*How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs*

That is the subtitle, the title proper is Pedigree, by Lauren A. Rivera.  This is a very good book on the microdynamics of inequality and the important role played by social networks, how you present yourself, and…pedigree.  Not all of it is a revelation, because by now many of these mechanisms are well-known.  Still, it is unfailingly intelligent, well-written, and it documents these matters better than any other book I know.  Here is one excerpt:

…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization.  HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees.  Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm.  First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.

More generally, it is often better to have a contact “within” an institution rather than at the very top.  Recommended, for all those who have an interest in such topics.

Via Chug, here is what happens when you plate junk food as if it were high-end food, a good link.

Comments

This is why I am in favor of class warfare. May the streets run red with the blood of Tiger-moms.

Isn't that backwards? The Tiger-mom mentality speaks more to someone desparate the to get the kid over the old-boys-club barrier by sheer force of meritorious effort. This is especially true if the tiger mom is Chinese. The old-boys (and girls) networks will still be predominatly white, and dominated by graduates of schools with applicadtion policies that descriminate against yellow people.

Yep. This is the yin and yang of undesirable social models.

Just anecdotal, but nearly every stereotype about "yellow people" I've heard has been positive. In particular, I've only heard positive stereotypes regarding intelligence, eagerness to learn, and work ethic - things that are valued in many workplaces, especially professional environments. Maybe the elites at the top don't want to let in outsiders, including "yellow people", but that same goes from anyone outside their tribe, including "whites" from non-elite backgrounds. In fact, the current elites would find it more advantageous to their individual and collective advantage to select "non-whites" and non-males for promotion to the upper ranks than selecting outsiders from the "white" outsider ranks.

I didn't read the book, but a job at a good firm is not an elite job. An elite job is a job as a corporate officer, board member, and so on. A junior employee would have a hard time making a recommendation since they want those same jobs for themselves and obviously haven't gotten them yet. If the book is for kind of OK jobs they should just say that. Also, if it is a real job getting an interview is a small part of the battle. I've conducted close to a dozen interviews over the last few weeks, and the end result of which is me complaining to management about candidate quality in ways that approach the pinnacle of sardonic language. That said, I also made fun of a resume forwarded by someone nominally slightly senior to me who lied on his resume in an obvious way, so maybe I am the exception.

No one is talking about recent college graduates getting jobs on the boards of large corporations based on personal connections because that would be a strawman. They're talking about "entry-level" jobs that pay well above the median salary, either right away or within a few years, and which often have a clear, if long, path to the top.

It's all about who ya know....

My take, as someone who regularly hires people, is it is always better to take a recommendation than just try to figure out from a resume and a short interview. The person giving the recommendation is putting their reputation on the line, so has an incentive to be honest in their recommendation.

Of course this approach does have the risk of creating an old boys (or girls) club. But that is really the business of the employer, does he or she want someone who will fit in to an existing successful team or do they want someone who will bring in new ideas. Its not always obvious which is better.

Of course, if you view a job as a rent seeking opportunity, that should be shared out on a fair basis (as seems to be the viewpoint of most of the fair employment activists) then this approach will be objected to. But jobs in the private sector are not rent seeking opportunities, or rather, if they are then the rent is coming from the owners of the business and it should be their decision who gets the rent only.

I can see people objecting to this on the basis of government subsidies to investment banks, in that the jobs in those organisations are basically getting a lot of rent. Sure in that case insist on random hiring for those jobs among anyone capable of passing an exam as part of the government subsidy. Personally I would rather get rid of the subsidy and creating an entitled bunch of people won't help with that.

But here is the tragedy. I expect you are right about favouring recomendations over objective qualifications. But that doesn't mean that old-boyism isn't a side effect.

The point is not to stamp down on this sort of thing with a heavy boot, but rather to recognise that it happens and let the knowledge inform your other policy preferences.

And when you get a recommendation, get it on the phone. People who write recommendations assume the candidate may someday see it, perhaps even in the course of pre-trial discovery.

So how should a person like me navigate this hiring situation? Take as given that I'm very bright (at least on standardized tests), decent at writing, and very strong with science, but bad with socialization (Asperger syndrome). I went to one of the strongest/most selective public universities, but did not socialize well while there.

What should I do to alter your judgment that my lack of a recommendation is a compelling mark against me? I can't just go out and make friends with normal people and my college days are long behind me. I don't bother trying to apply for jobs that require significant customer interaction. So how do I compete when I may well be better for a technical job, but I'm terrible at getting folks to like me?

From my perspective, this sort of recommendation bias is no different than discriminating against paraplegics. Their legs don't perform the expected function and we all say businesses shouldn't dock them in the hiring balance just because they might carry some additional risks (e.g. increased risk of worker's comp, higher chance of missing work to medical complications, etc.). But when it is your brain that doesn't perform the expected function, no one has trouble adopting a regime that effectively fines you for not being able to do all the functions that "normal" people can.

As the odd duck out, I do wonder about the incentive structure this creates. In the long term if most employers value recommendations so highly, won't you just end up with firms full of people good at getting recommendations with marginal decreases in other, competing competencies after each "generation"?

@BadAtNeworking -Well for best advice I would have to know what kind of jobs you are looking for. The strategy for an outsider to compete for an academic job is much different to that for a Wall Street bank, or for assistant manager role at the local department store.
Let’s take an “elite” job on Wall Street, networking (or let’s say good social skills) are a very important part of the role so you probably won’t be good at these kind of jobs (and probably won’t like them anyway). Being book smart nowadays is not enough, you have to be effective, which means getting things done, which means interacting with other people in a way that gets them aligned with your goals (both inside and outside the company). These skills are rare and difficult to assess just from a resume, which all it tells me usually is that you have read a resume preparation website (which actually in itself is a pretty good filter surprisingly).
But let’s take the premise that you are cognitively strong and you have reasonably good social skills, but have a network that is not plugged into the kind of work you would like to do. One way is to be tenacious and keep applying for junior jobs in the sector. It might take a couple of years, but I have seen this work. Often you will find yourself coming before the same people again and again but they will like your resilience and the fact that you obviously have a passion for this kind of work. If you are handling the rejections with grace they will start to consider giving you a chance.

Being book smart nowadays is not enough, you have to be effective, which means getting things done, which means interacting with other people in a way that gets them aligned with your goals (both inside and outside the company).

I have often wondered about this, as this is a mantra that is commonly bandied about in medium-to-large size companies. Is it just another way of saying: find other people to do the real work and let those poor schmucks do it while you schmooze your way into a promotion? Doesn't it ensure that the most extroverted person always gets the job, and subsequently rises up, regardless of whether they are competent at the core tasks the firm is doing (e.g., engineering, programming)? Should firms not take greater pains to identify the best workers (this is assuming "work" is non-trivial and creative, as in engineering, and not filling Excel sheets) and reward them regardless of their ability to socialize?

Kris - the skill to get some "other poor schmuk" do work for you is rare. A senior executive might have hundreds of people or even thousands working for her. She could not do the work of all these people himself so she needs to motivate and coordinate them to get them to do the work.

And don't mistake extrovertism for social skills. Someone who is obviously a grandstander without real substance quickly gets a reputation as such. In a well run company they don't succeed. In a not well run company, well why are working there?

From the blurb, it appears that this book engages in the usual dishonesty of conflating credentials and connections. Obviously, it's a whole lot easier to get a job at Morgan Stanley if you go to Columbia than if you go to Touro. But it's not because of the contacts you made at Columbia, it's because a Columbia is a better credential, and it's a credential that's available to anyone who had the high school grades and board scores to get in.

In the academic world, connections matter a lot more than they do in the business world. Just as academics project the exploitative treatment of adjuncts and grad students onto employment relationships in the business world, they project the corruption and inefficiency of the academic hiring process.

It seems having a recommendation from a junior employee or someone else "within" the institution is AS good as having a recommendation from someone at the top. Not better than it, though. At least from the quote given here.

"HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees"

If recommendations from even junior employees carry weight, isn't that supportive of meritocracy over (class-based) elitism? The proverbial first-in-their-family to go to an (academically) elite university can build a network that will serve him or her well even in the near future. Their success is less dependent on their parents knowing senior executives. Are we saying that peers' recommendations are inherently elitist? I suppose an alternative would be for firms to rely on objective testing and college grades, similar to college admissions. (That idea might actually have merit for entry-level positions at large firms, if a widely-accepted standardized test for college grads emerged.) However, I suspect that the equality-of-results crowd would object to that kind of system as well.

We know how every testing regime turns out...

Read through the first chapter. Very narrow, short-sighted view of the modern labor market and what constitutes "prestigious" jobs. Of the three industries it profiles -- management consulting, investment banking, and law -- only the first realistically provides a path into the 1% any more. Even then, management consulting is far from a sure thing, requires heavy hours and travel, and has lots of attrition.

Law is toast, and it basically drawing on professional students. Investment bankers are voting with their feet, in many cases to silicon valley, only to find that engineers run things and ask subtle screening questions like, "Your laptop is windows, right?" Additionally, the career ladder for GS analyst turned FB analyst pays well initially but hits a ceiling quickly and rarely feeds into the c-level.

Times are a'changin'.

"Investment bankers are voting with their feet, in many cases to silicon valley,"

Hedge funds, private equity and venture capital all draw nearly exclusively from people who spend their first few years out of school at a major investment bank.

Aside from high-profile junior hires and random diversity quota hires ,vc does not pull from analyst or mba classes anymore.

You could see this in 2007, when you saw the new wave of entrepreneurial engineers coming through -- think, Erin Speigel-types -- who have reasonable engineering-fluency and business saviness. The Social Network was a reflection of this trend.

That's the VC pipeline now -- kids who have honed in on Silicon Valley at an early age; take Facebook and Apple product roles upon graduation from engineering schools; then filter into top startups. Ivy econ majors are playing catch up by 3-4 years. Ivy econ and business school profs, 1-2 decades.

Cannot speak for private equity. Hedge funds seem like a race to the bottom and increasingly commoditized in modern economy.

I assume you mean *Evan* Spiegel and although he did graduate from Stanford he did not study engineering, he studied product design.

The problem is that resumes really don't mean crap. Something on the order of 90% of applicants to programming positions can't outline a very simple FizzBuzz program on the initial phone screen.

The Internet discussion on this topic has left me strongly skeptical about the 90% figure.

For my part, I have passed, failed, and conducted programming interviews, and have usually found resume to be a reasonable proxy for a candidate's capability. I should qualify this by saying that the companies I have been associated with are among the more reputed ones, which only select well-credentialed resumes for further screening.

I find that 90% extremely difficult to believe. If you can't pass a Fizzbuzz, then there's no way you have programmed before or passed a programming class. At that point, what type of qualifications would you have to even get to the interview stage?

*90% number. I need to proofread before submitting my reply.

One theory is that a very large proportion of enterprise developers work in highly structured environments with very specific stacks and customized tools. You might work for some specific division of GloboBank, using some bespoke DSL which isn't even close to being Turing-complete, and your job is pretty much to adjust parameters or glue large pre-existing components togethers. This endeavor is about as far removed from reasoning about a standalone self-contained program, as dentistry is from molecular biology.

Everyone who has interviewed since FizzBuzz has stories of candidate that look on paper like they should program, but can't.

Why is a mystery, but Doug's theory is good.

It is hard for me to recommend a friend who not really good for the job.

If you don't produce, no business will keep you for long. Pedigree is as good as the business it brings in.

This is a very good point. In my experience as a lawyer recommendations and referrals help candidates get past the first stage, either to an interview or even to a job however the candidates must already have good grades from a good law school (& undergraduate schoool) plus good presentation etc. Firms I have worked in will often pay a bonus if your recommended candidate stays beyond 24months. This bonus is similar to the fees the firm would otherwise pay a recruiter. Once in the door they are judged in the same way as everyone else, however we found that internal recommendations often performed better than candidates selected by professional recruiters. In one sense this isn't surprising since we are very careful in our initial selection process for first year associates and in making a recommendation our staff are also putting their own reputations on the line.

Lots of issues here, but I think the most obvious are the following:

1) Given that for each entry-level job opening a firm like the ones outlined in the book will receive several hundred resumes in a matter of a couple of weeks, all (or most) of which will have similar credentials and experiences...then a way of screening out the majority is needed. A personal reference from someone with a track-record in the firm seems reasonable...but it hardly seems the equivalent of "pedigree" or "old boys club".

I.e., this should apply in all settings, from "top jobs" to "bottom jobs". And if this applies to all settings, then in doesn't demonstrate "pedigree". It simply demonstrates the effects of social networks, which are universal.

2) There is probably quite a bit of confounding effects between institution graduated from and social networks. I.e., consulting and investment banking firms at the top only hire from top universities for a good reason: 90% of graduates from HBS will meet and exceed the requirements of a job, while only 10% of graduates from another top 20 B-school will meet those requirements. It's costly for firms to try and weed out the top 10% from other schools, when they can get a reliable and predictable performance from the 90% of HBS graduates. But of course, that also means that most HBS graduates will know someone in the firm as a result. So, the effects would need to be demonstrable between an HBS graduate without personal recommendations, and one with.

Something which, of course, is both unlikely and difficult to test.

Hang in there young folks. As I stand on the brink of retirement and look back, I can see how several generations turned out, and observe that everyone eventually finds their place in the world, and while for most people, their the job, profession, or employment that comes to define them is not as exalted as what they'd dreamed of as a youth, it is probably more or less right about where they belong, given their characters, native talents, and overall investment or lack of investment in career success. There may or may not be disappointments along the way, and you may not get your dream job, but where you end up in life isn't about what you "get", its about what you do with what you got. Some lives are train wrecks, but when you analyze those of the people you know, you'll invariably note that they took major pains to screw their lives up, and made hugely bad decisions counter to social convention, common sense, and moral norms. Everybody eventually gets onto the first rung of the ladder -- not too many people in their forties are still drifting. Inherited wealth is the big wild card in all this. But remove inherited wealth from your figuring, and you'll find that in the end, everyone gets just about what they deserve.

Have you ever heard of the phrase "just world fallacy"?

That plating example was awesome.

I've hired many people over the years. I used to hire for entry level positions in a firm everyone here would know instantly. So no, you don't get out of college and enter the 1% with these jobs but they are excellent jobs. I don't do that anymore but I manage people who do.

It used to be you might interview someone who's last job was cleaning out barges on the Mississippi river, and you might take a chance on that person because...what the hell! That never happens anymore...ever. Now we pay a service $5000 per job opening to advertise and screen our candidates for us.

The only exception is if you are recommended by an employee, any employee, you automatically get an interview and it doesn't matter what your resume looks like or what experience you have. That doesn't mean we hire you, but it gives you about an even chance, which is really good!

They are always coming down on us about diversity. We never had that problem before but evidently we do now. But that's a different story. One of the reasons why we have the issue is because a good chunk of our entry level hires are friends and relatives of current employees who are not a very diverse lot.

The alarming thing is that these were the elite companies that agreed to have their hiring procedures intensively studied - i.e., the ones that thought they had reasonably open and fair practices.

This does not surprise me at all, for several reasons.
-Very commonly, it is actually the junior employees who are themselves going through the resumes on the first pass. This makes business sense for several reasons: a) the time of the junior employees is much cheaper than senior employees, and grinding through a stack of resumes is incredibly tedious work. b) Having gone through the college recruiting process more recently, the junior employees have a much keener sense of when an applicant is BSing/blowing smoke on their resume than does anyone else.c) HR people are typically completely, utterly clueless as to the real requirements of the roles for which they are recruiting

-Especially with larger organizations, it is hard to emphasize the level of (small-c) conservatism in the hiring process. They are not fundamentally out to maximize the chance of big-time success but rather to minimize the chance of abject failure. The hiring process is mostly a giant exercise in CYA to ensure that a) the person they hire will not be a zero and more importantly b) if the hire does turn out to be a zero than everyone involved in hiring him/her can say "Not My Fault! I couldn't have known". I would analogize it to an organ transplant- the goal is to above all avoid transplant rejection. The biggest source of "transplant rejection" is usually not technical requirements but cultural fit. The real disasters are the people who get into personality conflicts that not only hurt their own work but others as well, who just don't pick up on all the unwritten rules about how things get done, or who just don't "get it". Getting any kind of internal recommendation, even from a casual acquaintance who knows the prospective hire mostly by reputation, massively reduces the probability of cultural-fit failure. The underlying reason for the level of conservatism is the cost of failure- except for unambiguous, red-line fireable offences, a fresh-out-of-school hire is essentially unfireable for 12-18 months, and is really only fireable as part of a standardized culling process (ultimately for legal CYA reasons). There's just no such thing as, "Let's try him/her out for a month and see how it goes." For a place like a top investment bank, the total employment and training cost of a fresh out-of-school analyst for 18 months is at least $300k and for a fresh-out-of-b-school associate is at least $500k. Companies don't "take a flyer" on someone at that cost level.

The message from this fantastic book is not to live a life of scrimping if it
doesn't make you happy. Whether you want free reading material or are willing to pay for the latest
release, you can get what you want to read, or even listen to, online.
Even if you don't have any classical guitar skills you could experiment with strumming the full or partial open chords.

Comments for this post are closed