What exactly does an expert look like? Is it a bearded man in a lab coat carrying a clipboard full of charts and graphs or a wild-haired professor furiously scribbling equations on the chalkboard? Sure, these are a few of our traditional views of what experts look like, but if you’re searching for a modern-day expert, you might just want to look in the mirror.
If the idea of being considered an expert makes you scoff in disbelief, read on. It turns out that as a college student or recent grad, you do have expertise in certain areas. Guest writer E.T. Wilson shares how his age and recent grad status helped him establish himself as an expert—even though he never would have considered himself one.
Apparently, just being a twentysomething qualifies you as a “tech expert.”
I used to think this misconception was limited to my mom. She does daily battle with her cell phone and laptop. We have different phones, but she is confident that any problem she has, I will be able to solve straight from memory. When she can’t find a file, she asks me to look for it. In her mind, there is no problem—real or imagined—that I can’t solve by waving my hands over it.
To be clear, that is as far, far away from reality as the Star Wars galaxy (whatever its name is). The only difference between my mom and me is that when I encounter a problem, I start trying to figure out a solution, even (as is usually the case) when I don’t know what I’m doing. She just stalls like a deer in headlights, then calls me in to fix things for her (I would say “help her,” but that would require her involvement in the solution).
After graduating from college, I quickly learned my purported technical expertise was not an invention unique to my dear mother. As much as I tried to leverage my education (International Relations major) and analytical skills, the only thing my Baby Boomer employers wanted to know was if I understood how to use a computer and could help them with their social media accounts.
My first job out of college was as a prep cook in a breakfast restaurant. It was demanding, but I actually enjoy cooking, so it was a bit like getting paid for my hobby. Every job since that one has been predicated on my knowing things I don’t, all to do with computers and the internet.
Part 1: How I uncovered my “hidden talent” and landed a job
When I left the breakfast restaurant and moved to a new city, I figured I’d look for a similar job to pay the bills while I continued looking for a job that required the education I had paid for. In my first interview, the kitchen manager could not have been more transparently skeptical about my cooking abilities.
She was all but ready to dismiss me when the owner happened to walk by and introduced himself. He had seen my résumé, it turned out, and recognized my name.
He asked if my degree had required a lot of writing. I said yes, it had.
He asked if I had done most of my writing and research using a computer and the internet. I said, of course, that was standard these days.
He then asked if I had any experience using Facebook. Again, I confirmed that yes, I did, and that was nothing out of the ordinary.
He then offered me a job, not at his restaurant, but at his new start-up company where he needed help managing social media accounts, developing marketing materials, and running an online advertising campaign.
I started work the following week.
Everyone at this start-up—with the exception of me, the capstone member of the team—was over 50. To me, that is not particularly old, and in fact we enjoyed a lot of the same music, television, and movies. None of these people were remotely comfortable with computers beyond typing up a Word document or opening an email. So I became indispensable.
Part 2: How I put that talent to use and landed another job
I used to think getting a job was a matter of being the smartest guy in the room. So I went to college. That was a humbling experience for me, so my new plan was to at least present myself as the smartest guy in the room during an interview. The important part was emphasizing that what I lacked in experience, I made up for with the smarts to learn quickly.
It turns out growing up with computers being a simple fact of life (as opposed to a futuristic novelty) makes you highly qualified. Never mind qualified for what, because computers are everywhere now, and just taking that fact in stride earns the respect and approval of folks who grew up changing the channel by turning a knob.
I now work at a hospital. No, I did not go back to school and earn a medical degree. I applied for a position through the IT department when I found out they were implementing a new Electronic Health Records (EHR) system.
As a political science student, I knew that the government was pursuing a program to bring all of America’s healthcare providers into the 21st century by making them adopt EHR systems. There are many challenges associated with this, including the cost, the scale, and the never-ending demand for healthcare that prevents hospitals from simply closing shop for the upgrade. The policy implications fascinated me—and still do.
But the challenging aspect of this policy that got me my new career was teaching older doctors, nurses, and surgeons how to navigate their new digital records.
These are people who spent decades in school, learning how to take human bodies apart and put them back together again. Fortunately for me, they were also all Baby Boomers, and preferred to take their notes with pen and paper, rather than a touch-screen tablet. When they were going through med school, informatics wasn’t even a thing, much less a necessary component of their field.
So these aging doctors, in order to do the same job they had been doing for longer than I have been alive, need someone to help them understand, navigate, and troubleshoot their new EHR systems.
I am not a computer wiz. I am not a gamer, hacker, or programmer. I am not a Mac, nor am I a PC. I don’t speak l337, or any coding language, or know how to Photoshop my face onto a more muscular, attractive body. My education never involved the sort of salacious courtship with technology that leads to developing such skills and savvy.
My level of comfort with computers and my elders has simply made me a mediator between the two. I know it is not destined to last forever. My only hope is that as my clients inevitably grow more comfortable with their gadgets and programs, I will have learned enough to move forward, alone, too.
What this means for YOUR job search:
We have a tendency, while job-hunting, to focus entirely on how we are qualified to simply perform a task, rather than how we can add value to a company. I was unusually fortunate in that I had several people recognize skills in me I hadn’t even bothered to advertise—not my computer-whispering prowess, but my communication skills. A small amount of my time spent with existing employees added great value to their performance, even though I had effectively no experience or special training for what I was doing.
Interviews should not be passive experiences. In my first interview with the restaurant, I was not trying to exhibit the value my employer saw in me—I just got lucky and he saw it anyway. Learning from that experience, I went to my interview at the hospital knowing that I had a shot at a similar niche. I didn’t wait for someone else to bring up the generation gap—I asked how their more senior physicians were coping with the change. The answer gave me my real in with the hospital.
Responding to a known need is easy—employers will tell you what they think they want. More important is demonstrating your added value, or your ability to fulfill future, niche, or other unexpected needs. Employees lose their value when they stop learning—so demonstrate how you never stop learning. Employees can become obstacles when they are too reluctant to change and adapt—so be prepared to demonstrate your flexibility and willingness to change. And even the most in-demand employees can raise their value by training their peers—so find a way to show that you can both do and teach.
Homework time! E.T. was lucky that he had a potential employer see some of his areas of expertise, even though he hadn’t recognized them in himself yet. What are some of your strengths or areas of expertise? If you’re really not sure, ask your friends or professors—you might be surprised by what you hear! And don’t forget to think of stories that illustrate how you put these strengths to use so you can include them in your cover letters and job interviews.
About the author: E.T. Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations at Amherst College, and has split his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest ever since. He has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism, currently serving as a marketing consultant and blogger. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.