Skills Trump Passion for Students & New Grads in Tech

Passion. The concept seems so simple: first find a passion, then gather the courage to pursue it. In the tech industry, a passion for everything tech-related seems like a prerequisite to breaking into the tech industry and snagging that shiny job at Amagoogbooksoft*. If you don’t have that passion, then you have to find it within you. And if you have it, then you should follow it at any cost. It’s so straightforward, like a 12-step program for getting a job in tech.

But it doesn’t work.

So how did passion as a career advice become so popular? According to Cal Newport in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, it’s a relatively recent development, only becoming popular in the mid-90’s. Most famously, Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford commencement address: “You’ve got to find what you love… [T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”

This idea is called the passion hypothesis, which stipulates that “the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.” It’s an alluringly simple explanation of how to find happiness in your job, but reality is less romantic. In fact, skills are more relevant than passion in pursuing a career, including tech.

To be sure, there exist people with prior career passions, such as professional athletes and famous musicians and actors. There might even exist a handful of people who were drawn to programming since they were 10. However, they are a tiny minority and are not representative of the general population. For many, passion takes time to develop, especially in tech. It’s a side effect of mastery and putting in the necessary hard work through machine problems, intense studying, and more. And for many, taking the passion hypothesis to heart will lead to perpetual career dissatisfaction and FOMO.

Debunking the passion hypothesis is the central thesis of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and the first out of four rules that Newport lays out. They are:

  1. Don’t follow your passion.
  2. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
  3. Control is important.
  4. Think small, act big.

The first two rules are especially important for computer science students and new grads, and people looking to break into the tech industry, and I’ll be covering them here. The third and fourth rules, in my opinion, come into play down the road, when you’ve amassed some work experience in the tech industry.

Introducing the craftsman mindset

In the book, Newport introduces a concept called the craftsman mindset. Instead of focusing what the world should offer you, you should focus on what you’re offering the world. As a result, you learn new skills and build up your existing skillset. Eventually you will acquire skills that are rare and valuable, which you can use to create work that you love down the road.

Solely relying on skills you’ve learned through classes may not be enough. I’ll offer a personal example. During my freshman and sophomore years, I had a difficult time finding internships. I would send out applications to hundreds of companies in a few months only to receive only a handful of interviews, many of which ended up rejecting me. My skillset was similar to that of a typical underclassman. I jumped ahead in the curriculum by a semester and earned decent grades, but so did quite a few of my classmates. It wasn’t enough; I didn’t stand out enough.

However, I didn’t just sit on my ass waiting to hear back from the black hole known as online applications; I started to hone my skills. I started off with learning about full-stack web development and I created a site that collects trending landscape photos on Reddit and plots them on a Google Maps overlay based on geographical keywords in their titles. Over the summer, I implemented and deployed a fantasy draft for the EVO 2015 Smash Bros tournament. It attracted 300 participants, and I open sourced the code for everyone to see. I continued channeling my curiosity and desire to improve my technical skills on side projects even after I received an internship offer from Google for the summer after sophomore year.

Perhaps the most important skill that computer science students should hone is the ability to perform well in behavioral and technical interviews, especially if you’re aspiring to work at a top tech company. The way that these interviews are conducted may be imperfect, it likely won’t change anytime soon. Top companies, which receive at least 100 applicants per open position, can afford to weed candidates out based on poor interviewing skills or performance. Plus, many technical interviews are based on computer science fundamentals, which generally filters for applicants with a strong computer science background. Not many people have the ability to generally interview well, so building this up will prove to be instrumental in getting an offer.

I recently wrote a post on how to properly prepare for technical interviews which may prove helpful if you’re struggling through Leetcode without significant results.

Introducing deliberate practice

In order to build up these skills, you will have to employ deliberate practice. Originally coined by Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, it is “[an] activity designed […] for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” It requires you to set clear goals, break out of your comfort zone, and be subject to ruthless feedback on your performance in order to better improve your skills. If you’re still looking for a job in tech, you might have to spend time creating something using technical concepts you’ve just learned or practicing interview problems that require you to use data structures or algorithms that you’re less familiar with.

This is not supposed to be easy. Newport claims that many knowledge workers (computer science students included) avoid deliberate practice because it’s difficult and uncomfortable. So if you can successfully do so, you’ll leapfrog ahead of your peers in technical skills, including those that help you land that Amagoogbooksoft job. Best of all, it doesn’t require any special talent. Remember that even the “best” in the tech industry were once beginners and struggled, too.

Finding supportive peers and mentors is absolutely critical in incorporating deliberate practice because they can give you honest feedback, which helps you figure out what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well, and how to improve. Peers and mentors can also keep you accountable by making sure that you set goals and challenge yourself. Without them, you’re less likely to properly incorporate deliberate practice.

Tying it all together

Breaking into the tech industry as a new grad or finding an internship as a college student can be hard. The market is pretty competitive at the entry level given the influx of students studying computer science in recent years, so that means that you must stand out if you want to work at a top tech company.

So in order to stand out, you must adopt a craftsman mindset and build up computer science fundamentals and technical skills useful in industry, build some side projects or do some research, and learn how to interview well. Passion is not required and can actually be counterproductive; if you subscribe to the idea that you must follow your passion, you’re likely going to give up at the first sign of hardship or when things get too tough.

When improving your skillset, you must incorporate deliberate practice. You should challenge yourself at every step of that process, and you should give yourself brutal and honest feedback. Peers and mentors keep you accountable with those two goals, so if you don’t have one, you should go find one.

This process is not easy or glamorous. The road to landing your first job in tech may look arduous, but if you have the grit and discipline, you’ll eventually succeed. You can do it.

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

— Steve Martin

Cover of So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

This post is based on So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It has changed the way I think about careers and I highly recommend it.

* I use the portmanteau “Amagoogbooksoft” to refer to the set of notable tech companies and “unicorns”, startups valued at over one billion dollars. Thanks /r/cscareerquestions, Hacker News, et al. for the inspiration.