Explaining Lambda School's Success: Career Legibility

August 26, 2019

There's been a trend to focus on skills over hiring someone because they attended a prestigious school or worked at a great company. I appreciate the meritocratic intention behind this: those who can succeed will succeed.

However, I don't know that we are actually heading this way. Personal legibility, and the authority behind it, is the strongest force for finding and qualifying the best jobs.

Memes Travel Farther Than Skills

I've learned first-hand that legibility is critical for career navigation and job interviews. In order to succeed in the Final Round Interview (where your profile is critiqued line by line and checked by each reference) you must get to the Final Round Interview.

The first step in the interview process is finding the job in the first place. These job opportunities often come from "loose ties" rather than your close friends. And in order to be top of mind for your loose ties, you must be legible. Ten seconds or less: what do you do? It must be distinct. It must be easy to remember. And of course, it must be something valuable (but how valuable isn't as important as you think).

Equally critical to legibility is having authority behind your claim. I went to school at Iowa State. I could have that be part of my "meme." However, Iowa State doesn't have authority in what I want to do, so it's the wrong meme to associate with. Another example: Elon Musk and Donald Trump. They are similar in legibility and similar in stature. But they have very different authority as a spreadable idea. (Who would you work for?)

This isn't novel, but it's crucial. If there is a way to talk about your skill set extremely quickly, it will be talked about. People will reach out more if you are branded as "the person who does XYZ." It's the best way to get the coolest jobs. Let me say that again: being legible is the best way to get the coolest jobs.

Reputational Risk, Not Career-Risk

When discussing brands, the career-risk argument is real, but overplayed. This idea has spread enough that bosses are willing to rely on managers' opinions of candidates, often supporting unfamiliar backgrounds. It's rare to see someone get fired for taking a chance on a less-credentialed candidate.

Reputational risk, however is real. And it's here that we circle back to legibility. If the previous graph says that interviewers spend more time thinking about me once I get into the interview process, doesn't that mean that personal legibility loses value after getting in the process? A savvy candidate might argue if they can be "illegible" but get in an interview, it doesn't matter. It shifts to a competition of skills, right?

We turn to psychology for why legibility still matters even when interview information is high. Take a look at these three examples to explain how even after the Final Round Interview, your legibility and authority still matter.

This is what most people miss about social capital and legibility. Scenario 1 you earn positive social capital from everyone. Scenario 2 you earn positive social capital from your in-group. Scenario 3 you get mixed results. This is why even at the final round of the interview process legibility and authority matter a lot - you aren't interviewing in a vacuum. Even after being hired legibility matters.

I know, and I know you know

This provides a framework for why Lambda School may actually have a leg up on other boot camps. Not because it's providing a better boot camp (although that may be true). Rather, their ISA financing structure and support from Paul Graham / Y Combinator have earned respect and admiration from enough people that it is now the strongest brand in educational boot camps.

It's not only that Lambda School seems like the best boot camp, it's that they seem like the best boot camp to everyone you know. Kevin Simler explains with Corona:

"Corona wasn't specifically designed for the beach, nor does 'beach-worthiness' emerge from any distinguishing features of Corona. You could swap in a Budweiser or Heineken and no "information" would be lost.

"Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser "says" something about you. But you aren't in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It's then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a "chill" person? Then bring Corona to a party.

"In this way, cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it's not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it — and know that they know that they know it... and so on.

When you hire a Lambda School grad, you aren't just hiring a fully-trained software developer. You are hiring the chance to increase your personal social capital within your in-group. It helps your reputation with the people you care about. You don't get the same social signaling with other coding boot camps (yet), because you don't know that other people know about the other boot camps.

Consequently, our graph changes form to recognize legibility over time:

Fighting The Unbranded Fight

So how should we design new platforms? Is there hope for a skills-first, non-credentialed, meritocratic hiring process? I'd like to believe so.

For early-stage training platforms, borrow legibility and authority until you become large enough to generate your own. This comes from universities or well-known individuals. Pathstream is an example on the university side. The university name functions as the legibility and the Pathstream training helps them get a job. Pioneer is an example of this too, but with individuals. Intellectual celebrities like Tyler Cowen and Marc Andreesen use their brand to elevate Pioneer until its graduates can carry their own.

Another path is by building a non-branded services layer. Mentor Collective and Portfolium give more reasons for interviewers to hire candidates from their school. It's not really important that a candidate used the Mentor Collective or Portfolium brand - instead, they remove friction from hiring candidates employers already want (candidates with similar experiences to them).

The final route is to create a truly next-level skills / training platform and trust that your candidates will rise on their own over time. This is harder and takes a long time. But possible.

There may be other routes, too. But I can be sure of one thing: candidates who are legible will have better opportunities than those who aren't.

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