The value of specializing

August 24, 2021

Last year after I shut down my first startup, I resigned myself to apply for jobs to keep me on my feet. I’d learned a lot over the course of the previous year, managing people, tons of web technologies, how to stick with a project for a long time through good and bad times, etc. I figured I could just put down all of my experiences and all the different frameworks and tools I knew how to use and I would get a job no problem.

Yeah, that was really inaccurate.

I was aware of the method of specializing, but I didn’t implement it due to a combination of several things:

  • I had no idea how critical it is to commnication
  • I hated the idea of lettings other people put me in a box
  • It was a pain in the ass to create a special application/cover letter for every single job posting

I probably applied for hundreds of jobs over the course of the next month or two, using essentially the same generic resume and cover letter, and got maybe 2 actual interviews. It was tiring and defeating. It felt like I was screaming into the void, like the last year of near constant dedication and hard work couldn’t even be used to get the most junior of roles.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have expected anything else. My resume was practically a world salad along with my LinkedIn. I had no obvious evidence of anything that I’d claimed to have built. To top it all off I had unrelated skills on my applications that just added massive amounts of clutter and noise that the interviewers had to sift through.

Things remained nearly the same until about a month ago when I came across a YouTube series by an entrepreneur named Mike Black called Million Dollar Comaback. Basically, Mike voluntarily became homeless in the middle of the pandemic last year in an attempt to show people what it takes to not just survive but to thrive. In one of the early episodes, he talks about what it takes to get a high paying remote job.

There’s a lot of good information in the episode, but it basically breaks down to 2 sections:

  • Get the interview
  • Win the interview
Get the interview

An interviewer has a lot of resumes to sift through, so anything you can do to stand out and increase your signal to noise ratio is a good thing. A large part of this is your public facing image and how your present yourself. People should know at a glance what you do and who you do it for (e.g. “I build Django websites for Ecom companies”). I’ve seen this trend over and over again across different mediums from private TF2 servers to Amazon. That doesn’t mean that’s all you have to do, but it should be significantly more emphasized than the other things you do. Take me for example, I build websites using Django. Can I do other things? Well of course, but I’m not going to put those things on my resume/LinkedIn unless it is directly related to my core value proposition. The signal you send out must be crisp and clear.

Win the Interview

They are not here to give you a job, you are here to see how you can help them. This is effective for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that you take a genuine interest in their problems and how to solve them. Second, it makes things a lot easier on you because it feels a lot more like you’re interviewing them, thereby taking a lot of pressure off of you. Probe for distress signals, ask what the current state of the project/position is, how long has it been like that, why is it not as successful as it could be, what can you do to help them? Aside from introductions and some background, when you talk your goal should be to help them solve their problem.

If you’re into documentaries, I highly encourage you to take a look at the series as the production value is remarkably high and feels very professionally made.

After seeing the first few videos in the playlist, I figured “Ah what the hell, I’ll give this a shot.” I cleaned up my LinkedIn to be laser focused on Python and Django, wrote a script to create formatted resumes based on specific job postings, built a couple websites in Django and began hosting them in the cloud, and made public several GitHub repositories I had previously kept private.

Turns of this works really well. Remember that interview rate of under 1% that I had? Well, it’s hard to pin down an exact number, but I’m currently sitting at ~40% of my applications getting interviews if you exclude the people who contact me directly by email wondering if I’m interested in joining them. Specialization works…but why? Isn’t having more experience generally better than less? Well yes, but also no.

While I have no proof of this, from what I’ve observed this isn’t a problem of skill – it’s a problem of marketing. A friend of mine who deals with real estate, insurance, property management, and probably 20 other things throughout the week ran into a situation a year or two back where his grandparents were selling their home. He had the skills at the time to sell their house and was ready and able to do it. The problem was that his grandparents had no idea he sells homes despite him telling them several times. All they remembered was “Our grandson is very busy doing a lot of things”. There was simply too much clutter, too much noise to make sense of what he was actually capable of.

Contrast this with somebody who markets a single valuable thing (e.g. “I buy and sell homes”). Less information can generally travel further than more information (memes vs stories, conclusions to scientific papers vs the nuance held therein, a single job title vs. everything you did at a company, etc.), so by distilling your value proposition down to something simple you allow for it to propogate further. If this is all people know you for, then any time they get even the slightest inkling that they need the service you provide, they will think of you.

I don’t think I’ll stick to a single specialization indefinitely, particularly for my personal projects, but as far as marketing goes I’m definitely specializing from now on.