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How I Became a Purple Squirrel August 29, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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From Wikipedia: “Purple squirrel is a term used by employment recruiters to describe an unlikely job candidate with precisely the right education, experience, and qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s multifaceted requirements. In theory, this prized ‘purple squirrel’ could immediately handle all the expansive variety of responsibilities of a job description with no training and would allow businesses to function with fewer workers.”

Apparently I’ve become a purple squirrel, but (so far) not the one recruiters are looking for. It wasn’t what I planned. Here’s how it happened.

Throughout my career I tried to avoid specialization. I was always a little paranoid about the future and whether my technical expertise in one domain would translate to a different industry, rendering my skills obsolete. When I joined Hewlett-Packard in 1988 I worked in a division that was an internal supplier of printed circuit boards, part of HP’s vertical integration strategy. It was a great place to start because all of the HP product divisions were our customers and I had the opportunity to learn and network within the company. As the company shifted to an outsourcing strategy, my experience helped me move into a procurement engineering roles where I helped identify and qualify new suppliers to keep up with the technology needs of our product design teams.

By the late 1990s most of HP’s suppliers were located in Asia. To reduce overhead, the company centralized and consolidated many of the procurement organizations that were supporting individual product divisions and shifted responsibilities to HP teams that were closer to the supply base. The time was right for me to make a change, and I was fortunate to have a manager who recommended me for a job leading a software quality team. I hadn’t written code since I was in graduate school, but I was told that wasn’t what the team needed. As an outsider I was able to bring a fresh perspective, keeping the team focused on business objectives without getting personally bogged down by looking over everyone’s shoulders.

I was thrilled by the daily challenge and learning curve, and I occupied myself with developing strategy, improving processes, re-allocating resources, and growing the team during a time of rapid business expansion. Software felt like a more stable place to make a career, and when we started outsourcing testing and development I was able to apply my skills in supplier management to help ensure a seamless delivery model.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my choice to focus on organizational effectiveness over technical expertise would seriously limit my mobility within the world of software. When the recession hit in late 2008, I discovered that I wasn’t a very attractive candidate for software management positions. I was quickly eliminated from the applicant pool, apparently because I didn’t have the hands-on development experience attached to every job description.

When I finally did land a job it was return to manufacturing, quality engineering, and supplier management, this time as a senior manager at a China-based contract manufacturer. I was once again working closely with our client’s design and customer satisfaction teams, engaged at all levels of the entire product development lifecycle. My ten-year detour in software helped to develop my skills in strategic planning and international management, and after almost two years in China I felt well-prepared to move into a engineering and product development leadership role at a large OEM back in the U.S.

Now I’m in-transition again, and I’m getting the feeling that my resume just confuses people. To some, my career to this point looks like a disjointed collection of diverse experiences. Recruiters and hiring managers want to know if I’m an animal, vegetable, or mineral. My generalized skills are apparently not enough to overcome a lack of experience and deep domain expertise in the industries that are currently growing and hiring. They’re trying to find a purple squirrel to fit their job description. I’m a purple squirrel working on being found.

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