An interview on which skills most boost your employability


We recommend reading the following interview by Peter Hurford (an 80,000 Hours coachee, and volunteer at CEA) with Satvik Beri. Peter performed the interview as part of research into his career decision. We post it here because Satvik has invested a lot of thought into how to maximise his earnings in order to do earning to give, and we think he adds some new considerations to the discussion.

Go here to read the interview.

We also recommend checking out some of Satvik’s other interviews and posts:

In order to probe these views more deeply, we asked a couple of further questions by email. Here are the full questions and responses:

You mention combining skills as a useful way to boost your expected income (e.g. being the best market researcher who can also program), based on your experience. Why do you think this opportunity exists? i.e. if this is a simple way to boost your income, why don’t more people do it and earn more?

Most people tend to get comfortable with one skill and have an easy time practicing that, but a hard time practicing skills outside their domain. For example, most programmers know that they could build better software by spending more time understanding their users, but find it much more enjoyable to spend more time programming. Furthermore, there are just many more combinations than individual skills-if there are 20 skills that matter, there are 190 ways you can combine two of those skills!

**Cal Newport thinks there are ‘winner takes all’ and ‘auction’ job markets. In auction markets, it’s best to accumulate a diverse portfolio of skills. In winner takes all, all that matters is proficiency in one skill. It would be a mistake to enter a winner takes all market by gaining a non-essential extra skill, because it’s slowing down mastery of the one key skill. So, do you think members of 80k should generally avoid winner takes all markets?

When talking about winner-takes-all markets it’s very important to distinguish market opportunities (such as being the best search engine) and skills (such as being the best comedian.) I think almost everyone should avoid winner takes all skill markets such as trying to be the best screenwriter. The expected value of these careers is very low, since most entrants fail. Unless you have strong non-monetary incentives, you’re a lot more likely to succeed in careers where it’s easy to branch out and multiple people can win. That said, it’s still worth trying winner-takes-all startups; the skills you develop while starting a startup are quite broadly applicable, trying and failing to build the best auction site will teach you a lot and help you career going forward.

I’m not sure this is true in general. If anything, because people are risk averse, markets in which most people fail but there’s a small chance of doing really well seem to offer high expected value. Technology start-ups seem to be a good example of a market with high expected value, but where most people fail.

Scientific research could be another, since it seems highly important in average, but most research doesn’t seem influential at all. And scientific research, unlike startups, also seems like a winner takes all market in terms of skills, since the main thing that matters is that you publish good papers. So maybe research is a counterexample?

Yes, startups aren’t a winner-takes-all skill market though: no startup wins purely by having the best programmers. In fact, most successful founders seem to be generalists, or to develop a fairly general skillset in the course of establishing/growing the company.

Scientific research does seem like a good counterexample, and does manage to filter people out to the extent that you likely have a pretty good idea of whether you’re going to be a phenomenal researcher before committing to a career in research.

Does entering a winner takes all market always increase your vulnerability to volatility (as in the Ben Kuhn interview)? It seems like it depends on the skill e.g. being an amazing salesperson seems like just as a good a bet as combining programming and market research.

Sales is interesting because high-end sales is actually a very diverse set of skills. You have to understand your target market at a macro level, understand organizational structures, get good at relating to people, get good at talking to people about the problems they face in their day-to-day work, and so on. And the sales people who excel at several of these skills tend to earn more than the ones who have only developed the skill of selling someone face-to-face. Sales is such a general skillset that top sales people frequently branch out into different career paths, e.g. see this article on Businessweek.

Furthermore, these individual skills are helpful even if you don’t work directly in sales-for example, getting people to talk about the problems they face in their day-to-day is extremely useful as a programmer.

What skills and sectors do you think are most promising for people leaving college now?

“Pick an industry where the founders of the industry – the founders of the important companies in the industry – are still alive and actively involved.” (Marc Andreesen.) Industries where the founders are no longer involved have a lot less change, meaning that no matter how talented you are, young talent will always get underpaid. It’s much better to work in a rapidly evolving industry like technology where you can rapidly rise if you’re skilled.

In terms of specific skills, I think someone who can understand markets (by getting people in an industry to talk about the problems they face) and has strong technical skills (programming, statistics, engineering) is basically invaluable right now. There are a huge number of important problems that can be solved by existing technology, but very few people have the skillset needed to identify both problems and solutions-if you can do both, then you’re several steps ahead of the curve.