Professional Online Persona or: What Are Your Skills?

My previous post has triggered intriguing discussions – about writing, identity and what I called an ‘online persona’. As far as I remember I borrowed this term from David Weinberger’s book Small Pieces Loosely Joined – sublime reflections on the way the web has impacted culture and communication.

I have asked myself sometimes: How should I describe and portray myself on so-called professional social networks … given the fact I have tried to re-invent myself but / and / or not want to raise any false expectations or come across as Dr. Know It All Jack of All Trades Master of None Interested in Too Many Irrelevant Things.

Websites and profiles are not so much my home on the internet, but tools that support the ongoing experiment of uncovering my unique voice. Yet professional social networks as LinkedIn are rather intended to provide an online CV or a skill matrix.

This article is a comprehensive review of the  Linkedin skills feature. In particular I like this quote: I too have been receiving endorsements from people I’m out of touch with, who are endorsing me for skills I didn’t even know I had’, like “food writing” and “celebrity” (whatever that means).

The list of my skills on my LinkedIn profile and its evolution is a great experiment in social dynamics (…plus game theory, plus artificial intelligence software testing…) – although the skills people tag me with are as intriguing ;-) I have experienced the following effects:

LinkedIn tries to extract – generic – skills from your profile that neither you or your contacts have yet added to your profile and asks your connections to confirm them. So the set of skills is impacted by LinkedIn’s bias.

I developed tools related to managing digital certificates – these are cryptography-based digital counterparts of national IDs – and the related management systems, Public Key Infrastructures. My main role in a project was PKI Consultant, and I never tried to sell myself as a developer. So the exact term should rather be Programming for PKI. But nobody uses that specific terms in his/her profiles so I did not object to add programming. Yet such generic terms can raise false expectations (which was actually the trigger to write this blog post).

Endorsements could make it harder or easier to change your focus and specialty due to the amplification fostered by LinkedIn.

You add skills to your profile or LinkedIn guesses at your skills and suggests them to others. Thus some connections will endorse you, and other members of the same community will notice as per the LinkedIn activity stream and endorse you as well. This might put emphasis on certain skills that you do not leverage that much on a daily basis or you do not want to use in the long run. On the other hand your network might endorse you for a very ‘old’ or ‘new’ skill and the self-enforcement of endorsements could help with changing fields of expertise.

But I strongly believe your most important skills cannot be represented in a ‘profile’ anyway. I dare say I did make some projects a success by using skills that have never been part of any skill matrix. These skills are attributed to you in private 1:1 feedback only.

Today’s hiring processes are often based on pre-screening applications for key words and three-letter acronyms. In discussion group I recently read: I hope the selection is not done by machines. Unfortunately, it nearly is. You might replace machine by HR people following some checklist.

Based on my experience I think there is a hierarchy of skills. I am aware of the vagueness in terminology I am going to introduce here.

  • Technical skills are a must. Replace ‘technical’ with whatever specific skills your education or experience has provided you with.
  • Top technical ‘guru’ skills – ideally communicated by an endorser, not by yourself – are the reasons customers might favor you over other applicants.
  • But social skills are the reasons they remember you. Probably these should be called general skills, including e.g.: perseverance to meet deadlines, writing flawless and precise e-mails, acting as an abritrator between people hostile to each other.
    Also Verbal / quant skills – as depicted in diagram in my recent reblog of Dan Mullin’s post Philosophy Degrees Are Undervalued all belong to the general skills category in my point of view.

Employers or clients will admire you for general skills after they have worked with you, but I am skeptical if such skills can be communicated in a way that helps in passing the barrier set up by the HR bots.

HR experts do not want to know that you have a proven track record on working with very different techniques in measuring physical properties of advanced materials and related data analysis. But you may be right in believing that your most valuable skill is your ability to learn about new technologies quickly – based on your experience with related technologies. (Insert clichéd but true statement about the fast pace of evolving technologies.)

They rather want to see that you are capable of working with the Improbable Hyperspace Microscope analyzing samples of the recently detected rare earth metal Zaphodium, and analyzing data using Most Buggy Scientific Software Tool, Version 42.42. You need to have more than 4.2 years of experience – it might not be sufficient to have worked with version 42.41 even if you have 4.3 experience with that one.

I am not making this stuff up, expect for the product names. You might be asked for 4.2 years of experience with a product that has been available on the market for 2.4 years only.

I had been lucky so far in circumventing such selection processes because I knew the person or department who was really looking for resources. In Austria, we have a strong tradition in bypassing processes in an informal – probably non-compliant – way. (But international corporations gradually  manage to add our distinctiveness to the collective.)

As this should not be your typical nerds ranting about clueless managers post, I try to distill some advice from my experience:

Some communities or industry sectors are more open to reasonable assessments of skills. For example, I learned from the IT security ‘hacker’ community to value skills demonstrated right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with certificates or degrees.

Squeeze your ‘technical’ skills into very few key words, even if that hurts the generalist in you. I believe you need to be super specific:  PKI worked better than IT Security, Heat Pumps works better than Renewable Energy. It is like picking a tag line for a blog.

Don’t follow any advice, including guidelines about well-crafted social media profiles. My alter ego, the Subversive Element started writing the bloggy weird website at night when I was a serious IT consultant by day. I did not promote the site at all. Yet in a kick-off meeting in a new project a new colleague greeted me enthusiastically like that in front of all the other suits:

You are the Subversive Element, aren’t you? :-)

Weird – or generally: unusual, outstanding – features in your profile constitute a filter – you filter potential clients by sense of humor for better or for worse.

Don’t speak about yourself in your professional profile in third person – in ‘speaker bio style’, such as: Elkement is a seasoned expert in hunting aliens, well-versed in intergalactic diplomacy with a proven track-record of efficiently destroyed foreign planets. 

Don’t panic.

Don’t write walls of text.

31 Comments Add yours

  1. Ha ha–just realized the image is Zaphod (didn’t read the caption). Thanks for the ‘trip’ back to the guide. Don’t Panic.

    1. elkement says:

      I am currently reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again – I believe I cannot prevent the characters from invading / impacting many posts of mine :-)

  2. You have captured in one post the “science” (if I can call it that) behind the HR bot selection process. It’s a fascinating read. I have been through the process recently and this is why keywords and understanding it is so important. Just on a more personal note, I always scratch my head as to how Twitter works out who else on Twitter is similar to you. My list seems to always comprise wine drinking harrassed mothers. The algorithm they use therefore seems to have a bias as well. I have put in my profile that I am a mother and that’s it. I don’t post about parenting and I never posted about wine (I don’t really drink it). Welcome to the brave new world!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Judy! These HR anecdotes are mainly due to my (second-hand) evidence of how IT freelancers are hired for projects: Large corporations hire staffing companies who basically do this semi-automated key word matching – very often based on zero subject matter expertise. Automated software could not make it worse.
      It seems are getting haunted by such ‘intelligent’ algorithms anywhere: Facebook’s EdgeRank, Google search terms… and I am just read a post on automated grading of students’ essays:
      Twitter once told me that I am similar to William Shatner – I don’t know what they base that analysis on. I have several contacts following him and I am geeky. Is this sufficient?

  3. bert0001 says:

    I can only smile and shrug my shouldres …

  4. danielmullin81 says:

    Reblogged this on The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog and commented:
    A very useful post on a subject I’ve been trying to figure out myself lately.

  5. danielmullin81 says:

    Wow, super-useful. I’ve just in the process of figuring out all the nuances of online profiles myself, so this post is gold.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot for the reblog, Dan – based on the feedback on this post I am considering to turn this into a regular feature (messing up categories again…). I did really experiment a lot with online profiles. Very often I tend to say anything I have ever achieved career-wise has been due to good luck and being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people. But another theory of mine is that I had an unconscious strategy that worked out great – so it might be interesting to unveil it. I can combine my nerdy, egocentric navel-gazing with providing useful advice :-)

      1. danielmullin81 says:

        I’ll put in my vote for making it a regular feature. Networking, I’m learning, is very important for getting your foot in the door, something I’m currently struggling with. I fear my resumes are being screened by bots or just not taken very seriously by people to whom I’m just another anonymous candidate. I’m also conscious of coming across as a “Dr. Know It All Jack of All Trades Master of None Interested in Too Many Irrelevant Things” as you delightfully put it. I think it can be difficult for a generalist, like a philosophy degree-holder, to avoid this perception and concentrate on the practical ‘what I can do for this employer right now’ question. So much food for thought here and the comments have been a great resource too.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks again for the encouragement – I will try to come up with something useful on a regular basis.

  6. M. Hatzel says:

    I sense you creating a new sub-genre, a series of posts like ‘Hitchhiker’s guide to …’ (in this case, the HR matrix). A little satiric, in a humorous way, but embedded in the enjoyment of it are informative and useful functions.

    I am considering how you revised our conversation about ‘virtual dwelling’ to demonstrate that our blogs and on-line persona are more like village Inns than houses, better used (and more satisfying) as places of intersection and discussion rather than walled-in spaces. I am connecting this idea to what you’ve said about the HR filters. It requires only a small shift in thinking to see that the filters don’t need to be regarded as barriers, but can be useful in creating another ‘space’ of intersection. Our frustration arises because the filtering system is a bit clumsy and artificial, not fully imitative of real human interaction. But, just as we want to be seen as real people behind the resume, it helps to remember that corporations are just collections of people, too.

    This week I’ve been browsing grad programs, and wondering how names like “MA of…Philosophical and Political Thought” rates in the post-studies job search. Is it more attractive than just an MA of Philosophy (even with the same thesis)? An MA in Cultural Studies? English? Then… there’s the entire issue of the thesis. How do I apply a topic of study to a market niche I want to gain entry? Again, we’re back to the traces of language, and how well can we imitate the discourse that opens up the doors we want to enter (i.e. how many search term words can I stick in the dissertation title to land a good match?).
    Excellent post. Lots to consider!!! :)

    1. danielmullin81 says:

      I’m trying to solve the same problems you mention in your last paragraph, M. I’m open to suggestion.

      1. elkement says:

        As I replied to Michelle before I am not sure how my geeky-tech-IT-engineering experience could be translated to the humanities. Personally I always picked rather geeky workplaces / communities / companies / projects because of what I have described as the hackers’ work ethics. Degrees have not been important there. A prerequisite for this to make sense is: There needs to be sort of a playground you meet (potential) clients, employers, collaborator… and demonstrate your skills in front of them instead of talking about it. Programmers (I am none :-)) could upload their projects online to some open source repository.
        As a security expert I usually had an informal first discussion with a customer, answering some of their ‘hard questions’ in advance (before any contract was signed) in order to convince them that I might be able to allow for saving their time and efforts from day 1. The trick thing is not to give them too much for free, otherwise they will never hire your (I never did any extensive concepts or requests for proposals). Same with private home owners and optimization of the heating system.
        I am not sure if this thinking can be applied to jobs you are interested in – but probably it gives you a competitive advantage to view the hiring process from an unusual not-typically-humanites-related perspective (?)

        1. danielmullin81 says:

          Michelle asked “How do I apply a topic of study to a market niche I want to gain entry?” I think that’s really the key question for me. The answer, I suspect, will differ from one discipline to another, but it’s definitely helpful to get a non-humanities perspective.

          1. elkement says:

            I would amend the question with: How to I locate a market niche I would really feel comfortable with? I believe this renders the other question obsolete. You would not feel comfortable in a niche that requires you to explain again and again why you, the philosopher, have picked that niche.
            In hindsight the niches I found were good for me because their culture resonated a lot with my ‘personal values’ or whatever you like to call this. But as a graduate I would have had zilch idea of appropriate sub-disciplines or communities. ‘IT’ – even IT security – can mean both ‘nerdy hackers’ and ‘suits obsessed with following corporate security guidelines’. Cultures as day and night. Need to think about how to find and target your promising new home in a foreign land.

      2. M. Hatzel says:

        I agree with Elke’s revision of the question below. Our authentic self plays into this, as well. It’s really strange, but the search term poetry writing was a significant, final push into revisiting grad studies for me (I’ve been firmly telling myself to put it out of my head for years). Looking at where external inquiries intersect with my own blogging interests left me considering both me, and my interests, and the cultural space where I’d be comfortable and useful. It is such an abstract thing, a Google search (I wouldn’t place my future in it… after all, I got escort service search returns, too) but those much larger questions that I have were distilled into small pieces of text. It was a different way of reducing data about myself, and using it to find focus within a larger question. Now I need to spend sometime exploring this, which was where the questions originated (for me).

    2. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle – I herewith declare that the inscription on my graveyard should read: “She created a new sub-genre, a class of its own: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galactically Weird Features of the Corporate World.”
      Re (mis-)using the filters – this is spot-on: Above all, if you do not consider this a funny game you go nuts. And then the designers of those pseudo-intelligent filtering systems deserve that their own tools backfire at them – PLAY ;-) with the filters and check-out by trial and error which one works best.
      Getting more serious…: Reading discussions of job hunters I learned that well-versed job seekers really play with it systematically: E.g omitting the PhD from the CV at all can increase your chances to land job interviews as a physics graduate, no kidding (Of course you do describe your working towards the PhD as a job – research and teaching, employed by the university).
      I have no idea about the MA thing. In sciences and engineering you should not promote your degree too much anyway if you apply for a job in the real world, but rather try to talk about the skills the work towards your degree gave you. But I am really heavily impacted by that said hacker community – when I introduced myself to new clients I rather not mentioned my degree at all – I could only win them over by answering their questions related to their (mostly time-critical) issues they tried to solve right now. “Prove that you can be useful to somebody in the most direct and immediate way”. Not sure if that makes sense in relation to your major (?)

      1. danielmullin81 says:

        If I could chime in here, I haven’t experimented with leaving the PhD off the resume entirely, but I’ve certainly put it near the bottom and instead described it in terms of skills. I think there’s an expectation among PhDs to let the degree do the heavy lifting because in academia it is the golden ticket. I’ve heard that’s not the case in business and what you’ve written corroborates that.

        1. elkement says:

          It is definitely different in the business world. I give you a nice anecdote: Years after I started working with a colleague on a project he ‘confessed’ to me that he had googled me before we first met. And our very first meeting was a positive surprise to him. Because of the fact I had a PhD he rather had expected me to be arrogant. Probably something else in my writing or profiles added to that bias, but I rather doubt that. The prejudice was based on the fact I had a PhD. In an unrelated field – maybe that made it worse.
          Thinking more about it this might have been a reason many clients praised my social skills on top of my expertise to the skies (the skills never added to the profiles) – they did not expect me to have any, probably.

      2. M. Hatzel says:

        I think this is true. I suspect that the MA, or PhD letters (and I’ve experienced this with just a BA) after the name scares people. Rather than being a key to get in the door, the degree can be a barrier because people don’t know if they have the language to speak to someone with those letters.

        I had a conversation with someone recently who, working as a self-employed contractor, said, “most people who hire me don’t know I have 2 university degrees and can speak several languages, they just think I’m some dumb schmuck.” He gets work (and lots of it) because he fills a niche and can bridge the gap between himself and his market needs. After, when clients have talked with him for a while and are comfortable, they begin to realize how well-educated and traveled he is. By then, it’s too late for them to be intimidated.

  7. Reblogged this on Laura B Williams Designs and commented:
    Great post

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the reblog – unexpected and appreciated!

  8. I think I might just go in there and revise my profile…a bit. Thanks for passing this on; it is useful.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot, Maurice – I was not convinced at all that this might be useful to somebody else. Usually something I read or experience triggers a blog post that I need to write – absolutely, positively. But when I click Publish most of the times I feel “What a wall of text full of navel-gazing” ;-)

  9. Lots of good information for a potential job search. Unto thine own self be true … right? D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave! So my post has been perceived as both useful and a nerdy rant (see comment below) – great feedback so far :-) Wow – thanks for adding a Shakespeare quote. I needed to google the context:
      This above all: to thine own self be true,
      And it must follow, as the night the day,
      Thou canst not then be false to any man.
      The author – – claims that “Polonius has in mind something much more Elizabethan than the New Age self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests”. I would like to challenge this (and I don’t see what’s so New Age about the modern interpretation), but I resist the temptation now to do more research on this as I would get lost for hours in obscure corners of the web, I guess…-

  10. If that wasn’t a nerdish rant about clueless managers, I’d like to read one

    1. elkement says:

      Ha ha – I should have anticipated such as response :-) Tomorrow I am number one on Google with “nerd rant clueless managers”.
      As a serious aside, I believe it is this mysterious ‘system’ which is clueless after all. I have experienced how perfectly reasonable individuals (managers or nerds – does not matter) start behaving in strange ways as soon as they have been assimilated by The Big System… and running the vendor selection or job application selection process or whatever well-defined ‘process’.

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