Building a career isn’t what it used to be—and we’re not talking about the sputtering economy or the 13.3 percent unemployment rate among 20-to-24-year-olds. College graduates entering the job market are supplementing and sometimes circumventing the traditional job-search routine of combing want ads and sending out résumés. They’re using online resources to build reputations, demonstrate skills, and give employers a much clearer idea of their strengths.
“The résumé is vanishing as a way of representing who you are,” says Launa Forehand of Jobspring, a Silicon Valley recruiting boutique that specializes in entry-level and junior placements. The job seekers looking to fill the nearly 300,000 new jobs in information technology that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will have been created between 2008 and 2018—a growth rate of 30 percent—are proving their value through participation in online communities, and employers are increasingly using those venues to find and vet candidates.
The new job-search environment affects people of all ages, but younger workers may have an advantage: they’re not shy about putting their lives online. “Millennials share a greater willingness to expose themselves, and not just the good stuff,” says John Hagel, head of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge and coauthor of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Made Smartly, Can Set Big Things in Motion. “Being willing to share things you don’t know and seeking help in solving problems you’re working on are enormously powerful ways to attract people who share your interests.”
A strong online reputation is allowing some job seekers with limited qualifications to skip over the dues-paying phase of their career and move directly into a higher-level position. “Networks can shortcut their career path, leading them to higher-level jobs and better pay much faster than in the past,” Hagel says.
Take David Herrema. At age 22, he was adrift at a no-name university. Now, at 26, he’s two years into a career as a senior software developer at Accenture, the consulting firm. His secret weapon was the SAP Community Network, an online environment created by the enterprise software giant SAP to knit together the far-flung community of people who work with its products. The network hosts articles, blogs, and forums for some two million customers, consultants, and others who’ve registered.
At first Herrema, who held an internship maintaining the SAP servers at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, mined the network for bug fixes and configuration tips. Then he started contributing his own blog posts and videos. His writing on environmentally sound business practices caught the attention of organizers of SAP’s TechEd confab, who invited him to speak at the event. Later, he won an SAP-sponsored competition for innovative marketing ideas.
By the time Herrema met with Accenture, he brought skills and confidence that he reckons gave him a two-year jump on peers. “I was extreme in terms of building exposure,” he says, “but I wanted to get it out there: look at what I know as a college grad compared to kids you’re hiring from Ohio State.”
While Herrema exploited a network built by SAP to support its own products, others are taking advantage of less proprietary communities. Take Jordi Muñoz, CEO of 3D Robotics, a maker of kits for unmanned aerial vehicles. Muñoz was a Mexican high-school graduate awaiting his green card in 2007 when he encountered the company’s founder and chairman, Chris Anderson (the editor in chief of Wired), on DIY Drones, a Ning.com group Anderson had set up to discuss home-brew UAVs.
Impressed by Muñoz’s knowledge, Anderson invited him to form a company. Only later did he learn that Muñoz was 19 years old and entirely self-taught. “In my world, it doesn’t matter who you are but what you can do,” Anderson says. “You prove yourself by answering questions in discussion forums, showing demos on YouTube, and committing code on GitHub.”
GitHub is a site where anyone can build software, and for up-and-coming programmers, contributing to such open-source code repositories has become another essential way to raise one’s profile. “If you have a GitHub account, it validates you as someone who’s a passionate contributor to the community,” Jobspring’s Forehand says. Programming sites like CampFire, StackOverflow, and TopCoder provide further opportunities that can be amplified through broader social outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, or the question-and-answer site Quora.
Employers are catching on. In January, clients started giving Amish Shah, CEO of tech recruiter Millennium Search, a laundry list of sites that candidates must participate in to be considered.
“One company wouldn’t look at candidates whose LinkedIn profiles had less than 100 connections,” Shah says. “Candidates had to be tweeting actively about the right things. They needed to be blogging and answering questions on Quora. A home run would be a presentation they’d given at a conference, with a video on YouTube and slides on SlideShare.”
Earlier generations might view such naked exposure as a double-edged sword. After all, answering a question online can reveal ignorance as well as expertise. In the emerging online ecosystem, though, it may be more important to contribute to the community than to demonstrate individual mastery.
“Community isn’t just about relationships—it’s about becoming smarter and better at what you do,” says Jonathan Reed, an enterprise staffing consultant. “You may think you understand something, but blog about it and you’ll get 20 comments telling you you’re wrong. It’s an accountability loop between you and your colleagues, and it changes the way we think about careers.”