Geek Job Guru: Behold, The Secret Art!


Ever watch a movie, play a game, read a book where someone whips out a “Secret Art?” The unknown spell, the forbidden magic, the forgotten technology? At that point you pretty much know Things Will Get Real (or the writer is about to yank something out of their hindquarters, but let’s stay positive here).

Secret Arts are a constant of fiction. There’s this idea that there are hidden powers, things forgotten or wisely locked away, ancient secrets more powerful due to their primordial connections, and so on. The idea of a Secret Art speaks to us, of something powerful and coherent – yet mysterious.  It can’t be common or easy, and that too is part of it’s power.

And in your career, there are plenty of Secret Arts you can use.

Behold My Unstoppable Technique!

I’ve seen the “Secret Art” come up over and over in my career – someone brings out a notable skill or an unexpected ability, and it changes the game.  Suddenly that ability gets people hired, gets them listened to, gets them attention.

For myself, in my interviews people are thrilled to find a manager who can actually do some coding (or didn’t forget everything) or a tech person who can actually write and speak publicly. I’ve interviewed people who had an interesting piece of experience or job history that gave them access to rare and useful information. In some cases, career-wise, I’d meet people who just had been around so long they “got” things . . . and considering I’ve been in IT nearly two decades I’m getting a lot of that over the years*.

These moments when you have unexpected knowledge or unusual knowledge are very career-affirming:

  • You know something few others may know, and thus are valuable.
  • This knowledge speaks to your history, endurance, and experiences and may show value and growth.
  • Your “Secret Arts” help people understand you on almost an intuitive level and they “get you” – and relate to you. People folks “get” get hired.
  • If you’re younger, knowing a “Secret Art,” something odd or unusual or historical or difficult, may help people see you differently and impress them in a way that makes them appreciate you more.
  • Something may not be useful on your career but speak to you – ironically my cooking seems to work as an icebreaker, a way to share things, and surprises people who aren’t used to seeing people who cook a lot**.

Also it’s cool when this happens. It’s the career equivalent when someone in an insane action anime like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure whips out some new martial arts technique and blows up a legion of vampires with cookies***. It’s a rush – and it makes an impression.

Which is great for your career.

And my guess is that you’ve got a few Secret Arts.

Secret Arts, an Inventory

So if you’re on the job search, developing your career, making plans, you should be aware of your “Secret Arts.” Try the following . . .

First, list all of your skills that you’re good at in the way that “can do them at a level that will assist people.” Sure you’re not a professional at computer graphics, but you can make great Powerpoint slides. Maybe you’re not a teacher but you’re good at giving instructions, etc.

Now look over this list of skills and ask which ones are fit one or more of these traits:

  • Unusual. They’re so weird not everyone may have them, but are also powerful. When you had to code a web page to some bizarrely tight standards that most people don’t care about, it’s important.
  • Rare. Which ones stand out – even if they’re not that useful. Sure, you may be one of the few people to ever care about a peculiar piece of European history, but tht rarity is still someting that leaves an impression (and in some unusual cases, you may be the go-to-person)
  • Historical. Which skills may be dated, but could still be useful – and are unlikely to be had. You may know Cobol, and that says something.
  • Significant. Does having the skill make a kind of statement that makes an impression about you and the work you do? My aforementioned cooking skill is one I use – it says something about me and my focus on improvement.

If you can find something that fits most or all of these traits, they may be potential “Secret Arts” to bring up in job searches, interviews, etc. They’ll be surprising, they’ll make you stand out, and in some cases you may e the only person who has them.

I find a chunk of “Secret Arts” are usually hobbyist skills for many people or are related, though for us it kinda blends in.

Using Your Secret Arts

Now that you’ve got an idea of what “secret arts” are, you want to use them. That takes a little thought, so here’s what I’d look into

  • Resume: Basically include any “Secret Art” if it’s career relevant or it supports career-relevant skills. Actually it should have been in there anyway.
  • Interview: If you’ve got a good “Secret Art,” consider slipping it into an interview to make you stand out and be memorable.
  • Demonstration: If your “Secret Art” produces something that can be seen, surfed, or read consider using it as a demonstration – if it ties into your skills and job search. you may want to be a programmer, but that online photo gallery you set up for your photography hobby is probably pretty sweet – and gets attention while showing some of your IT bona fides. If you can use a “Secret Art” in some test or skill demonstration, moreso the better.
  • Hobbies: I emphasized repeatedly hobbies do have a place in our job search because they speak to us and they make us memorable and human. If your “Secret Art” relates to your hobbies, bring it up if appropriate – or if brought up. People will remember you and remember you as a person not a resume.

Chances are you’ve done some of this unconsciously. Now, what can you do with it since you’re aware of it?

Use That Art!

So, look into your Secret Arts from your career and life. Use them to bring attention to yourself and help people understand you.

Then, perhaps, you might even see ways yo can improve them for your career or build a new one. Once you’re aware of how you stand out, have unusual skills, etc. it’ll give more than your potential employers ideas – it’ll give you ideas.

– Steven Savage


* Steve feels old now and then.  Ignore him.
** I get the suspicion that “40-something divorced guy working in Technology” is something people don’t associate with “loves to cook nutritious vegetarian food” even though frankly, it’s far more common than they realize.
*** If this actually happens in the manga or anime, don’t tell me.