Adventures in awkward storytelling

I’m working on many projects right now: I’m consulting, writing, and building. Eventually everything will be under one big reveal but I’m not there yet. So when someone asks me what I do I have a ton of flexibility in how I answer. I love the challenge of trying out new professional narratives in casual networking situations.

Last week I bombed hard as I was telling a new professional narrative. At a dinner party with my partner’s coworkers, someone said to me “So I hear you’re working on some coaching stuff.” I winced a bit. I’m not coaching. In fact, I’m trying to avoid coaching. So I tried out a new story:

Me: I used to coach but not anymore. Now I’m doing some consulting, working with career services to upgrade their curriculums for international students. But that’s just for right now because I’m launching a school to prepare students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Him: Awkward silence and polite smile. 

Imagine it’s a fine summer evening and you’re enjoying some delicious ceviche talking amongst the group about the fresh scallops and vacation. And then someone tells you their working on preparing people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

WTF does that even mean?

He had no idea. I don’t blame him. I don’t even know why I said it. A polite silence ensued. He walked away. I went back to eating my ceviche and wallowed in the awkwardness.

Then I made a mental note: spend a little less time on the interwebs reading reports of robots taking over all the jobs and more time talking to real people.

Someone tell the CEO of LinkedIn how to use LinkedIn

Maybe you’ve noticed lately that LinkedIn is suffering from serious Facebook creep. And here we have proof: Jeff is searching for show recommendations from his professional network.

Which just leaves me with questions:

Does Jeff have friends?

Does Jeff hate Facebook?

Did Jeff read the 546 recommendations from rando connections?

What’s the use of LinkedIn’s newsfeed anyhow?

Can Artificial Intelligence find me a job?

Imagine if LinkedIn had a smart technology that guided you through each step of your job search. Imagine if it could accurately match you to jobs based on your background, conduct a skill gap analysis, and recommend courses to make you more qualified for a job. Imagine if it could pair you with a mentor and recommend conversational topics and questions based on mutual interests.

Admittedly, that’s all a bit of a wish list. But my hopes were up when I saw a IBM College tweet about a new service with Watson. For job seekers interested in working at IBM, Watson will help provide “job recommendations that match your skills and interests.” Watson, the do-it-all cognitive technology, is dipping its non-existent toes into career coach waters. As a career coach who’s spent years helping people figure out which jobs are right for them, I had to give Watson a try.

Interacting with Watson starts off easy. Like any good coach, Watson gives you options. It offers the option to explore common questions, answer questions about your experience, or upload your resume to let Watson recommend opportunities for you. I chose the easiest option, the resume upload, because it’s the laziest.

Seconds later, Watson had a list of job recommendations and the initial recommendations were in line with my background. It recommended three job categories at IBM to explore: Marketing, Consulting, and HR. Each category contained 50 jobs. Watson ranked each job by best match, with an icon indicating how well I matched the job opportunity and an info box showing which skills made me a match for the job. Unfortunately, the job opportunities ranged greatly in experience level, education and responsibilities. Oddly internship opportunities ranked high in my results, though I’ve been out of grad school for 8 years and have 10 years of relevant experience. I assumed Watson would only recommend relevant jobs related to my years of experience.

Feeling mildly overwhelmed with 150 matched opportunities, I returned to the beginning to answer questions so Watson could get to know me better. Watons’s questions were related to my work experience, skills, and passion. After answering all of them, Watson recommended a new category to explore: Design and Offer Management. It was a happy discovery. I’m obsessed with UX and immediately found a cool job for a User Experience Designer for Bluemix Garage, their innovation and transformation consultancy which does work with startup communities around the world. Dreamy.

Watson made discovering opportunities relatively seamless because I didn’t have to have to experiment with keywords or job titles to find jobs that may be a good fit, a challenge most job seekers struggle with. Watson also shows which of your skills matched you to a job. Compare that to LinkedIn’s job recommendations which are frequently odd and a mystery, and suddenly Watson seemed quite helpful.

Unfortunately Watson’s helpful magic stalled as I moved from recommendations to interactive chat. As I explored recommended categories, Watson encouraged me: “While you explore these jobs, feel free to ask me any questions you may have about IBM. For example, I want to know about… to learn about company culture, locations and more.”

So I inquired. “Do you have jobs in Portland?” Watson displayed jobs in my category that were tagged “multiple cities” as well as San Francisco and Austin, etc. Was Watson making a hipster connection? I’m still not sure if they have jobs in Portland.

Then I thought of questions a college student might ask. I asked, “what jobs do you have for college graduates?” Watson replied: Based on your resume, it looks like you would be interested in these job categories. You can learn more about these categories or explore opportunities in each category.

I tried to get more specific. “What internships do you have for college graduates?” Watsons repeated the same answer as above. “What is the best way to get a job at IBM?” Same reply, Based on your resume… I asked “How long is the hiring process?” I was directed to a web page on the recruiting process which had little detail. I asked if IBM has MBA-level jobs. The response was “Super, I found opportunities in one job category” The category: Project executive. I tried to clarify, “Are there roles for MBAs in strategy?”

Watson’s response: “Sorry that area is out of my expertise.” Watson apparently hasn’t met IBM’s MBA team.

With daily articles on artificial intelligence and the power of machine learning appearing in my newsfeed regularly, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of cognitive technology. I made a lot of assumptions as I started to interact with Watson, all driven by hype. I assumed Watson would show me unique opportunities based on my specific questions. I assumed it would offer insights about working at IBM beyond a link to a corporate webpage. I assumed it understood job seekers better. Watson isn’t there yet. To be fair, this service is in its infancy. IBM notes that Watson is learning and can’t answer all the questions.

I remain optimistic though. Artificial intelligence applied to the job search is a potential that is too good to ignore. Some companies already see the future. WayUp just raised $18 million for their platform which uses machine learning to improve job matches between students in students and employers. Looking beyond improved matching, a smart service that helps people navigate the job search – an anxious, joyless, and time consuming process that everyone dislikes – is enticing. There are not enough human career coaches to assist people through the coming workforce disruption. People need guidance as they think through retraining options and upskilling. A smarter Watson could serve as a virtual career coach and support system to help people navigate an increasingly ambiguous future of work.

I look forward to that day.

Soft skills are anything but soft

“If there’s one lesson you can take away from the work I’ve done recently on social skills is that you need to have both types of skills. The thing about being a good conversationalist is that lots of people are. So that alone won’t get you anywhere. What you need is to be well-rounded, I don’t mean that in a loose way but in a rigorous way. Try to be good at two things, especially two things that are not that closely related to each other. Two things that it’s uncommon to be good at together. One of them is that most people are really good coders or programmers, a lot of them might be not so socially skilled. So if you can do both those things you’re going to be incredibly valuable because you have an unusual combination of skills and you’re hard to replace. So if you got good technical skills and soft skills you’re like gold to employer. So seek out opportunities to be good at unusual combination of things.”

– David Demming, Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, giving advice to employees on the role of soft skills in the future of work, on the Future of Work Podcast episode, The Future of Education, Skills, and the Economy.

There’s much to dive into in this podcast: the unbundling of higher education, the role of soft skills with AI technology and who is responsible for teaching those skills, income inequality, and a discussion on what we actually mean when we refer to the skills gap.

I’m also on a mission to reframe soft skills. Soft skills are power skills. If you can build relationships, influence, and communicate your ideas in a powerful narrative with impact, those are power skills. There’s nothing soft about those skills.

Who’s responsible for teaching students the soft skills?

“Of the top five skills important to their job, the ones related to “people” skills or emotional intelligence are among the most important, with interpersonal skills (e.g., active listening, persuasion and negotiation, time management) topping the list. Others, like interpersonal orientation (e.g., cooperation, concern for others, self-control), learning, motivation, and leadership (e.g., achievement, persistence, initiative, adaptability), and conscientiousness (e.g., dependability, attention to detail, and integrity) also rate highly regardless of job function.” – GMAC 2017 Alumni Perspectives Survey 

So why are Career Services departments so focused on teaching resume and cover letter writing? If not career services, who in higher education is responsible for ensuring students have these skills?

(P.S. I teach soft skills.)

Treehouse masters career storytelling

I just flaked out on another Coursera course. I thought this would be the time I stuck with it; I even paid for it in hopes I wouldn’t flake. But flake I did.

I’m still focused on upskilling, so I joined another online school, Treehouse. I’ve used them before to learn html and css basics. I love their UX and the entire feel of their learning experience. I’m surprised that feel matters so much to me – but then again learning environments matter offline, so why shouldn’t it matter online?

So I’m onto a new online learning platform, this time focusing on skills that I need right now. I’m taking their WordPress track as all my websites are hosted on WordPress. I can cobble together awesome themes pretty well but I have no idea how WordPress actually works and Treehouse has a robust track that dives into everything I need to know.

As I was pursuing courses I noticed Treehouse excels in another area: storytelling. More specifically, telling the stories of successful career changers. Making a shift to a new career is a daunting task: you have to obtain the skills and convince employers that you can do the job, the latter of which can be even harder than acquiring the new skills. Career changers struggle with doubt, lack of self-confidence, opaque career paths, and lack of knowledge about hiring companies and opportunities. Treehouse uses profiles to share stories from a wide range of people – former customer service specialists, laid off professionals, personal trainers, urban planners – from across the globe. Seeing diverse stories of successful career changers helps learners visualize themselves doing the same. It’s even possible it gives them a bit more confidence. As they read, they’re likely telling themselves, hey, if they can do it, I can do it too. 

Testimonials about impact are important for prospective online students. But the full stories that dive into the learning journey and offer advice serve a purpose too: to motivate career changers. Treehouse puts out a clear message to career changers: everyone’s doing it and you can to.

So bravo to Treehouse. Here’s hoping other online schools invest the time in career storytelling too.

Travel, feminism, gender identity, and the romance of Venice

Radiolab has truly outdone itself this time. While Radiolab consistently brings a good story game, right up there with This American Life and Snap Judgement, they wooed me so hard this week with the episode, The Gondolier.

This episode is a story of identity wrapped in a story of journalistic inquiry wrapped in an Italian travelogue. The storytelling is pure enjoyment and the sound production makes it a party for your ears.

Listen here.

Higher education leadership needs more cross cultural training

I’m a huge fan of Erin Meyer, a Senior Affiliate Professor in Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. Her research and book, the Culture Map, helped me greatly when I was building career workshops for international students. Even with a background in cross-cultural communication from my graduate studies (and numerous international experiences) I learned so much from her book about the assumptions I made when communicating with international audiences. I learned about the expectations I developed based on my cultural background and how it affected my interactions with international students.

Whenever the topic of cross-cultural fluency comes up, many reference the work done on value differences by Hofstede. No doubt Hofstede is a major contributor to cross-cultural communication but Erin Meyer brings a practical framework and insightful storytelling that should convince everyone to make cross-cultural communication a priority in their organizations.

I wish I could assign her videos to higher ed leadership and faculty. The videos could be a catalyst for discussing faculty expectations of international student participation in the classroom and how departments interact with (and support) international students on-campus.

For example, as Americans, we are a low context society, which means we say what we mean, we repeat our common points, and everything can be taken at face value. If you’re an American and advising students from high context cultures, like China and Saudi Arabia, there’s a chance you’re missing the nuances and subtleties students are trying to communicate to you. There’s a chance you’re not picking up on non-verbal cues. And it’s likely they’re trying to read between the lines of everything you say, even though there’s no meaning to find there. The potential for miscommunication is always high. If this makes you scratch your head and wonder how that is, watch the video below to challenge your assumptions on how we communicate with students.

Now think about the challenges faculty have around classroom participation. Most of the discussion puts the blame on students from educational systems in which students don’t challenge professors. The thinking is that students don’t participate because they don’t know how. Part of that is true. But there’s another reason they don’t participate: American faculty can’t recognize when students want to share their thoughts because they can’t read the air.

The video below expands on this topic, the concept of reading the air. When I watched this the first time I had a huge aha! moment. I’ve experienced similar confusion when I first started presenting to international executives and students. Since then I’ve worked on reading the air. It’s not easy and feels really uncomfortable since it forces me to leave silence during my presentations (and no American presenter likes that!). I always wonder if I’m misreading people. And it’s challenging when it’s not a single culture, as international students as a whole are not homogenous. But as I watched this, I couldn’t help wonder how many faculty are familiar with this concept.

We tend to think international students are the ones who need cross-cultural training and orientation to American culture. After years of working with international students, I’m convinced that higher education leadership are the ones who need it the most. It’s a wonder that with all the talk of internationalizing higher education the topic of cross-cultural training doesn’t make the priority list.

If you agree, share this with your dean, provosts, and anyone else who’s pushing to recruit more international students.

How Artificial Intelligence will change the world

“Many people I know which are older than I am usually talk about having one job, and one job for life. However, almost everybody who is the age of my students are talking about having multiple jobs. I will be a consultant here, a consultant there, I will work with this company for three days and so on.” Maja Pantic, professor of affective and behavioral computing at Imperial College London,

The Guardian Science podcast hosted a live event on How Artificial Intelligence will change the world featuring a panel of leading scientists and a robot ethicist. The podcast is worth listening to in full, especially as they go in depth to talk about the different between narrow and general AI and the implications of general AI.

Like most panels on the future of AI, the discussion changes to jobs and how artificial intelligence will affect them.

Maja Pantic, professor of affective and behavioral computing at Imperial College London:

“The assembly jobs, those are already taken by robots, industry robots [that perform] very simple techniques. However, I believe the Fourth Industrial Revolution is about to come or is coming each day closer. It’s because of how the whole world is moving. There are a couple of things that are important. So one is digitization. Many people I know which are older than I am usually talk about having one job, and one job for life. However, almost everybody who is the age of my students are talking about having multiple jobs. I will be a consultant here, a consultant there, I will work with this company for three days and so on. So it will be the way we do the jobs. Because we have the internet and we can have a lot of different jobs and doing these pieces and giving our expertise as needed. A lot of jobs will be a symbiosis between machines and humans. Doctors already do that.”

Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics at UWE, Bristol:

“It’s pretty clear that when a job is threatened, even by change, it doesn’t even have to be threatened by going out of existence, just by change, and it’s a job that has a great deal of political or social voice, there is going to be a lot of grumbling heard. Any routine job that you can give a crisp problem definition of, that is somewhat threatened. It may take a long while to before you get there but that’s why I have the best, safest job ever: philosopher. Nobody has a clue what it is, not even philosophers! But in general this is true for many of jobs. Many jobs have some weird core where it’s slightly ill defined what’s going on. But then you have the routine parts and they can be automated. Whether we want to automate them or not depends on how we want to style the job.”

Maja again, this time on the tech industry’s poaching of the brightest minds on AI:

“All these PhD students which they took and all these post-docs which they took, were educated by us, by public money. So it’s absolutely not true that the innovation is theirs and that it can remain in private domain. This is absolutely outrageous that we currently have Google, Amazon, and Facebook, like five companies that are taking absolutely everybody in academia, the  phd’s and post-docs. Because we don’t have the next generation. Who will actually educate those people who need reeducation? Who will educate our kids? I think this is outrageous that they will also – because they bought all these really smart guys, they will actually own the innovation.”

Thought parking:

  • Career education is stuck in the one job for life mentality.
  • I wonder how different generations will adapt to jobs that are a symbiosis between human and machine. I’ve had plenty of managers who can’t grasp PowerPoint and CRMs. How do managers plan for that symbiosis now?
  • Job styling seems like it could be a job in it’s own right – an ethnographer who observes the day to day work of employees, conducts interviews with those who do the tasks, and develops recommendations on how automation can improve job categories.
  • I’ve read plenty of articles about tech companies poaching from academia. I always thought of it in positive terms – the researchers are going to make so much more money and see their impact so much quicker – yet never considered the implications for future generations. Each time tech poaches from academia there are fewer people to teach, mentor, engage, and contribute to the higher education communities.

I received a MOOC certificate and all I got was this lame email

Coursera (and other online learning platforms) push hard to get users to pursue a certificate. I’ve flaked out of plenty of MOOCs in the past with the certificate option completely off my radar. This time I enrolled in the Interaction Design Specialty on Coursera a paying subscriber, so I automatically received the certificate.

I completed my first course, Human-Centered Design: an Introduction, and received my certificate announcement via email. The email arrived paired with suggestions on how I can take advantage of my certificate. The suggestions were terribly underwhelming. The only concrete advice beyond viewing my grade: Add it to your LinkedIn profile.

This is precisely where Coursera misses the boat on helping users connect their learning to career success. Some users may know exactly how to talk to their bosses or future employers about the skills they’ve learned or mastered. But in my experience with career changers and even mid-career professionals who are positioning themselves for promotion, most people don’t know how to talk about their new skills or successes. They don’t know how to position themselves or create a story about their new accomplishments.

There are several opportunities here where Coursera can make a difference. A few of note:

  • Give guidance or language on how to talk to employers about your certificate and new skills
  • Show a video interview with a recruiter who talks about the value of these skills, how they’re applied in the workplace, and so on
  • Share a list of employers that value this qualification or link it to entry level jobs in this field
  • Offer video interviews of successful Coursera students who used their certificate to get a job or promotion

Imagine if Coursera did this early on in the Specialization to get users excited about new career opportunities and motivated to complete the course. Showing users how employers view these skills could help learners develop a framework for talking about their new skills as they learn them. Coursera could add value to the learning experience by helping users understand their future career opportunities.

P.S. With 200+ mil in funding, you’d think Coursera would be able to hire a few designers to snazz up that congratulatory email. I’d love a little more flare to pair with that congrats.