October 26, 2009

New job pt 2: the art of handwaving

Having beaten the first couple of levels, now things get intense. Casual mode is yesterday’s news, now we’re in to Hardcore territory, and coming up to the first real boss. No raid to support you through the actual fight, this is a single player game.

The phone interview

Phone interviews are wonderful entry points to new companies, since they can’t spring exam-style technical tests on you or put you on the spot by asking awkward knowledge-based questions.

Even when the big boss phones you up because his subordinate (who was set to call …) is sick that day. Same guy who told the agency if they ever called him directly, they’d be struck off the register. Yeap, happened to me.

Anyway, the most important thing to do in any interview is to engage the interviewers, so that means asking questions and listening to what they have to say. Then asking more questions or even just restating what they’ve told you, so you reinforce the point that you understand what they’re telling you.

It helps to have a few responses to hand for the most likely questions you’ll be asked. The first big question is always related to your history - ‘how did you get to where you are now’ style. This is the time to link together your career history, explaining the jumps from company to company, post to post. With practice this blurb can be used as a precursor to almost any question they ask about your history, or more generic questions like “so, tell me about yourself”, and you can lengthen it or shorten it depending on where you insert it into the conversation. I was pretty verbose with the wind people, less so with the defence contractor.

In the past I’ve tried to get some immediate feedback regarding my application or my CV - questions like “Did you find anything strange or peculiar about my application/CV?” and “Is there anything I should’ve added to it?”. Since I’ve done that a few times in the past, I was confident I wouldn’t get any different answers this time around, so I dropped them and concentrated on getting to know the sort of companies and people they were.

  1. How many applicants have you had for this position?
  2. What sort of progress review / employee evaluation procedures do you have / use?
  3. What’s your usual interview style and process?
  4. How do you assess technical knowledge, any exam-style questions?

“If in doubt, ask” is just as useful a mantra for interview situations as for the rest of life. Especially about how they conduct the next stages. It’s my opinion that knowing what was coming put me head and shoulders above other candidates who’d gotten through to the face to face interview.

Which is exactly what happened.

The face to face

Now the stories start to diverge a little between the two positions. 60 minute face to face for the defence contractor (we overran, made it 90 minutes), and clocked up a monster 3 and a half hour interview with the wind people. That said, my approach was the same in both cases:

  1. Keep the personal out of why I left my past contract
  2. Avoid discussion about the other interview
  3. Be honest and true to myself. If I didn’t know, I said as much. Where I was reasonably confident in a response, but suspected I lacked some nuance that they were looking for, I also said as much.
  4. Structure my responses to questions, making sure to provide enough context to tell whatever story is necessary as succintly as possible.
  5. Take comments seriously. I knew I’d need to use these for future interviews to ensure I wasn’t making the same mistakes.
  6. Be gracious if/when complimented on anything. I was flattered to be told that I had a very good presentational ability and should make use of a whiteboard when offered.

And finally: Answer the question! While I’m in story-telling mode, I easily get lost and can forget the point. The best way to avoid that was to start at the end first. Reply to the question with the response I wanted to give, and then provide the context and lead up to finish the story with the same response. In some cases it’s easier than others, and as always, practice makes perfect.

Looks like I’d had enough practice. Both came back very keen and positive, which is excellent for ones self-esteem.

The confirmation

Agents like to have you call them back after an interview with your impressions. They’ll ask you some questions about how it went, who you saw, how long it took. They read into that how interested the company is, and can use your impressions as an opening gambit into testing the water on the company side, to see what they thought of you.

Some coded messages back from the wind people, who at this point aren’t aware I have a second offer in potentia, but it’s looking positive. After the face to face with the defence contractor, I feel good about that too. Time to call the defence agent. She gives me a revised selling points list for her company, and I get on the phone to the wind people’s agent and let them know about the second company. He gives me the same spiel, but reassures me it happens and he’ll get straight on to the wind people.

The first thing they do, without knowing the other offer (at this stage, there is no other offer yet), is pull out all the stops and bump the package up to something really quite impressive.

Then the hard part starts, because I get confirmation of the second offer too.

Final thrilling (?) installment to come: the decision.

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