By Steve Blank, author of 'The Startup Owner's Manual' and 'The Four Steps to the Epiphany'
Getting asked by a recruiter about where I went to school made me remember the day I had to choose whether to lie on my resume.
When I got my first job in Silicon Valley, it was through serendipity on my part and desperation on the part of my first employer. I really didn't have much of a resume: four years in the Air Force building a SCRAM system for a nuclear reactor and a startup in Ann Arbor, Mich., but not much else. It was at my second startup in the Silicon Valley that my life and career took an interesting turn. A recruiter found me while I was working in product marketing and wanted to introduce me to a hot startup making something called a workstation.
"This is a technology-driven company, and your background sounds great. Why don't you send me a resume and I'll pass it on." A few days later, I got a call back from the recruiter. "Steve, you left off your education. Where did you go to school?"
"I never finished college," I said.
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. "Steve, the VP of sales and marketing previously ran their engineering department. He was a professor of computer science at Harvard, and his last job was running the Advanced Systems Division at Xerox PARC. Most of the sales force were previously design engineers. I can't present a candidate without a college degree. Why don't you make something up?"
I still remember that exact instant of the conversation. In that moment, I realized I had a choice. But I had no idea how profound, important and lasting it would be. It would have been really easy to lie, and the recruiter was telling me to do so. "No one checks education anyway," he said. This was long before the days of the Internet.
Making The Choice About My Resume
I told him I'd think about it. And I did for a long time. After a few days, I sent him my updated resume, and he passed it on to Convergent Technologies. Soon after, I was asked to interview with the company. I can barely recall the other people I met, but I'll never forget the interview with Ben Wegbreit, the vice president of sales and marketing.
Wegbreit held up my resume and said, "You know you're here interviewing because I've never seen a resume like this. You don't have any college listed and there's no education section. You put 'Mensa' here," he said, pointing to the section where education normally goes. "Why?" I looked back at him and said, "I thought Mensa might get your attention."
Wegbreit just stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. Then he abruptly said, "Tell me what you did in your previous companies." I thought this was going to be a storytelling interview like the others. But instead, the minute I said, "My first startup used CATV coax to implement a local-area network for process control systems." (Thirty-five years ago, pre-Ethernet and TCP/IP, that was pretty cutting-edge.) Wegbreit said, "Why don't you go to the whiteboard and draw the system diagram for me?"
Do what? Draw it? I dug deep and spent 30 minutes diagramming, trying to remember everything. With Wegbreit peppering me with questions, I could barely keep up. And there were a bunch of empty spaces where I couldn't remember some of the details.
When I was done explaining it I headed for the chair, but Wegbreit stopped me. "As long as you're at the whiteboard, why don't we go through the other two companies you were at." I couldn't believe it. I was already mentally exhausted, but we spent another half-hour with me drawing diagrams and Wegbreit asking questions.
Finally I sat down. Wegbreit looked at me for a long while, not saying a word. Then he stood up and opened the door, signaling me to leave. He shook my hand and said, "Thanks for coming in." What? That's it? Did I get the job or not?
That evening, I got a call from the recruiter. "Ben loved you.... Congratulations."
Three and a half years later, Convergent became a public company and I was a VP of marketing working for Wegbreit. He ended up as my mentor at Convergent -- and for the rest of my career -- my peer at Ardent and my partner and co-founder at Epiphany. I would never use Mensa on my resume again, and my education section would always be empty.
But every time I read about an executive who got caught in a resume scandal, I remember the moment I had to choose.
- You will be faced with ethical dilemmas your entire career.
- Taking the wrong path is most often the easiest choice.
- These choices will seem like trivial and inconsequential shortcuts -- at the time.
- Some of them will have lasting consequences.
- It's not the lie that will catch up with you, it's the cover-up.
Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur and author of "The Startup Owner's Manual" and "The Four Steps to the Epiphany." He lectures at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business and Columbia University, and is the author and architect of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps curriculum. He blogs about entrepreneurship at SteveBlank.com.
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