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Have you asked yourself what does it actually take to get a job offer? After spending months going from interview to interview without any success, I sure did. It wasn’t easy. I had a college degree, some hands-on experience, and a certification. Yet, every time I spoke to an IT hiring manager the result was the same. My mistake? Well, I didn’t understand a couple key things: too many people had similar skill sets, and IT hiring managers only cared about what I could do for them, not the other way around.

Related: Secrets to obtaining 6 figure job offers from top tech companies within 2-4 years even if you have zero experience today! 

It didn’t matter whether I got 1 or 20 interviews, I wasn’t going to be offered any jobs if I kept doing what I was doing. Time was passing by and I was starting to question whether I was going to be able to land a job or not. A few companies had even chosen to hire people with fewer credentials over me, which really frustrated me. But it helped me realize that once in an interview, you can only get an offer as a result of your performance in it. I knew I had to find a way to differentiate myself from the pack and sell myself much better than I had been doing…

Like many people, I was making the mistake of thinking that my entry-level credentials were going to speak for myself –they never do. Companies want to hire people who can get the job done. They want to hear you say something like (and be able to back it up, of course) “I can do this, that, and whatever I don’t know, I can learn it and then do it for you.” If you want to succeed in interviews, start thinking like this. Put yourself in their shoes:

Imagine you just landed a job as an IT hiring manager for a growing tech company in Silicon Valley that’s looking to take over an industry with its brand new technology. The company has aggressive goals and plans to significantly grow its personnel and user base over the next few months. For your first task, the CTO (chief technical officer) has personally tasked you with the onboarding of one entry-level network technician. Since the company believes in filling their junior and senior positions with their existing personnel, this person will be expected to move up to a leadership position as a network engineer soon after joining the company. You’ve been specifically asked to fill the position with someone who would fit well within the company’s culture and who can hit the ground running almost immediately. This way, the company can keep moving and growing fast, just like it has been doing lately.

You start working on a plan to hire a rockstar. Someone with motivation, passion and an admirable drive to succeed. Someone who you think could be a good teammate, get along with people and have a good work ethic; and who is capable of learning and applying new skills fast. Ideally, this would be a person who has up-to-date knowledge and experience. Perhaps someone who has set up, managed, configured and troubleshot real equipment and that has also carried out his or her own networking projects in the recent past.

You begin by asking existing employees for referrals. But after interviewing a couple of people, you’re unable to find optimal prospects. You then move on to ask your professional network to recommend a candidate. However, no one knows someone with the skills and experience you’re looking for, that is interested in an entry level role. After a couple days of trying to find qualified people through your network, you decide to post the opening on an online jobs platform.

You wait a couple of days and receive a handful of applications. After reviewing them, you confirm your previous suspicion: people with the knowledge and experience you want to onboard are not interested in entry-level roles. None of your applicants seem to have the skill set you’re looking for. It has already been a week since you were tasked with onboarding a network technician and you haven’t made much progress. You’re in a tough situation.

After some consideration, you decide to base an important part of your hiring criteria on whether a person has a college degree and/or technical certifications. You know there’s a problem, however: neither of these requires people to do any kind of hands-on work… How could you honestly make sure that someone is job-ready if they earned their credentials taking written exams? ‘It isn’t possible,’ you think to yourself. You know that there are way too many people who use test dumps to pass these certifications. Obviously, you want to make a great first impression at work, but this seems to be getting out of your hands…

You update your requirements and post the job opening online once again. In a matter of hours, you receive over 100 applications. After reading about 50 people’s resumes, and speaking with 20 of them on the phone, you decide to invite just one prospect over for an in-person interview.

That night, you go home somewhat discouraged and a little worried about only having one candidate. After all, the CTO himself had assigned you this task and you really want to make sure you deliver a high-quality candidate that can help the company almost right out of the gate. But, you seem to be unable to find someone who you think can actually be ready to hit the ground running. On your drive home, you wonder if perhaps you’re setting the bar too high or if maybe the company’s expectations are unrealistic. You arrive at your house’s parking spot and decide to look at your phone right before hopping out of the car. There’s a pending LinkedIn notification. Someone had sent you a message 12 minutes ago saying that he is looking to move up in the IT industry and asking if you’d meet up with him for coffee to talk about it.

He says he has been at the helpdesk for about 10 months. But, that he recently went through a training program in which he gained key networking skills and hands-on experience handling real world equipment. You’re not a fool. You know it’s not a coincidence that he is messaging you. After all, you posted a job online and your name is on the post. However, tired of looking for candidates everywhere, and knowing that after a few days of work there’s only one candidate coming to meet with you in-person, you decide to reply to this guy inviting him to come over for an interview in a couple days –you have nothing to lose. He thanks you for the opportunity and accepts the invitation.  

Two days later, both candidates arrive at your company. One of them, the one you scattered from all the online applications you received, is very well-dressed and looks very confident –almost as if he knew he’s the only applicant out of over 100 who was invited over. The other one, although not dressed as well, looks more than happy to have the opportunity to interview with you. You greet both candidates briefly in the waiting room and then proceed to your office. Ten minutes later, you ask the first guy to come in.

He walks in very confidently and shakes your hand firmly, looking straight into your eyes. Recently, he graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Management of Information Systems and a 3.75 GPA. During his last few weeks at school, he managed to squeeze some time out to prepare for his Network+ certification, which he earned just two weeks after receiving his diploma. A few weeks after that, he earned his A+ certification, and now he’s working towards his CCNA in routing and switching.

As he had previously told you, he is looking to break into his first ever IT job, but he has some experience volunteering at a few places where he has helped fix connectivity issues and troubleshot a few devices. You’re very impressed with him inasmuch that you end up talking to him for over an hour. He seems very ambitious and obviously, he is very motivated to learn. After all, he has a degree, 2 certifications and is working on getting his third. Your only concern is his lack of hands-on experience. Once he leaves, you feel like he could be a good fit and even wonder if you should have invited the other guy over. But, he is already there and you don’t want to be rude.

You call the second candidate into your office. He looks just as confident as the other one, even though he has never gone to college and only has one certification. He starts the conversation by thanking you for the opportunity you’ve given him. Then, he proceeds to mention once again that he has been at the help desk for a little less than a year and that he is now looking to move up the ranks,  which is the reason he decided to get “X” certified.

‘What is the “X” certification?’, you can’t help but ask.

‘It’s a new cert that teaches you the fundamentals of the full stack of networking technologies through hands-on work and in-person skills validation testing. You basically learn everything from routing and switching to voice over IP and wireless technologies, and then you prove you can actually do stuff on real equipment.’

You nod in agreement. But, before you can say anything, he continues…

‘To earn it, you must first go through an 100+ hour online course, in which you do everything from learning about networking essentials and architectures to carrying out your own full stack networking project from start to finish and working in your own labs.’

‘Once you’re done with the course, you go to a 5-day in-person certification boot camp where you spend about 98% of the time setting up, configuring, securing and troubleshooting real world networking equipment –mostly Cisco by the way. I even got some experience setting up failover for disaster recovery! On the fifth day, you get one chance at the certification test.’

‘What does the test entail?’ –you ask full of curiosity.

‘I think it gets updated from time to time. But, when I took it I had to configure a complete branch network from scratch. I set up the branch router, switches, wireless, phones and internet access, and then connected the branch network back to the HQ network.’

He hands you a couple of papers stacked together and says ‘look, here’s a list of the hands-on tasks I was certified on. I can perform any of them for you right now if you’d like.’

You’re also very impressed by this person and end up talking to him for over an hour as well. He is very confident in his ability and has been in a helpdesk role for almost a year. The list of skills he gave you includes many of the things required for the job and even some more advanced skills such as automating failover. However, he has no industry-recognized certifications or a college degree. All he has is the new “X” certification, about a year of experience and a bunch of hands-on skills.

You’re left with a decision to make. Both candidates are very passionate and ambitious. It seems like both would fit in nicely in the team. So, should you go with the college grad who has multiple certs or with the helpdesk guy with hands-on skills?

Who would you hire and why?