You’re poking around while job searching and there it is: the dream position.
But, before you can get too excited, you see the requirements. At first glance, based on your degree or work experience, this role looks out of reach. Before you give up, though, know that’s not always the end of the story.
A student from my Code School Capstone course recently found herself in a similar spot. She wanted to become a product manager at a tech company, but she’d spent her career to date at an art gallery. She asked me: “How can I possibly compete with computer science majors—or anyone else with practiced ‘hard skills’—I’m finishing up a product management class now, but still.”
My advice to her was to remember that the best product managers are well-rounded, and that’s true for most roles.
Listen, I understand that you don’t want to waste your time applying for a role you have no shot at. (Hiring managers don’t want to waste their time either.) However, there’s a difference between not being qualified and having strong transferable skills that you’re not even aware of.
Here’s how someone who wants to change careers can decipher between the two:
Step 1: Inventory Your Career “Raw Materials”
Few people appreciate the full scope of what they bring to the table. Get started by listing as many of your experiences, skills, accolades, and past wins as possible.
Go beyond standard resume blurbs like “fluent in SQL” or “graduate of FIT.” (Don't self-censor; you can pare back later.) Ask yourself:
- What good things would past supervisors and co-workers say about me? What about friends, mentors, or professors? Who else thinks I'm awesome—and why?
- How have I contributed measurable results in the past?
- How have I contributed beyond what's easy to measure? Am I a natural leader? Have I served on a company culture committee? Have I won awards?
- What have I accomplished that is generally seen as badass (even if it seems unrelated to the role)?
- How have I failed spectacularly in the past? Count this as a win too, because a willingness to stick your neck out can be a win if positioned properly (this is especially true in tech).
- What might my prospective company need based on its unique situation (maturity, industry, stated objectives, culture, employee demographics, competitors, trends) that I might be able to provide, even if it’s outside the official job description?
- What degrees or certifications do I hold, including online courses?
This is going to be a long list, and that’s OK. I’m not suggesting you send this whole document, well, anywhere. It’s a jumping off point, and so you want the list to be as extensive as possible before you start cutting it down.
Pro tip: Try this exercise across at least two sittings to get the most out of it.
Step 2: Understand What the Very Best People in Your Desired Role Actually Do
To get the full story of what your dream role entails—and get a better sense of if you could actually do it—speak with friends (or friends of friends) who excel in positions similar to the one you want.
To get beyond the job description, ask a lot of questions. Some good ones include, “What do the very best people in this role do that the average ones don’t?” and “What's required of this role that [company] wouldn’t actually say out loud?” Sniff for the unspoken (and potentially more important) requirements.
If you can demonstrate a better understanding of the role and company than other candidates, discrepancies in experience will matter less (within reason). I’d rather hire a comparatively less experienced person who really gets it than a more experienced candidate who doesn’t.
Step 3: Highlight the Traits Most Relevant for the Role
Now you have the key ingredients: a comprehensive list of what you can do and a long list of everything the company needs in a top hire for the role. Your next step is to draw parallels.
My student who wanted to transition from being an art gallery manager learned that the stated skills for product managers include strong analytical skills, laser-focus in moving key performance indicators (KPIs), working on the big picture and in the weeds, understanding the company’s users, and having an MBA or equivalent. The unspoken skills include instilling confidence in teammates, peers, and superiors, sales skills, strong intuition, solid people skills, resilience, and exceptional listening skills.
Armed with this information, she could match her qualifications (many of which she didn’t appreciate until they were down on paper) with what the company really needed. Here’s a snippet of what that would look like:
- She managed all aspects of the gallery: website, relationship with Artsy, marketing, and so on.
- She increased sales 44% over one year by optimizing inventory.
- She is experienced with day-to-day business realities—beyond theory (this is huge).
- She’s a triathlete who also swam the bay from Alcatraz. (While unrelated to official job requirements, you could imagine a hiring manager seeing this and saying, “Wow, that’s hardcore. I need to meet this person.”)
- She’s a high-stakes broker who’s worked with a wide range of (demanding) people including artists and high-net-worth buyers
- She’s deeply analytical, as demonstrated by the way she optimized the gallery collection based on past sales.
- She’s a positioning expert (an advanced marketing concept), as none of the high-priced art carried inherent tangible value.
- She has a professionally trained eye for design and aesthetics.
Note: If you’re missing key skills for the job, focus on plugging those holes before applying. There’s a big difference between thinking, “I don’t have a degree in the desired field” versus, “It says Advanced Mathematics Degree required and I don’t have one.” Or, “I’ve never formally worked in sales, but my all of my jobs have included raising money and identifying sources for funding” and “I have never sold anything, ever.”
Step 4: Check in With Someone Knowledgeable Who’ll Tell You the Truth
You’ve made it this far. Your experience is unconventional, but you’ve done the research and think you’re a uniquely qualified candidate (as opposed to an unqualified one). There’s one more step before you begin your application: Reach out to your knowledgeable contacts and ask them for honest feedback.
Someone with insider info can help you see the difference between stretching and being entirely out of your league. Couch it by explaining that your application is a work in progress, and he or she won't hurt your feelings.
Then, ask these four questions:
- “How would you react to a candidate claiming to have these traits?”
- “Is there anything on this you don’t believe or that makes you pause?”
- “Can you think of any better words to use than the ones I have here?”
- “Are there any red flags or gold stars that stand out?”
Now, incorporate the feedback! After all, you don’t just want to apply, you want to get a call back.
Once your application looks ready to go, put your apprehension behind you. Show the hiring manager that you’re the best choice because of your unique background, not despite it.