What I've Learned From Failure
I’m very sorry, but I don’t have good news about the job opening here at BigCo. We really liked meeting you, but the bottom line is that you don’t have a degree from the right kind of University.
“What’s that you say? You have learned an awful lot about writing software during the four years that you weren’t carting textbooks around the campus? My dear applicant, thanks for pointing out the obvious.
I can read, you know. I was impressed by the list of projects you have completed. I even took an extra thirty seconds to Google your name and enjoyed the screen shots and links on your home page.
But nevertheless, University teaches you things above and beyond how to write code. And that’s what we need here at BigCo.
“I beg your pardon? You think that you have learned just as much about communication, teamwork, and project management from shipping software in small teams as you would have learned completing coursework?
Please don’t take this personally, but I need a moment to chuckle. Ok, I’m done. University isn’t about communication, teamwork, or project management. If you happen to learn those things, that’s a bonus. I was thinking of something else.
“Look, I admire your enthusiasm, but if you’d let me do a little of the talking I could tell you what we need. But since you bring it up, no I wasn’t thinking of any of that Computer Science stuff.
Just in case you’re thinking of referring any of your friends to BigCo, please let them know that if they learned why S, K, I, and Y are the most important letters in the alphabet, they need not apply. Ever.
To paraphrase Eric Beck, “At either end of the educational spectrum there lies a hacker class.” And we are not interested in hackers, even great hackers. We need those middle of the spectrum folks who are going to live in the suburbs, commute to our offices, and do a decent job for a fair wage week after week, year after year.
Quite honestly, the very fact that you passed on University tells us something disturbing about you. Quite obviously you aren’t stupid. And you knew that people like us would have a problem with your lack of education. But you believed in your heart of hearts that you could make up for this with excellence.
But you know what? That same attitude might have you think “It’ll look bad if I quit this job in less than five years, but I’ll make up for it.” That kind of attitude makes you a little fearless. And while we try our best to build a decent working environment, we like our people to be just a little afraid of leaving the nice security blanket we give them.
This may come as a surprise to you, but we’re looking for people who are looking for us. Of course we know that the educational component of University is a waste. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like hazing rituals and wearing dark suits to work in August, attending a certain kind of University is a statement that you want to belong, that you know there is no practical purpose to the exercise but that you are prepared to make the sacrifice just to fit in. And you, dear applicant, would not fit in.
Let me stress this point about what kind of University. We aren’t talking about some aerie faerie place where you build robots or spend your free time writing business plans. Those places exist to skim the cream off the top so we can hire a plain glass of 1% milk.
As a matter of fact, the kind of University we like discourages you from dreaming about the future and keeps your feet firmly planted in the ground. For example, our favourite institutes of higher learning send you to work for companies like ours on work terms. This provides us with cheap labour and has the pleasant side-effect of discouraging the more creative undergraduates from wasting everybody’s time by coming to work for us.
“Look, I really have to go, and I don’t want this call to end on a down note. There are lots of happy people in this world, and most have never even heard of BigCo, much less come to work here. So please consider this a redirection instead of a rejection. I know that’s trite, but it’s no less true just because it has a memorable rhyming form.
It’s not you, it’s us. The plain fact is, you wouldn’t be happy here. So buck up, look around, and see if you can get yourself into something a little more early stage. Consider starting your own company.
Because quite honestly? I’d read your business plan any day. Your résumé would look better on top of a funding proposal, than under a cover letter.
Good luck out there.
(This originally appeared in July of 2005)