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Competitions: A Valuable Addition to Your Career Toolkit

Posted by Kathleen Smith

Students and career professionals alike should view competitions from a career development perspective to not only get on the leader board, but to expand professional skills and career trajectory. Competitions provide an avenue to gain work experience, technical skills practice, and networking opportunities. We asked a Capture the Flag competitor and two recruiters how they view competitions as a tool for professional development and job search.

What happens in a competition? You’re working on a challenge or an obstacle with limited resources and you have to do it in a specific timeframe. Sounds pretty similar to every work experience I’ve ever had. Professional activities like competitions, volunteering, or speaking at conferences, provide an outlet outside of your everyday job to brush up on skills like communication—something that can greatly benefit your performance at work and in interviews.

Competitions also provide engaging networking opportunities. You may sit across the table from someone you’ve never met, but at the end of the day you’ve really enjoyed working with that person and meaningfully expanded your network and future job prospects.

Kathryn Seymour, Red Team Analyst at Bank of America, is active in her professional community as a volunteer, presenter, and mentor. We asked her how she got her job through a competition.

I started off in security as a triage manager. When I managed a large call for a security incident, I was able to connect with somebody who was in the information security field. They saw my passion and said, “You can work for me.” I told him I had no experience, but he said, “It doesn’t matter. You have a passion. I can teach you all the skills.” That set my whole expectation for working in security. I thought, if I can demonstrate how much I love this stuff, I will be given opportunities.

Our company offers an internal Capture the Flag (CTF) competition and I wanted to learn more about how attackers work, so that I could better understand how to find them. So I started to play in their CTF, and I didn’t know what I was doing. So I reached out to people I had never met before, the big scary red team, and I said, “Can you teach me some of this stuff? Can I learn from you?” After the competitions were over, I’d go over the flags with them and this accomplished two things. It helped me develop my skill set, but it also helped me build relationships with the people that I someday wanted to hopefully work with.

After 18 months from my first CTF, I was offered a position on the red team. Every time there was a CTF, my poor family would sacrifice me for an entire month, but it showed my manager my dedication and ability to learn. I was actually offered the job when I started beating the rest of the red team.

It was a great way for me to demonstrate my skill set and as my career went on, I found that I was able to gather information that I needed. When you play CTF, especially in a team competition, great things happen. You’re exposed to people who have different skill sets and you see how other people work through problems. You build relationships, gain a lot of skills, and you have a lot of fun doing it.

Kirsten Renner, Senior Director of Recruiting at Novetta and a community volunteer, is known for her contributions to the Def Con Car Hacking Village. We asked if she only values competitions if a candidate won.

I love that question because I would actually prefer to hear about what you failed at or what you lost at, because you learned a lot more that day. So if you ever competed, make sure that it’s on your resume. As a recruiter I’m going to have resume fatigue. I go through many resumes, but you’re showing me that you took the time to be part of a competition and you’re obviously a team player. I know right off the bat that this person knows how to collaborate. They know how to be a part of a team and to not try to do it all themselves, especially if they’ve done more than one.

There are two different types of workers. There’s the one that clocks in at clock in time and then clocks out, and that’s okay because that’s all you’re required to do. There is also another person who never really clocks out. There’s that person who text messages themself at 3 o’clock in the morning because they get amazing thoughts when they should be sleeping. If I saw that someone was in this competition and I never met them, I automatically know which one of those two workers they are.

Doug Munro, Director Talent Acquisition for MAG Aerospace, views competitions as a great way to source and filter candidates. We asked him how he regards competitions in recruiting.

It’s about the experience. Now it’s great if you’ve won every contest you’ve been a part of, but we have technical experts and I’m not one; I’m a recruiter. I tell my friends, if you take me to a dinner party, I’m the most technical person at the table, but put me in a room with practitioners and I’m just a kid at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving.

So maybe you came in 10th, but you did something really unique and interesting within your component piece. You’re showcasing your skills, like the ability to be a part of a team and in some cases, to lead. I’m interested in the details. Did someone drop out, as often happens? You start out with three or four people on a team and suddenly somebody has to leave and you have to take on an additional burden. How did you handle that? All of those things are vital.

We drill into it to find out specifically:

  • What was your role?
  • What did you learn?
  • What was the best part of it?
  • What was the worst part of it?
  • What do you think you could have done better?

All of that’s important to us because it’s a very collaborative industry. Being competitive and wanting to win is fantastic, but it’s most important that you want to continue learning. Those are the characteristics that lead to the most successful outcomes.

Keep these things in mind throughout your career search and any time you’re part of a competition, sit down afterwards and write down the challenge, your resources, what you failed at, and what you were really successful at. Use competitions as a way to build your experience and grow professionally.

And in your interviews, communicate that you are a community-involved person. It will benefit you to share that you are someone who enjoys going out, learning best practices, developing new skills, and giving back to the community. You might want to ask questions concerning competitions during an interview because if you start working for a company that’s going to see that as playtime and not work time, you’ve already identified a culture that you do not want to work within.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 3:36 pm

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