As a University of Melbourne alumnus, I was invited to be on a career panel on Open Day and share my experience as a software engineer with future students. Students attending such panel discussions may hope to replicate panelists’ career decisions. However, this approach hardly works. Here’s why.

The purpose of career panels is to showcase various career opportunities. Unfortunately, the showcase is usually not representative because of survivorship bias. The panellists are not randomly sampled from the alumni population, and no one is invited to the panel because they have had an unsuccessful career. Top-performing alumni are over represented, and under-performing alumni are often overlooked due to lack of visibility.

Apart from painting an overly optimistic picture, this representation could lead to non-replicable suggestions, too. If one asks a lottery winner for financial advice, with the best intentions, they may suggest lottery as a favorable investment, and may gladly use their own experience as proof. Whether one could replicate their success, however, is questionable at best. Replication of methods is achievable. Replication of luck is impossible.

Truth be told, I could not have achieved much without luck, thus I am not immune to the lottery winner symptom.

After being on several panel discussions, I have learned to base advice/suggestions on concrete data (and my interpretations) as much as possible. Though it does not hurt to supplement my own experience alongside, personal experience should not steal the show.

When I do describe personal experience, I do my best to include action context and thought process, as well as what I would do differently today, in the hope that the audience would learn from the decision-making process, if not from the decision itself.