Ask Hackaday: Selling Yourself As A Hacker

While there are plenty of hackers that hack just for the love of it, it’s no secret that many of us are looking to hit it big someday. Tales of the businesses like HP and Apple that started in someone’s garage inevitably lead to musings like, “Hey, I’ve got a garage!” and grand plans to turn that special idea into the Next Big Thing™. Many will try, most will fail for one reason or another, but hope springs eternal, and each new widget seems to start the entrepreneurial cycle again.

But for as much pressure as we may feel to be the next Packard, Wozniak, or Musk, not everyone is cut out to be the boss. Some of us have no interest in or aptitude for business — we don’t want to hire or fire people, we don’t want to wheel and deal, and we certainly don’t want to worry about salesmanship. Some of us just want to abstract all that complexity away and just find a job, preferably one that leverages the things we love to do.

How You Look on Paper: Does it Determine Who You Are?

The trouble is, sometimes the things we love to do don’t line up very well with what we’re qualified to do, at least on paper. Take me for instance. I was trained as a biologist, got my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and set about looking for a job. I found work in a biotech startup doing exactly what I was trained to do — run experiments, record results, interpret findings, lather, rinse, repeat. Luckily the company was getting into high-throughput screening using laboratory robotics, and my lifelong passion for electronics and computers made me a natural choice to work with the robots, and I’ve been doing that in one form or another for almost 25 years.

But if I decided to find a new job, I’d have a pretty hard time convincing anyone I’m worth hiring. On paper I look like a biologist, but I haven’t worked on bench-level science in twenty years. My resume, such as it is, goes on and on about my robotics experience, and waxes eloquent on the various programming languages I know. But if someone asked me where I studied robotics, or  — gasp! — asked me to do a little whiteboard programming during an interview, I’d be out of luck. My paper trail doesn’t align very well with how I’ve spent my career, and I suspect it basically makes me unemployable at this point.

Latent Skillsets

On paper, would you hire this guy?

I think a lot of hackers are in the same boat. Many of us have “day jobs” that bear little or no resemblance to our hobby life. Lots of us are self-taught in one or more fields, having taken a learn-by-doing approach to develop the skills needed to move a project forward. Some perhaps have a huge body of hacks under their belt, but were never very good at making their work public. For these reasons and more, the skills we’ve cultivated as hackers are often stranded so that we can’t use them effectively while trying to get a job.

My question for Hackaday is: does this sound like you? If it does, what are you doing about it? Conventional wisdom says that it’s not what you know, but who you know. Have you found that to be the case? Or when it comes down to it, do you suspect your resumes are going right to the circular file because your experience is all extracurricular? And most importantly, how do hackers network effectively? Sound off in the comments below — who knows, maybe you’ll help someone land a job.

Thanks to [Ryan Sayre] for the idea for this article.

84 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Selling Yourself As A Hacker

  1. “Take me for instance. I was trained as a biologist, got my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and set about looking for a job. I found work in a biotech startup doing exactly what I was trained to do — run experiments, record results, interpret findings, lather, rinse, repeat.”

    Become a bioengineer. New lifeforms on demand. Or plastic surgery…without the plastic. :-D

  2. I’m impressed by the timing of this article! I’m currently searching for a new job and believe I got a foot in the door at one company. Will send them my resume tomorrow and find out how crucial a degree is to them. Really hope it is less than the profile they posted makes it seem. Because while I have all the skills they want, University was never my thing. I tried twice, but at least the ones I tried felt like going back to primary school. E.g. one teacher would only allow me to use functions that had been previously taught in his class. So I had to go to class only to “learn” which functions I was allowed to use…

    1. Depending on the field you’re entering this could have been a valuable and valid experience. There are many fields where only a sub-set of qualified functions are allowed to be used (safety related for example) with many more restrictions on memory allocation and defensive programming. It’s rare to have a free-reign over everything you code.

      1. bullshit. i work in limited environments all the time, and you know what i do, i RTFM. if there’s no manual, i read the source. matthias was talking about an environment where the way you find out which functions are available is you go to class and write down what the teacher said. the teacher is often wrong (!!!), and foreign (which is fine except), and young (likely younger than you, if this is your second try at uni).

        i had a great time at uni but only after i got over the fact that the classwork is awful and the grades are determined by a really stupid heuristic. of the 41 classes i took, only 5 were worthwhile — two arts classes, a math class, and two compiler development classes. if i hadn’t had an “in” that let me test out of the beginning CS classes, i would have dropped out my sophomore year for sure.

        i just remember sitting through a graduate level operating systems class with a professor who was only interested in chasing grants (which he was quite good at, fwiw). he acted like an authority but he understood neither the concepts nor the specific implementations he referenced. he liked to give practical asides, “this is how the linux kernel solves this problem, for example” – wrong every single time. you can tell me lots of things about uni but saying putting up with this jerk made me a better engineer is a farce up for which i will not stand.

        on the other hand, it might still be a valuable experience to prepare you for *employment*, since the probability of working for a brain-damaged egotist at some point in your career is pretty high.

        1. Ok… I think bullshit is a little harsh, and in the areas I was talking about it is not a case of RTFM – you either follow the guidelines or you don’t get qualification/certification and you can’t release product.
          If you work in Medical, Aerospace, Nuclear, Automotive, Defence or high-end security you *will* be required to design and code using specific sub-sets of what would be available to someone hacking together a proof-of-concept design for a commercial product.
          Take a look at the MISRA-C guidelines for automotive, these are probs the most permissive set of coding standards out of those areas I’ve just outlined. Many of the areas use MISRA-C as a base and then add even more restrictions on top. Then, on top of that there will be a set of project specific restrictions as a result of compiler analysis or IC vulnerabilities or “features”.

          1. I think Greg summed it up pretty well. It’s not about the RTFM part. I believe that’s what almost everyone writing comments here does. My original comment was not about that, especially since I usually learn the most from reading manuals.
            Instead, and as Greg highlighted, it is about the fact there was no manual to read, but rather some arbitrary UNDOCUMENTED list of functions the teacher released function by function during class. So if you missed one class, you might miss one function you were allowed to use. And checking in with other students usually also wouldn’t help because oftentimes functions on and not on that list would both seem new to them.
            In conclusion: you can’t RTFM if there is no FM.

    1. This. Very much this. I have no interest in hiring people who have no interest. Coding can be learned, process can be learned, enthusiasm can’t. On the flip side, someone who won’t do things our way is also a hazard. By all means, evangelise and try to convert us, but be an adult about it.

    2. +1
      The two best jobs I have interviewed for (one of which I got because of a hobby) were most interested in something that was in my project/hobbies section of my CV/coverletter. As my CV has grown, I almost removed this part, but keep it because of this. I am a degree’d engineer, but I still think those sections help to differentiate me from other paper-holding compatriots.

    3. I do this as well in regards to asking about extra projects. Often if I have to compare candidates then the one doing projects on their own will get the job. This is even true in the instance where one candidate has okay grades but does side projects vs the candidate that got a 4.0 GPA and went to an ivy league school but did no outside projects.

    4. There are a few posts like this on this page. I’ve been searching for a new job (in the Pacific Northwest) for a couple months now, and not one interview (if I even get one) has asked about extra/personal projects. I’d love to know where interviewers like you are hiding, since they’re not at Amazon, Intel, Garmin, Novinium, DWFritz, etc…

      I understand that I have a huge shot against me having been fully self taught and without a degree. Other posts here say that a degree isn’t everything to them when hiring people, but it is to your HR department that’s filtering the applicants.

      So having been programming since 1981 and being a Controls Engineer since 1999 doesn’t matter to the HR department. The HR department isn’t interested in my hack/retrofit of a 2015 WRX electric steering rack and computer into a 2010 STI, the 45 MPH electric bicycle I built, or all the firmware reverse engineering work I do for fun in the evenings. They look for acronyms and education, and the only way to get past the HR guard is to know somebody already. Which is how I’ve been employed so far.

      1. You wont find them at the large corporate level. Their hiring practices are designed to be efficient and discriminate as possible. Smaller and more obscure companies, usually family owned and run, who can’t afford the high dollar engineer are the best bet. Odds are you will end up below the median salary on the pay scale. Long term security is another issue to consider because if you loose that job you are back to ground zero again unless you’ve made some connections. That has been my personal experience at least. Good luck

  3. The job many hackers seem to want is called Engineering of one discipline or another, and generally without a degree or PE certification those jobs will be out of reach.

    1. I disagree.

      I’m an engineering school dropout; the calculus in EE was my downfall. Thing is, I was already doing electronics professionally, from interest, and from landing a summer job at 16 “apprenticing” at a radio/TV station. I’ve held a succession of satisfying and good-paying jobs in the last 40 years since that drop-out. Including a side-step into programming about 20 years ago.

      A real, professional engineer is expected to produce work to an explicitly defined standard, for reasons of safety and accountability. The thing is – much of electronics, system work and programming is not done to a defined standard; the deliverables are most often innovation and effectiveness in solving a problem. Hacking by definition is colouring outside the lines; with solutions that sometimes break with convention.

      I was a hacker before it was called hacking. And I’ve been fortunate to find employers and clients who feel that a track record of successes is more important than a formal degree or certification. And I’ve lost opportunities for not having the formal qualifications, too. So the best possible ammunition is to have the formal qualifications AND to show the initiative and curiosity of a hacker.

        1. The thing is in practice a degree is not always an accurate indication of ability and I think the present mind set of degree being more important than proven ability is one reason why the US is no longer able to compete on the global market.
          Worse yet the US tritiary educational system has become a scam operation that leaves people saddled with debt.

          1. A degree shows you can stick to something though, even if it isn’t a necessarily good indication if that learning was any good. I’ve interviews dozens of advanced degree engineers that couldn’t find a creative idea if it was sitting in front of them. Ask them what was on book XYZ page 102, that tells how you do whatever. When asked, what do you do when you have a new problem to solve, if the answer is I look it up, they are pretty much done with the interview. The thing is, so many in school now want to know is it on the test, because if it’s not, they won’t bother listening anymore. So, someone who can think outside the box, yet has book knowledge to understand why something happens, that’s the combination needed. Far too many know how to do task X, but don’t have the depth to know what or why they need to do it, it’s just part of the job. Others know what needs to be accomplished at an academic level, but can’t reduce it to practical implementations.

            Practically speaking, after looking at thousands of resumes, and interviewing hundreds, I’ve yet to have found someone without a degree that could get through the interview process. It’s part creativity, part depth of understanding. They excel at creativity, but tend to fail miserably on the depth. Not knowing why something works leads to poor decisions in my field, and most hackers can do some of the tasks, but don’t understand the why of it to be able to do the whole job.

        2. I agree it’s tougher today, and I don’t think I could start out as easily as I did 40 years ago… but there are still opportunities. One of the big traps i see is thinking you must have a degree (and the attendent debt). Here in Canada we also have community colleges which have shorter courses, most of which are direct routes to technical or trade certifications, or otherwise geared to making one employable. If you’re a hacker, try to find the shortest route to being employable, get employed, save some money and hone your craft. You can still go to university later, if you decide that’s the right path.

          If I could have a do-over, i would have taken trades in highschool and put less focus on university prep, and I would have gone to a community college instead of a university. For someone who is a genuine hacker today, this may still be the better route.

          1. I took pretty much the path you suggested. I went to a Vo-Tech school in Pa for electronics, and got my FCC 2d class commercial license in 11th grade (1979). Worked a co-op job that got me out of school at noon, then joined the USAF after graduation as a EW Systems tech. The main reason I picked the AF was their CCAF degree, as the AF seemed like the best branch to go to school part-time. I ended up with a Avionics Systems tech degree, a second AS in engineering and finally a BS from SIU that got me hired as a manufacturing engineer. Not only did I graduate debt free, I had $10k in the bank and a paid-off Dodge Omni (LOL). So, not only did I have a formal education, it was backed up by 10+ years hands-on experience.

            When I first left the AF in 1990, it was in the midst of the gulf war recession, so I took an engineering tech job, then had a stint with the Virginia State Police Communication Div., before landing a position with my present employer. Now I manage their R&D efforts.

  4. My employer hired numerous people for my department that all looked good on paper and the majority were terrible and didn’t last long. Fast forward a decade and manage that department. During interviews I’ll ask about hobbies or home projects they are proud of. If they say anything relating to hacking they go straight to the top of the pile regardless of pedigree. If candidate has the desire and capability to teach themselves a technical discipline loosely related to the position it usually takes SUBSTANTIALLY fewer resources and less training to reach an expected level of productivity. All in all it has been a very successful practice for all involved.

  5. Job hunting is quite troublesome when you are a “Jack of All Trades”. Many companies give the impression to seek individuals that are flexible and willing to learn new skills required for the business; however, when you participate in their interview process, you encounter that they only wanted someone who is actually specialized in one or two skills.

    Then, you have “challenges” used for the interview process which are “academic puzzles” and “academic algorithms” such as crossing dots, chain cutting, Fork-Fulkerson algorithm, etc. They are great to test a just-graduated student from Computer Science and Software Engineering because those are challenges encounter on regular basis in the academic environment. However, in the real-life scenario, you seldom encounter such challenges unless explicit needed.

    1. “however, when you participate in their interview process, you encounter that they only wanted someone who is actually specialized in one or two skills.”

      You didn’t want to work there anyway.

    2. Applying for and getting a particular position takes salesmanship. You have to get the best possible idea about what the job entails, you have to do your research about the company, and you have to slant your resume and approach to address their requirements as closely as possible.

      So if you find out that the employer wants focus on particular skills – and you have those skills – put them front and center. Don’t pad your resume with stuff that the employer doesn’t care about.

      Here’s a bonus tip for shooting to the top of the pile: call up with an intelligent question or two about the position and the company, even before you apply. If you end up having an intelligent conversation, they will remember you when your application hits their desk.

      1. Ken, I appreciate your feedback.

        I am aware that I need to play the game, do the marketing and sales of my persona, the paperwork, self-interview training, play to corporate politics right and do all the mambo-jumbo related with the hiring process. Please trust me when I say that I do.

        The main focus of my “whining” is that as time pass by, the whole process is becoming quite complex without having a reason to be. It becomes a full time job. Sometimes a parody.

    3. This, this, this. I freely admit I’m not as good at writing memorized algorithms on a whiteboard as a recent Stanford grad with a head full of Adderall. But this is Google’s interview model, and most companies copy it. So I’m pretty much stuck in jobs doing the same things I always do, because those are the only things I have proven ability in…

  6. Bring something you made to the interview!!!
    Can’t stress this enough.

    “Here is a board I designed, layout, soldered and wrote the firmware for…”

    And be ready to answer questions about it, like why you chose particular parts for the design, programming language, layout software, and the such.

    What is on the resume won’t matter, your experience does. ;)

    1. I’ve done that plenty of times and unfortunately some if not most of the interviewers didn’t really give a shit nor ask to even see the device/robot turn on.

      Granted I ran from those jobs but yeah. It really depends on the space you’re looking on getting into and who’s interviewing. If you don’t get anyone who’s technical they just sort of brush everything off and kind of be a dick about “wasting interview time by bringing such a silly thing in” *shakes head*

      If you find a place that does really like your side projects/whatcha do for fun then usually it’s a huge boon for you. Unfortunately you’ll have to go through a slew of projects/places who don’t really give a shit and expect checkbox style interview processes.

      If you know any places that don’t do that Ive got a small robot or two I’d like to show off :P haha

    2. +1 I have done this before and generally had good results. A couple of time it has gone bad though, the person asks how I give 100% to the company if I am working on complex things at home. It can also bring up Intellectual Property discussions that you don’t want to have.
      On the good side, it gives you a chance to cover some strengths that might not be clear in your resume. There is nothing like holding a completed piece of hardware in your hand to say I know how to design this hardware.

  7. Selling yourself as a “hacker” is pretty BS. It’s also got nefarious visuals for most managers. What you have to sell is your attitude and skill set. Paper credentials are useful, *if* they are useful to the prospective employer. Otherwise they are irrelevant. “Hacker” is not something people are looking for. Someone who can do something quickly and cheaply is a very desirable commodity. “I built a WiFI thermostat for my house last weekend using some bits I ordered off eBay.” is of interest to potential employers. If you can pull several such things out to show and discuss with the interviewer, that helps. Calling yourself a “hacker” doesn’t.

    If you really have the skills and don’t get hired because you lack a paper credential, rejoice! If you had gotten the job you would have found yourself working for a clueless PHB who made your life miserable with stupid demands. My formal computer science education is a single 1 hour WATFIV course. What matters is the 80 feet of books I’ve read and can discuss in detail until people’s eyes glaze over. And the mind numbing assortment of languages, operating systems and CPUs I’ve worked with.

    I’ve had to say on occasion, “I haven’t done that myself. I showed a team mate on the project how to do it, but it was not needed for what I was doing. I don’t write code to pad my resume. I write code to solve the client’s problem.” In my experience that commanded a lot of respect. An article in “Unix Today” described this as “the brand of me” class contractor. My last contract (6 years + 2 more after a merger) was the result of an old boss from 10 years earlier calling a mutual friend looking for a “Reg type”. That would have lasted longer, but I terminated the contract in 2007 to go look after Mom & Dad. I expected to sign another contract once I’d moved, but the crash in 2008 killed that. Mom & Dad are both gone now, so I’m about to start looking in earnest for work. I *like* my work. The paycheck is mostly just gravy.

    What matters is having fun. If you’re not having fun in your work you can’t possibly work hard enough to compete with someone who is.

  8. This article hits home. I am 5 years out of a PhD in microbiology / molecular biology and, after two temporary postdoc gigs, I’m about done with basic research. Totally missed my calling in engineering, but no way I’m going back to school. I’m geographically limited by spousal employment and biotech companies are few and far-between in my area, so making a transition to a technical career is proving difficult (or impossible). Can’t get a second glance for any technical / engineering jobs and finding it hard to fluff my resume with my hobby-level projects. Interested in reading other’s experiences…

    1. Maybe get in touch with me, perhaps we can work together later? I’m slowly spinning up some projects, see below for my comment. I’m SlowBro904 on Message me.

  9. Do this: “What Color is My Parachute” by Dick Bolles – available on Amazon for less than $20 and updated every year.

    Spend a week doing the work. If you don’t do the work, you’re wasting your time and money. Do the work.

    This was developed from an IEEE program when the SST program shut down in the early 1970s. There were hundreds of out of work electrical engineers whose skillset descriptions ran something like “I’m the best at designing supersonic wing actuator feedback wiring harnesses”. Not very salable to the rest of the world. So they had to dig deep to describe their actual skills rather than some vague job description.

    The program got them to stop looking at their shoes and work through their actual skillsets, find the types of jobs that would use those skillsets, find the places in the world that had those jobs, and then find the people who needed those skillsets (and are usually too busy to go find the help they need). It got them hired. But they had to do the work.

    Both I and my wife have run dozens if not hundreds of students through this process at this point and it works wonders …most of the time. We have students who have jumped completely sideways into careers they didn’t know existed, others that have found their true passion and are pursuing it in unusual settings and applications. On and on it goes.

    But you have to do the work.

  10. Great article, but I’m more interested in what the commenters will chime in with, specifically how they overcame this issue and attained that dream job I’m still searching for. I’m stuck in a region where Hacker is a 4-letter word and I dont dare bring it up in an interview for fear of ‘that look’ coming over their face. I tried the academic route before as well, but entrance exams that cannot properly assess computer skills and ‘teachers’ thats believe no one could acquire the skills they teach without a class, I got stuck in 101s and “talk to the teacher about skipping the class”. I didnt finish a year there, either time I enrolled. Now, 5 years later, I’ve a laundry list of worthless jobs (the real 4-letter word here) and seemingly stuck outside my chosen career path with an equally worthless resume.

    That depressing nonsense aside, I am looking forward to the next interview I get. I’ve had several people/sources tell me that when your resume doesnt showcase who you really are, to bring in props that will. Anything to prove that I’m not the impostor I may look like on paper. Be that pictures of my home hacking lab or the Android stereo I installed in my car, maybe even 1 of the hundreds of useless robots I’ve built (bristlebots I’m looking at you!)

    Again, great article, and I’m sorry to say, but its encouraging to hear I’m not the only one having these issues/problems! Best of luck to the author and any other kindred spirit stuck in this horrible situtation.

    1. Don Lancaster wrote a book “The Incredible Secret Money Machine” about how to turn you hobby or passion into a business. It was updated in 1995, so it is “dated”, but I also believe it is available off his website (also has a bunch of old Hardware Hacker articles for download).

  11. Selling myself as a hacker: I’m always hesitant to browse this site at the office, or tell friends about it, because of the negative and incorrectly-placed connotations of the word, “hacker.” Even if 90% of this site has nothing to do with illegally breaking into systems and the other 10%, usually how to prevent said break-ins.

    But the article asked about what I’m doing about it?

    I’m actually not a hacker or tinkerer. I’ve always been entrepreneurial in spirit and have lately begun to use hacking/tinkering to meet that end. I’m working on my first product with many more planned.

    Because I am more entrepreneurial than tinkerer, building a cool prototype in the garage doesn’t appeal to me as much as selling 1,000 of them. Which means I want to learn how to sell and hire and fire people. I will learn the skills needed to make entrepreneurship work.

    This is a great site for entrepreneurs who just happen to be technical as well. I have been browsing past articles and gathering lots of the open source prototypes that were built but never went to the next step of sales. They never went to that magic next step because that’s not fun for the tinkerer.

    I plan to produce a few of the ideas and since they’re open source I would contribute improvements back to the project. I’d also like to if the idea sells well, grant the idea originator a bonus as a thank you.

    So, you keep producing the cool ideas, which is the fun part for you. I’ll take your cool idea and do the hard work of sales, which is the fun part for me, and if your idea is a hit, you’ll get contributions to your idea, plus a bonus.

    That’s win-win. I like win-win.

    1. first paragraph: +1
      Be REALLY careful with the word “hacker”, especially in front of some recruiter who doesn’t know anything about technical stuff… “Hackers” are the bad guys breaking into systems and messing up the world and they all should go to jail for they entire life – at least that’s what A LOT of people think and what the big medias keep saying. :-(

  12. I find myself in the same position right now. I have no formal university degree, only a 3-year electronics technician level, so most Engineering jobs (which is what I love) are out of reach for me. As a hacker the history is different: I have several contributions on hackadayIO, instructables, an Youtube channel and a 6,000 visitors/month DIY/electronics blog. But of course that doesn’t count.

    1. Take a folder of your work with you, (it should look decently professional, like you put enough effort in that you want the job – no spelling errors, use the same font throughout, etc.) and leave it with one of the managers you interviewed with (not the HR people). If you can explain the “why” behind your design / coding choices, you will stand out and they will think of you everytime they see the folder on their desk.

      If the interviewer(s) question whether it’s really you behind the website/blog, ask them how they had their coffee this morning (or something specific to them, yet still professional) and tell them to contact you through your blog (through a comment, or email) and ask how they like their coffee. They’ll like your ingenuity in how you can prove who you are and you know that they had to spend at least a little time looking at your project(s) online.

      Even better, find the head hunter in your area who hires for top management, he’s the headhunter you want, even if you want an engineering job, this headhunter is the guy to know since he talks to a lot of the CEOs in your area. When the CEO or president tells HR to call you and setup a time for you to meet with the VP of engineering, they will and they will make scheduling your interview a priority.

      I met with the VP of Engineering because this headhunter mentioned me to the President of the company and they bent over backward to make it happen (interviewed with 5 people in one day and I had an offer at the end of the interview), and my job is not an entry level, but it’s not management either.

  13. *Hipster/Hacker*.

    If you are a bullshit artist, eventually it will catch up with you. Be honest and open when you present your background and skills.

    One “hacker” was bragging that he was a “self taught electrical engineer”. Sorry, that’s not the same thing. (And what college he had, wasn’t even in a technical field.)

    Another guy claimed he “designed a microprocessor”. That would be impressive.
    (Turns out he designed a BOARD with a microprocessor on it. But he really didn’t DESIGN the board, he just laid it out, from a schematic he found on the internet. Oh, and he didn’t understand bypass capacitors, so it wasn’t a very good board.)

    Another said he “wrote a database program”. Yep, you guessed it, he created a database in Microsoft Access.

    Some of this borders on Dunning–Kruger.

      1. depends… if they’re non technical they may think ‘ oh ho-humm he did some nerdy thing’ and not hire him either
        even worse if you actually did those things and didn’t land the job

    1. I would argue that the entirety of it hinges on Dunning Kruger. He simply doesn’t know what he doesn’t know due to inexperience. Once he works with some other more experienced folks, he’ll probably figure it out quickly — he just hasn’t yet had the opportunity to measure himself except with a ruler with only one tick on it. Sounds young.

    2. This sort of story bums me out all day long. In my social life I have long since learned to avoid mentioning technology so as not to attract these guys or compete with them. But I often see people bragging about having my skill set, and they are usually lying. So I know, if I say I have these skills, I will come across also as a liar. And if I don’t, I will be over-looked or pigeon-holed.

  14. I thought the route was breaking into some computers as a teenager, maybe using scripts, and then getting arrested, maybe doing some time.

    Then years later you emerge, maybe with a book on the topic of “computer security” and either with a job in the field, or running your own security company.

    That’s happened more than once.


    1. Just like the route to get into the NBA is to grow up poor but tall, get a lucky scholarship to a good basketball prep school, train ridiculously hard, and become (literally) Michael Jordan. It has also happened, but it’s not a high probability path.

      1. I was being sarcastic. In 1999 there was a local kid doing bad, “Mafia Boy”. Hit some big sites. When the ISP I was using was attacked, causing a lot of fallout, there was some speculation that he was responsible. He was caught, served some time, but as a juvenile, it wasn’t much time. Then in 2008 he re-emerged into public view, a book and running some sort of security company.

        He was using scripts, and generally it seems unfair that someone like that gets attention later. It wasn’t like someone incidentally breaking into computers to explore, his interest was causing trouble. Why should he benefit from that?

        I suspect any real skill he has came later, so the deed only caused trouble, and gave him some fame.


  15. Do not use the term hacker, because it is considered by many to be a loaded term. People are pre-disposed to have a negative impression if they are not already connected to the community. Companies do like terms like inventor, or hobbyist programmer, or electronics enthusiast, especially if you have projects that demonstrate high-intensity interests.

    Ex: I do not have a background in electronics that was learned in a school, or a computer programming background learned in school. In the pursuit of my hobbies I have developed experience with
    a) Bluetooth LE Programming (specifically the NRF51)
    b) QT API programming (especially for specialized 2D printing applications with CAD level precision requirements)
    c) Selection of products, parts, equipment, and suppliers
    d) Arduino interfacing
    e) Business plan development.

    The big problem that a lot of the people in the hacker community have though, is that they can articulate a wondrous array of technical skills relating to hardware/software… but they might not be able to articulate other skills in demand such as
    a) business plan writing (You built it, now what? Did you need to build it?).
    b) Writing up a business case (We need to buy this equipment right now… WHY?)
    c) Project management (wow that one is BIG. Because nobody like spending money they didn’t have to or time they needed for something else on something that did not go anywhere)
    d) Technical writing (can you communicate the more technical aspects of an idea to the less technical?)
    e) Root cause analysis (can you determine why something is going wrong so we can fix it?)

    If more hackers start building these skills they would get ahead a lot faster.

    1. That’s why I LOOOVE the term maker.

      Maker Maker mover and shaker
      Tinkerer inventor, paradigm-breaker
      Hands on builds
      Built from scratch
      Maker maker what a catch

  16. If you want to be an “employable hacker” choose your friends wisely, and watch what you say when using pseudonyms because anonymity is always only relative and the web never forgets anything.

  17. My father taught me electronics from the time I could walk. By the time I was 8, I was helping him repair audio equipment in his home shop. I held a couple of “regular” jobs, mostly for thrift stores, doing electronic repair, but for have been a self-employed technician for over 25 years. When I was a kid, I also taught myself computer programming. Hell, I even did my aunt’s college course homework for her when I was only 10. Back in the day, I was a whiz. I haven’t really kept up with it but I can still cobble something together in several languages if pressed. With electronics being disposable these days, I taught myself motorcycle and small engine repair about ten years ago and have been doing that – again self-employed – along with the occasional electronic repair since. This is all background on who I am just to say that, while I am damn good at what I do – and that is not just arrogance, there is not much I cannot take apart, repair and reassemble – I cannot explain to someone HOW I would go about doing it. Even better than that, I don’t have the pedigree paperwork to PROVE that I know what I’m doing. When I was younger, I was passed over for jobs because of this. Now, God forbid something happened and I had to go out into the “real world” and get a “real job”… I’d be screwed. Never mind the fact that I have made my living for the past 25+ years doing these tasks. Without a pedigree – aka college degree – I might as well be applying for a janitorial position.

    1. I also grew up being being desribed by others as “intuitive” do-it-yourselfer and self read or taught by hands on experience along with various mentor-ships.
      What I slowly realized, was that by learning things with out much verbal discussion, you tend to not develop the communication skill set needed to convey your thoughts to others.
      Definitely a hindrance to selling ones self. thus the common factor of
      “let me show you something I can do or did” that’s so strongly used in interviews.

      Thus I’m even having a bit of trouble getting this post to be succinct and convey my intended message. :^P

      1. Good point.

        Most people learn communication skills sooner or later; they’re necessary in just about all parts of life. You can also build up communication skills by socializing enough – both work-related and by joining groups that share your interests.

    2. It’s called having the “Knack”

      Now the are online resources like edX that do allow for people to obtain some credentials (maybe not an undergraduate degree as of yet, but at least proof that you have taken certain courses).

    3. Bullshit Eric.

      Experience talks, and you have 25 years of experience to show for it.

      If you had to go elsewhere to find employment you have
      a) 25 years of experience
      b) A client list 25 years deep that you can use to emphasize what you have done

      You will not be able to get a government job with your credentials. That is correct, but a lot of companies would not forgo a long list of experiences, especially if you have clients who can BACK YOU UP ON WHAT SERVICES YOU HAVE PROVIDED!!!

      If you want a REALLY good book on the subject of selling yourself and generating sales I suggest “Rocket Man, the resurrection, featuring Brilliant at the basics” by Robert Kjenner. That’s where I got the advice on “showing off your client list and getting your clients to refer business to you”.

      Also, it might only take a few night courses you get enough additional pedigree to open the doors to you for people who only look at pedigree. I know someone that was a self taught computer game developer that simply went back to school after making over a million on a startup with their computer skills just to reduce degree based hassles.

      University may not be your thing, but you are clearly technical, do a basic technical certification of some sort.

  18. This article hits home for me too. On paper I’m a molecular biologist but during my master study the theme of plant phenotyping came up and I really dug into image-analysis and programming, setting up my own imaging systems etc. My PhD is built upon imaging-heavy publications, but it’s “tainted” with the molecular biology papertrail, barring any chance to get even considered for any programming gig. Now I’m milling around in a Postdoc-position sorrounded by molecular biologists who scream when they see a formular and deem image-analysis dark magic. I yearn for a tech-position and for some competent peers in image-analysis, coding and robotics. I recently remembered that I have a github account and will fill it with some things I’m allowed to publish. I think that’s a start.

    1. What the hell are you talking about!!!

      List the following on your CV, and cite the following when you apply:
      a) Developed image recognition systems for identifying/categorizing plants (I know 3 startups in the vancouver area that are using this for automated greenhouse technologies)
      b) List the API used (ex: did you use OpenCV? Labview? list those API!! List other enabling glue technologies that you used as well (ex: Javascript, QT, C#, C++, Java.) Show that you can make systems that work.
      c) List the successes of your project (ex: correctly identified root rot contamination on these plants)
      d) List what other systems this technology can be applied to (can be applied to automatically identifying anomalous cell cultures in lab slides for an oncology department using 30$ worth of imaging equipment.)
      e) List an upper level of what the technology can handle and a lower level (if my tech can identify 900 different plants at different light levels with an error rate of 2%, then it can easily recognize handwritten phone numbers.)

      You can put your stuff up on Github, but the important thing is to emphasize the best skills, and show them to the best targets. Cold call. Show extra expertise if you can. Create a personal project brochure (something easy to read and metabolize for a non-technical person to use).

      . Also, Monster has an awesome rewrite your CV for you service that is totally worth it. I strongly recommend making use of it. It wound up tripling my response rate from employers by pruning out the “sprawl” in my CV (I have 2 degrees and a large number of self taught skills, projects, and aptitudes. My tendency towards excessive thoroughness This made my self written CV too bloated and unwieldly to easily read and killed me on the 3 minute read or it gets trashed test). Try the monster CV rewrite service (best 150$ I ever spent).

      The trick is to find your potential targets (markets, employers, technology companies,) and advertised to their interests and product lines. You have to lead the dog by the nose to get them sniffing at your butt.

  19. I have all of the same concerns as Dan Maloney. I have two tactics to cope.

    First, I’ve hung onto the same job for 15 years. I like my boss, and the terms are a good deal for both of us.

    Second, nothing lasts forever so my plan is to get my foot in the door by fixing public-facing bugs. There are two separate local developer teams who I have used their product and it is a buggy POS (maybe I don’t want to work there, but money is money), and I will fix their product and present it to them. That’ll take some tact to pull off but eventually that sort of thing makes an impression. Even google is amenable to that – I haven’t investigated but I’m sure if you submit a couple dozen quality patches to the open source chromium repository that get upstreamed into production chrome, you will get a call from a recruiter.

  20. Lots of hackers deride the need for any type of credentials. They are the failures.
    Lots of people with credentials don’t understand the value of the hacker mentality. They are passable technologists.
    Lots of people with credentials do understand the value of the hacker mentality, and nurture it. They are the winners.
    Lots of people with credentials do understand the value of the hacker mentality; and are positive, friendly, and have an overall great attitude. They are the real winners.

    If all you have to offer is the fact that you consider> yourself a ‘hacker’, with all the imaginary credibility that lends you, best keep it to yourself.

  21. My attempt to a solution for this is my new site I’ve known several people in this situation, including me, where we try to find “Maker” style jobs to do what we love. This is the idea behind a the site, to bring Makers and projects together to hopefully become actual paying jobs. I’m trying to get it going and would love some feedback on it. Full disclosure, currently it works, but it’s very beta and I’m looking to evolve it from user’s comments and ideas. It’s all free for now, so join if you want and let me know what you think would make it a better place to connect people looking for makers and makers looking for projects.

  22. Well, this article describes me to a T. I “failed” at life in the job sense. There were many factors that led to it, many of which I have overcome but feel like I am too far along in life to actually compete with someone younger who has actually had some sort of scholastic training or even some sort of mentor. I also really suck at selling myself, which is pretty much the name of the game. Having little to no social network and a heart bigger than my wallet means that I had better enjoy stacking boxes and feeding the cat. I beat alcohol, got my wife thru her PhD, and continue to help my folks with their medical issues but none of that can be put on a resume that an adult will read. At the end of the day, my problems are my own. At this point I am more secure with tinkering just being a hobby after getting burned by multiple startups in the 90s, and other employment was entry level tech fodder that is probably not even worth typing out lol. Then there were the usual ventures of contracted work which generated neither contacts nor a livable wage, just people trying to get me to do things at a severely reduced rate (why pay someone $70hr when this dipshit will come for 10?) Don’t be like me, kids.
    I found this to be helpful. I put out 144 applications/resume submitals with a total of 6 responses and two of those that led to interviews but no jobs. Those were the half I left my college education off the resume. Go figure. The tip about copypasta keywords is correct. If you have no social network, then this is how you will get noticed. Hope it helps someone else. I absolutely LOATHE cover letters and feel like they should be abolished. “I want to come to your business and do things for money so I can eat and come back and do more things tomorrow.” is really all they need to know. The rest I would categorize as self-aggrandizing brown nosing.
    Good luck everyone :)
    Good article, Dan :)

  23. So, my story is that I took my hobby skills and went professional by selling everything and moving to the developing world where my skills were more in demand. I’ve been here over 5 years and am pleased with how it turned out. The rough order of operations was:

    1. Save a little money. Always a good idea when trying something new.

    2. If your knowledge/experience doesn’t match up with your documentation, emigrate to the developing world. Always do this in the middle of a tax year (for the tax refund). If things go wrong, this can cover your plane ticket home at least.

    It’s the land of opportunity. Keep your head down during any regime changes. Don’t be naive and don’t offer or accept bribes.

    3. Network. All the important people know each other and are always on the search for worthwhile ventures. Identify small problems they’re facing and offer solutions. Don’t worry about the money, this is to demonstrate your competence and figure out if you can work with them later.

    4. Learn accounting, call a lawyer, and start a company so you have legal residency and financial instruments. This is less expensive than you think in many countries. Ideally do this near the start of a new political term (or 5 year plan) so you can take advantage of various incentives before they get recalled for being too generous.

    5. Judge which of your new friends would be good to work with and suggest doing so.

    6. Work really hard at your new, interesting job. Expect your income to be very modest for a long time. Growing a business is hard.

    If you lead a very low-risk lifestyle, integrate easily into other cultures, have a skillset and work ethic that is well-suited to rapidly growing economies, and no substance abuse problems it can be pretty awesome. Every day it feels like your work is important to yourself and to others, and you’ll probably drive a cool motorbike.

    You also might die horribly or end up destitute if you make poor choices. You’ll see both of these happen to other people. On bad days it feels like you’re the main character in a cyberpunk novel. If you think that’s a good thing, you should probably stay home!

  24. If you HACK, live in Munich AND are interested in a versatile job, tinkering with FPGA / ESP32 / CORTEX / CLOUD and so on, shoot me a mail:

    We are a small german startup, building new ultrasonic 3D sensors. If you are german speaking, this would be a huge plus. =D

  25. I worked in the video game industry as a programmer for over 20 years, and mostly my resume has been the titles I worked on. Before I got into the industry, I had shareware games I had put together, and once I was in, I could bring boxed, shrinkwrapped copies of games I had worked on, and was able to talk eloquently about what challenges I faced on those titles and how I solved them. Obviously, better known, more recent titles did better at getting me through HR to get the interview than the lesser known and older ones.
    When I was transitioning from localization back to original software development, there were preconceptions to overcome about what kind of work localization programming entailed that made me look less attractive to studios. So, to enlighten folks, I wrote an article that was published on a leading industry website:
    When I needed to prove to a company that I could do the Flash development that they required, but the work I had done was owned by a previous employer and not easily accessible, I sat down and wrote a Flash game in 2 hours and sent it to them to show I could do it. They were very impressed that I had actually put a complete game together in 2 hours!
    Ultimately, if your job titles don’t show the experience you want to show, you should have something tangible that you have made to show people your capabilities. Always make sure that you have something from your work that can be used for the “dog-and-pony-show”. I’ve gone into interviews with a duffel bag full of games that I shipped and was able to say “here’s my resume”!

  26. ive been a hardware hacker most of my life , i started early playing with robotics , welding , doing electronics , been into ham radio since i was 8 , thinkering with luxury vehicles, machinery , ships , small aircraft, and lately guns , soon or later people start to notice you , they offer you jobs.
    ive never asked for it , i just get offers all the time to repair or build custom stuff for the Govt , companies and even for the .Mil world. My honest advice is go to trade shows , talk and show what you can do.
    And Remember , resources are way more important than college , i spent 6 years of my life in college , just to figure out that they will not teach you how to design a pcb , or run a bizz , o even place a parts order. put that mcmaster carr catalog on the bedside table , learn how something is called every night.. soon you will be talking like an engineer ,read a lot , learning to learn is one of the best things you can do for you !

    Sell yourself , get yourself known for what you do !

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