If You Don’t Like My Work, Just Fire Me

Training WheelsSome time ago, when Compaq portable computers weighed 28 pounds and offered a nine-inch monochrome display, I was interviewed for my first software position. My memory of the details has faded but I remember the primary task was a conversion project. I also remember the legacy code was running on a DEC PDP system, and the new code was intended for an IBM mainframe. The legacy OS was RSTS/E, and I believe the programs were written in a version of BASIC. The new software would be written in CoBOL, with the programs controlled by JCL.

The hiring manager looked at my resume, and pointed out the obvious: I had no experience. I did not know the PDP environment. I did not know the DOS/VSE environment. I did not know JCL. I did not know CICS. I knew CoBOL. And I knew BASIC. I knew a few others as well but they were immaterial to the task at hand. So, after pointing all this out, he asked a logical question: “What makes you certain you can do this job? This is an important project where you’ll be front and center.”

I told him that all of that was true. I told him I had done well academically and become a computer science lab assistant and tutor. I told him I was promoted to the position of “Coordinator of Lab Services” (supervisor of lab assistants) even though I had the least seniority. I told him I’d assisted two of my professors in working out programming assignments for two advanced level programming classes. I told him I believed I could learn what was necessary to complete the project to everyone’s satisfaction. “And if I don’t, you can fire me.”

I was offered the job. The project was completed ahead of time. I still have the small, blue, “crying towel” (in memory of the times something did not go quite as planned) I was given at the wrap-up party.

My point is, if you have the talent, you can learn the skills. The first challenge is getting in for an interview. Then, don’t be afraid to acknowledge you don’t know everything. But don’t hesitate to share what you do know, and how eager you are to learn more.

9 Responses to “If You Don’t Like My Work, Just Fire Me”

  1. That’s a very cool story and I thank you for sharing it. Thing is… that “I’m willing and able to learn” attitude might still fly in other industries, but it not in the tech sector in my experience.

    You walked into that situation at a time when, if you knew how to even boot a computer, it set you apart from the masses. That you could program at all made you a god-send, that you could do it in two languages, you were a walking miracle. I’m fairly certain it’s why they even looked at you.

    Anyone in that same situation today, applying for a job with a dozen or more requirements, of which they can only claim two or three on their resume, isn’t even going to get an interview to display that “willing to learn” attitude. Their resume will be c-filed before the paper even has a chance to noticeably change temperature from having been picked up. Very few hiring managers are willing to take a risk on candidates that aren’t out and out proven anymore, they don’t care what underlying talent you’ve got, only that right here, right now, you have the skills they need and can prove unequivocally that you do. And they want that proof in successful professional experience, not academic examples. If you meet all of that, and happen to have some underlying, untapped talent/potential as well, that’s certainly a deal sweetener, but if you walk in and that’s about all you’ve got… you’re sunk.

    I’ve worked all kinds of jobs, in and out of the tech sector, though mostly out. I haven’t finished my degree yet, but I’m currently sporting a 3.89 GPA studying Mathematics. You’d think, if talent mattered, hiring managers would be inviting me to interviews all the time, in recognition of the fact that between my intelligence and my variability of my employment background, they can train me to do just about anything. I could be one of those people in the office who’s crossed trained and can fill in for pretty much anyone, if the need arises, which one would think would be a valuable asset. But no… here I sit, unemployed save for my work-study, because hiring managers don’t want it to be their head on the block if their wrong about me. It’s not good enough that they can just fire me, I cost them and their company time and money if I don’t work out. And that’s just not a risk many, if any at all, are willing to take.

    • Erica,

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. The fact is that some, not all, hiring managers appreciate talent and the ability to learn. The problem is that you have to go through more hoops and be willing to put forth extra effort in the hiring process. Often you will have to tap into your network as well.

      I just changed jobs recently and the position I landed had several technical requirements that I had no experience with but had knowledge of. I knew that I could do the job and learn it. I was fortunate enough to meet a developer for the company at a conference. I gave him my resume and a custom written cover letter explaining that I have technical knowledge but that wasn’t my best skill; my ability to learn and succeed was. I also explained that everyone could say that but I would be willing to spend my own time to code a small app for him to prove it.

      I got the phone interview and talked with a lead developer and the manager. While the phone interview went on all I could feel was despair. I felt like most of my answers were “I know the theory behind that but I have no experience with it. However I could learn”. They gave me a shoot anyways. They allowed me to code them something. I spent the next weekend feverishly working on the app for them. I hadn’t used the 1/2 the technologies before and had to learn them on the fly to complete it. The whole time I felt like I was shooting for the stars and I must be crazy.

      In the end the code got me the face to face and I was offered the job. It was the most intense interview I had ever experienced but it was worth it. I have a great job and I’m advancing my career. I couldn’t be happier.

      Take the chance and shoot for something you don’t have all the requirements for but don’t expect to only send in a resume to get the job. You will have to work harder to get the position.

      • Kat,

        Your experience is indeed an excellent example of knowing the right person at the right time, and being willing to work for no pay to prove yourself showed courage. Congratulations on the new position.

        May I ask what the app did and what tools, etc. you used to develop the app?


    • Erica,

      Thanks for your comment. My apology for the delay in response but I wanted to consider what to say.

      The salary offered to me would indicate I missed the halcyon days of entry level positions. But I was “in” and that was the goal. Once there I proved myself, the raises were good and it was a great job that years later I still remember fondly.

      That was not the last time I was interviewed, offered a job, or came in “second place” for a position that required skills I did not possess. Some how, some way, my cover letter and resume managed to get me in the door, and again (not to repeatedly strike the deceased equine life-form) during the face-to-face my can-do attitude, previous experience (even if academic) and personality (?) was the winning combination for placing high in the candidate list.

      I wish I had a cut-and-dried answer for “well, how do I craft that cover letter and resume” but I don’t. All I can do is encourage you to keep at it, continue with the work/study, expand your search area, network (but even I’ve learned the hard way that some nodes in a network can be non-communicating) and seek encouragement from family and friends.


  2. Problem that most people have today in tech is the “I” focus versus that what they can do for their employers. Think the real way to sell yourself is not what “I” am, but what you can do for the employer, what you are willing to do, and how much you understand that you are a team member. Be willing to listen and learn, it always helps to learn.

    Too many come out stating they are experts in their field without any real experience at all. Anyone who has worked for a while knows that they don’t know everything and never will. In other words, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

    Ego is the biggest turn-off for a potential employer when it is “all about me” versus all about what you are willing to do as an employee for the company and as a team player. When you can get past the focus on the self, and move into what your contribution to the employer is and how that will benefit both of you, then the interviews and the offers become easier to obtain.

    Your reputation as a performer will be building itself if you follow through with that simple philosophy of delivering on what you set out as your stated goal: “This is what I will do for you, potential employer. As your employee, these will be the things that will be done in good faith, always with the goal of obtaining a mutually beneficial success together.”

    That is what a good employer really wants. Not saying there are not bad employers out there, there are. Good employers though, will reward and always keep you in mind when you deliver on those promises. They will remember you as well and that will cement your reputation within your network as a person that delivers on your promises, which is so important to your lifelong success.

    There are many people who want shortcuts in careers and life, but as a reader of the classics, Horace’s words still ring true: “Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.”

    So it is true today and will be tomorrow. Having traveled at least four careers in my lifetime to date, it is surprising to me that others seems so fixated on one alone and will pine away when one path dies. Adaptation is the key to survival, and there is no guarantee that my life will not change in future. What the next call may be, is yet unforeseen, but there is much more time even at this age to revisit a path unknown.

    Hope that people realise that not all things they expect will occur are going to occur, and that the careers that they end up with may not be the careers they dreamed of at an earlier age. My sole advice to all is to look instead within yourself and be willing to adapt when necessary. All other advice, like this, is just a small bit of material that is only for pondering. It serves no purpose lest it be used to start something within, and then the deed is only half-done.

    It is up to you to live: “He who postpones the hour of living is like the rustic who waits for the river to run out before he crosses.” (again) Horace

    Good luck to those searching, there is much to do, and no time to ponder, only the time to start.