How to set yourself apart

Sample WBS - source, Wiki Commons

Sample WBS – source, Wiki Commons

This time six years ago I was cramming for the PMP exam, a professional certification in project management I thought would set me apart as the economy was slipping and my development opportunities at work had come to a dead end. I’d made it through two rounds of lay-offs and planned a four-month sabbatical with hopes I’d return with the certification, and start looking for what’s next.

The exam was hard, and that was part of its appeal, to do something hard. It had 200 multiple choice questions, many of them with more than one right answer. You had to pick the best right answer, which owed to a level of subjectivity as seen through the minds of the Project Management Institute (PMI).

I bought books, test simulation software, and attended 32 hours of classroom instruction led by an ex-military guy who gave out small, plastic leprechauns as good luck tokens at the end of the course.

Prior to the exam I drove to the testing center to ensure I knew the route and how long it would take. I continued my daily habit of flash cards and review of the elaborate mnemonics I’d devised for myself, some 21 different topics with corresponding sub-topics that fanned out beneath each parent topic like a network diagram or more accurately, a work breakdown structure.

It was the kind of testing center where they’re very anal about what you take in with you. You have to empty your pockets and use lockers outside the testing area, with an attendant working the door. I showed him the leprechaun and asked if it was alright, and he just looked at me the way you do when you can’t say what’s really on your mind so you just say nothing.

I passed the exam, and three years later I’d earned the 60 professional development units (PDUs) required to renew the certification for another three-year cycle.

But my stature had slipped at work: I’d switched departments and entered into more complex subject matter, an ERP systems implementation for Store Development teams in China, and I’d managed to marginalize myself to where I wasn’t invited to the Agile Scrum bootcamp training because I didn’t make it to the list of must-have attendees. I had to make a plea to join the rest of the project team, and I was the project manager.

It is now that time to renew my certification, on the anniversary of passing the exam in 2009. Coming off a rough exit with projects I led or didn’t lead as I should have in my last job, I really had to think about whether or not I’d devote the time to maintain the certification. Thanks to the Agile Scrum bootcamp and project work over the past three years, I only needed 22 hours of credit.

And as I am going through a career outplacement service, I have access to online course materials in multiple languages and disciplines that qualify for PDU credits. You spend one hour with an automated, prerecorded course, take some tests, and that gets you one credit — one hour, one credit.

But something about putting in the effort to hold onto something that felt newly vile to me was hard, in some ways harder than taking the exam six years ago. Taking the exam had the energy of forward-motion and boundless promise. Renewing the certification carries the feeling of falsehood.

Today, I attended a LinkedIn Optimization course, led by a real person in a classroom with other job-seekers. She revealed the mechanics of LinkedIn, who it’s really for, and who we really are on LinkedIn: products. We, the members, are the product — we’re what’s being sold to the consumers, the recruiters and head-hunters.

And like most things on the Internet it is about traffic, search results, hits, how you rank with the competition. They want you on LinkedIn a lot and reward you by upping your rank on keyword searches.

I dressed the way I imagined slackers dressed one time during the dot-com spike in the late 90s, upbeat but casual. The facilitator said I looked like a tech guy with my Mac, my snazzy socks, and I just wondered what I was doing there, setting myself apart.

I found the lucky leprechaun mixed in with a box of random doll parts in our garage — arms, mismatched shoes, puzzle pieces, parts of board games that get separated and never make it back. At the end of the day, they are just things.


Categories: death

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27 replies

  1. Having spent many years doing the things that would supposedly give me a leg up – certifications, workshops, classes, training – all that rigamarole, in the end, it seemed I outdid my desire to do anything with them. But I can fix the hell out of my computer when it breaks down. All is apparently not lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My friend, being able to fix your computer will always affirm your place on Earth. My wife has become a kind of Help Desk for my mother-in-law: that goes a long way. I’ve been wondering how things are going for you since you made the break from your novel to the garden. Drop me a line please if/when you can; maybe we can talk about something less intense than Portrait, too.


      • It’s a cold, rainy day here and catching up on my correspondence is on the list, so I’ll be sure to drop you a line. Reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground now – interesting parallels to Portrait. After I’m done, though, I might need to read something light and fluffy!


  2. Are you looking for work for while you’re in Germany, or just making plans for when you get back? Either way, best of luck to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey thanks for checking in! I’m in a funny place because no, I’m not planning to work in Germany but I would like to start building up some contacts so I can work shortly after returning to the US, which will be about a year from now. I’m changing industries and career to write/edit as a freelancer, and will subcontract through my wife’s company (she’s an independent contractor also). I loved the brick and mortar lifestyle of working for Starbucks for almost 20 years, but I think the contract-based work may be the way of the future, and it will certainly give us flexibility to travel and be with our kids more. All good possibilities.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh, Bill, this is so hard – slogging to put yourself in the best position job-wise, for the best possible reasons, and yet now knowing that for inexplicable reasons the process did not deliver according to expectations in the past; and at the same time it becoming apparent that there’s something a bit Matrixy, Glass Bead Gamish about that process, because actually there is some kind of other weird agenda going on underneath which is not about employing autonomously intelligent beings with much to offer. Original minds scare corporate hacks. They don’t conform to product requirements. But then knowing this does not help when you need a decent job. A new niche required perhaps?


    • Hi Tish – thanks. Yes, a new niche for sure. I really can’t complain here, and hope I don’t sound as if I am, but I was lucky in a sense to have a wonderful job for many years, working for Starbucks and doing many great things that afforded me a very comfortable lifestyle in the suburbs, but a gap opened between me and the job, and then with the company unfortunately, and it became clear it was time to move on. So ‘move on’ I am, and I’m looking toward a new career and industry as a freelancer — trying to connect some things now, but it’s slow-going. I’m lucky my wife has a company and solid contracts to keep ourselves comfortable, and we’ve been saving for our year off in Germany…which we’ll surely not regret, and I believe will help stimulate what’s next. I appreciate your empathy and your Glass Bead Gamish phrase; that made me smile, thanks! – Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “LinkedIn Optimization course.” This will likely be the saddest phrase I’ll read this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Although I don’t doubt there is value to professional certifications, the more I think about it the more they sound like something being sold to make other folks money. Especially that business about renewing every few years. “Times are hard. Competition is fierce. You need a competitive advantage. We can give you one. And soothe your T-zone.” You don’t sell a man one car for life, you sell him one car every five years.


    • There is that, for sure. I did it because a) I had a genuine passion and interest in the field and b) I thought it would help give me a leg up. I don’t regret it, but I sure did some moaning here about having to renew it. I knew a guy who had, without exaggerating, about seven of those professional certifications behind his name. Ever known anyone like that? I mean, probably interesting to talk to at a cocktail party, assuming he could get away from his course studies.


      • I’ve never known anyone who’s had that many, just some folks with one or two. I’m sure there are lots of people like yourself who do it out of genuine interest to learn and a desire to be better at what they do. I’m also sure there are others who do it purely to make themselves more “marketable.” I struggle with this kind of stuff. Because I myself want to be good at what I do, but I can’t stand doing things to make myself more marketable, or to tack skins on the wall to give myself clout. I’d rather just learn from talented mentors and prove myself on the field. But then that side of me, too, is battles with the other side of me that says all of it is a meaningless game that I want no part of. I’d rather just sit home in the dark and punch the keyboard until my fingers bleed. And then there’s a part of me that says, well why are you so arrogant as to think that’s the best use of your time. I can’t win with myself, I think. Anyhoo, the girls are bored with what’s on tv and have started the pre-dinner fisticuffs, and the pizza is almost ready.


      • Right. I think we have a lot in common. We should read some Chekhov and kibitz about it later this year. That’ll show ’em.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t get LinkedIn, though have an account and, come to think of it, it’s how a recruiter found me and my current job. And I too took a tough licensing exam a few years ago. Stressed out majorly and passed by the skin of my teeth. Just renewed it last year but may pass the next time around, especially if I have to pay for it myself. And yet it does look good on a resume. Good to have, I think, especially if keeping it is not too painful.


    • I agree: good to have (and stressed out majorly taking it, as you say). One of those deals where you spend $500 for the exam itself and if you don’t pass, you got nothing to show for it. Ripe for getting one of those mouthpiece units to cut back on the teeth gnashing in the sleep, for sure. LinkedIn is pretty easy if you can focus yourself on it and tool around a bit. One thing I learned is to uncheck some of the boxes related to your privacy settings, to prevent them from selling your personal data to 3rd parties. That explains (I think) why I get tons of messages from companies about SEO etc. who think I still work at Starbucks and are trying to sell the company services, or invite me to conferences.


  7. This reminds me that I still owe you an email.


  8. I got tired just reading about what you had to do, did, and are thinking about doing!


  9. I thought the purpose of Linkdin was to send me messages from people I didn’t know. Good luck setting yourself apart, you have a knack for it.


    • Thank you Jon – yes, LinkedIn is pretty misunderstood. I think if you’re actively looking or want to use it as a tool to be seen and drawn out by recruiters, then it makes sense to dig into it deeper. I seem to have a natural resistance to things like that, though. I should learn to hunt and fish.


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