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TED Residency

Jason Shen: Looking for a job? Highlight your ability, not your experience

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Views 1,147,987

Very few of us hold jobs that line up directly with our past experiences or what we studied in college. Take TED Resident Jason Shen; he studied biology but later became a product manager at a tech company. In this quick, insightful talk about human potential, Shen shares some new thinking on how job seekers can make themselves more attractive -- and why employers should look for ability over credentials.

- Entrepreneur, talent expert
TED Resident Jason Shen uses data and technology to help leaders identify talent. Full bio

You know who I'm envious of?
00:12
People who work in a job
that has to do with their college major.
00:15
(Laughter)
00:18
Journalists who studied journalism,
00:20
engineers who studied engineering.
00:23
The truth is, these folks
are no longer the rule,
00:26
but the exception.
00:28
A 2010 study found that
only a quarter of college graduates
00:29
work in a field
that relates to their degree.
00:32
I graduated with not one
but two degrees in biology.
00:36
To my parents' dismay,
I am neither a doctor nor a scientist.
00:40
(Laughter)
00:44
Years of studying DNA replication
and photosynthesis
00:46
did little to prepare me
for a career in technology.
00:49
I had to teach myself everything
from sales, marketing, strategy,
00:53
even a little programming, on my own.
00:57
I had never held the title
of Product Manager
01:01
before I sent my resume in to Etsy.
01:03
I had already been turned down
by Google and several other firms
01:06
and was getting frustrated.
01:10
The company had recently gone public,
01:11
so as part of my job application,
01:14
I read the IPO filings from cover to cover
01:15
and built a website from scratch
which included my analysis of the business
01:19
and four ideas for new features.
01:23
It turned out the team was actively
working on two of those ideas
01:26
and had seriously considered a third.
01:29
I got the job.
01:33
We all know people who were ignored
or overlooked at first
01:36
but went on to prove their critics wrong.
01:39
My favorite story?
01:42
Brian Acton, an engineering manager
01:45
who was rejected
by both Twitter and Facebook
01:48
before cofounding WhatsApp,
01:50
the mobile messaging platform
that would sell for 19 billion dollars.
01:52
The hiring systems we built
in the 20th century are failing us
01:57
and causing us to miss out
on people with incredible potential.
02:00
The advances in robotics
and machine learning
02:05
and transforming the way we work,
02:07
automating routine tasks
in many occupations
02:09
while augmenting and amplifying
human labor in others.
02:12
At this rate, we should all be expecting
to do jobs we've never done before
02:17
for the rest of our careers.
02:21
So what are the tools
and strategies we need
02:24
to identify tomorrow's high performers?
02:26
In search for answers, I've consulted
with leaders across many sectors,
02:29
read dozens of reports and research papers
02:33
and conducted some of my own
talent experiments.
02:36
My quest is far from over,
02:40
but here are three ideas to take forward.
02:41
One: expand your search.
02:45
If we only look for talent
in the same places we always do --
02:48
gifted child programs, Ivy League schools,
02:51
prestigious organizations --
02:53
we're going to get
the same results we always have.
02:55
Baseball was transformed
when the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics
02:58
started recruiting players
who didn't score highly
03:01
on traditionally valued metrics,
like runs batted in,
03:04
but who had the ability
to help the team score points
03:06
and win games.
03:09
This idea is taking hold
outside of sports.
03:11
The Head of Design
and Research at Pinterest
03:14
told me that they've built
one of the most diverse
03:16
and high-performing teams
in Silicon Valley
03:19
because they believe
that no one type of person
03:21
holds a monopoly on talent.
03:23
They've worked hard
to look beyond major tech hubs
03:26
and focus on designers' portfolios,
03:29
not their pedigrees.
03:31
Two: hire for performance.
03:34
Inspired by my own job experience,
03:37
I cofounded a hiring platform
called Headlight,
03:39
which gives candidates
an opportunity to shine.
03:42
Just as teams have tryouts
and plays have auditions,
03:45
candidates should be asked
to demonstrate their skills
03:48
before they're hired.
03:50
Our clients are benefiting
from 85 years of employment research,
03:52
which shows that work samples
03:55
are one of the best predictors
of success on the job.
03:57
If you're hiring a data analyst,
04:00
give them a spreadsheet of historical data
and ask them for their key insights.
04:02
If you're hiring a marketing manager,
04:06
have them plan a launch campaign
for a new product.
04:08
And if you're a candidate,
don't wait for an employer to ask.
04:10
Seek out ways to showcase
your unique skills and abilities
04:13
outside of just the standard
resume and cover letter.
04:17
Three: get the bigger picture.
04:21
I've heard about recruiters who are quick
to label a candidate a job-hopper
04:24
based on a single
short stint on their resume;
04:28
read about professors who are more likely
to ignore identical messages from students
04:30
because their name
was black or Asian instead of white.
04:36
I was almost put on
a special needs track as a child.
04:40
A month into kindergarten,
04:44
my teacher wrote a page-long memo
04:45
noting that I was impulsive,
04:47
had a short attention span,
04:49
and despite my wonderful curiosity,
04:51
I was exhausting to work with.
04:53
(Laughter)
04:55
The principal asked
my parents into a meeting,
04:58
asked my mother if there
had been complications at birth
05:00
and suggested I meet
with a school psychologist.
05:03
My father saw what was happening
05:06
and quickly explained
our family situation.
05:08
As recent immigrants,
we lived in the attic
05:11
of a home that cared for adults
with mental disabilities.
05:13
My parents worked nights
to make ends meet,
05:17
and I had little opportunity
to spend time with kids my own age.
05:19
Is it really a surprise
that an understimulated five-year-old boy
05:23
might be a little excited
in a kindergarten classroom
05:27
after an entire summer by himself?
05:30
Until we get a holistic view of someone,
05:33
our judgment of them
will always be flawed.
05:36
Let's stop equating
experience with ability,
05:40
credentials with competence.
05:45
Let's stop settling
for the safe, familiar choice
05:47
and leave the door open
for someone who could be amazing.
05:51
We need employers to let go
of outdated hiring practices
05:55
and embrace new ways
of identifying and cultivating talent,
05:58
and candidates can help
by learning to tell their story
06:03
in powerful and compelling ways.
06:06
We could live in a world where people
are seen for what they're truly capable of
06:08
and have the opportunity
to realize their full potential.
06:13
So let's go out and build it.
06:18
Thank you.
06:21
(Applause)
06:22

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About the speaker:

Jason Shen - Entrepreneur, talent expert
TED Resident Jason Shen uses data and technology to help leaders identify talent.

Why you should listen

Jason Shen is the co-founder and CEO of Headlight, a performance hiring platform, creator of The Talent Playbook, and has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company, Quartz and The Atlantic.

He serves on the board of directors for the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation and runs The Asian American Man Study, an annual survey of American men of East, Southeast and Asian descent. 

Prior to Headlight, Shen was a product manager at Etsy, a 2013 Presidential Innovation Fellow under President Obama, and the cofounder of a Y Combinator-backed startup called Ridejoy. 

Shen holds a BS and MS in Biology from Stanford University, where he was captain of the 2009 NCAA championship-winning men’s gymnastics team. In 2014, he set the Guinness World Record for most number of Aztec push-ups completed in one minute.

More profile about the speaker
Jason Shen | Speaker | TED.com