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What If I'm a Slow Learner?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I'm a good worker with 29 years of IT in both the US Navy (now retired) and the commercial sector. I have solid experience and certifications in Computer Security, Red Hat Linux and VMware virtualization. I produce really good, polished work, having numerous times received compliments and kudos for the products I've produced (either written reports or tools/applications). I work hard and am modest, though passionate, about the work I get assigned/involved with. I'm not an attention-grabber, but work long and quietly.
My 'flaw' is that I tend to be 'slower' than many of my peers (stated as a personal observation consistent with my past 15'ish years of work). I'm not the fastest with learning new technology, nor applying it/them. I do 'get it', simply am not quick with the learning or application.
When I attend a week-long technical class/school, I usually need about 3-4 additional weeks of personalized study before I'm 'ready' for the exam (which I pass). It takes me time (again, longer than my peers) to figure something out and engineer a solution. My saving grace is that I do it well, provide a polished, well-thought-out solution---typically better than my peers with good documentation to boot. Time and again, their 'speed' and expediency results in sloppy code, missed checks for alternative/possible problems, etc... yet their style is flashy, noisy, garners public attention and tends to get the immediate rewards.
I am looking for a new job (although I am currently employed, so am in no hurry). I don't wish to 'advertise' I am slower---as I'm certain it will severely curtail the offers I get for an interview---though I don't wish to be dishonest, either.
It's true people want "fast learner." When we hire we want someone who can "hit the ground running." We want perfection from the word go. Any more cheesy hiring phrases out there? I'm sure there are.

The reality is, most people who say they are fast learners aren't. How do I know this? Because there isn't some "fast learner" certification test you can take. No, fast implies that you are actually faster than others. And no matter how quickly you may learn some new skill, it's all going to be on a bell curve anyway. Precisely 50 percent of people are going to be in the bottom half.

And how would we define fast anyway? Top 25%? Top 10%? So, yeah, no real clear definition and everyone is claiming to be a Lake Wobegon Kid. ("Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.")

But, I think you are right to be worried about it. People expect that their new hires will be as fabulous as they portray themselves and if it does take you a longer time than average to do a task, they need to know about it before you start, otherwise they will be frustrated and you'll be frustrated and it will be a bad fit overall.

However, you already know how to deal with it. You wrote:

My saving grace is that I do it well, provide a polished, well-thought-out solution---typically better than my peers with good documentation to boot. Time and again, their 'speed' and expediency results in sloppy code, missed checks for alternative/possible problems, etc... yet their style is flashy, noisy, garners public attention and tends to get the immediate rewards.
Now, you don't want to insult other programmers by saying how their solutions are "flashy and noisy" (I'm not sure what that means, but I presume other IT types do.) Remember you'll be interviewing with people who will probably be closer to that than you are. But what you do say is this:
  • I'm a one draft kind of a worker. It may take me longer to get the first round done than my peers, but because I work slowly and carefully, I rarely need second and third go-rounds. This saves time in the long run.
  • I believe in documentation. No one stays on the same project forever. I've found it saves time in the if I do the documentation as I go. That way anyone who needs to access my code can easily interpret what I was doing.
  • I'm a team player. I work towards what is best for the entire project. I don't worry about being the star that saves the day. I worry about making sure there isn't a need for the day to be saved.
  • I learn things thoroughly before acting. When I'm trained in a new area, I make sure I understand how things really work before jumping in. It usually takes me some time to process new material, but as you can see from my certifications, once I've studied it out, I understand it completely.
What I've done above is put things in a positive light. (Of course, if what I've written about you isn't true, don't say it, but that's the perception I got from your email.) You want to be in a job that is a good fit and these type of things will make sure that it is. Don't ever use the phrase "slow learner" because there are all sorts of negative connotations with that phrase.

It's not the type of stuff that you put in your resume (although some of it could be worked into your cover letter), but it is the type of stuff you'd talk about in an interview. Remember, an interview goes both ways--they are trying to see if you can do the job and you should be trying to see if it's a job you want to do.

One more thing to note: You have 29 years of experience. This means that you are (gasp!) not 22. Or even 42. There's a good possibility you'll be interviewing with people who are younger than you. Make sure your thoroughness doesn't come across as "I'm not like these young guys who just fly through code, but their code is crap!" I don't think you're that kind of a guy, but just be aware so you don't come across that way.

For further reading:

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

Photo by Audreyjm529, Flickr cc 2.0

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