Sunday, November 27, 2011

Characteristics of Successful Job Applicants: Continual Learner

This post is part of a series of posts on the characteristics frequently present in successful candidates for jobs at Microsoft. Previously, we discussed the importance of being a good communicator, persistent, and passionate.

Continual Learner

Here's something really hard to convince yourself of: it's okay to fail. It is not, however, hard to find numerous resources extolling the benefits of failure (if you watch the linked video, notice that Randy mentions lack of passion as a cause of a personal failures). If you need additional convincing, try doing a web search on "benefits of failure" or "failure is good".

For those who are (now) convinced, it's time to live up to this principle. Admit to your failures. That's the hard part. You can't talk honestly about the experience of failure or what you learned from it until you're able to admit to it and own it. And to be able to successfully interview at Microsoft, you want to be ready to have a conversation about your failures.

Many people preach the message of the importance of admitting failure and learning from it, but from my experience, a large portion of these people, including myself, do not practice what they preach nearly enough. A personal example is that for a long time I was unwilling to reveal that I had been rejected when I applied for a job at Google. I would talk about the experience of the interview and walk around the subject of whether I had received an offer. Why was it difficult to get to the point where I was willing to admit it? This has to do with the psychological response to rejection. Not receiving an offer made me feel like I wasn't good enough for the job. By itself, this was not so bad. However, a more difficult pill to swallow was that many of my friends and colleagues received offers for similar positions at Google. So I was dealing with both self-doubt and a sense of inferiority (relative deprivation) to those closest to me. Perhaps it is true that I am not as smart or qualified as my friends, but the truth is that it doesn't matter. I needed to admit to the failure, determine how it relates to my goals, and figure out what to do next. If the specific job is not required to reach my goals, I should include alternative options in my consideration of how to follow up. If it is required, I should identify the causes of failure and continue trying (persistence!). Until I admitted to the failure, if I had tried applying for a similar position again, I probably would have been met with same result. One who is unable to admit that they have failed is unable to admit that they have made mistakes. One who is unwilling to admit to having made mistakes is unable to identify how to fill the gaps that led to failure.

Over your career you should expect to fail many times. In fact, as you progress, you should carefully consider whether you're failing enough! If you never fail, you probably aren't pushing yourself hard enough. Seeing that someone is capable of learning and growing from both failure and success is important to Microsoft. We want to see people who will continually grow and improve rather than stagnate.

I've spent a lot of time talking about learning from failure, but that's not meant to trivialize the importance of learning from other sources. Clearly, high-tech jobs also require people to keep up with the rapid pace of change in technology and in business processes. This means finding various ways to learn about the newest technologies and practices. One who is versed in these trends will introduce new ideas into their organizations along with opportunities to capitalize on the potential efficiencies and competitive advantages those ideas bring. Such an individual will be rewarded with career growth as they become recognized for these contributions.

To keep things grounded in reality, we must also account for the need to keep everything in balance. If you spend all of your time experimenting with new technologies or processes, you leave little to no time to complete required tasks. Inability to deliver is just as bad or worse than the inability to adapt to change. Further, the benefits of new technologies and processes take time to materialize, meaning that if change is too frequent, the benefits never have a chance to surface, often resulting in more harm than good.

Outside of personal experiences related to success and failure, there are a multitude of sources from which you can learn. Some examples include co-workers, friends, books, the Internet, school, seminars, mentors, etc.

On a side note, I want to encourage everyone out there to go out and mentor someone (cheers to those already doing it!). Your experiences can really help someone else grow. If you're already employed, help college students who want to work in a similar field. If you're in college, help a high school student through the application and selection process. You'll find that the conversations you have with proteges will lead to your own personal growth, along with the development of leadership skills. Plus, it can be financially rewarding due to the benefits to your career!

Read the next article in the series here.