Trying to understand online job postings is daunting when you first enter the workplace. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert has been teaching some very sharp teenagers how to read posted reqs and had to explain why some executive-level reqs seem mysteriously easy to ‘qualify’ for.
A young lady asked me a question this weekend that inspired me to go on a bit of a snarky rant about executive-level position qualifications. For context, our BSA Venture Crew  decided last spring to use their summer vacation meetings learning some practical job skills – things that they’d likely need to know when they transition out of high school into the working world. There isn’t a formal BSA curriculum for this program; I saw that it was a glaring need and wrote the program myself for our crew. I based it on the subjects that I teach to my own kids. So, this summer we’ve been attacking the following topics:
|1||Understanding hiring organisations’ needs and internal hiring processes|
|2||Searching for posted open positions|
|3||Understanding position descriptions|
|4||Understanding jobs’ pay rates, benefits, perquisites, and relative value|
|5||Writing a decent résumé, CV, and cover letter|
|6||Completing Applicant Tracking System applications online|
|7||Preparing for an interview with proper clothing, social media sanitization, & story crafting|
|8||Basic interviewing skills (discussion)|
|9||Mock interviews (practical exercises)|
|10||Advanced interviewing skills (discussion)|
|11||Mock interview (panel interviews)|
|12||Crafting and understanding LinkedIn profiles|
Thanks to all of the campouts, high adventure treks, summer school activities, and family holidays, our crew has only managed to work our way through five of the 12 modules. During our last discussion, one of our Venturers shrewdly observed that a small number of the corporate position descriptions (PDs) that we’d been analysing seemed to deviate significantly from the majority of them. The more PDs we looked at, the more the deviations stood out to everyone. In shortest form, adverts for senior individual contributor positions were obscenely detailed in the listing of their requirements… whereas senior leadership positions were sometimes so vague that anyone could qualify for them.
That touched a nerve. I spent a good fifteen minutes off-script on an impromptu discussion about why this happens in the commercial space. The Venturer who first spotted the peculiarity was dead-on correct: individual contributor roles tend to start off very simple, and then grow increasingly complicated as the compensation range increases. Some leadership positions follow the same model… whereas some are bafflingly vague. That deserved an explanation!
We started by analyzing an entry-level call centre job – one that any high school graduate could easily do with minimal training. These jobs tend to have very low pay, relatively low benefits, and require only basic qualifications. We picked one at random that required ‘reliable and dependable work habits with excellent attendance’ and ‘strong attention to detail.’ This particular job paid about $10 per hour for both part-time and full-time roles. For a kid with no practical work experience and only a high school diploma, this would be a decent first job: it’s performed entirely indoors, it doesn’t require any heavy physical labour and it pays about a third more than an entry-level fast food job. 
We talked about that in the context of actually making your way in the world. All of our Venturers agreed that a call centre role is a fine starting place for a teenage graduate with no useful job skills. It’s not enough income to support a family in most cities,  but it’s a good step up from dead-end fast food jobs. It’s certainly a better option than waiting tables. 
From there, we looked at several entry-level and low-skilled jobs in the IT sector. One that we spent considerable time analyzing was a junior ‘technical writer’ position. Among its requirements for consideration included: ‘three to five years’ experience,’ a ‘clear understanding of the Software Development Life Cycle academic model’, and ‘a Bachelors Degree.’ The job was worth a very respectable $40 per hour – four times what a typical American teenager’s ‘good’ job was worth. On the other hand, it required a four-year investment in higher education  and another three years of on-the-job experience in the actual position after graduation before you’d be considered eligible to apply. 
Things got predictably tougher as we made our way further up the career ladder. We examined a ‘network engineer’ position that paid a remarkable $80 per hour – enough income for that person to cover all of the income needs of a typical American family on his or her own. Call it a ‘dream job’ for the majority of American workers. As expected, the requirements just to apply for this gig were daunting:
- ‘B.S. degree in CS, IT information systems, or computer engineering,’ (not just a degree; possession of a technically-challenging degree. Poets need not apply)
- ‘Minimum of 6+ years experience in a network engineering role,’
- ‘Advanced knowledge in server-side scripting languages,’
- ‘Advanced knowledge of telephony switching and private branch exchange.’
- ‘Linux/Unix programming and scripting experience,’ and
The teens understood and appreciated that a highly-technical engineering job should be a lot harder to qualify for than an entry-level gig. The engineer’s responsibilities would be significantly greater than those of the tech writer or the call centre worker. The skills required by the NE role were a lot rarer, so it was only logical that the NetE’s compensation should be proportionately higher in-turn.
None of the Venturers thought that the engineer’s pay rate was unfair, and (I’m proud to say) none of them suggested that they somehow ‘deserved’ that high a pay rate themselves as unskilled, untrained and inexperienced new workers. They looked at the range of posted jobs, talked about what sort or education and training would be required to break into the career path, and asked some savvy questions about whether or not specific jobs were worth pursuing from a financial risk/reward perspective.
We also talked about how IT jobs get increasingly more specialized as you progress in your career. As a new hire, you work in a narrow ‘technical support’ billet. In time, you move into a general support role, then specialize in a particular field (like Windows OS, voice systems, or network infrastructure), and then proceed to specialize in a very narrow area (like a specific brand and model of telephone switch or a specific application) until you’re a recognized expert in a singular field.
Then the outlier job appeared. I showed the Venturers the advert for a chief information officer position that I’d been sent back in March. The pay rate was average for a tech sector executive in the Dallas area – about $75 per hour with a 20 per cent cash bonus and an equity stake in the company. For a position that earned approximately the same as the network engineer role we’d just looked at, you’d logically expect that the requirements for the head of IT role would be on par with (or slightly higher than) those of the engineer’s role. In fact, all that anyone needed to have on their CV to qualify for the CIO role were these elements:
- ‘10 years of leadership experience,’ (note it doesn’t say at what level)
- ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience,’ (really? The degree can be waived?)
- ‘Experience with Enterprise Resource Planning systems,’ (it doesn’t say what kind of experience)
- ‘Passion for customer service!’ (that could mean anything)
- ‘Demonstrated managerial competencies,’ (this, too, could mean anything)
- ‘Demonstrated ability to understand and leverage technologies.’ (oy, vey)
That’s it! That’s all that it took to ‘qualify’ for this executive billet. The so-called ‘requirements’ fell somewhere between those of the entry-level call centre worker and those of the junior tech writer. Further, the compensation parity between the executive and the NetE didn’t tell the full story – the engineer was an hourly position with no bonus eligibility. Based on the environment description in the advert, the engineer would work out of a cubicle with the other senior engineers. The executive, meanwhile, was a salaried role boasting a private office suite, a company car, an administrative assistant, and ultimate authority over all of the IT decision-making activities in the company.
The apparent disconnect between the two posted job reqs helped illustrate that there are meaningful differences between line management and upper management (here in the USA, at least). We discussed that purely-technical jobs get increasingly difficult to qualify for as their compensation levels increase (and vice versa), whereas purely-managerial jobs get strangely less difficult to qualify for as their power level increases. That doesn’t make sense at first glance – not until you learn about the nature of politically-appointed senior leadership positions.
In the production-aligned part of the IT sector, technical competence is the most desired attribute that a new hire can possess, and is often rewarded proportionality. Working managers often have to be technically-savvy too, since they’re in the trenches alongside their subordinates.
Once you reach the political echelon, though, technical competence is simply a nice-to-have feature; not a required capability. Many tech executives have no valid technical skills at all. Instead, they tend to have political skills (like inspirational speaking, negotiating, relationship building, etc.) and boardroom warfare skills (like empire building, covert political destabilization, character assassination, etc.) that allow them to thrive in their peculiar echelon. The ‘requirements’ for such positions can’t be easily codified in a job posting – I’ve never seen ‘amoral willingness to shiv a trusted ally’ as an expected skill. Further, speaking honestly about what skills, experiences, and propensities a ‘competitive’ executive needs to bring to the fray could well prove infuriating to the people who actually work for a living. It’s sort of like how a simple soldier’s job can be very easily explained, whereas it’s all but impossible to publically advertise a secret agent’s billet – and it’s only appropriate to discuss a spy’s required professional skills in heavily fictionalized cinema and literature.
Setting aside whether this is a pragmatic or reprehensible aspect of working life, it simply is what it is. We tabled the ethical implications discussion for another day. God knows I could probably spend an entire semester exploring the topic.
What was important for purposes of our job hunting activity was to explain why it was that some advertised positions seemed to be both paradoxically both easy to ‘qualify’ for, and simultaneously effectively impossible to compete for. In some cases, it was because someone who had no idea what they actually needed wrote the advert (like the company that wanted a developer with ’15 years’ of iOS programming experience’). In other cases, the problem could be attributed to an HR department re-using positions descriptions from an out-of-date jobs catalog (like the company that demanded ‘Experience publishing web videos’ for a technical writer billet). When it came to the executive-level positions, everyone learned that these PDs were pure fiction – truly competitive candidates would be judged on factors that had nothing whatsoever to do with what was written on the advert.
Further, I argued, if your objective is to become the CEO of a major corporation, you have to acknowledge that there’s no clear academic or career path for that. Instead, you’ll need to be deliberately mentored and sponsored by someone who’s already operating at that rarefied altitude. If you have what it takes to make it in the C-suite, then someone will notice your potential, and will make use of you by giving you the critical boost that you need to first enter the space. Once you’re in the club, all of your future positions will be decided on based on your personal relationships.
All the rest of us need to be pragmatic: in order to qualify for and to compete for the good-paying positions, we all need to focus on attaining practical skills in whatever industry segments most appeal. Become good enough at something that a hiring manager will agree to ignore the listed ‘requirements’ for their open req in order to get your talents on the team. Always look for opportunities to become an expert in something. Eventually, with hard work and dedication, you can probably secure a decent corporate job that allows you and your family to live a decent life.
As for your smarmy neighbour with the new Bugatti, the Harvard fraternity necktie, and the fancy CXO title who can’t even set a password on his home WiFi router… don’t measure your career success against his. The two of you are not – and probably never will be – competing on the same plane. It ain’t fair, but it is what it is.
I don’t think my Venturers liked hearing that message, but accepting it will save each of them a ton of unnecessary strife, confusion, and rage in the years to come. It’s an important piece of context that helps explain the working world. I wish someone had told me that when I first started…
 The Venturing program is Boy Scouts of America’s program for older (age 14-21) men and women. Every crew sets their own primary focus. Ours is primarily focused on getting ready to be successful and productive once they leave home and make their way in the world as adults.
 The legal minimum wage for everyone (regardless of age) in Texas is $7.25 per hour (roughly £4.60 per hour at last week’s exchange rate). That hits right in the middle between y’all’s 2014 ‘Under 18’ and ’18-20’ wage rates.
 The US Government put the ‘poverty line’ for a family of four at $23,850 per year in 2014. Working at $10 per hour for a full year of 40 hour weeks (the US standard for full time work), our theoretical new graduate would be able to sustain him- or herself in a low cost-of-living city, but probably not be able to save up for university, starts a family, etc.
 In the USA, a waiter or waitress can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour (£1.30 per hour) since they’re expected to receive the majority of their cash compensation through gratuities.
 The so-called College Board claims that the average cost of a bachelor’s degree at a state school in the USA in 2014-2015 was $23,410 (about 15,000 quid). Most of the kids in our Boy Scout Troop that have gone on to university have graduated with anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 in debt for their education… after they paid their share.
 That is, you had to have the job already before you could ever apply to get the job the first time. Bit of a Catch-22 there.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.