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All in the Game

In so many of my conversations around career stuff, I reference “knowing how to play the game”. I’ve never thought to explain what exactly “the game” is, because when you’ve become acclimated, it’s just obvious, self-evident even. And no, this is not anything close to The Wire, so apologies if you expected me to talk about drug dealing.

The game consists of figuring out any possible way to increase your resume to appear as impressive as possible. Usually so you can get into college/jobs/startups/anything of prestige. This can involve stretching truths, collecting extracurriculars, all the way up to straight up lying.

I’ll preface this by emphasizing that I do not condone this behavior. I can have some sympathy as to why people play the game—immense financial reward that lifts them and their family from poverty—but I don’t think it’s fundamentally acceptable. Of course, this is on a spectrum, and some twisting of the truth on a resume i not exactly a mortal sin.

Let’s give some examples. You are a part of your college’s tech club. You show up to a couple meetings, maybe contribute one or two lines of code. You could list that on your resume as a member, or even omit it entirely since it’s really not that substantial. Or…you could claim to be a vice president1 who wrote a codebase from scratch and deployed it. Who will know the difference? It’s not like jobs will do a background check on a club membership.

Or maybe you win a hackathon with a project that sounds really impressive like categorizing traffic patterns using machine learning, or building an augmented reality translation app, but are in fact basic tutorials on the internet.

Or say you did an internship at Google, then when you create your startup, you tell people that you’re an ex-Googler. I mean, sure, you are, but an internship is not the same as a 5 year stint. And of course on your resume you emphasize that you were using Big Data with terabytes of processing, i.e. you plugged stuff into a BigQuery table.

This compounds really quickly! Those last three examples could be in order. And they could in fact be preceeded by another few, say a carefully crafted lies to look extra good on your college application, and succeeded by a few, say a startup with an overly ambitious conceit to get on Forbes’ 30 under 30.

I don’t mean to say that someone who does these things is not talented, smart, hardworking, etc. They very well could be. Could is the relevant word here. If you know how to play the game, your actual abilities are almost irrelevant2 here. You could be a programming genius and a total mediocre coder and get pretty much the same outcome.

If you want a perfect example of students playing the game, go to a hackathon. Students at hackathons have perfected the art of sounding impressive while accomplishing very little. They are masters at pitching these products that sound like they’re going to change the world, that get the inevitably naive, non-technical judges to think, “wow, these kids are geniuses!”, all the while having spliced together a pretty graphic and a front-end.

That may be a little too jaded. A lot of these people mean well and do eventually harness that energy into doing cool stuff. And it is worth emphasizing that a lot of people play this game so they can attain financial stability for their family, or so that they can gain prestige that they’ve been told for their entire life to crave.

And yes, prestige is a major factor here. Often times the prestige part starts out as a means towards an end. Get into Stuyvesant so you can go to MIT, so you can get into Jane Street. But it’s far too easy to end up chasing prestige for the sake of prestige. I’ve fallen into this trap where I’ve thought about doing something, say applying for a job or going to graduate school, just so I can have a “name” on my resume. Would that name make me happy? Would it provide much more than my already very good career? Probably not. But dammit it’s tempting.

This isn’t limited to tech, naturally. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students aspire towards law, medicine, or business simply because of prestige. After all, prestige is an easy target. You get praise, money, without having to think about your actual path, i.e. what will make you happy, what will lead to a fulfilling life. It’s easier to just check a box on a list of accomplishments as a proxy.

This is getting a little too existential, so let’s go back to practicalities. I’m writing this blog post because as much as I dislike the game, I do think it’s worth understanding how people play it. First, because with that understanding, you can apply the techniques if you wish. I don’t condone straight up lying or cheating, but I do think some more bold, self-aggrandizing language on one’s resume is acceptable. Or maybe understanding what projects sound impressive and seeking those out. But second and more importantly, you can see through people trying to play the game.

The other day, I was looking at someone’s portfolio site, which at first glance, seemed incredible. They had a portfolio project from two FAANG companies as well as another Fortune 500 company. All with these beautiful breakdowns that explained how they lead these various projects. And they were only a rising junior in college. Wow!

Except, if you looked closely, you realized that one was an internship project, one was a project for a student organization that collaborated with a big tech company, and the Fortune 500 one was another intern project. Breaking that down to the core elements, this person did an internship at a Fortune 500 company and another one at a big tech, while doing some extracurriculars at college. That’s still very impressive! I don’t want to belittle their accomplishments, but it is a lot more down to earth than their website may have portrayed.

What I took away from their site is that they were a reasonably accomplished student, and absolutely excellent at promoting themselves. What a lot of people may take away from the site is that this person is a wunderkind genius who will create the next Facebook. And that very well could be their eventual path. After all, if they can convince more than a few people that they are indeed this talented, they will receive access to far more resources and opportunities.

Anyways, what’s tricky about this situation is that it’s so easy for someone to look at this portfolio, believe the self-promotion, and end up discouraged since clearly this person is so much better than them. What they don’t understand is that this person is playing a completely different game. It’s like if you were playing basketball using the strict rules from the 1960’s and I was playing with the looser rules of the modern era. I may be scoring 30 points a game with fundamentally different rules.

And of course this is further compounded with background and privilege. If you’re struggling to feel like you belong in tech, seeing these exaggerated portfolios will only make you even more discouraged. Not to mention, knowledge of the game is extremely connected to privilege. The people who know these tricks are often the privileged, whether it’s the wealthy who can afford to play the college admissions game of buying extracurriculars, or the students at elite schools who gain access to social and cultural knowledge, even if they’re not rich themselves.

I went to a high school where most students were playing the game. It was almost a surprise when I reached college and realized most students didn’t have a resume and weren’t applying to internships in the fall of their freshman year, and weren’t doing side projects and weren’t pitching hackathon projects. Talk about a bubble.

But of course, at the end of the day, game, no game, you have to ask yourself the same question: Do you like the work?. Because if you don’t, no matter how much prestige you accumulate, you’re still going to be spending your days doing the work.

  1. There’s always a dozen vice presidents of clubs ↩︎

  2. Playing the game plus some leetcode skills is probably enough for a really good career in software development. ↩︎