A “Well Rounded” CV

When discussing career advice one idea that occasionally comes up is that someone should be “well rounded” and should demonstrate this by listing skills that are entirely unrelated to the job in question. Something along the lines of “I’m applying for your C programmer position, and I like spending my spare time playing tennis and golf“.

I suspect that the bad idea in question originated in the days when it was not uncommon to work for the same company for 20+ years and when there were company picnics etc. In that social environment employing someone implied socialising with them outside work so it would be a benefit to have something in common with your employees other than working for the same company. Also in those times there were few laws about discrimination in the hiring process.

It is often claimed that participation in team sports teaches people how to do well in team activities in a work environment. I have previously described the ways in which software development is a team sport [1]. Like most analogies this one is good in some ways and bad in others. Team-work is required in software development but it’s not quite the same as the team-work in sports. One significant difference is that most team sports have a single ball, and the person who has the ball (or who is about to catch it, hit it, etc) is (for a moment) the most important person on the field. There have been many sporting debacles when two players from the same team tried to catch a ball at the same time, so the rule in team sports is that you don’t compete with a colleague. In a work environment there are many situations where it’s necessary for tasks to be passed between colleagues at short notice. For example when a deadline is imminent tasks often need to be reassigned to the most skilled people. A junior programmer needs to know that they aren’t an athlete who is running with the ball, their teamwork involves having difficult tasks being reassigned from them at short notice.

Another significant difference between sports and work is the amount of aggression that is tolerated. In most sports some level of harassment of opposing players is tolerated. But in the modern workplace using a single naughty word can be considered as just cause for instantly sacking an employee. So it seems that exposure to an aggressive sporting environment would be a bad thing if it actually makes any difference.

One thing that is sometimes ignored is the teamwork that is involved with hobbyist computer work. Being involved with a software development team for fun will surely give teamwork experience that is more relevant to paid software development work than any sport!

One of the reasons cited for being “well rounded” is the ability to have a “work life balance“. I might almost believe such a claim if it wasn’t made in connection with the IT industry. But given how common it is to demand 60 hour working weeks (or longer) and the number of people who are required to have mobile phones turned on when they aren’t at work it seems that the general trend in the IT industry is against a work-life balance. When hiring people to work in cultures where a strict 40 hour working week is well accepted it seems that hiring people who are willing to work as long as required is important. When I worked in the Netherlands I lost count of the number of times I worked until 10PM or later to fix a broken system after all my Dutch colleagues departed at 5PM.

I have also seen the bizarre claim that consumption of alcohol leads to developing better social skills. It seems really strange to me that anyone would want to work in a company where social skills that are relevant to a bar would be useful (I am reminded of a company that was named after the founder’s penis – I declined to send my CV to that company). Also of course there is the fact that in most countries where I would want to live it is illegal to discriminate against hiring someone for refusing to drink alcohol.

It is quite common for the geekiest people to do a significant portion of their socialising via email and instant/short-messaging (formerly IRC, now Jabber, Twitter, and other services). It seems to me that this experience is more relevant to most aspects of the modern work environment (where most communication that matters is via email and instant-messaging) than any form of socialising that happens in a sports club or a bar. In fact people who are used to face-to-face dealings might have difficulty fitting in to an environment where most communication is electronic.

Now employers seem to have worked these things out. Recruiting agents (who reject most job applicants) have told me that they want to see nothing on a CV that doesn’t relate to a job. That is an extreme position, but seems to represent the desires of the hiring managers who will see the CVs that get past the recruiters. Hiring managers often don’t even read a CV before an interview, they often entirely rely on recruiting agents to determine who they will interview. So it seems that an effective CV will in most cases list as many keywords as possible, demonstrate experience in the technologies that were listed in the job advert, show years of work with no long breaks, and have little else.

Finally the IT industry is distinguished by having a significant number of people who’s work and hobby are almost identical, those people tend to be significantly more skilled than average. It seems to be a bad idea to avoid the potential of hiring some of the most skilled people.

To a large extent your career success depends on what you learn from your colleagues, so if you end up working in a team of people with low skills then it is bad for your career. Therefore it seems that anyone who wants to have a successful career will strive to avoid working for a company who’s hiring process had any criteria other than the ability to do the job well and the ability to not be a jerk. So when it comes to the technical part of a job interview (where the hiring manager brings his most technical people to grill the candidate) it probably makes sense to ask those technical people what their hobbies are. If their hobby is something other than computers then it indicates that the employer might be a bad one – so at least you should ask for more money as compensation for not having highly skilled colleagues.

10 comments to A “Well Rounded” CV

  • Andy Cater

    Coincidentally see the BBC News pages today 20 June 2009

  • etbe

    Andy: Could you please give a URL for the page in question and also a brief excerpt or summary?

  • Andy Cater

    Perils of pastimes – it’s actually a reference to the BBC on line Magazine feature. Someone commenting on university interviewing years ago – someone who “didn’t have time for a hobby” so had been assigned one of “brass rubbing” for the purposes of university application by her careers tutor – and how it nearly caught her out. Good cautionary tale :)

  • etbe

    Thanks for the link Brian.

    Andy, my understanding of that article is that the girl in question was a victim of an extremely poor teacher. Sociology is a worthy hobby, but the careers tutor wasn’t able to communicate well enough with the students to discover what really interested them.

    There are very few high schools that make really desirable employers. So being employed as a teacher can at best be regarded as evidence of not choosing to pursue a competitive career. A cynical observer might consider employment as a teacher to be evidence of career failure. The actions of career teachers seems to support the cynical view.

  • Phil H

    ‘To a large extent your career success depends on what you learn from your colleagues …’

    Well, maybe, but probably not. Your career success depends on the kind of work you do, how well you recognise and make use of whatever opportunities you can create or that you encounter, and your ability to work well with others. I think that this last point is really what the demand to be ‘well rounded’ is about. If you’re talented, but hard to get on with, the only way you’ll survive (for a time) is to monopolise a particular area of knowledge. Otherwise, you can and will be replaced; maybe not right away, maybe not in a month or two, but you will be replaced. In that event, you’ll find it hard to get another job without some positive recommendations from the previous one.

  • etbe

    Phil H: You are again making the baseless claim that some hobby will actually make it easier to get on with other people. There are plenty of athletes who are really difficult to get along with (sport attracts certain types of hyper-competitive personalities). There are plenty of people who don’t have any hobbies outside their work who are really friendly.

    Various governments have had a great lack of success in using profiling to discover terrorists. So it seems extremely unlikely to me that any amateur profiler working in a HR department will do any good.

    Apart from disinterest in topics other than computers, reasons for not having other hobbies include caring for children, having health problems, and caring for sick relatives. In most jurisdictions where you would want to work there are laws preventing employers from making any detailed inquiries into such matters.

    Finally you seem to assume that all employers want to hire nice people. My observation is that often managers want to hire people who are are like them. There are friendly managers who tend to hire friendly people and jerks who tend to hire jerks. I once worked for a company where there was a certain unpopular manager who had a group of like-minded unpopular people working for them. There was a half-serious joke going around the company that if you weren’t nice you could get a transfer to that team at short notice.

  • etbe

    The ycombinator news system has some interesting comments on this post. From a casual glance it seems that ycombinator is like /. but with a user-base who are inclined to write longer and more considered comments.

  • Phil H

    Actually, I didn’t make any claims about any relationship between hobbies and getting on well with other people.

    You stated that career success largely depends on what you learn from your colleagues. I expressed disagreement, suggesting that there were other factors involved. I didn’t comment about the hiring process at all, potential issues with HR profiling, or the psychology / pathology of various hiring managers. You’ve done a good job of conjuring a whole series of inferences out of nothing. Have you considered a career in sales or marketing?

  • etbe

    Phil: Of course there are always other factors involved, that is why I deliberately used the term “largely”. I would have used the word “entirely” if I thought that there were no other factors involved.

    You claimed that people who are difficult to get along with can only survive by monopolising knowledge (wrong) and also claimed that people who do such things get replaced (wrong – my observation is that they tend to last longer than the IT industry average). What industry have you worked in? Maybe your industry is somehow different from the IT industry.

    You made the implied claim that being easy to get along with is indicated by having hobbies. I am absolutely certain that “brass rubbing” (as cited in the BBC Magazine) requires no great ability to get along with other people, and my observation of competitive sports is that if anything the number of jerks in sports teams exceeds the average for the population.

    One of the reasons I avoided playing sports when young was that I didn’t want to be bothered with arguments about which side of a line a ball landed.