Assessing and acquiring the credentials to accelerate careers

Being intentional about acquiring credentials that will help with future endeavors

Last week, I wrote about creating career artifacts, which can be used as a credential to open doors for new opportunities.

A career artifact is a durable resource that crystallizes insights and experience into domain expertise.  It positions you as an expert, can be used as a credential to open doors for new opportunities, and can serve as a foundation for building additional assets.

While artifacts are one way that we can create credentials which open up opportunities, they’re not the only way. I started thinking more about credentials and how they can open up opportunities.

Credentials qualify us in the eyes of others, as they immediately earn trust with an audience, potential employers, and other collaborators. Credentials can be given to us by institutions (e.g. Universities, employers), other people (e.g. influential individuals who endorse us), or created autonomously (e.g. building a large audience on twitter and becoming verified, creating a career artifact like writing a book). They’re durable and give us advantages in future endeavors throughout our careers. 

Someone with a Harvard MBA will have an advantage in getting a new job. Someone who was one of the first 100 employees at Stripe will have access to unique opportunities as a result. A founder whose startup was funded by Y Combinator or Andreessen Horowitz will be able to keep that credential beyond the lifetime of their startup and use that status to access new opportunities. A Thiel Fellow or someone who received public praise from Paul Graham will be able to use that credential to immediately attract and convince other investors to take bets on them.

Anyone building an entrepreneurial career needs to be self-aware of their credentials. Strong credentials make things easier, and a lack of credentials make things harder. Credentials also compound. Those with strong credentials are able to access opportunities that help them build more credentials. Conversely, those without strong credentials will have a more challenging road to acquiring credentials. In The inaccessibility of entrepreneurship and using side projects as a back door, I wrote about this unfortunate “rich get richer” dynamic in the world of entrepreneurship.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs can build credentials quickly compared to those on more traditional career paths. We can be creative in using our autonomy to acquire credentials in our careers without relying solely on institutions like universities and employers.

There are 9 types of credentials I’ve seen (there could be more). In future posts, I’ll dive deeper into these credential types. 

  • Education: Where you went to school and what you studied (e.g. Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, Harvard MBA)

  • Full-time job experience: The companies you worked for, the role you held, and the duration of your tenure (e.g. 5-year Amazonian, at Stripe from 100 people to 1000 people)

  • Fellowships and programs: part-time selective programs which provide education and community (e.g. Venture for America Fellow, Kauffman Fellow, First Round Capital Angel Fellowship)

  • Awards or certifications: Awards or certifications provided by trusted third parties (e.g. AWS Solution Architect Certification, Forbes 30 under 30, Techstars All-Star Mentor)

  • Company-founding: Founding a company that becomes recognized (e.g. founder of a First Round Capital-backed company).

  • Career Artifacts: a durable resource that crystallizes insights and experience into domain expertise, positioning you as an expert (e.g. writing a book, doing a TED Talk)

  • Side gigs: a side gig that’s selective and signals expertise and gives access (e.g. being a Lightspeed Scout, being a Venture Partner at a VC firm, being an advisor to startups). 

  • Endorsement from influentials: Having the endorsement of someone highly influential (e.g. Thiel Fellow, having someone influential who’s willing to make any introduction for you and endorse you via email).

  • Endorsement from platforms and audiences: having a large audience on a platform or receiving a status from the platform as someone with influence (e.g. having a large Github following, having 50K twitter followers, being verified on Twitter)

We don’t need all of these credentials. In order to assess our own credentials and figure out which credentials are worth pursuing, it’s helpful to have a framework for assessing the value of credentials. A credential’s value is a function of (1) its relevance towards our future endeavors and (2) its scarcity.

Relevance towards future endeavors

I went to Washington & Lee University, a small liberal arts school. For people pursuing a career in investment banking, it serves as a strong credential. Investment Bankers hold Washington & Lee in high regard, inline with its status as the #9 liberal arts school in the country. However, as someone pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, it no longer has value to me as a credential. UC Berkeley and Cornell University – which are similar in their rankings – would be much stronger credentials for someone pursuing an entrepreneurial career, as they are highly regarded universities in the world of startups.

Relevance goes beyond universities. While working at a FAANG like Amazon definitely serves as a useful credential, if you want to start a company in the future, being one of the first 50 employees at a company that goes on to be a unicorn is an even more valuable credential. It shows that you’ve gotten a rare view into what it looks like to build a wildly successful startup.

When thinking about the relevant value of credentials, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the gatekeepers we’ll encounter in our future endeavors. A credential’s relevance is based how much more desirable (or less risky) it makes us in the eyes of those gatekeepers. Also, a single credential doesn’t have to define us. We all have a collection of credentials that can and should compliment each other to tell a story that shows that we have what it takes for our future endeavors. At any point in our careers we may have strong credentials on one area, but may have credential gaps which can be posed as a risk in the eyes of future gatekeepers.

For example, before I joined Amazon, I had only worked at or founded startups that went on to fail. While I’d acquired credentials that qualified me as someone entrepreneurial (e.g. Venture for America Fellow, founder of a company that raised some money and lasted 3.5 years, author of a book on fundraising), I lacked credentials that could show I had strong experience as an operator. Joining Amazon filled that credential gap for me. 

Scarcity

Which is more valuable: being able to say you were one of the first 50 employees at Stripe, one of the first 200, or one of the first 500? The answer is pretty obvious, and shows us the importance of scarcity with credentials. 

The fewer people who can claim a credential, the more valuable it is. This is why Ivy League schools can charge so much, even if all of their classes were virtual in 2020.

When evaluating our own credentials, we need to assess how many people can claim those same credentials (and the growth rate of people who will be able to claim them in the future).

I was in the second class of the Venture for America Fellowship back in 2013. At that time, there were only 40 people in the first class, and 65 in my class. The scarcity of that credential has decreased over time, as there are now over 1,000 VFA fellows. However, the value has slightly increased, as VFA has become more well-known, increasing that credential’s relevance in the world of startups.

Being a founder backed by Y Combinator is one of the more valuable credentials in the startup world. But as YC continues to scale, the value of that credential will continue to decline.

This concept of scarcity is why credentials that we invent ourselves through our own creations (e.g. founding companies, creating artifacts) can be the most valuable. We’re the only ones that can claim them. They’re inherently incredibly scarce and we can control their relevance.

Acquiring credentials can feel like keeping up with the Joneses. I’ve seen friends join Forbes 30 under 30 lists, raise money from top tier investors, and join prestigious MBA programs. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of insecurity when you see people in your life succeeding and acquiring these credentials. 

But it’s important to be intentional and resist the urge of aimless credential-chasing. Focusing on (1) the credentials you need and why, and (2) taking a more creative approach about acquiring credentials in ways beyond education and full-time employment – gives us more autonomy in acquiring the credentials we’ll need to accelerate our careers.