15 September, 2007

When and where to lie.

It's okay to lie on your resume. There, I've said it. Now, don't go and start adding those years you spent at NASA designing thermal tiles that they never adopted, or add those publication credits to C&EN about using carbon nanotubes to fight cancer. Those kinds of things stick out and come up in job interviews.

Let's talk a little bit about lying first, and then we can talk about job interviews, which is also a crucial part of lying.

So, let me give you an example of a lie that is perfectly okay to tell on your resume, and in fact one that most people will expect you to tell (even if they tell you they don't want you to lie). The example starts with your being employed at ASNA. You're maybe second- or third-tier help desk. This doesn't mean you answer phones and read scripts to people who scream "OMG THE INTERNETS ARE DOWN." This is more like, you know how to replace hardware and actually diagnose when something is bad ram versus a bad CPU or maybe even a problem with a specific library (this is not to say "OMG WINDOWS IS TOAST REINSTALL"; rather, you understand when the DX10 drivers are kaput and need to be reinstalled, you do so, and the machine is restored to functionality).

Now, let's be real here. You're help desk. You're not a sysadmin. However, in the course of doing your job, you have to know (and you probably learned this on the job) what a subnet mask is. You have to know what IP addresses are, and you have to understand what the term "RFC 1918" means. You might even learn how to telnet to port 25 and understand what's wrong with the local mailserver.

So, here's the lie. We list on our resume:

2005 - present
ASNA, Los Angeles, California
Junior Systems Administrator
Performed maintenance tasks on defective hardware; performed basic troubleshooting of network issues and diagnosed problems with Sendmail 12. Part of a team of twelve, responsible for maintaining workstation, server, and network functionality for 350 engineers in aerospace development environment.

Well, you did that, didn't you? Sure, your boss thought you were help desk, your coworkers knew you were help desk, but because you're a good employee, and because you're a smart, upright hominid, you took it upon yourself to really learn everything you could in the environment you were in. Compare the lie to the truth:

2005 - present
ASNA, Los Angeles, California
Help Desk Technician
Repaired broken desktops, performed RMA packaging and repair to vendors HP and Dell. Reinstalled operating systems (Windows XP, Windows 2000).

The truth isn't going to get you hired anywhere. That second version isn't going to get you a raise, either. Here are the key components of making this transition:

  1. First, your lie is not really a lie because you must have done that stuff, even if it wasn't your primary responsibility.
  2. Second, the upright, tool using hominid in you bought hardware off ebay that was similar to the stuff in the office, or the stuff you want to use in the future, and you read every damn man page, reinstalled a bajillion times, and learned how they work. We'll get back to this in a minute.
  3. Third, they're going to ask you what you did in your interview (and in your phone screen! be prepared for this part!). You have to know this shit cold even if it's a lie. Lies are only lies when people know they're a lie. If you lie and say it was your responsibility to build solar panels for the Mars Global Surveyor, but you know every single atom of those solar arrays, is it a lie? Who could tell? It doesn't matter. The key here is know. your. shit.

Here's the explanation most of the people I work for (who do read this), and most of the people I have worked with (who certainly do read this), and the people I will work for (who usually go digging for stuff like this), are waiting for.

Employers are so busy when they receive resumes for an open position that they can't possibly call all your previous employers (provided, you know, there are more than three or so). They just can't. So they base their entire estimate of whether they want you, and how much they're willing to pay you, on your performance in two places:

  1. Your phone screen

      You may have two or three of these:
    1. A recruiter (if you're working with one)
    2. A tech guy you'll be working with or for
    3. His boss. This is usually a guy who used to be technical, but can sometimes be a complete tool, one of those guys who got into managing technical people because he managed the mailroom effectively for ten years. These guys have usually never done anything else for a living and will either be complete pricks (and thus you won't get anywhere in the phone screen unless he liked your resume — your phone screen is irrelevant if grueling and unpleasant)
    4. This only really applies to government contracting. You may also get the government guy. He's usually pretty thick (this is not to say that government guys are thick, he's just busy with other stuff, and he hires contractors because he doesn't understand what you're going to be doing for him, just that the "boss" guy above says you need to be on the contract)

  2. Your in-person interview.

      You'll probably have at least a few of these, although you may be lucky enough to have just one.
    1. Somebody who you'll be working with. This won't be a supervisor. They'll either be real sharp or real dopes. They know what they do for a living, and they want to make sure that you either have lots of sympathy for how hard their job is, or that you at least know what they do and can do it.
    2. Somebody who is probably going to be your boss. This is probably not the mailroom guy. This is the one you absolutely, positively, cannot screw up with. Everyone else is kind of irrelevant in this process. He is the one that makes the decision. I'll get back to this guy in a minute.
    3. If you're interviewing with Amazon, Google, or Microsoft, most of this stuff goes out the window. This second process, the in-person part, can last for days and include ten or more people. You should just disregard this document.

So there's a technique you need to have. Most people would call it a bluff, but I have a term I like better. Psychologist face. Imagine the dilemma of a psychologist. Let's say you're a normal-ish person (let's put aside for a moment it's not really possible to be a shrink and be normal), and you have this person sitting in your office. They say to you something like they've been having sex with their dog for a few years, and they feel the bitch (sorry) really loves them back. That it's a fulfilling relationship.


You're a shrink. And you can't twist up your face, leap out of your chair, and say "Oh my god, you fucking pervert! how can you DO that? And the dog? The dog loves you? Are you fucking kidding?" No, as shrinks, they have to maintain that perfect composure, look the patient in the face, and say, "You know, most people don't consider dogs to be equivalent to a human lover. I think you may be misunderstanding the dog's natural affection for you, and you are probably using the dog to fill the space in your life where most people find love and sex with other humans."

So this isn't to say that mailroom guy, or your prospective coworkers or whomever are going to tell you they have sex with their pets (although I'm pretty sure one guy I recently used to work for could only find love in the eyes of a dog). But you're going to get asked questions about your lies. Listen to me very carefully. You can't twitch. You can't stutter. You can't even say "um." Learn to use the psychologist face. When you start to speak, you need to collect your thoughts, so look at your interviewer. Furrow your brow and look thoughtful if you have to rehearse your lie in your head. Start with "Well," not with "Um,". Generally, we call this "being articulate," but for purposes of prose here, we're going to call it bluffing your way into a job you might otherwise not have gotten.

Again, you must know your stuff, absolutely cold, if you're going to lie on your resume. But frequently, it's the best (only?) way to advance in your career. Think about this for a moment. If we didn't do this on our resume, we would say that we were doing "data entry" and nobody would take us seriously for a position doing SQL reporting. It's entirely plausible however, that if you worked with a data archival company, and you were paid and titled as a data entry technician (technician!), you probably had exposure to databases. If you were diligent and thorough, you learned enough SQL and Oracle or whatever to lie your way through your next interview, to get that bump in pay and responsibility.

It logically follows that you do the same thing at the next position, and in five years you've gone from Toadie to somebody who is actually running things, even if it's only a small fiefdom or part of some dog-lover's silo.

There's one other component to this. One thing employers do tend to check (although nowhere near a hundred percent of the time) is your references. So this is how this works. Be social. Meet people. Meet them socially, rather than in the workplace. Find people that do what you want to do for a living, and make it clear to them that you understand what they do. If you manage to become friends with them, or at least casual acquaintances, they'll probably let you use them as a reference.

With respect to "employer references," which are sometimes required, you pick employers, hopefully supervisors (although we all know that we don't always leave on great terms), from older employers. Pick a supervisor who loved you when you were doing data entry (remember, he loved you because you were learning SQL and starting to help with more stuff), rather than the last guy you worked for who remembers you more acutely and knows that "systems administrator" was nowhere near your title.

Lastly, and I have CM to thank for this (and she will probably get a chuckle out of reading this), join linkedin. I'm not a real big fan of social networking sites (I've created accounts on all of them, and they all suck), but LinkedIn has this incredible benefit. You can build a resume and link to it. Not only do you build a resume, but people look at that resume (because they have an account, too), and they see that, wow, they know Doug K at Verisign, and Doug knows Amy, and thus Amy knows you (through Doug). Now, in the real world, that doesn't mean dick, and we all know that. But us hominids are social creatures, and we impart great significance to social ties. Thusly, linkedin can be an incredible tool when you're trying to portray reliability, professionalism, or whatever.

So go on. Lie a little. I'm pretty sure everyone's doing it, and I may be the only one actually saying it. But think about that DBA you worked with a few years ago that was just about the dumbest sack of bricks you'd ever met. That guy lied to get where he was. You know he did. And you know what sucks? He lied, and he makes a lot of money. You probably didn't.

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