As a technology professional, I’ve had my fair share of jobs over the years…most at different companies. Consequently, I’ve had a heck of a lot more interviews. I’ve noted some common themes, and groupings, throughout this time.

I’ve also hired a lot of people through the years. At least fifty–undoubtedly more. So, I’ve had some experience on the other side of the table as well. I’ve also seen common themes, and groupings, for this part of the equation.

This stuff is easy…

If anyone involved in the process believes it’s easy, I’d like to hear from them. Clearly, I’ve been doing something wrong for the better part of thirty years, as have the hundreds of people I’ve heard from regarding interviews.

Let me first say that interviewing is generally not easy, for anyone involved. The consequences of accepting a role at the “wrong” company are great. Conversely, hiring the wrong person can bring some pretty bad things as well. To this day, I’m not sure which is worse.

I like my job…I’ll never leave…

With the exception of one job during my professional life, I’ve always left an existing job. Okay, two jobs if I include the corn detasseling job I had when I was sixteen. For an individual, accepting a role at the wrong company can have dire consequences. And, no, I’m not being overly dramatic here. I can give a very tangible example of just how bad it can be. As with most of my writing, I’m going to base this on a personal experience.

I was working at a good company, which was part of a private equity portfolio. (Remember this one, I’m going somewhere with this!)  Financially, they were stable. l had a tremendous amount of autonomy, and was two levels below the CEO. I had a great working relationship with the majority of people I worked with, and the future looked pretty bright…or at least stable with growth opportunities. The company was always looking to improve the “bottom line,” but this was nothing new to me; almost every company at which I worked had the same goal. (The .com company I worked for was an exception…and went out of business shortly thereafter.)

The CEO of the company was a brilliant guy. Tough, pointed in his feedback, sometimes a bit moody, but overall a very nice guy. And, he was very effective in his role. If I was to be a CEO, he’d be the guy I’d like to emulate the most. My direct boss had been in her role a few months. I’d worked with her for the better part of a year before that, and we had a strong mutual respect. She trusted that I knew what I was doing (I did.), and was very hands-off. She supported me when I needed ground cover (this happens sometimes in operational roles), but was also open to tell me when I should look at things differently.

By all measures, it seemed like everything was going great. Then, one day, I was meeting with my boss to discuss the next year’s budget. She had just met with the CEO. His conclusion was that the company needed to improve its EBITDA (for those of you who don’t follow accounting/finance, they wanted to show stronger earnings), and to do so it was going to be necessary to reduce operational expenses. For anyone in an operational group (HR, Finance, IT, Administration, etc.), this is not something that brings a smile to our faces. Consequently, we were going to have to identify roles that would be cut. Yes, that meant planning to layoff people.

This conversation moved me from a good comfort level, to a level where I felt compelled to plan an exit strategy. To be clear, there was no mention of any direct impact to my role. However, it was very clear that I had to start the process of identifying people for an involuntary separation from the company. So, there were two things here that are important, and directly feed in to a prior article about managing one’s career. First, although I felt that my own role wasn’t going to be impacted in such a way I’d lose my job, I didn’t have any assurances that it wasn’t going to be impacted. Second, I didn’t want to be the guy that was remembered as the “hatchet man.” Third, I most certainly didn’t want the be the guy that put good, competent people on the street.

There are some things in a career that have opportunities for reversal, when a good argument is expressed. And, I’ve had a good history of doing just that. This was a situation, however, where there weren’t options. Not only was my boss given her marching orders, she’d made the commitment to do so. Going back to the CEO and saying, “Just kidding!” wasn’t an option. Even if that was an option, there would have been no way for the CEO go to back to the board of directors and revise his target for the next year’s EBITDA. Private equity companies have one goal…milk their investments for as much as they can, build them up, and sell them. (There are exceptions, but our company wasn’t among those exceptions.) And, the reality was that the work could still get done when some cuts. It is not what it seems…this was assuming no new projects, and a likely reduction in service levels. But the bottom line was that the company would survive post cuts. I’d already painted the dire picture of the service reductions, the lack of an ability to get important projects done, etc. But, this was a numbers game, and an operational group is seldom on the winning side of a numbers game.

Woo hoo! A light at the end of the tunnel!

So began my search for a new role. As I’d done in the past, I had my goals set for a new role. I wanted a shorter commute, a stable company, opportunities for growth, and a role that had less of an operational requirement, and more of a strategic requirement. Okay, great, I was set. As I am always in “anticipation” mode with respect to my career, I’d already had an updated resume, and was good about keeping my references updated.

A few months later, I was offered a role at a company. I’d met with several individuals at the company, and the interview process was, overall, a positive experience. (Well, there was the one time I waited 45 minutes–that didn’t make me very happy.) I’d be working with the CEO, who was also the individual with whom I’d validated alignment with my goals.

  • The new company was walking distance from my home. So, I absolutely had my shorter commute.
  • The company had been in business for fifty years. The CEO’s comments about stability: “We haven’t had any layoffs; we’re like a family. All of our projects are self-funded; we do not believe in debt, and we have no debt. We have a good amount of cash in the bank and investments. This met my requirement of stability.
  • It was the CEO’s desire to see me expand outside of a traditional technology role to other areas in the company, as he was trying to find someone to take over things he no longer had the capacity to manage and lead.
  • The role I was filling was a role that was going to help them grow their newest line of business, which was focused on providing online solutions for education. I would be leading the team responsible for taking the company to the next level; it was of a high strategic importance to the company.

About a year later, a very rough year later, here is where things stood:

  • The commute was awesome. I cannot say how great it was to go from a 70 mile roundtrip commute to one where I walked to/from work. (Which I did every day…and even found paths where I could walk further…hence my 27,000 average daily step count.) – Commute objective: A+
  • Well, it turns out the company did have layoffs. One that was about a month before I started. And five more since that time. Combined, about a 60% reduction in staff. The company’s liquidity was a complete disaster. The investments and the available cash had grown to zero, and the company was literally relying on a credit line, and in some cases, the company credit card. Stability objective: F
  • My boss got me involved in a few initiatives that were outside of the core area of IT. It was all unofficial, however, and there were times I felt like I was tethered to a wall with a bungee cord. As I’d run forward, I’d be slingshot back to the starting point. Growth objective: D
  • The growth strategy for the company (online solutions) turned out to be a challenge with no easy solution, given the circumstances. The product strategist was a member of the founding family, and the Chairman was this individual’s uncle. Despite several recommendations to find a more qualified person for the role, the status quo was maintained. Consequently, one of the two solutions was essentially abandoned, and the second did not have any hope of covering the ongoing costs that were sunk in to the product–let alone the historical R&D costs. Reducing operational requirement: C

So, it turns out there was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that particular light was affixed to a freight train. The point here isn’t to show how bad this particular work experience was. The point was that even careful planning, and asking the right questions during an interview process, do not guarantee that the next job is going to be better than the prior job. This is a very important consideration, and should not be taken lightly. It would be a mistake to conclude that there is no way the next job won’t be a step in the right direction.

So, are you going to get to interviewing?!

Yeah, yeah. I am. But first…

There are some prerequisites that you must consider before you even think about that first interview:

  • What do you want to do? Scrub dishes? Design nuclear reactors? Figure it out.
  • If you don’t like your current job, why? It’s cube city, and you want an office? It’s a bank, and you don’t trust yourself?
  • What is the minimum amount of salary you’d consider? You’re happy to be a pauper? You want to jet around with Bill Gates? Something in between?
  • How long of a commute is acceptable? You live in L.A., and driving to Fresno every day is fine? You’re only willing to walk a maximum of one block?
  • Are you willing to travel? If so, how often, and for how long? Going to India every five weeks is cool, and staying for two weeks at a time is fine? You’d rather be at home every night?
  • What is your ideal company “personality”? You like companies where everything must be “by the book,” and people generally keep to themselves? You prefer companies that reward “out of the box” thinking, and have very little structure?

Thinking about these things, and ultimately making the corresponding decisions, is not optional. You owe it to yourself, and any potential employer’s team members, to have answers to these questions. You optimize your time, their time, and ultimately are respectful of the reality that they have day jobs that include things other than interviewing candidates that probably wouldn’t accept a job, even if it was offered.

Okay, moving on. So, you got your foot in the door. Either through a friend or business contact, a recruiter, or your own method, you are lined up for an interview. That’s great news! There’s a basic path these things take, though the processes can vary greatly.

The first “interview” these days tends to be one where a candidate and the hiring company (or designated representative) talk to each other “virtually.” In the old days, we called these “phone interviews.” As technology has progressed, the interviews are sometimes using a form of consumer-grade video conferencing (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.). If this approach is the desired approach selected by the hiring company, be prepared!

If there is one thing I’ve learned during thirty years of working with technology, it is that things break at the worst possible moment. Therefore, your assignment–before the first “call”–is to ensure that whatever conferencing choice you and the hiring company have selected has a high probability of success when the call time comes. If you’re going to use your home as the “stage” for your video call (or regular call), consider the following:

  • If your call is video-based, is the software necessary for the call installed on the computer you’re using? (Or mobile phone, if that is your choice.) If not, install it. Now.
  • If you’re using software, have you used it recently…like in the past few days? If not, test it with a friend. Software companies send updates/fixes out pretty regularly. Sometimes, these bring unintended consequences…like one version not working with another. You should be in front of this. If the hiring company’s representative is interviewing others (which is almost always the case), they probably get daily use of theirs–so they’re ready.
  • If you’re using software, or a home phone service that relies on an Internet connection, do you have a history of poor Internet connections? You’d better come up with a “plan B” if that is the case…even if it means setting the expectation appropriately with the recruiter. (So you both can devise a “plan B.”)
  • If it’s a video call, make sure you have a very clear understanding of what is the viewable field of your device’s camera. People don’t really have a desire to talk to you, and observe your dirty underwear in the background. “Stage” the call in a professional looking environment.
  • If you’re using a cell phone for the call, make sure you’re in an area where you know that the cell phone will work well. If you have a lousy signal, and your calls cut out (or drop!), pick a different location.
  • For either video or “old fashioned” calls, make sure you pick an environment where you can devote 100% of your attention to the call. Barking dogs, squawking birds, crying babies, etc. are not conducive to this goal. Likewise, standing on a busy street in Manhattan isn’t going to be helpful for your goal, either.
  • Have a “plan B” in place, even if you don’t think one will be necessary. Remember, this is a company’s first formal experience with you. They’re probably not going to walk away with a positive experience if any of these things were clearly not thought through.

I’m not even going to try to comment on what to say during the phone interview, but I do have some common sense advice that spans all interviews:

  • Be yourself. I’ve read articles, that coach people on how to act during an interview. Most of these are good, and provide good common sense advice (act professional, ask questions, avoid potentially sensitive subjects [like politics], etc.). Then there are the ones that suggest ways to hide inherent personality traits, since the hiring company might not like those traits.Someone is going to have to tell me why that makes sense. The worst possible thing one could do is to misrepresent her/himself. Let’s say that the “alter personality” ultimately lands the job. Is it really sustainable to keep that new personality throughout the time at the employer? Probably not. If, for example, someone told me that I should keep answers to one or two sentences, since that’s what this company seems to prefer, I’d laugh. If someone asks me a question, I take as many words as it takes me to explain something. (I’ll note, by the way that I acknowledge this as one of my flaws. Be nice, I know this article could probably be shorter!)The point here is that you should be who you are comfortable being, and who you will want to be going forward. You want to work for a company in which you’re comfortable, not one where you have to be someone you’re not.
  • Unless specifically asked, keep your opinions to yourself. Bluntly, most interviewers really don’t care about your opinion about something. (Again, if they do, they’ll ask.) I’ve had a number of people I’ve interviewed whom have felt compelled to educated me about one thing or another. “Well, I think that your building is a bit drab.” Okay. Fine. First, I didn’t ask you. Second, that has no relevance to the open database architect role I’m trying to fill. In situations like this, I generally thank the candidate for his/her insight, and then try to get back to the business at hand. But her/his chances of moving to the next step are pretty slim–unless they really knock the rest of the interview out of the park.
  • Elaborate on your answers if you feel it will help, but only if it will help. If, for example, you’re asked if you think it’s possible that working from home could work for a role, don’t just answer, “Yes.” Tell the interviewer “why” you believe it will work. Perhaps you’ve done so in the past. Perhaps you think that it will actually provide a better level of productivity. Tell the interviewer your thought process. “Yes, I think I’d be successful working from home in this role. I had an equivalent role in the past, and I worked from home two days a week. I was able to get more work done, and avoiding the commute actually helped me feel even more energized.
  • Research the company, thoroughly, before you get there. I can’t believe how many people don’t do this. As an interviewer, it’s annoying. People who appear to have done the bare minimum really don’t represent themselves well. Before the Internet was open to all, it was somewhat excusable to go in to an interview with little to no knowledge about a company. Now? Not at all. Frankly, it’s lazy not to take this critical step. You will be asked, during the interview, what you know about the company. This isn’t a test. It’s a way for the interviewer to try and focus the call, and not repeat things you already know. It also helps to prepare you to ask questions.
  • Budget your time, and keep things within that time. It’s an erroneous conclusion to assume it’s up to the interviewer to manage the call. It’s a joint call–and should be viewed in that way. If you see that time is getting short, at the point you start to answer (or ask) a question, let the interviewer know you’re cognizant of the time. It shows a level of attentiveness, and also sets a common ground by which you both can conduct the call going forward.
  • If you’re challenged on one of your answers, do not take it as an attack. This one used to get me, actually. I don’t know if it’s because I was in some tough environments where challenging answers was an attack, or if it’s just something I picked up through the years. Either way, it didn’t matter. Interviewers will challenge answers for a number of reasons–the majority of them being positive. They might not understand your answer. They might question why you think that your answer is correct, since it differs from the answer they were expecting. They might also want to see how you handle differing views. Regardless of the reason, assume the best, and provide they clarity they seek. If they still don’t agree, that’s okay. You might use it as an opportunity to gain their perspective. You might actually learn something new!
  • Show up on time. Seriously. This one is actually a pet peeve of mine. I’ve had people show up to interviews who have stated they couldn’t find the building. I’ve had others say that they ran into traffic. For the former, one has to ask the question of whether or not the individual thought the interview was important enough to drive to the location the day before. (Presuming it’s not a 50 mile drive.) For the latter, the sarcastic side of me wants to say, “Wow, really? You hit traffic in Los Angeles?! That’s really odd!” The fair side of me thinks that the candidate didn’t budget appropriately for time, and therefore was late. S/he essentially felt it was okay to make me wait. When I interview, I plan to get to my destination at least an hour before the scheduled time. If I get there an hour early, that’s okay. I’ll find a local Starbucks and wind myself up even more. 🙂 Or, I’ll just sit in my car and read…maybe take the time to use my smartphone to refresh my memory about the company, interviewer, etc.
  • Take every opportunity you can to quiz them as much as they quiz you. I’ll elaborate. You’re potentially going to quit your job to go to work for this company. It is up to you to make sure that they’re going to fit with that requirement I told you to decide above. (The company “personality.”) One of the worse things that can happen is that you take a job, and then find that you’re just not happy with the company’s way of doing business, or the way its employees behave.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open. Be observant. You’re not the only one under a microscope here, the hiring company’s representatives are as well. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t make sense, ask questions or find another way to validate what you think. But do not ignore warning signs. They might mean nothing, they might mean everything.
  • And, I cannot stress this enough, always remember that interviews are two-sided. They are potentially getting a great employee that is going to help them do great things. You are potentially going to work for a company that values its people. (Assuming that is a part of the company personality you seek.) If you keep the perspective that it’s a two-way street, you’ll take a lot of the stress and nervousness off your shoulders.

Don’t fret if you don’t get the job…

A recent interview I went on was, in short, a complete disaster. It was one of the two worst interviews during my thirty year span. Worst, I had a hunch that it would be even before I agreed to the interview. What happened? I’m glad you asked!

This particular company has a step (the last one, in fact) in their interview process that utilizes case studies. Fundamentally, I’m against case studies, as I feel there are more positive ways to get to the same level of comfort with a candidate’s capabilities. So, admittedly, I went in to the interview with a negative feeling. That wasn’t their fault, it was mine. What I should have done, to save their time and mine, was to have graciously told the recruiter that I have a steadfast rule that I will not participate in case studies.

For those of you that do not know what these are, they are essentially situations that are documented, and a candidate is asked to work through them and provide feedback in one form or another. Their effectiveness has been called into question many times. In fact, Google moved away from them a couple of years back. In this case, one case study was to show my analytical abilities. It was a case study asking me to build something, document why I built it that way, and then “defend” it to the panel. The second case study was to work through a business problem, document why I selected the path I did for the business problem, and then “defend” it to the panel.

Adding to the fun of this interview, I had a severe case of heartburn, which was brought on by some shots I’d been getting over the prior three weeks for a “runner’s rash.” (Adding insult to injury, the shots really did little more than make me feel sick all of the time, and give me hiccups.) So, the stage was set for this one.

There were a few things I hadn’t considered prior to this situation. First, I thought I’d heard the recruiter say that the case studies would “take about an hour.” in fact, the case studies were two hours each. I could feel my heart sink when the schedule was explained onsite. Second, I entered the case study session thinking that I would be given a period of time to read the case study, take notes for my own use, give general thought about them, and then answer questions. Instead, I was told that I was to write everything related to the case studies on white boards, in a logical and explainable way. Uh oh. I use white boards to help me correlate thoughts, not logically express them. Third, the interview was in a time zone that was two hours earlier than my home time zone. That meant travel the day before. My flight arrived at 10 PM. So, there really wasn’t any time for me to unwind (Or locate a place to get something for my stomach!)…it was go to bed, get up, go to the interview. I should have asked for an earlier flight departure…totally my fault.

I wish I could say that the interview went as I expected, even though I had already concluded it wasn’t going to go well. But, alas, it went far, far worse than I could have ever imagined.

For the first case study, my design and thoughts were spot on. But I didn’t feel I did a good job explaining them, and there were way too many questions to have had them meet the “logical and explainable” way requirement. Even worse, my command for basic math skills seemed to have taken a vacation. At one time in the interview, in fact, I tried to defend that something would get from point A to point B more quickly, since it was closer. (In fact, the hypothesis behind the question from the panel member described a scenario where the distances were equal.) I actually made the statement, “Obviously object B would get there more quickly, since it is closer.” I seriously wanted to crawl out of the door when I realized that the distances were equal. The second basic math mistake was when I was asked how long it would take to get from point A to point B. I provided the answer, and we all moved on. What I thought about later, however, was that I had erroneously not taken into consideration that the object was already at one of the destinations along the route, and therefore, that should have been subtracted from the time it would take.

I won’t get in to the second case study, as I personally felt it was flawed, and I had a really hard time moving past that. Essentially, one of the assertions was that an ERP conversion could be completed in nine months…for two really big companies. I don’t know who wrote that one, but that just isn’t going to happen. What was notable about the second case study, however, was that the panel shrunk from the originally claimed number of people that would be present. Essentially, it went from three, to one. And that one person was the individual to whom I’d ultimately report. Anyone who has gone through interviews sees this as a huge red flag. Generally, if things don’t go well in earlier parts of an interview, the “list of suspects” goes down as the interview progresses. I’ve never had this happen to me in the past, but I’ve seen it with other colleagues who have interviewed others. It’s really a way to free up the time of the people who would have otherwise participated in the interview.

This took me to the end of the day. The rest of the day, I dealt with my stomach problem (which was severe at that point), and took the plane ride home. I’m pretty comfortable saying it was a disaster. And, yes, the outcome was pretty clear.

The reason I tell this story isn’t to humiliate myself even more than I was at the time, rather, it’s to say that anything can happen. As positive as things can be throughout a process, it isn’t over until it’s over. What I haven’t done is blame the hiring company for this. I might have opinions about their use of case studies. I might wish that I’d had more information before. But, ultimately, this part of their process was a tool they used (and have used many times in the past) to hire great talent. The people at the company, hands down, were really friendly and smart people. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Instead of coming home and licking my wounds, I came home, gave my dog the attention he craved, and went about my business. The fact that I had to go to the hospital the next day for my stomach was coincidental! 🙂 I didn’t wind myself up in knots. I didn’t lament that I had no skills. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I acknowledged that I wished things had gone differently, sure. But there were things to do, and I needed to put the situation behind me and move on. Further, although I blew the case studies, I know that I have a strong background, and people with whom I work, that would laugh if someone told them that I lacked analytical skills, and didn’t have an ability to work through business problems.

So, do NOT let a failed interview stand in the way of your own opinions of your abilities, and the things you want to do. Just accept that the process worked perfectly. The company decided that there wasn’t a fit, and it helped both of you avoid a potential disaster.

Interviews are part art, and part science. The percentage across those vary by company, role, mood, whatever. If you are prepared, diligent, and keep a positive attitude, you well land where you want to land. It might not be when you want to land, but it will happen eventually. Good luck…and focus on the positives!