Job hunting: What is your dutch wife?
[Editor's note: If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]
When I was in college, I worked in the computer center. When my boss wanted to hire a new computer operator, he asked a couple of us to go over resumes. That experience, which gave me some insight into the way hiring managers look at applications, resumes, and potential employees, turned out to be more useful in my career than just about anything I learned in actual college classes. It also gave me a story I tell anyone who's applying for a job: The story of the dutch wife.
What's in the books versus first-hand
I got a whole pile of resumes to read, and I had to squeeze reading them in between all the things I had to do for school. No resume got very much reading time.
In the years since then, I've read plenty of books on job hunting, that all made the point that your resume has to let someone quickly see that you have the qualifications for the job. There was nothing quite like having to go through a stack of 50 resumes between classes to make that point sink in.
One resume had been hand-written in pencil on yellow legal paper. The photocopy that I got was simply blank--I could tell that someone had photocopied lined writing paper, but I couldn't tell that the paper had any actual writing on it. Since I couldn't read it, I didn't consider it.
The actual job was to do the things they didn't trust students with, such as putting the blank check paper in the printer. It wasn't going to be exciting work, and there wasn't much opportunity for advancement. So, I went right past resumes from highly skilled people--they were obviously not going to be happy in the job. There was nothing like sitting there with the resume of an experienced software professional in my hand and imaging him changing the paper in the printer, to bring home what "overqualified" meant.
The dutch wife
But that's not the end of the story. Remember that resume hand-written on legal paper? While I only had a photocopy, my boss had the original, which was legible. The guy who wrote it was actually a reasonable candidate--he'd been doing similar work at a bank in Holland. He was moving back to town and looking for a job. He happened to mention that, while living in Holland, he had gotten married to a woman there.
For some reason my boss found the idea of the man having a dutch wife fascinating. He called the guy in for an interview, decided the guy was okay, and hired him. The guy was a reasonable choice--the bank he'd worked at used the same kind of computer, so he was as good a match as anybody we'd gotten a resume from. But that's not what got him hired--there were six or seven other people whose resumes were about as good. What got him hired was that he had a dutch wife.
I tell this story to people looking for jobs to make two points.
First, the job search process is utterly capricious. A hundred accidents can lose you a job: the copier wasn't working; a stack of resumes got mislaid or reviewed by an idiot; one of the other candidates had a dutch wife. There is nothing you can do about this, except use it as a way to keep your perspective on the whole thing. It's easy to take it personally when others around you seem to be having more success than you at job searching. Remembering how much of the process is pure happenstance can help a little.
Second, make sure that you have a dutch wife. Not necessarily a literal dutch wife, but something that's a little odd or interesting. Something that a hiring manager might latch on to because he's genuinely interested, or at least use as a mental handle that lets him remember you--oh, yeah, the guy with the dutch wife. You might lose a few jobs that way, if the odd or interesting thing about you pushes someone's buttons in a bad way. But you'll lose a lot more for no reason at all, and plenty of others by simply not standing out.
If you're highly qualified, experienced, and looking for a job in a hot field, then none of this makes a lot of difference. But if the position you're seeking is a bit of a stretch or you're a non-traditional candidate, or the field (or the economy) isn't growing, then it's very likely to come down to something like this. Blending in is only a winning strategy if they're going to hire everybody. Standing out by being the most qualified is best, but standing out for any reason at all can make the difference.
[Note: I didn't find out until years later that the term "dutch wife" is also used to refer to a sex doll. I don't think that's what so fascinated my old boss--I think he was just genuinely interested in the notion that this guy had met a woman in Holland and married her--but I'm not sure.]