Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Tell me about a time when you did your work WITHOUT BOTHERING ME!"

Job descriptions are not always the best examples of creative writing. Hiring managers the world over follow the example of those who came before them by cutting and pasting previously used job description content. It is interesting to me that those same hiring managers will complain about the student candidates for the "cut and paste job" who have used a form cover letter to apply. But, regardless of how the job description is put together, there are common requirements that appear time and time again regardless of the function, industry, or level of the position. "Problem Solving" may be at the top of the list.

A quick review of the top companies to work for in 2015 according to Fortune Magazine (see the 2011 list in my other article), shows that they are all looking for this ability in our kids (well, the top 3 are at least...).

  1. Google: Strong problem-solving and analytical skills, with an ability to see both detail and big picture issues.
  2. Boston Consulting Group: The objective of the interview is for us to learn about your approach to solving business problems...
  3. Acuity: Analytical problem solving skills

The quotes for all 3 companies above come from job descriptions for new graduate roles. I did not look too deeply into the mid-career opportunities at these companies but I suspect that we would find similar requirements all the way up to the CEO job. Great, this is the kind of thing our kids can get into. They like puzzles and games and if they are given/assigned a problem they can usually come up with a solution or answer. But is this what the hiring managers are really asking for? Maybe for some situations that are clearly labeled, "THIS IS A PROBLEM, SOLVE ME" but how often does that happen? Perhaps I should step back a second and explain how the hiring manager likely came up with this requirement in the first place. We are talking about the very first one who wrote it down to then be later copied by countless managers into the future. Imagine that it is the 2nd year of hiring at Big Company and the hiring manager is thinking of all the challenges she had with the new recruits from the 1st year. High on her stress list is the fact that she spent 90% of her day running around telling them what to do. Determined not to make the same mistake again she writes as the first requirement on the job description:

  • Able to get their job done on their own without bothering me!

Already she feels better about the future as she imagines all the time she will have to focus on her own overdue projects. Re-reading the bullet point though, she realizes that perhaps it does not sound attractive to students who might be interested in her company. How to make it more appealing...? Since most of the interruptions to her work day come from problems the new employees are facing while trying to complete their jobs, she adds "problem solving". Still, it is not exciting enough so remembering her own college life and how "analysis" was fun and sounded professional, she also throws in "analytical". Thus, the age of problem solving as a specific bullet point in the job description is born:

  • Strong analytical and problem solving skills

What does this mean for our kids? Well, when the various questions related to problem solving come up in the interview, if we can advise our sons and daughters how to answer them they will be a step ahead of the pack. The stock answer to any question related to problem solving is to bring up the assignment (school or work) and explain how they succeeded. However, the better answer, the answer that gets to the real concern of the interviewer, is the story of how our son or daughter not only solved a problem, but also identified it and took care of it without pestering their boss! Identification of the issue is half the problem and if your daughter's boss has to point them all out then she is wasting the boss' time. The nice thing about a problem solving question is that it does not require our kids to have work experience. Everyone deals with problems growing up and we can help our kids to remember and categorize these experiences for use in the job hunt.

By the way, not all the companies on the Fortune list hide what they really want to say in common job description jargon. I think Wegmans, at #7 on the list, states it the clearest:
Able to problem solve, anticipating, analyzing, and identifying problems, responding quickly when situations arise and preventing problems when possible.
My previous article on problem- solving discusses a method for helping our kids develop and apply this skill .

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Can I play SimCity as a job?"

Did you know that SimCity first came out in 1989? Yes, I know, it is hard to believe that computers were capable of advanced environmental simulation back then (26 years ago!!!).  While the computers of the 80s might be less powerful than your smartphone today, they were still up to the task of offering kids and adults alike the chance to play with being city planning gods.

It seems that the game has lost little of it's popularity over the years and iterations of it keep popping up.  Most recently, I caught my 14 year old playing on his iPhone (when he was supposed to be doing his homework!). After showing a suitable amount of outrage at his lack of focus and poor attitude about school I asked him to show me what he was doing on the game. I won't go into the gameplay here as you can find out all you need to know on wikipedia. What struck me was the level of detail in the game and the intensity of concentration my son seemed to be dedicating to it.  Kids love games you say? Why should I be surprised? Well, sure it is a game but there are no explosions, guns, semi-nudity, racing, or monsters... basically nothing fun. Why the interest and more importantly, is there a career for our kids hidden in there somewhere?

SimCity is about city planning so I started there. Apparently there is an organization in the US called the American Planning Association (APA). The APA is all about community planning and fortunately they also have a job site on their webpage.  Most of the employers were city governments.  Positions were all planning related (obviously) but covered a variety of disciplines like: transportation planning, wastewater planning, housing. Besides the government jobs there were also related positions with consulting firms (fiscal/economic analyst) and architectural firms (urban designer).

Looking at the requirements listed on pretty much every job on the APA site, applicants must have a "Bachelor's or Master's Degree in Regional/Urban Planning". MIT and UCLA seem to be at the top for graduate degrees in urban planning but there are fewer options at the undergrad level.  Cornell offers a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies so let's look at that one and what is necessary for our kids to get in. They state on their admissions page for this degree:
...successful applicants to the urban and regional studies program demonstrate intellectual potential and commitment, and a combination of ability, achievement, motivation, diligence, and use of educational and social opportunities. Above all, the department seeks students with a high level of enthusiasm and depth of interest in the study of urban and regional issues.
To me, the words commitment, enthusiasm, and depth of interest stand out. Intellectual potential and the rest seem like they would be required for any major at a school like Cornell. How do 17 year old kids show that they are committed, enthusiastic and deeply interested in urban planning? While SimCity is a good start, I believe that colleges are looking for some growth and maturity beyond just the game. Internships or volunteer work connected with city development would be good, especially if our kids have more than one summer of it. Consistent interest is usually a good indicator of commitment. Maybe something like volunteering to dig holes for a new playground? Looking at the sample requirements at the bottom of this article, a graphic program seems to be one of the tools of the trade so having early knowledge, use and ideally a portfolio to share will impress.

Is it all worth it? Should I be encouraging my son to focus on a field that might be irrelevant by the time he enters the real world (2023)? Not likely. Based on my extensive research (one website), demand for Urban Planners will increase 16% by 2020. That is good enough for me. More SimCity anyone?


  • Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in Regional/Urban Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, or a closely related field
  • Five to 10 years of experience in a planning capacity
  • Well organized, detail oriented, and highly motivated
  • Strong writing skills
  • Comfortable with public speaking
  • Has knowledge of computer programs (GIS, Adobe Creative Suite, and Microsoft Office programs) and the ability to produce attractive maps, graphics, and documents

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tell your kids to "choose" their future

The desperation of college grads to find "any" job after graduation combined with the typical view of a 20 year old that 6 months is an eternity, lead many to jump into positions and companies that are far from their personal interests or temperaments. Some may go on to turn it around later in life but based on my observations of mid-career job-seekers, many more will be stuck in a rut that gets harder and harder to break free from the longer one is in it.
Why don't more kids follow their dreams? Kids with a passion for something (anything!) are more attractive to college admissions counselors, recruiting managers, and even potential future spouses. Granted, our kids may not know what they want, or more likely, know what kind of job they can do that is related to their interest. We can help with that and along with guidance counselors and teachers we should be sharing out knowledge of the working world with our kids at an early age. But once they have an idea about a job or a career, is the desire enough?

Jonathan Rowson is a Grandmaster in chess, an author, can be found on twitter here, and is also a father. While he has achieved success in chess, peaking at 139th in the world, it seems that a quote from one of his emails in Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character has done much for his online recognition. The quoted email discussed some of the challenges of achieving greatness in chess and goes as follows (somewhat abridged): is crucial to distinguish between `wanting` something and `choosing` it. Decide that you want to become a world champion, and you will inevitably fail to put in the necessary hard work.  If however you choose to become a world champion, then your every action will say, "This is who I am."

Tough relates the comments to Angela Duckworth's discussions of volition vs. motivation.  They both explain in detail the nuances between the words (want/motivation vs choose/volition) and try to show how the attitudes of people both young and old can be categorized into losers and winners. I can't help but think that this has all been said a long time ago in a galaxy far far away...

"Do or do not, there is no try."

As we all know, the teachings of Yoda are eternal and applicable to all situations at all times.  In this particular case, our kid's careers, it can help them to get a job. However, not just any job, Yoda's (and Angela's and Jonathan's) advice can lead our kids to finding a job and a career that they are actually excited about. So to answer my question way up in paragraph 2, no, desire is not enough. Our kids need to act on that desire or in Yoda's phrasing, "Do". We can help by talking through what is necessary to achieve a career in whatever discipline our kids have shown an interest in (although it may require some research on our part as well). Look at the prerequisites (future film directors can click here). Is there anything that our kids can start now that will put them a little bit closer to their dream? Perhaps we can apply this to ourselves as well, instead of just "wanting" our kids to be successful and happy, we can "choose" that they will be.

"Jedi Chess"
Todd Laffler (photographer)

By the way, this will be my 6th article about motivation.  I am starting to think that it might be an important topic...