Why Online Credentials Matters

The work you do, the community you belong to, and the audience you engage with

We’re now a year and a half into the pandemic that has disrupted life as we know it and accelerated our digital lives by a few decades.

Traditional thinking that doesn’t adapt to these changing times might be left behind. And one such concept is credentials

I wanted to explore how credentialing is going to be unbundled and put on the internet.

Credential is defined as:

a qualification, achievement, quality, or aspect of a person's background, especially when used to indicate their suitability for something.

Quite often when we can’t verify the impact of someone’s work, we fall back to qualifications — namely, the university a person went to. 

In a world of remote work, I think traditional credentials are fragile. This is why, I would recommend focussing on building your online credentials to improve your career prospects, especially relevant for people in the startup, tech, and creator economy space. But increasingly can be relevant to those in established industries.

Before we get into that, let’s understand the use case of credentials.

What is credentialing used for?

Put simply, it’s a heuristic — an easy way to make a decision about hiring or working together. It usually answer two questions:

  • Is this person good?

  • Can I trust this person?

Is this person good?

To answer this, we look at specifics like — what work have they done? Who have they worked with? What's been the real impact of the work? What do other people who know them say about them? Erik Torenberg has a piece on P2P credentialing that answers the last question, which you should read.

Working at a company can be a black box. A resume is a proclamation of your impact. And the interview attempts to verify them. Reference checks aim to add one more layer of verification, but usually people you've worked with have good things to say about you.

Can I trust this person?

Trust comes by maintaining a reputation over a period of time. I’ve written about the concept of Lines vs dots previously. Trust is evaluated by seeing what does the person have to lose if they break the trust. Are they long term players? 

Before we get into online credentials, let's discuss traditional forms of credentials:

Traditional credentials

Traditional credentials largely come from two things — the school you went to, and the company you work at.

Getting into a Harvard or Stanford usually means scoring well on standardized tests like SAT and GMAT, along with having a stellar all round profile. The discussion of elite universities also has to acknowledge privilege and how legacy admissions keep credentials in a family line. 

Similarly, in India to get into IITs and IIMs means acing extremely difficult tests like JEE and CAT.

Working at a brand name company like McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, or Microsoft meant having the right educational credentials, knowing the right people, and acing arduous interviews. 

With that said, let’s get to unbundling of traditional credentials into online credentials. 

Online credentialing

The work you do

While the company you work for and the position you hold still matter, there are other ways of showcasing your proof-of-work.

Designers have Behance portfolios to showcase their designs, whereas Developers can showcase their open-source contributions on Github. Likewise, Indie and No-code Makers can showcase their work on Indiehackers and Product Hunt, while Product Managers can showcase their thinking on Substack (ahem, like I'm doing here) and Medium.

I wrote about Polywork last week that aims to create a proof-of-work timeline.

Additionally, in a web3 world, work is increasingly becoming verifiable.

The communities/cohorts you're a part of

Here is where it gets interesting — I have met more people on the internet who know of On Deck than my business school, ISB. Credentials in one geography might not translate globally. That’s why internet first credentials are important. 

Erik Torenberg, in a separate piece on opportunities in education posits the future of credentialing. 

“I think there are other opportunities for credentials as well: what if being a part of a certain network or community afforded you a credential? What if we had ways of measuring competence outside what school you went to and what degree you received? We need Triplebyte for X (data science, design, cybersecurity, etc.)”

You look for strong online signals. For example, if you got into YC, you're deemed high quality. If you got into On Deck, it shows that you are willing to pay for an online education and you passed the selection criteria. More such examples are Write of Passage and Foster.

If you're associated with a known community, you become someone Ican trust, you're not just a rando on the internet.

It gives a shared sense of belonging from being a part of an online community, despite being miles away. 

MOOCs like Coursera or Udemy don’t work the same way. Completing a course on these platforms (unless it’s extremely technical) doesn’t give the same credentials as being part of a cohort. MOOCs also don’t tell how well you play with others, whether you have a give-first mindset, and so on.

Audience on Social media

The number of followers you have on social media platforms, like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Clubhouse matters to an extent. Although I wouldn’t just look at the follower count, because that can be bought and sometimes doesn’t tell the whole story. Engagement is what matters more.

Building an audience on social media is also a long term play. It takes time and effort to sustainably build an engaged audience. And once you do, you're less likely to abandon it. 

David Perell thinks his Twitter account is worth more than his college degree. That’s his credential. 

Final thoughts

I have personally sought to increase my credentials on the internet. And it reflects in the choices I've made. I went through On Deck’s No-code Fellowship and am part of Foster’s writing community. I write this newsletter and I am active on Twitter.

It has opened up my surface area of opportunity especially online and made my career less anti-fragile. 

📘 Read of the week: Thoughts of work invaded my life—until I learned how to unplug - Eric R Wengert (3 min)

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