Test-Driven Career Development

Working on a startup is the new graduate school—you learn a lot, and you hope it will pay off someday.

I’ve learned a ton from my startup experiences, but I’d like to share one of the most important concepts to which our software engineers recently introduced me.  It’s called Test-Driven Development – and it contains a kernel of wisdom for anyone seeking to develop their career-related knowledge and skills.

New Approach To Building

Humans have been building things for millennia, and there’s been a standard approach:

  • Step 1:  Think about what you want.
  • Step 2:  Build it.
  • Step 3:  See if it works.

Simple, right?  And yet it’s fairly dumb, because you don’t know if ‘it’ works until you’ve already put in the time, the energy, and the expense to build it.  If it doesn’t work, you’ve wasted all three.

Enter some smart software engineers, who in the last 10 years have popularized a New Approach to Building Stuff, which goes as follows:

  • Step 1:  Think about what you want.
  • Step 2:  See if it works.
  • Step 3:  Build it.

Read closely.  They flipped Steps 2 and 3!  They don’t build stuff that’s going to break, because they figure out whether or not it’s going to work BEFORE they build it.  Smart, right?  That’s Test-Driven Development.  After they’ve thought about what they want, they first create a test.  THEN they build.  (More and more software is being developed this way—learn more here.)

Once Again, The Geeks Are Ahead Of Us

The Geeks (in my experience, the best of them don’t consider that term pejorative) have hit upon a key insight:  When you’re building something, the most efficient and effective way to start is by testing it.  Think about what you want.  Test it.  THEN build it.

What’s the thing YOU’RE building?  Your career.  No matter your age, nor your stage, unless you’re retired, you are likely building your career.  Given that few careers remain stable these days, most of us need to build and rebuild our careers.  But if we’re building something, how do we know if it’s going to work before we’ve put in the time, energy and expense?

The Geeks have pointed the way:  We should first test ourselves.

Start By Testing Yourself

Professional Development, also known as Professional Learning, is a large global industry.  Much of it is test-driven, as in the case of licensure exams (like the CFA) or voluntary professional certifications (like the PMP.)  But there’s much, much more to learn beyond just what’s found on existing, formal exams.

Based upon my many years in educational technology and publishing, including companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review, taking tests drives learning because (1) it makes you aware of what you do and don’t currently understand and (2) it focuses your learning on the most important things.  Just as in software development, testing your career development in advance can point out areas where YOU don’t ‘work’ as well as you need to—so you can focus your learning and career growth.

Learn from the Geeks:  Look for ways to test your career knowledge before you spend much time, energy, and expense on career-builds.  Research and perhaps seek out the experts in your field. See if they have, or can recommend, a test for you.  Odds are that it will help you build a career that works.

Fracking For Talent

Oil Derrick Gusher JPG

The Concept of ‘Tight Talent’

You’re probably familiar with the term “fracking,” shorthand for hydraulic fracturing.  It involves extracting oil and gas that’s locked inside rock formations, and it’s the biggest innovation in the energy sector of the past twenty years.  Though the practice is controversial, the fracking process contains an important lesson for those involved in educating, training, hiring and and managing people.

Think about your institution or organization, and your professional networks.  They contain rich deposits–not of oil and gas but of skill and knowledge.  These talent deposits come in two types.  The first is like pooled oil underground, easy to observe directly (e.g. writing ability, interpersonal skills) or identifiable through diplomas or standardized test scores.  These are what I call the Easy-to-Find Talents.  The second I call Tight Talents because they are like the so-called ‘tight oil’ locked inside cracks and crevices of underground rock–until recently, much harder to find and more expensive to extract.

Just like energy locked deep underground, talent lies hidden within pockets of your organization and professional network, waiting to be discovered, unlocked and put to use.

Consider the following scenario: you manage a team that includes a woman who runs a niche, rather obscure software application critical to your business and a man responsible for your brand’s social media presence.  On the same day the woman resigns and your boss strongly suggests you fire the man for an inappropriate Facebook post about your major competitor.

What do you need?  You need to tap into your network to find someone with an obscure technical knowledge set and someone else who understands the nuances of assertively promoting a brand without risking a libel lawsuit.  There’s no diploma for these skill sets.  But there may be a test, certificate, or some form of credential.

How Do We Unlock Tight Talent?

People Analytics is a hot topic for start-ups, industry alliances and established firms whose shared goal is to find and unlock the harder-to-find talent.  Some organizations are building a common digital infrastructure for issuing, sharing and verifying credentials that exist below the diploma level—sometimes called “digital badges.”  Others are developing games or software simulations to measure raw cognitive processing ability or higher-order thinking or so-called “soft skills.”  At CredSpark we’re unlocking Tight Talent by enabling the creation and sharing of highly-targeted tests of knowledge and skill designed by credible industry experts.

Collectively, the organizations referred to above are helping all of us begin to get beneath the Easy-to-Find Talents to unlock the tremendous human capital that’s currently not being accessed.  These innovations will dramatically alter the economy in the near future.

How Do You Know What I Know?

Nick's Head

Imagine you’re considering hiring me.  Does it matter to you what I know?  (I’m guessing it does.)

So, how do you know what I know?  Think about that one for 4 seconds.

You can look at my degrees and academic transcript, but how do you know what I actually learned in school?  More importantly, how do you know what I remember today?

You can see my employment history, but how do you know what I’ve learned on the job?  I’ve listed my job skills on my resume and LinkedIn profile, but how do you know if I actually have those skills?

You can talk to my professional references and co-workers, who probably have a good sense of what I know.  But I’m friendly with them.  How likely are they to tell you the whole truth (and nothing but the truth) about what I actually know and am able to do for you?

Let’s face it:  You don’t know much about anyone you hire.  Not with the main methods in use today.   Employers today rely upon checking diplomas, transcripts, resumes, and references.  These methods are not only limited, but also distorted. People are going to ‘puff up’ their resumes.  (The truth is, your job candidate can’t take sole credit for that game-changing product strategy; there were actually three other people who developed it.)  In general, job candidates are going to merchandise themselves to you.  It’s human nature.

No matter where the candidate has worked, no matter where he or she went to school, or whom you both know in common, you’re taking a risk in hiring that person.   How much of a risk?  According to multiple reports such as this one, hiring the wrong person can cost employers 30% of that person’s annual salary.

How can you reduce that risk?  Take a new approach to finding out what your job candidates actually know and are able to do:  Ask them to show you.  (Ideas on that in future posts.)

Graphic by Shannon Holloway.