Xpanse Inc
Published in

Xpanse Inc

Why a Non-Degreed, Job-Hopping, Code Academy Grad May Be Your Best Hire Yet

Vincent Van Gogh was a late blooming job hopper with an oddball resume

Evolve your focus on skills potential in recruiting and change the odds against Big Tech in the war for talent

Main Idea

Startups must grow to survive but candidates with the shiniest resumes are getting scooped up by the firms with the shiniest logos. Meanwhile tech companies often pass up non-traditional candidates that have untapped potential. By pivoting from filtering on traditional backgrounds to finding the undervalued skills growth potential of candidates, startups can diversify their teams, drive innovation, and grow to scale.

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Alan Turing

Startup Challenges

In an ever-tightening tech labor market, hiring teams at early stage startups with minimal brand recognition and shallow pockets have an existential requirement to grow their workforce by focusing on two key areas when evaluating candidates:

  1. Seeking skills potential rather than an exact match in prior candidate experience
  2. Looking for value hires by understanding the journey of the person behind the resume rather than employing biased resume filtering shortcuts

Questions to Explore

  1. How can hiring teams at startups compete for talent against big tech?
  2. What are some ways to pivot our thinking about the potential of candidates?
  3. How does skills diversity relate to creativity and innovation?
  4. Which “weaknesses” in candidates might be a secret signal of strength?
  5. Could a pivot to skills-potential recruiting help mitigate the diversity failures of tech?

Face It, You Can’t Compete on Pay

If you are hiring at a startup that is not yet profitable or seeking cash conservation to plow back your profits into growth and scale, you can’t just throw buckets of money at your candidates. Facebook and Apple you are not. Get to their epic levels of profit and then go nuts on pay. Until then, you should not expect to competitively fish in the same candidate pond that they do.

Yes, you will find some candidates who will leave big tech or pass on offers there and take a pay cut for the opportunity to build a company from an early stage. But these folks are often later in their career and have found financial security elsewhere. For the two thirds of your workforce earlier in their careers, you should expect to fail often when competing against the FAANGs of tech. The hiring strategy to get to staffing scale for startups has to be different.

Stocking the pond at the bottom of your funnel

Don’t assume candidates with big degrees and traditional experience to accept your offers. Seek ways for those candidates that the FAANGs filtered out to survive your recruiting funnel. Suggestions for hiring teams:

  1. The recruiting game is ultimately one of putting big numbers into the top of the funnel. Keep pulling in all the candidates you can.
  2. Stop filtering. While it takes more cognitive effort, begin to dig deeper when doing first-pass evaluations. Understand the candidate’s journey of learning and applying a diversity of skills, not just those that directly relate to the job.
  3. Develop recruiting programs that seek candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. For example, support apprenticeships that make way for non-traditional candidates to gain experiences that help build directly applicable skills. (Where college interns typically gain an early leg up.)
  4. Educate screeners and interviewers on how to evaluate for skills potential rather than specific backgrounds. Work to ignore the places they have been and focus on the skills they have built through their experiences.

De-FAANGing Big Tech: Seek Skills Potential, Not Degrees

Degrees don’t write code.

The value we bring to our jobs is in how we leverage our skills. Our capacity to learn and practice skills applied to the problems of our business is how we get work done. Obvious, right? But this isn’t how tech companies typically filter out candidates. They should be looking for signals of learning and practicing skills that resulted in personal growth or business impact.

“There are qualities … that have a tendency to be completely overlooked when people are sifting through résumés or LinkedIn profiles. And yet, increasingly, we find that these are the kinds of people that make the biggest difference within our organization. Increasingly I hear this mantra: Skills, not degrees. It’s not skills at the exclusion of degrees. It’s just expanding our perspective to go beyond degrees.”

- LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner

In the past couple of years Google, Tesla, Apple, IBM, and others have gotten media coverage by stating they don’t require degrees to work there. This doesn’t appear to be broadly related to high paying software engineering jobs, but it is an important shift that shows that the FAANGs are getting scrappy and acknowledging the necessity of creating opportunities for greater access across an increasingly diverse talent pool.

How Skills Diversity Leads to Creative Innovation

Organizations get a boost in innovative potential when they encourage the migration of ideas across teams. By keeping the cell membranes between organizations porous, information that might otherwise get stuck in one place (siloed) can influence thinking differently in another place. Innovation happens when an idea gets applied in the context of a different domain than it originally emerged in. In social network strategy talk, that’s called brokerage. Research shows that brokers have more career success than their peers.

How does skills diversity lead to the migration of ideas across teams, improving the potential for innovation?

People who have spent time working in different industries and those who have hopped around building and practicing skills have an advantage in that they develop a greater diversity of perspectives. This helps create greater potential to lift an idea from one domain and leverage it in another.

Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

- David Epstein, in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

“Oddball” Resumes Hide Secrets to Great Hires

There is fascinating research that suggests “oddball” and “weak looking” resumes cloak some terrific talent opportunities. We all apply labels as short-cuts to decision making. When we are sorting through a stack of 100 resumes, we seek efficiency by applying simple rules of thumb. In many cases, these represent biases — errors in decision making — that misread the potential of what could be your next great hire.

“People who have good arguments use them. People who do not have good arguments try to win by labeling.”

― Scott Adams, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America

The Seven Deadly Biases of Oddball Resume Screening

I have committed every bias on this list, possibly dozens of times.

  1. Career pivoters lack focus and wasted their time.
  2. Career gappers probably got fired and couldn’t find a job.
  3. Late bloomers can’t make their minds up and have been left behind by their peers.
  4. Quitters and job hoppers lack persistence.
  5. People from failed companies have no-brand resumes and are low quality.
  6. Code academy students are cutting corners on the hard work of getting into tech.
  7. People with low GPAs will be as unsuccessful in business as they were in school
  8. Hobby hoppers — people with lots of life interests — are too busy and defocused to become significant professional contributors.

The theme in these biases is that there is a widely assumed canonical form for talent. These labels close doors and perpetuate the unspoken belief that people who step outside the expected path do so at their peril. The truths behind their stories are lost as their resumes flutter to the bottom of the trashcan. And our pool of candidates is depleted by our own laziness to find the story behind the person.

Career Pivoters

People make career pivots for lots of reasons. In some cases, they have failed to get traction in their first choice career or have decided the work didn’t suit their interests. Think about how many people have chosen a career path because of some random suggestion from their parents or teachers. It is a great sign of resilience, self-determination, and professional actualization to see a career pivot. It is a sign of strength to make a hard decision and endeavor to find something more aligned to your life’s calling.

Managing change after getting laid off or fired creates the gritty experience that could make this candidate more able to manage stressful decisions on the job. People who have had an easy sail through education and career may not be as equipped as those that have had to recover from some bumps and bruises.

Searching for skills potential in career pivoters

  1. Hiring teams should talk to candidates about what they learned that led them to a career pivot.
  2. What changed their mind? What options did they consider? Why land on this path?

Career Gappers

I used to consider a gap in a resume as a red flag. Detecting a multi-month lack of employment must mean the candidate has failed to keep up with their peers in maintaining employment, right? Wrong. Don’t discount these candidates.

Searching for skills potential in career gappers

  1. Ask what they were up to. Focus on family, skills expansion, travel, or just gardening and reading are great ways for people to gain useful skills and perspective.
  2. Independent of the gap, do they have the potential to do the job you have for them?

Late Bloomers

We all like stories of people who started with no life plan, got scrappy, tried some things out, and ended up years later finding their path. We acknowledge that it is nonsense to think of a 18 year old having proper context or perspective to make long-term stable decisions about career. We remind ourselves that we too often land in a career that was nowhere near top of mind when we were young. And then we summarily toss out all that thinking when we find resumes that show signs of late blooming.

“Late” in this context is relative to the timing expectations of society and not the needs of an individual to find their true path in the world. By experimenting with a number of different options, people gain a diversity of experiences and are able to apply lateral thinking — an ability to pivot concepts across domains — in their eventual field of work.

Searching for skills potential in late bloomers

  1. Consider the journey and allow for multiple stops in life before someone finds their true calling. If you have any doubt about the potential for late bloomers, read the book Range.
  2. Diverse experience brings perspective and empathy. Those soft skills are critical to teams.

Quitters (Job Hoppers)

Not quitting in the face of a bad choice is a failure. Quitting is required to step off a losing path and try something else that might be a winning path. I’m frustrated by the mantra we hear from coaches and push on our kids: “Never Quit!” The decision to quit a job is a great sign that someone has the fortitude to make tough decisions and knows when to “call it.”

Not to trivialize the significance of the decision, but quitting a job is little different than choosing to stop attending drama lessons in favor of tennis. It’s simply someone making a life choice for how they are spending their time and seeking a better fit for how they are building and leveraging their skills.

Searching for skills potential in job hoppers

  1. Ask the job hopper candidate why they left each job.
  2. Work to understand their overall journey. Is there a story of incremental growth and impact as it relates to their goals?
  3. Look for incremental skills growth, depth or breadth-wise.
  4. Ask yourself: if they job hopped out of my company after [average tenure] would both the candidate and the company have gained benefit?

No-Brand Resumes

When I was interviewing at Facebook, a VP in HR started the conversation by flipping through my resume and saying “I haven’t heard of any of these companies. You’ll have to take me through this.” Later, as I reflected on this, I wondered if I had a bunch of big brands on my resume if she would have been as curious about the details of my story. The bar for me to clear was higher because the VP couldn’t rely on the cognitive shortcut that big brand companies on resumes pass the filter more easily. I’m happy she asked for my story, because that’s where to find the details of incremental skills development as it relates to the job.

Searching for skills potential in candidates with no-brand resumes

  1. Skills, not brands! Does the candidate have the potential to leverage and grow skills related to the needs of your business? That’s all that matters.

Former Code Academy Students

“Cutting corners,” is one way to put it. But when those “corners” are student debt and the opportunity cost of not working, code academies are a smart move and a practical path, especially for late bloomers and pivoters.

An Indeed survey found that 84% of companies believe that code academy graduates are at least as prepared for a job in tech compared to degreed CS graduates.

I have found that code academies are often teaching more practical skills than computer science programs. I’ve interviewed MS and PhD holders in computer science who have performed far below what a coding academy graduate has demonstrated on systems design and coding interviews. From tooling to teaming, the project-oriented collaborative atmosphere in many of these academies may also arm candidates better than degree programs.

Colleges have delegated critical skills in code production to the realm of internships. But internships often don’t cover these gaps and degreed candidates end up getting jobs they are unprepared for.

Searching for skills potential in former code academy students

  1. Skills, not degrees! Train your recruiters and hiring managers to seek out stories of development of incrementally more challenging coding problems. Understand the level of ambiguity and complexity of these problems.
  2. Code academy graduates may have more collaborative teaming experience than degreed hires. Learn what your candidates have learned from those experiences.
  3. Ensure that you have a leveling rubric for your people where there is a bar low enough to assess and hire at the entry level.

Low GPAs

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2019 Job Outlook Report, 73% of firms screened candidates by GPA in 2019. Grades do predict some important aspects of future success, but a study involving over 10,000 students from around the world shows that those with lower grades are more likely to be innovative in an entrepreneurial context.

“Perhaps students with propensities toward innovation are less concerned with grading systems that rely on memorization by way of assessment than students with higher grade point averages. Alternatively, college-going students with innovation intentions may be more likely to approach their education as a means to discover new ideas, wanting more out of the experience than a series of external valuations in the form of grade point averages.” — Exploring Innovative Entrepreneurship report

Searching for skills potential in candidates with low GPAs

  1. Skills potential, not grades! If you must look at GPAs as part of your hiring process, crack open the problem area and understand the context of the candidate. Filtering on grades rather than seeking the story behind the journey is a surefire way to miss value hires.

For Candidates: Embrace Your Inner Oddball and Sell Your Skills

You should always lead with learning and tell the story of your trajectory of skills acquisition. Relate these to what matters to the business you are applying to.

Non-traditional candidates can improve their chances against the biases of tech hiring teams. How do you counter the Seven Deadly Biases of resume screeners?

Seven Career Jiu-jitsu Moves

  1. Highlight your pivots, gaps, and big changes as key growth points where you learned something important that was the stepping stone to the next thing you tried.
  2. Failures induce learning. Get your thoughts together on yours and always lead with learning.
  3. Clearly list those experiences where you developed skills. Be prepared to tell your story.
  4. If you don’t have stories in #3, you must make them or else you will lack credibility. Candidates who say “oh I’ve been meaning to learn more about [Typescript, nosql, Lambda, A/B testing, …]” haven’t prioritized experimenting with new stuff and are missing the critical proof point. Demonstrating learning skills and applying them to real problems can help mitigate biases about your background and make for great interview convos.
  5. State your life activities in terms of their positive externalities. How did your time hiking the Appalachian trail with your buddies help you become a more insightful and collaborative engineer? (Hint: it did!) How did your time as a barista help you learn operational efficiencies that gave you interest in exploring CI/CD methods?
  6. Focus on communicating skills growth applied through incrementally more challenging tasks.
  7. Write code often, but get outside and play often. Diversity in life outside work will make you a better hire.

We Can Do This!

By breaking out of our old habits in tech recruiting and learning how new methods will bring previously undervalued talent to our teams, we can reshape our organizations and hit our hiring goals. With this comes a broader responsibility for all hiring teams in tech. We must work harder to find and onboard non-traditional hires and help match their skills potential to our business needs. Partner them up with mentors, allies, and coaches. Develop apprenticeship and rotational programs that incentivize your managers to support the long-term success of your people by maximizing their skills potential.

On the Broader Topic of Diversity in Tech

While this article touches on diversity in tech, I haven’t given it ample space here because I intend to cover it in more depth in a future article.

More Reading for Inspiration

These books, research, and articles shaped my thinking behind this article. I encourage you to explore those that sound interesting to you.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

Professor Giuseppe Beppe Soda, Dr. Pier Vittorio Mannucci, and Professor Ronald Burt, Networks, Creativity, and Time: Staying Creative through Brokerage and Network Rejuvenation. AMJ

Loserthink: How Untrained Brains are Ruining America, by Scott Adams

Job Outlook 2019 published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers

Mayhew, M.J., Simonoff, J.S., Baumol, W.J. et al. Exploring Innovative Entrepreneurship and Its Ties to Higher Educational Experiences. Res High Educ 53, 831–859 (2012).

Burt, Ronald. (2000). The Network Structure of Social Capital. Research in organizational behavior. 22. 345–423.



Xpanse Inc is building the modern OS for the greater mortgage industry

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dave Thomas

Engineering and Consumer Platform Leader @Xpanse; Product design, technology platform strategy, and ground fighting geek in Seattle