4 min read

Drink the Hotdog Water

Understand the difference between functional and behavioral competencies.
Drink the Hotdog Water
Are you rollin' up to da club in cargo shorts?
Do you really understand the difference between functional and behavioral competencies?

Show Notes

Hey folks, welcome to The Imposters Club, the podcast for misfits and tech. You know who you are? Who am I? I'm your host, Teddy Kim. I'm a director of software engineering at a SaaS startup, here in Minneapolis. And today, we're going to confront a brutal reality. Your résumé sucks, but it can be fixed and I'm going to show you how. But first, let's have a pop quiz. Would you rather drink the Hotdog Water or work on your résumé? A nice steaming cup of Hotdog Water is sounding pretty good right now. Well, let's add a twist. Now imagine you're a manager trying to hire someone for an open position on your team. Would you rather drink the Hotdog Water or read a stack of other people's résumés? Well, I am a manager and I have read a lot of resumes. So yeah, give me some more of that Hotdog Water.

For real, though, at least 90% of the resumes I read are just a bullet-pointed list of skills and a recitation of past duties. That is the resume equivalent of cargo shorts, and you don't show up at the club in cargo shorts. Nobody's gonna give you their number if you approach in cargo shorts. Okay, so let me break it down for you. Your resume has one job, and that job is to package you as an asset. You have to set it up, homie. The question is how? What exactly is the secret sauce that makes some resumes stand out from the crowd?

Well, the answer lies in the difference between functional and behavioral competencies. Functional competencies are things like specific skills, certifications, degrees, years of experience, etc. On a job description, a functional competency would be something like "three years of React" or "expert level Spring Boot" or "Kubernetes superstar", whatever. A heavily functional resume is meant to establish your qualifications for a specific job. Well, that sounds pretty good. What's wrong with that? What's wrong is that nowadays functional competencies are very common, very easy, and very cheap to acquire. The barrier to entry is incredibly low and it keeps getting lower. Do you want to learn how to program for the iPhone? You can take a free class from Stanford or MIT. If you want to become a web developer, well spend six weeks in a boot camp and you're good to go. The bottom line is that it's becoming nearly impossible to differentiate yourself on functional competencies alone.

Behavioral competencies, on the other hand, are very different. Behavioral competencies are qualities like grit, intrinsic motivation, or emotional intelligence. Behavioral competencies are very uncommon, they're very difficult to acquire, and nearly impossible to duplicate. Unfortunately, no bootcamp will teach you emotional intelligence, at least not that I know of. But now that I think about it, that's a pretty good business idea. Maybe I should start a GoFundMe page, but I digress.

Here's the key point. If you want to make sense of the madness that is tech hiring, you need to understand this one thing, this is a super important point. Managers and recruiters do not look for the same things in your resume. When a manager reads a resume, she's looking for behavioral competencies, because those are the strongest predictors of job success. I realize it's cold comfort to all of you who have invested so much in your tech skills, but I have to be honest with you - tech skills are a dime a dozen. People with behavioral skills, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. So much so that managers will overlook a gap in technical competency to hire someone with strong behavioral skills.

Let me give you a specific example. Years ago, I interviewed for a lead engineer position at a startup here in Minneapolis. The formal job requirements included expert-level Python and expert-level Google Cloud. Well, I never programmed in Python, and I didn't even know what Google Cloud was. But I got the job and a pretty good salary for the Midwest, 145 grand per year base. So why would an employer hire someone into a six-figure job that they're not technically qualified for? Well, my resume clearly shows that I can learn and adapt and that behavioral competency more than made up for my lack of specific knowledge about Python, Google Cloud, or whatever.

Okay, so if behavioral competencies are so important, why on earth do the majority of people write resumes that lean so heavily into functional competencies? Well, it turns out there is an audience for this type of resume. The people who put the most stock in functional competencies are recruiters and human resources personnel. To understand why this is, remember that recruiters and HR people are the middlemen in the hiring system. Unlike a hiring manager, recruiters do not have a direct stake in your success...because they're the middlemen. So what do recruiters want?

Well, as middlemen, their primary challenge is to match resumes to a job description and the only way to do that efficiently is to use process of elimination. So they start with a huge stack of resumes called from the internet and eliminate all of the ones that don't meet a list of prescribed functional competencies. The resumes that ultimately make it onto the hiring manager's desk tend to meet all of the criteria on the functional side of the spectrum. But unfortunately, after the process of elimination unwinds, you're left with a stack of frickin cargo shorts.

To be honest, most of the time, the manager just throws the cargo shorts resumes away. They're just not sexy enough and that brings us to the million-dollar question. Can tech hiring really be so incredibly dumb? Yes, it can. It is so dumb. It's an absolute mess, but that's okay. If you understand how the system works, you can game it, and in upcoming episodes of "The Imposters Club," we're going to talk about specific strategies for avoiding the process of elimination hiring trap.

I'm hiring software engineers! Check out the jobs page to see my open positions.