Awards are overrated, leadership is underrated

“I won xyz award in school/college. Can I put that in my CV?”

In my personal opinion, no, you shouldn’t. Awards show that you won, and that you defeated others. Which, don’t get me wrong, is great. But what I would want to look for in a fresher’s CV is evidence of three things:

  1. Have you shown the drive and initiative to start something (anything!), and have you shown the gumption required to see it through?
  2. Have you shown an interest in helping others, whether on your team or otherwise? Leadership is about winning by helping others win. Awards are about about winning by making sure others lose.
  3. Have you shown an ability to pick up a skill in order to be able to finish a project? Certified by xyz in abc isn’t what I’m looking for. “I realized I had to acquire xyz skill in order to do abc on project pqr. I did the course, and was therefore able to contribute to the project” is a better conversation to have.
    That is, learning how to code isn’t as useful as being able to finish a project because you learnt to code.

So can you put that award in your CV? I’d rather you didn’t. But if you must, speak about how what you did helped your team win. Speak about how you learnt, and how you helped others learn.

Market yourself as a leader, not as a winner, in other words. And the best way to market yourself as a leader is by being one.

Yes, But What Did You *Do*?

True story, the one that I am about to narrate, although both the person in question and the firm will remain unnamed.

A firm had come on campus for placements, and I happened to know one of the people who happened to be on their recruitment team that day. Midway through the recruitment process, said person came to my office for a chat.

He appeared to be rather frustrated. And when he was halfway through the cup of coffee that had been offered to him, he spoke about what was frustrating him so.

It was, he said, the same story with all of the candidates he’d interviewed that day. When the interview reached the stage where they asked the candidate about their internship or projects they’d worked on while in college, the same conversation played itself out.

“Tell me about your internship at xyz”

“I interned in the abc department at xyz.”

“Ok, what did you do there?”

“I worked on project pqr”

“Yes, but what did you do in that project?”

“I worked with lmn”

“Yes, but what did you do?”

“I submitted a presentation on def”

And on and on, round and round the mulberry bush. It was frustrating, he said, because it was mostly the same story in most of the colleges and universities where they’d been for recruitment. Now, I’m sure (or hopeful, at any rate) that the story will be not quite as bad in the very top tiers of academia. But based on my own experience of interviewing candidates, his experience rang true.

Interviewers don’t ask you about your internship in order to be impressed by the firm you interned in, or to be impressed by the title of your project. They’re interested in the following:

  1. What skill sets did you have to use to complete your part of the work?
  2. Which of these skill sets did you pick up on the job?
  3. What appreciation have you gained of that skill set as a consequence?
  4. Are you aware of where you fell short, and if so, what are you doing to get better?
  5. And as a coda of sorts to all of this, what would you do differently if you got the chance to do the internship/project again?

And so when interviewers ask you about what you did in an internship, you have to answer the unsaid questions. What they’re really asking, what they really want to know, is whether you are have acquired the ability to apply your learning. Whether you have the self awareness to know where you’re lacking. Whether you have the “fight” to acquire those skill sets you don’t possess. And most importantly, are you able to assess work you’ve done, and figure out how to do it better the next time around.

When interviewers talk about “attitude”, “willingness to learn” and “jigar“, this is what they’re talking about.

Which brings me to the most important part of this blogpost. There are two ways to react to what I’ve written so far if you’re a student preparing for job interviews.

The first is to train yourself to tell a story like this better, and more convincingly, in an interview.

But that’d be the wrong approach.

The second is to actually apply all of this in your next project. Actually doing all of this makes talking about that much easier, wouldn’t you say?

And as a consequence, writing your CV becomes that much easier.

The bottom-line: doing the work makes talking about it convincingly that much easier.

How to prepare for interviews, you ask? Simple.

Do the work.

On Networking

It’s a question I get quite often: can you teach me about how to network better?

  1. I actually don’t network all that well. I suck at small talk, for starters. I’m never sure of what to do when I walk into a large gathering. My preferred thing to do at large parties is to seek out a person I’m comfortable with, and chat with that person for as long as possible. So if that is the kind of networking you have in mind, I’m not the guy to ask.
  2. But reaching out to folks to ask for help, I have a lot of experience in. I’ve been doing it for years, and will do it for life. Unashamedly, unabashedly. That I can speak about, since I have skin in the game.
  3. “Life is a non-zero sum game” is an axiom for me. So if somebody asks me for help, I will always try to help. I’d advise you to do the same. And that is a good way to start building out your network: help other folks when they ask you for it. Two advantages, one personal, one societal.
    1. Of course that person is likelier to help you when you reach out to them for help. You can, Vito Corleone style1, call in favors, even years down the line.
    2. But at the margin, that person is also likelier to pay it forward. That is, there is a non-zero chance that the person you helped will in turn help other folks who ask that person for help. If your ultimate aim is to build a society that is more willing to help each other to learn (as mine is), help others as much as possible. And you can call that networking, if you like. 🙂
  4. But that is the larger point about networking. I think most people have “how can I get others to help me?” in mind when they want to get better at networking. And sure, that’s very much a part of it.
  5. But it cuts both ways, no? I think it makes sense to first ask “How can I help others?”, before asking others for their help. Exports matter as much as imports!
  6. And a college student (my primary target audience on this blog) might well say, “But what can I help them with? They have so much more experience and knowledge than me!”
    1. True, for the most part. Not always, mind you, but I get the merits of that argument.
    2. But can you help somebody else? Can you help your juniors learn better? Can you help your neighbor’s schoolkids out with a project? Can you put out blogposts regularly that other folks may eventually read?
  7. If at least a part of your personal mission in life is to help other people, you will be that much more confident in asking others for help. Because you’re not asking for help only for yourself to get a job (for example), but through the help you’re receiving, others are benefitting too.
  8. The bottom-line is this: networking isn’t just about asking how to get others to help you. It is also about asking how you might help others. And doing the latter first makes it much easier to ask for the former.
  9. One final point: it is of course still entirely possible that the person you’ve asked for help will say no. They’re not doing it because they don’t like you, or your work. It is because they have commitments of their own, and honestly and really don’t have the time.
  10. Which is fine! There’s seven billion of us out there, you can always find someone else 🙂

Previous posts on EFE that have mentioned networking.

  1. don’t take that analogy too far, please![]

Does Language Matter?

When you’re appearing for an interview, how important (or not) is your grasp of the English language?

  1. It is a factor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. I have worked with colleagues while in the analytics industry who couldn’t speak English very well – but their knowledge of their domains was far better than mine would ever be.
    Being insanely good at your core skill set is more important then being good in English. Being insanely good at English is not as important as being good at your core skill.
    But that being said, being 8/10 in both is best of all.
  2. Being good at communicating well is different from being good at English, and many people do not appreciate the difference. Here’s the non-negotiable bit: you should be able to explain yourself clearly and concisely. Given the world that we live in, it is best if you can do it in English. But no matter what language, clarity of thought and expression is table stakes.
  3. In an interview, my recommendation to candidates is that they state up front that they are not as conversant in English as they are in x/y/z language. And to state that they’re trying to get better at it, but it is an ongoing process. Think of it this way: if they are going to reject you for not being good at English, how does it matter whether you tell them or not? And if they aren’t going to reject you for your English, your candor and honesty is a plus for you.
  4. But to go back to pt. 1, being good at your core skill becomes even more important. For example, if you are applying for a job in the analytics industry, your knowledge of statistics and econometrics must be beyond reproach. Your knowledge of R or Excel or whatever must be beyond reproach.
  5. If you want to get better at English, I have three suggestions for you:
    1. Translate English reports (try the executive summary of a World Bank publication, if you want me to give you something to get started with) into whichever language you are comfortable with. You learn how to write professional English through this exercise (if only indirectly), and you add a line to your resume. There is no downside!
    2. Read this essay, not more than one paragraph on any given day. Read that paragraph thrice in one day, but never more than a paragraph a day. Don’t worry about how long it takes, but savor each sentence. Only try translating it once you’ve read the entire essay at least thrice. Your English will improve, but so also will your thinking and your writing, regardless of which language you end up using. Again, there is no downside.
    3. Force yourself to write ELI5 summaries of topics from your core skill. For example, explain what the Gaussian distribution is, and why it matters, to a 5 year old using simple English. Absolutely no downside!
  6. Bottomline: when the corporate world is telling you that it wants you to be good at English, it is really saying two things. First, it wants you to be a good communicator. Second, it wants you to be reasonably good at the English language. Trust me, the requirements are in that order. Trust me on this too: I know a lot of folks who are good at the second bit, but not so much at the former. (Hell, I’d put myself in this category).
  7. Bottom bottom line: practice becoming better at communicating clearly. That is much more important.

On How To Be A Good Mentor

A student wrote in asking me this question: how should one approach mentorship, while remaining friends, or while being a senior, or both.

Well, a certain television series has one answer to this question, and I could take the easy way out, but here goes:

  1. For a mentorship to work, even a little bit, the mentee has to value the time of the mentor. This bit is non-negotiable. As a mentor, you have the right to ask that this be done, and you have the right to walk away if it is not done. This should be crystal clear throughout.
  2. But then again, on the other side, as the mentor you have to be ultra-professional yourself. That means showing up on time without fail, being prepared yourself, and dedicating the time that you promised. I am less than perfect in this regard, I am sorry to say.
  3. A good mentor nudges, but doesn’t become overbearing. Learning the art of pushing ever-so-gently is very, very difficult, and most mentors never learn it. Some mentors (and I think I am one of them) err on the side of pushing too little, which is also a problem. I find it easy to remain friends with my mentee, I find it difficult to push them to do better.
  4. Think of it as a spectrum (or if you want to geek out, like a two tailed test). The intensity that you bring to the table as a mentor can err on the side of being too little, as in my case, or too much. Both aren’t good, you want your intensity to be Goldilocks level. This intensity level differs on the basis of each separate mentee. Some need no nudges whatsoever, some require Evergiven levels of pushing. Most lie somewhere in between.
  5. But before starting on your job as a mentor, you should ask yourself which role you’d rather give up if it came right down to it: continue to be friends and stop mentoring, or continue mentoring and stop being friends.
  6. Whatever your choice, be consistent, and don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. In my case, I usually choose to continue being friends, and if I think a mentorship isn’t turning out well, I stop the mentoring gig, and as quickly as possible.
  7. Always try to mentor someone, and always try to get someone to be your mentor. Apply what you learn while being on one side of the fence to the other.
  8. It is easier to find a new mentor, it is difficult to find a new (good) friend. That’s my opinion, so I would rather continue to be a good friend, and sacrifice my role as a mentor if I had to choose.
  9. But that being said, as far as possible, avoid being a mentor to a really good friend.
  10. Never, ever make the mistake of commercializing the mentor-mentee relationship. Some things in life are sacred.*

*But cups of coffee being purchased by the mentee are fine. I’m just sayin’

Graduating in 2021

Until this year, I used to think batches graduating in 2009 and 2002 would have found the employment market tough going.

2021/22 puts all other years in the shade, and that is an understatement.

One of the students graduating this year from the Gokhale Institute, Devansh, asked if I have any advice to share for their batch.

Here it is, make what you will of it:

  1. A quote that is usually attributed to Mark Twain goes something like this: swallow a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. We don’t know if he actually said it (probably not), but the one good thing about graduating this year, of all years, is that the same principle is at play. Might not seem like it now, but in the long run, graduating this year will stand you in good stead.
  2. If the future is about working remotely, you stand half qualified already. We have had lectures, examinations, seminars, job interviews all move online, and we’re now veterans when it comes to having your work be online. Exploit this fact to your advantage while landing a job, while in your job, and for moving across jobs.
  3. At the margin, you’ve probably (and hopefully) learnt that there is nothing especially sacrosanct about learning from us professors in offline classrooms. In fact, you’ve probably confirmed a long-held suspicion: learning online is actually easier.
    A healthy dose of “what gives you the right to tell me?” isn’t a bad thing to have at the start of your career (please don’t ignore the adjective in this sentence!)
  4. You’ve also likely learnt how to hunt down the answer to your question online. This trend has been around for a while, but the pandemic has accelerated it. Get better at it than you already are, and try and do this everyday.
  5. Think like an economist. Understand that the supply of certificates for having completed online courses has gone up, and that exponentially. Therefore, there is a reduction in the value of those certificates. Get them if you must, but there is not much value in flaunting them.
  6. Continue to think like an economist. What is in short supply is work experience. There is a glut in showing that you have learnt. The doing, in other words, is in short supply. So do! Take publicly available data and crunch the numbers in MS-Excel. Put it up for public consumption. And that is just one example – there are literally millions and millions of things you can do.
    I’m not buying the “But I’m not Professor Damodaran!” argument. There is only one Musings on Markets, and nobody is expecting you to be as good as him. But begin by recreating his files, if nothing else. What works for writing works for spreadsheets as well!
  7. This year will teach you to think like a hedger, rather than a speculator. There is a lot of merit to taking care of the potential downsides first. Remember this lesson, for it is a valuable one.
  8. Your batch will, more than any other, appreciate the value of a face-to-face meeting. It’ll be that rarest of rare years where folks (eventually, not right now) will want offline meetings to take place. I look forward to learning from all of you about the underrated aspects of meetings. And I mean that quite seriously.
  9. Pay it forward. Cast your mind back to the start of this academic year, July 2020. Think about how daunting this year has been, and think about how you could have done with a steadying hand on your shoulder. Your juniors are going to be in the same boat a couple of months from now. Reach out to them, mentor them, and let them know that there’s help available if its needed. Who better than you to know the feeling? What better way to build out your network?
  10. Finally, all the best! God knows you guys have earned all the luck that will come your way.

Navin Kabra on the Power of Networking

Besides putting out super-awesome threads on Twitter, Navin Kabra also writes a newsletter. (He also runs a firm, and makes time for being interviewed for podcasts, and much else besides, but thinking about that will only depress the rest of us, so let’s stop)

So he sent out a post yesterday on that newsletter, which I found fascinating:

There are 3 kinds of power in an organization and most people focus on the wrong ones.
Jacob Kaplan-Moss has a great article about The Three Kinds of Organizational Power: role power, expertise power, and power through relationships. Most people focus on the less important ones. Understanding what these powers are and how to use them is key to becoming effective at your work.

First, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to his newsletter. It’s not just free, it ends up being worth more than the time you spend reading it, and if that is not a bargain, I don’t know what is. Second, maybe I’m guilty of over-fitting, but it was fascinating to me how role power is LinkedIn, expertise power is Coursera and networking power is Starbucks:

College is a bundle: education | credentialing | peer networks

If I were to write that blog post again today, I would remove the word peer. That part, I really do think that role power is about signaling, expertise power is about learning, and relationship power is about networks (the last one is obviously true, it is the others that make me think I might be over-reaching).

Food for thought, as they say.

Navin’s article speaks about the last bit, relationship power, as the most powerful/useful one. And anybody who is in any part of the higher education supply chain would likely agree: it is networks that get things done.

Now, as a student, what should you take away from this?

You need to consciously spend some time in developing your networks. And that means putting yourself out there as often as possible. Write blogposts. Make videos. Start podcasts. Make TikTok or Takatak (or whatever else we’re calling it these days) clips.

And once you do all of that, as often as possible, start sending those links to folks. Ask them for feedback, and ask them specifically for areas of improvement. Ask them for learning recommendations. The magic of the internet will mean that conversations, debates and opportunities will crop up on their own.

But networking does not mean sending people requests on LinkedIn. That just means you’re added to a person’s network. Networking matters, not the network itself. It is a garden that needs regular tending to. The bad news is that it is hard work, the good news is that there are surprisingly large payoffs, and over surprisingly large periods of time.

Make connections with your peers, your professors and your potential mentors. Use this network to share your thoughts, and put those thoughts out for public consumption. Optimize for quantity, and quality will be the eventual outcome. Respond to other people’s publicly available output.

Most importantly, do this for its own sake.

Job opportunities is one of the benefits of doing all this. It is not the only goal, and it is not the end-goal.

For you will change your job eventually, but your network will either shrivel or grow. Please, learn how to nurture it, and keep at it every day.

Navin promises towards the end of his post that he will share his own tips about networking. I’ll link to that post whenever it comes out, of course. But in the meantime, start learning, and help others learn, and build out your network.

Why would you want to not acquire a superpower, eh?

What I would ask if you claimed you knew Excel

Fridays have become gyaan sessions about employment, internships and jobs, and I suppose that’s a fine thing to keep going. Here are posts on the past two Fridays: On Interning, and “Cracking” Interviews.

Today is about what I would ask you if I was the interviewer, and I see on your CV that you claim to be proficient in MS-Excel. This post will hopefully help you figure out if you know Excel well enough – and by your responses, it’ll help me understand if I’m asking good questions!

Here are ten questions I would have asked about MS-Excel in an interview. I’ve tried to arrange them in increasing order of difficulty, so the first is the easiest one

  1. Is it possible to work with text data in Excel? Can you give me an example?
  2. What exactly is conditional formatting? Can you tell me about a time you used it in MS-Excel?
  3. How would you password protect a file in Excel?
  4. When are you better off using data filters instead of pivot tables? Whatever your answer, what is your reasoning?
  5. I’m not a fan of pie charts. Do you agree with my opinion, or not? Why?
  6. Give me your best guess about a keyboard shortcut in Excel that I’ll not be aware of.
  7. Index and Match, or Vlookup – which is better, and why?
  8. How would you go about creating dynamic charts in Excel? Or sentences that update automatically when new data is fed in to the sheet?
  9. What is your favorite Excel add-in? Why?
  10. Walk me through the coolest project you’ve ever done in Excel. (This last one if I’m convinced that you are a proper, legit Excel ninja)

How did you do? How did I do? What are questions that I should have asked but didn’t?