Giving Back to Motivated Sophomores, Career Lunches, (and doing nice things for others)

The opportunity to drop a little knowledge on a handful of high school sophomores presented itself at a career lunch event hosted at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD and sponsored by Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership (HOBY). As a software developer in today’s age, I jumped at the opportunity to share some of my experience! #hobymd2014

I regrettably wasted a lot of my high school era, so it was a personally rewarding experience to say the least. Thirty-six professionals from all walks of life attended, each given two tables of ~8 sophomores to guide through a two-hour luncheon. Many were local to the area, but they came from a number of professions. HOBY estimated the distribution by gauging BLS for jobs by popularity in 2020, the year 2014-sophomores would likely complete their undergrad work and enter the workforce. Government, education, health, arts and technology professionals were all there, representing their niche in the economy.

The goals were both to share experience about a profession students might not know existed and to answer career-specific questions. I tend to talk a lot (read: rant,) but both of my groups had sharp questions. We fielded everything from, “What advice would you give about applying for a job right now?” (credit: Sean) to “I want to go to NYU, I know it’s expensive, but what other options are there if I want to get a good job in a promising [biotech] field?” (credit: Oneisha) The former student was asking about a position as a local pizza shop and showed concern the application was submitted ~3 weeks ago, and he still hadn’t heard back. I replied (paraphrasing) with, “Follow up by phone or email at least once per week until you’re no longer interested in the job. That goes for this job and every other job to which you apply in the future.” It wasn’t apparent to me, at first, that this could be valuable advice, but it was received better than anticipated. Some of these sophomores felt more advanced than my (questionable) peers at the same age, so maybe I zoned out and forgot I was in mentor-mode when their maturity at times told me I was peer reviewing. The latter student, like many others in attendance I’m almost certain, had earned the highest GPA in her class. She was concerned about 1) attending a very  expensive university with only partial scholarships and 2) the validity of that university when compared to others offering similar programs. I think this one caught me a bit off guard, since I know about as much about biotech as I read in the paper and hear on the news. Nevertheless, I tried to convey that no one has to spend tens of thousands of dollars per semester to get an education. Still, the connections a student makes at NYU could arguably be more valuable than at other universities, but that’s as trivial as semantics in my humble opinion. Calculus I is the same at every university on the planet (and off the planet, for that matter.) She seemed relatively set on NYU, but I suggested doing some research on other similar programs. I also suggested choosing a successful professional in that field and examining their career path, choice of college, etc. I hope I didn’t fumble that question too hard, but again, it appeared to be received well.

Being no stranger to outreach events, this format was a first. I was both taken aback and pleasantly surprised to find both tables weren’t wholly interested in software/web development as was the proposed scenario upon invitation. I had some topical note cards to make sure I nailed some specific topics I didn’t want to forget about during a rant, but many were rendered useless when I discovered the demographic–no problem, wing it! There were several students specifically interested in my field, but it was probably 50/50. Nevertheless, the questions were on point. Many students were interested in ROWE, as my garb may have suggested to some in attendance that I may have been lost (black t-shirt, cargo shorts, sneakers and tattoos hanging out,) despite a couple high fives I received for my informality.  There was a question about its [ROWE] value pertaining to travel and other enthusiastic remarks about working hard for three days and taking a five day holiday weekend–and choosing to volunteer for this event during that time, I might add! The event organizer suggested using my attire as a topic of conversation, and he was absolutely right to do so. The topic of culture came up more than once. As a technology professional, I’m increasingly exposed to what I believe is a trend toward virtual work environments, or at the very least mitigating the ridiculous “standard” that members of the workforce should dress for work the same way they dress for a funeral or a wedding. A good screening question to ask of recruiters in this field is, “Does this job allow telecommute, or can I least wear my favoriteDecepticon t-shirt with flip flops in the office?” The act of getting an interview is a huge step in the career process. Once you’re in the door (or virtually interviewing over Skype!), a company has already accepted you on paper. At that point, they want to test whether or not you’re a jerk they’ll be increasingly motivated to work with and whether or not you’ll create value for the company.

Another recurring theme I tried to spread revolved around volunteer work, side projects and/or simply doing extracurricular things. Sounds vague, right? These young adults were worlds ahead of where I was at their age. They’re attending all-weekend-long leadership conferences of their own free will! I was in the high school marching band, but I even fell out of that as school marched on. Only recently (~2 years) have I really been involved in the volunteer scene in a valuable capacity. I’ve done some pro bono tutoring (SAT prep, etc) since college, but those cases were few and far in between. If I could talk to those sophomores again and convince them to take away one thing from my talks today, it would be get[stay] involved. It doesn’t even matter what community with which you choose to involve yourself, although several already were, since you’re young. What matters is giving back for moral profit, even if it’s in the interest of financial profit in the future. Volunteer situations are fantastic resume builders!

I explained that emerging from college is traditionally met with, “Ok, how do I get a job with no experience?” That was a valid question. I happened to fall into a start-a-small-business situation where I could flex my computer skills as well as hone my professional developer foundation based on some great mutual connections, but it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Expanding on this, I suggested using college in your experience calculation! This isn’t a new theme but perhaps underutilized. College undergrads are almost certainly deserving of being considered for entry-level jobs in their field with maybe 1+ year(s) experience based on busting their tails to graduate. Don’t be afraid to apply for a job for which you’re “not qualified” based on a job description you found online. Caveat: Ok, if you don’t have a Ph.D and the job description requires it, maybe earmark that for later in your career. Many “entry-level” job descriptions I’ve read “require” 1-3 years experience, for example. Frankly, this is a filter for potential applicants that may not fit that personality profile mentioned earlier. If you have 3 years experience in a field, not applying to a job that “requires” 5 years experience would be a tragedy and a potentially missed opportunity. You may also not be the candidate they’re looking for anyway.

As a former child and young adult, I always thought the following sounded ridiculous until I conceded to being a grown-up, but my parents incessantly repeated phrases like, “Nothing beats a trial but a failure” and “You can literally do anything you want if you put your mind to it.” Mom and Dad, I sincerely thank you for that.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that involvement is a big component of career and life. If you want to get into software development, get involved in your college’s computer club. If they don’t have one, start one–this usually only requires one teacher-sponsor. Attend hackathons, setup your GitHub account immediately and start contributing. If you’re into law, join mock trial. If you’re interested in government, volunteer for a local politician even if it means knocking on doors or driving them around while they do so. Even if you plan to start a whole new field in which there are currently zero professionals in the workforce, find someone in a related field and shadow them, study them, pick their brains. There are genuine people out there willing to help and share their experiences for nothing more than your benefit and their own personal satisfaction–I’m one of them. Ask questions, continuing being awesome and most importantly: Thank you for reinforcing my confidence in our current youth and future stewards of the economy.

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