Originally Published: Tuesday, 20 March 2001 Author: Mark Miller
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Are Your Job Skills Well Rounded?

Still searching for the dream Linux job? Mark Miller has some job skills advice that might surprise you.

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Good source code comments are not "excellent communications skills"

When searching for that chance to work at the ideal Linux job, we often concentrate on the technical skills we will need. But there is an entirely different issue to be concerned with: soft skills. Soft skills are all of those wonderful things you won't learn in engineering courses. Subjects like teamwork, work ethic, honesty, and motivation are usually peripheral to the algorithms and equations of engineering and therefore typically receive less emphasis in the curriculum. Sure, you'll pick some of this up but it won't be intentional. The reason for this may be because they are subjective, rather than objective. This subjectivity can seem too "touchy-feely" for engineering types more comfortable with concrete rules.

While the Linux community values technical reputation as a measure of success, the rest of the world demands a more rounded approach. Essentially an employer wants a complete employee, balancing the Yin and Yang of technology and people skills. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers describes some of the attributes that employers desire beyond technical skills. In order of importance, the survey cited: communication skills, honesty, teamwork, relating well to others, motivation and initiative, strong work ethics, analytical skills, flexibility, self confidence, leadership skills, organization, attention to detail, friendly or outgoing personality, tact, politeness, creativity, risk taking skills, and a sense of humor.

Many of these attributes may seem obvious to you, but are they really? The stereotypical Linux hacker is modeled as a highly technical loner who doesn't play well with others. Nor does he suffer those who don't "get it" well. This image may actually hurt you even before you get your foot in the door. Human resource people can have some remarkable biases for a group that is supposedly steeped in a culture of openness. I have experienced this first hand (although I was not aware of it until AFTER I was hired!). Turns out that the HR folks felt that I might be too "rigid" due to a military background. Luckily, the manager hiring me had some experience with the military and knew this was far from the truth. Similarly, combatting the Linux hacker stereotype may take some effort on the part of a job seeker. Having the ear of a manager who understands the reality of the Linux culture can make the difference between success and failure in getting the job.

Active cultivation of communication skills, the complement to our technical abilities, can mean the difference between a second interview and getting your resume tossed out. Your first chance to demonstrate your highly desirable communications skills will come the moment you first introduce yourself to your potential employer. Your resume and cover letter are not just a formality, they are a chance to demonstrate your written communication skills. A well practiced 30 second "sales pitch" about why you should be the next person employed at United Amalgamated Widgets Inc. leaves no doubt about your verbal communication skills. Conversations are two way, so make sure you practice your listening skills as well. Genuine interest in what the interviewers are saying and what the company is doing are important. Much like programming a Unix socket, you need to manage the communication pipe. Establish the connection by being open and friendly, but respectful. Let the interviewer know that you are listening for what they are sending by focussing on her. If information is garbled, request clarification. Then ask intelligent questions about the job and company. Finally, close the connection by summarizing any agreements made or action-items to complete.

How do you ask intelligent questions about a company and it's jobs? Research, of course! Don't get to the interview and ask what the company does! Surf the Web, ask any friends you know there, check the news, financial reports, product reviews and anything else you can imagine. Like a hacker you are seeking that key piece of "inside information" that will give you an edge and impress an employer with your interest. Don't go dumpster diving however!

Entrepreneurial skills and risk taking are valued attributes, so display them to good advantage when selling your main "product": YOU! Entrepreneurial skills? Suit talk for business skills. A geek that understands something about how a business works is a potent business advantage. Every time you make contact with an employer make sure you use the opportunity to market yourself. Take a chance, if you don't believe that you are the best person for this position in this company right now, how will an employer believe it?

While we are looking at our softer side, there are certain physical factors that can make or break your chance with an employer. Right or wrong, these are important considerations. First and foremost is grooming. Sure, technical types are well known for lax dress but you had better make darn certain that you are dressed better than your interviewer or the person who you meet at the job-fair booth. In my present position I wear jeans and a t-shirt even in the presence of clients, but I wouldn't have dared to wear less than a suit to the interview. It's the same reason lawyers dress clients in suits for court. If you look like a bum you won't get a chance to demonstrate your considerable technical skills. The worst that will happen if you over-dress for the interview is that they will tell you to leave the suit at home next time.

Another deeply symbolic ritual is the handshake. Make sure it is a firm one but not crushing. Avoid twisting the hand. I've had a hiring expert tell me that a person she knew lost out on an interview because they twisted the woman interviewer's hand while shaking it. This caused the interviewer to lose her balance due to her high heels! (You can't make this stuff up!)

Finally is the issue of alternative life styles. Like it or not, non-traditional haircolor and obvious tattoos and body piercings are seen in a negative way by many employers. This should be no surprise to those who have them. Consider toning them down, if possible, while remaining true to yourself. NEVER present yourself as something other than who you are, but don't flaunt it at the interview either. Once you are in the door your skills will give you freedom to explore your individuality. Hey, even Jon "Maddog" Hall wears a suit sometimes.

People who get along well with co-workers, work well on teams, and who seamlessly combine people and technical skills are the most desired employees. By working to improve not only your Linux skills but your team and people skills you will greatly enhance your chances of securing that dream Linux job. Cruise on down down to the local library or bookstore and check out the job hunting section. There is an amazing selection of books on the soft side of job hunting. Talk to recruiters. Even ask the interviewer about what you could do to prepare better for the position you didn't get. You'd be surprised about how helpful this can be. Of course, you can search the net for "interview skills" and get about a million hits or just stay tuned to the Linux.com jobs section for more information.

Mark Miller has a deep interest in workforce development and has been installing Linux repeatedly since 1995.

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