That's only part of the reason. More than that, it's because there’s so much to say on the subject of Midwestern technology job hunting. So many things to know. So many angles to try. And, for better or worse, there are so many ways to scotch your chances for your next great job, so listen up, please.

In earlier columns, we’ve talked about egregious interviewing mistakes, phone screens and the dreaded salary-history test. Today we take on a really common problem that job seekers face.

Here's what happens: a job candidate will focus his or her resume, cover letter and phone-screen persona on a full report of what he has already done in his career. If he gets into a face-to-face interview, you'll get more detail on the long (or short) and illustrious history this man or woman brings to the table.

Did this, did that, worked here, worked there. Had this budget, had that staff, served on this task force and headed that initiative. Yes! Lovely! Perfect! Now what good did all of that do?
A key thing that job hunters forget is that it doesn't much matter what you did unless you’re able to take that experience – actually, not so much the experience but the learning that came out of it – and put it to good use for your next employer.

Too many of us go into interviews ready to trot out the job titles, reporting relationships, scope of influence and other trophies of our careers to date. This stuff is actually really boring to listen to, but that's not why I object to it.

It is possible to run through the highlights of a fascinating and varied career such that it sounds like the person sleep walked through his or her career. Job candidates say things like: "After that, I did this. After this, I did that." The interviewer may be sitting there thinking: “Why? Why did they ask you to do that? Did you have compromising pictures of the boss?”

You want to show that the company was infinitely far seeing and insightful each time it appointed you to successively more responsible roles.

Let's face it: That isn't always the case when people are promoted. In your case, though, they almost had no choice but to promote you, right? Look at what you have done in the past role! Make it real. Remember how much fun those challenges were at the time. Paint the picture.

In technology and all other industries – and even more in tech than in some more stable industries – it's not so much what you've done as it is what kind of impact you've had. In essence, the question you want to answer is: "What difference did it make to the company and its customers that I was there?"

One former boss of mine put the question this way: "What did you leave in your wake?" That's a great interview question. Most job candidates will shut up for a moment and think about it before they answer (and I recommend this!).

What did I accomplish? OK, I worked on this project, but what good did that do? Did it move the company forward in some way? If so, talk about that.

"I ran the XYZ software development project that led the company to adopt new software development methodologies and save 20 percent in direct costs." Perhaps I implemented a really effective process change. Maybe I got the company off index cards and onto its first Burroughs computer.

Whatever. I made a difference. That's what you want to demonstrate.

Listen to your friends talk about their job histories (it's hard to listen to yourself do this) and you'll see what I mean. It's very easy to talk about our past jobs as the details slip off the tongue. But companies employ hundreds or thousands of people and only a fraction of those really create the value that moves the company forward.

Are you one of those people?

I'm not talking about winning sales contests (although those are great). I'm talking about having the altitude – the high-level understanding of the business – to see what impact your actions had on the firm and its ability to compete and to serve clients. If you can see this value and articulate it, you're already ahead of the game.

Back in the day, we used to look for employees who had "initiative”. What I'm talking about is a higher-order version of the same thing. Don't tell me what you did; tell me what things you made happen. What did you spot, fix, rebuild, eliminate or vastly improve?

I just hired a sales guy who in his past sold his boss on dismantling his own department (the employees were all deployed in a different, much cooler capacity). I'm not saying you want to sell yourself as the next Chainsaw Dunlap. I am talking about having the vision, creativity and will to inspire change in an organization.

What organization doesn't need some change now and then?

So do me a favor and spend some time thinking about your resume from the standpoint of the wake behind your boat. Imagine that the next interviewer you meet asks you "what was in your wake?" with respect to every single job you've held.

Be ready to answer those questions. Then, even if you aren't asked, you'll have the right sense of how to convey your great history in a way that proves you're more than just an office holder. I'm absolutely positive of that much.

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of the The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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