Advice for Underqualified Data Scientists

A talented individual seeking entry-level data science roles recently asked me for advice. “How can you show a potential employer that you’d be an asset when on paper your resume doesn’t show what other candidates have?”

I’ll stick to data science, but much of what I share applies to other roles, too.

Let’s think about the question first. Why do coursework and skills matter for employers? It depends. Different employers have different philosophies about how they evaluate candidates. Most job listings specify required skills and qualifications for applicants, for example “must have 3-5 experience programming in R or Python.” Usually there is more to the story. Sometimes employers don’t expect candidates to meet all the criteria. Other times, the criteria are impossible to meet.

In most situations, employers are looking for additional attributes not provided in the job listing. Some employers will tell you their philosophy by listing the attributes they value: “ability to deal with ambiguous situations”, “being a team player”, “putting the customer first”, “seeks big challenges”, and so on. Others don’t. Even if they tell you, you don’t typically know which attributes are most important. What really matters? If I am a so-so programmer but a brilliant statistician, do I have a shot?

Individuals who make hiring decisions have a mental image of how a successful candidate will perform on the job. This mental image includes possessing and using a certain set of skills. Qualifications such as a degree, a certificate, or code on github provide part (but only part) of the evidence necessary to ensure hiring managers that they are making a sound decision.

Let’s be simplistic and say that employers consider both “explicit skills” and “implicit skills”. Examples of explicit skills are demonstrated knowledge or capability with programming language X, technology Y, or methodology Z. Examples of implicit skills might be the ability to break down a complicated problem into its constituent parts, dealing with ambiguity, working collaboratively, and so on. Certainly some employers are very focused on finding candidates with explicit skills, sometimes to the exclusion of implicit skills.

A reframing of the question is then: “If I sense that a potential employer is looking for certain explicit skills and I don’t think I have them, what do I do?” Here are some ideas:

Provide evidence you are good at acquiring explicit skills. Given an example of learning an explicit skill. (“No, I don’t know R, but I know Python. In my blah blah class I had to learn Python so I could apply it to XYZ problem, and it was no big deal. I did ABC and now my code is up on github. Learning R is really not a big deal, I’m confident I could hit the ground running. What would you have in mind for me for my first project?”)

Emphasize your implicit skills. Game plan about questions you’ll be asked and think about how you’d highlight what you believe to be your differentiating skills. (Without sounding like a politician.) By the way, now that I think about it, I followed my own advice when I interviewed at Market6 (now 84.51). I talked about the fact that I have worked in both software engineering and data science roles, and that made me uniquely qualified to work at a company that was trying to deliver data science at scale through SaaS offerings.

Do your own screening. Focus your search on employers who seem to value implicit skills. Rule out others. Do your research prior to applying. Ask friends or contacts. Early in your conversations with employers you can ask the recruiter about their philosophy. Not every job is right for you, so try and figure out which ones are.

That’s all I’ve got. I will close by telling two quick stories.

First story: My first job after finishing my PhD was as an entry level software engineer at Microsoft. When I interviewed, I was fortunate because Microsoft weighted implicit skills highly in their evaluation process. One of my favorite bosses at Microsoft was a classics major (as in Euripides, not the Stones). Another engineering manager started his career localizing dialog box messages into French. Oui, c’est vrai. Both had, and continue to have, a very strong set of implicit skills. They, in turn, looked for implicit skills. Talent comes in many different packages.

Second story: I believe that for early career stage positions it’s important to weight implicit skills more highly than explicit ones. Sometimes it’s a relief if certain explicit skills aren’t there! Several years ago, I had an entry level scientific researcher on my team who did not know how to code, in a position where lots of coding was required. This individual had very deep knowledge of optimization and statistics, was a hard worker, and was incredibly motivated. I was thrilled that they didn’t know how to code because then I could teach them! No bad habits!

 

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Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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