Career Power-UpCareer Skills

Bring What You Know

By Paige Kassalen

You might be about to start a new job, or even your career, and the impostor syndrome has started to kick in. You might be getting nervous you won’t be able to live up to the expectations set in the interview, or that the skills you listed on your resume are a little too rusty to be used in a real-world setting.

If you are feeling this way, just remember that you are the only person with your unique combination of skills and experiences, and no one else can bring to the table what you have to offer.

Using the term “no one” sounds a bit strong, but it is accurate. Throughout our entire lives, we have all been exposed to different combinations of experiences. Because of this, even if you aren’t feeling as confident as you could feel going into a new job, you can build up that confidence by focusing on bringing what you know. To do this:

1. Identify your competitive advantage and then compete where you are competitive                               

We add the most value to our teams by aligning our role to our competitive advantage. The easiest way to identify our current competitive advantage is by asking ourselves, “What can I do better than anyone else on this team?”

For example, I had to use Python throughout my master’s program, but I have not used it frequently in a few years, and it is not a skill that I am actively working to strengthen.

If I’m working with a team of senior software engineers, even though I know a little bit of Python programming, I do not have to feel pressured to use those skills, because it is not the best way to add value to that team.

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It is a fine line to balance upon, because you do not want to shy away from things you do not know or limit your potential opportunities. When you are new to something and looking for ways to make an impact, focusing on your competitive advantage and competing where you are competitive will result in more success and less feelings of impostor syndrome.

2. Build foundations on what you do know, and crowdsource ideas for things you don’t know

Especially when we are new to a company or a role, it can be easy to look at the long list of things we don’t know. The important thing to remember is that anyone in that job would have a learning curve, too, and it is not a result of you being unprepared.

Once at a previous job, I had to take on some sales responsibilities because of organizational shifts. This was challenging because I never was in a sales role before, and did not really know where to start.

I needed to start somewhere, though, so I decided to list out all the things I did know. I knew some of the hurdles we were facing trying to sell the service and product; I knew how my previous companies procured technology; and I knew what value our product could bring to the industry.

I started drafting a plan and ran my ideas past people who had experience in sales or experience working with clients at my company. By focusing on what I knew and crowdsourcing ideas for the gaps of information I did not know, we ended up building a strategy together that allowed all the best ideas to rise to the top. I also ended up making my first two sales!

3. Forget the idea of being either right or wrong; instead, prepare background information to support your choices

Throughout our education, there were usually only two options: we were either right or we were wrong. Did we select the right answer on the multiple-choice test? Did we use the right formula to solve the math problem? Did we correctly write a program without any bugs?

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It can be hard to shake this idea of being either right or wrong once we enter our careers, but we must do it because often no one really knows definitively what is right and what is wrong. Instead, we should focus on making decisions with enough information to defend those choices.

One of my first assignments was to put together an analysis of the market size of tamperproof containers. I had no idea where to start, so I just kept googling to find a number. Eventually, I just gave my supervisor a few numbers and then waited to get feedback. The problem was that my supervisor did not know the answer, either, and without any context behind the information I shared, the numbers were not helpful.

By shaking the idea of being right or being wrong, we refocus our work to using the information we have available to us and stating our assumptions, rather than assuming someone else knows the answer.

We will always have those doubts in the back of our minds as we take on a new challenge, but remember to identify your competitive edge, build foundations on what you know, and move away from the idea of being either right or wrong. By shifting our focus towards bringing what we know, we can build up our confidence and start adding value from day one.

Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post. After Solar Impulse, Kassalen has helped Covestro and JPMorgan Chase develop and implement strategies to embrace a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now uses her problem-solving skills at an artificial intelligence startup, CrowdAI, where she leads the implementation of computer vision solutions for existing commercial customers.

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