Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

How to talk in an interview about problems at your past job without coming off as a complainer

November 4, 2013

Someone on reddit asked “Why is talking bad about a previous job a taboo? What’s wrong with complaining? It’s showing dissatisfaction with the rules or environment. If I see a rule that’s unfair or inefficient, isn’t it in the company’s best interest to let them know in order to fix the issue?”

The problem with “showing dissatisfaction” is that it comes across as whining and complaining. You’re telling about how things stink, but not about what you’ve done to make things better. Managers hate complainers because when the complainer gets hired, the manager will have to spend time dealing with the complainer’s complaints. The complainer is likely to cause drama, and nobody has time for that.

However, it’s possible to take a negative at your past employer and turn it into a positive for you in the interview. If you can tell about how you have actually fixed an issue, that’s great. Tell that story.

For example, a common interview question is “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well.” Here are two ways to answer that.

Bad: “Well, there was this one time that we had a big update to the app for a big trade show. Then, two weeks before the show, Director of Marketing comes and says ‘We have to change the color scheme’, and it was two solid weeks of redoing all the screens and re-testing and more than a few hours of overtime.”

This is complaining. Now, tell that story again in another way.

Good: “One time we had a big app update for a trade show, and two weeks before the show, Marketing decided to change the color scheme. It put is in a bit of a crunch, but we pulled it off and the show was a success. After the show, we looked at what happened and discovered that we weren’t communicating enough with the project stakeholders, and as a result we made sure that we had weekly updates to show project progress to the people that mattered.”

That is not complaining. That is describing a problem that came up and how you improved it as a result. That’s why you get hired: To do work and to solve problems.

A good interviewer will follow up with the “Tell me about a project that didn’t go well” question with “And what did you learn from the experience?” Don’t wait for that follow-up. Make your answer include what you learned. Then you’re not complaining.

Those “illegal job interview questions” aren’t actually illegal

September 22, 2013

It’s common knowledge that it’s illegal for US employers to ask about your age, sex, religion, marital status, national origin, or other protected statuses. Thing is, it’s not illegal for them to ask.  It’s illegal for them to discriminate, but it’s not illegal to ask. Still, the idea of the “illegal interview questions” is a common one. Search for “illegal interview questions” on Google and you’ll get 50,000 hits. Lots of blog posts and news articles, but nothing from anyone I see as a legal authority.

I’m certainly not a lawyer, but I feel confident in quoting the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website for this (emphasis mine):

As a general rule, the information obtained and requested through the pre-employment process should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job; whereas, information regarding race, sex, national origin, age, and religion are irrelevant in such determinations.

Employers are explicitly prohibited from making pre-employment inquiries about disability.

Although state and federal equal opportunity laws do not clearly forbid employers from making pre-employment inquiries that relate to, or disproportionately screen out members based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, such inquiries may be used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate unless the questions asked can be justified by some business purpose.

Short version: It’s not illegal to ask those questions, but it’s stupid to do so because it gives the candidate ammo to use in a lawsuit against you.

I think it’s an important distinction. I read plenty of comments on reddit and the like where people seem to think that being asked about their marital status is somehow going to get them a job because that’s an illegal question. It’s not. Other than feeding one’s sense of righteous indignation, there’s not much that will probably come out of being asked an “illegal question.” There has to be a lawsuit for anything to come of it, which means you need to find a lawyer who thinks that you can win a discrimination suit, because the lawyer will be able to prove discrimination.

The key is that you have to prove that you were discriminated against. Simply saying “They asked me an illegal question” isn’t enough. Here’s what a random employment law firm’s website says:

An employee in an employment discrimination and wrongful termination case must prove that the reason he or she was fired, or not hired or not promoted, is because of his or her “protected classification.” In other words, you have to prove that you were denied employment or a promotion because of your race, gender, ethnic background, age or other discriminatory factor.

It’s also important to know that in addition to the Federal laws, you may have rights in other states. For example, some states forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation, while many others do not (yet). Search Google for “discrimination laws [your state]” and you should get hits for your state’s government agency that covers this topic.

None of this is to endorse employers asking such questions. A good employer shouldn’t ask you any questions that aren’t related to the job.

What to do if you’re asked a question that gets at something discriminatory? Check out this article on how to handle bad interview questions.

How to prepare for a job interview: The 4-point summary

March 7, 2013

The core of your preparation for the job interview:

  1. Learn what they do.
  2. Learn how they do what they do.
  3. Figure out exactly what skills, experience and background you have that will help them do what they do faster and cheaper.
  4. Plan how you’re going to explain #3 to them.

Everything else is implementation details.

You should have the first three figured out before you even send a resume. If you don’t have what it takes to help them do it cheaper and faster, then don’t waste your time applying for the job.

Tell me about weird, frustrating or bad job interview questions you’ve been asked.

January 17, 2013

I’m working on an article for SmartBear on handling bad or weird job interview questions, and I’d like to get input from you.  Have you been asked weird, insulting, inexplicable or just plain bad questions in a job interview?  Please let me know about them, and where you were interviewing, or at least what type of company and job was involved if you don’t want to name names.  I want to include real examples in my article and then include suggestions on how to effectively answer them.  I’ll also be discussing alternatives to these bad questions that get at what (I suspect) the interviewer is getting at.  I’m looking for first-hand accounts rather than questions you might have heard a friend talking about.

I’m sure many of you have had estimation questions like “How many light bulbs are there in the city of Chicago?”.  I don’t see those as weird if you’re interviewing at Google, where estimation and scaling are core competencies, but may be in other other contexts.  Have you been asked these sorts of questions elsewhere?  I get a sense from reading things online that these are asked by managers who think they’re cool questions, but without a business need for asking.

Please let me know in the comments, or email me at andy@petdance.com.

Rethink the post-interview thank you note

May 15, 2012

Good golly do people get riled up by the idea of sending a thank you note after a job interview. “Why should I thank them, they didn’t give me a gift!” is a common refrain in /r/jobs.  “They should be thanking me!”

I think the big problem is the name, “thank you note.”  It makes us recall being forced to say nice things about the horrible sweater Aunt Margaret gave us for Christmas.

It’s not a thank you note. It’s a followup. It doesn’t have to be any more than this:

Dear Mr. Manager,

Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today. I enjoyed the interview and tour and discussing your database administration needs. Based on our discussions with Peter Programmer, I’m sure that my PostgreSQL database administration skills would be a valuable addition to the Yoyodyne team. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Susan Candidate.

There’s nothing odious there. You’re not fawning or begging. You’re thanking the interviewer for his time, reminding him of key parts of the interview and your key skills, and reasserting that you are interested in the job. (And before you say “Of course I’m interested, I went to the interview!”, know that perceived indifference and/or lack of enthusiasm is an interview killer.)

People ask “Do I really have to do that?” and I say “No, you don’t HAVE to, you GET to.” It’s not a chore, it’s an opportunity.

The nameless “they” and the Facebook & job interview trend that isn’t a trend

April 6, 2012

“I’m never eating there again,” he told me. “You know what they do?”

I was standing around at a party twenty years ago, and conversation got around to what our first jobs were. I said that my first job was at the McDonald’s, and someone in the circle looked stricken. “You couldn’t pay me to eat there. You know what they do there?” he asked. “I knew a guy who worked at McDonald’s, and he saw this other guy drop a hamburger patty on the floor by mistake, and he picked it up and put it on a burger and they served it. I’m never eating there again.”

The guy at the party had invoked the nameless “they,” as if McDonald’s tells its kitchen workers it’s OK to observe the five-second rule. Maybe he meant “they” to mean there was a secret cabal of grill workers who create Big Macs with special seasonings from the floor. He took the actions of one worker at one time to be an indicator of a trend. He nursed his horror and made sure everyone else knew about it.

But what if this tale of the dirty burger got on the news? Maybe the story would spread like wildfire across the country, with outraged citizens letting everyone else know about this horror. Maybe pundits would come out with columns excoriating the stupid practice of picking up hamburgers dropped on the floor, and why it’s bad for business. Maybe opportunistic politicians could beat their chests and call for a Justice Department inquest into this alarming trend.

Absurd, right? But that’s exactly what this non-trend of “job interviewers demand your Facebook password” is.

Over the past week, blogs and message boards and, of course, Facebook have been burning up with outrage at this non-trend. People commiserate and shake their heads grimly, imagining being stuck between the rock of having an employer snoop in our Facebook accounts and the hard place not having a job. People turn on Internet Tough Guy mode and imagine their defiance at the scenario, or give their theories as to the legalities of the practice. Business pundits weigh in on why it’s a bad idea.

The original AP news story that sparked this hullabaloo named one candidate, Justin Bassett, citing one interview at one unnamed company. That’s it. Still, it’s been rerun over and over and over. Every article has a similarly declarative headline like “Job seekers get asked in interviews to provide Facebook logins.” That’s as absurd as saying “McDonald’s serves burgers off the floor” because of the story the guy at the party told.

The news media have added non-facts, with one headline calling it a “growing trend”.
The follow-on news stories didn’t help. News media and bloggers snowballed it without doing further research. Even NPR, smarting from Mike Daisey’s fabrications, ran the story saying that “some companies” are asking for Facebook passwords. “Some companies” has as much to back it up as “they,” but it doesn’t sound so bad.

Senators have called on the DOJ and EEOC to launch investigations. (Also disturbing to me is Schumer’s assertion that in the job-seeking process, “all the power is on one side of the fence,” which only helps reinforce that incorrect idea.)

Is it plausible that this practice is widespread, and getting moreso? Sure, it’s plausible. Our privacy erodes every day, and millions of us do it through Facebook willingly. The story has the feel of truthiness. Doesn’t it just seem like the thing that Big Business would do to us? We already piss in cups to prove that we’re drug-free so that we can come in and shuffle paper.

To be sure, there are cited cases in that AP story of employers requiring access to candidates’ Facebook accounts. As Matthew Kauffman points out in his excellent probing of this story, those cases are of law enforcement and corrections departments, where greater scrutiny of candidates is common and expected. “In many of those cases, of course, applicants are also subjected to a full-on psychological evaluation,” Kauffman points out.

Kauffman’s aritcle isn’t alone in being sensible. An article on CNN.com says “The reason you haven’t come across any job interviewers asking for your Facebook password is that the practice is pretty rare.”

But how did this non-story get to this point? You got suckered in and the media ran with it.

When you heard this story, did you even question it? Or did you just forward it and post it as if it was an important life-saving story about there are these gang initiations and how “they” will kill anyone who flashes their lights?

It’s 2012, and we are the media. When we fan the flames of non-issues like this, we become the media that we should seek to leave behind.

Finally, in my job as blogger about employment and job interviews, I would be remiss in not addressing how to deal with a request for your Facebook credentials. I’ve read plenty of comments in threads suggesting walking out of the interview, or lying to the interviewer and saying you don’t have a Facebook account.

Walking out may feel good, as righteous indignation so often does, but it doesn’t help your situation. You give up any chance you had of getting the job. Lying is easily disproven, and. worst of all, requires you to lie.

The best answer is to calmly and respectfully say “I believe it’s best for business to keep business and personal life separate. That’s why I keep my private life private.” You may not get the job, but at least you’ll have been turned down while keeping a strong sense of ethics about you… which is more than you can say for companies that would ask to snoop in your private life.

Have you ever been asked “What is your biggest weakness?”

February 20, 2012

It’s become a bit of a joke by now, being asked in a job interview “What is your biggest weakness?” Numerous books and blog posts talk about how to answer the question, turning a negative into a positive, without sounding glib. I discuss it in the “Tough Questions” chapter of my book. It’s been parodied in this movie:

It’s a pretty bad question to ask. Presumably it’s asked to find out how self-aware the candidate is of where they have room for improvement, but there are better ways to find that out. For example, I’ve asked it directly in interviews, “Where do you see room for improvement in your skillset, and what are you doing to make that happen?”

Watching the “biggest weakness” movie above, I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever actually been asked the question in a real job interview. I know that if an interviewer did ask me, my opinion of him would drop considerably. I would wonder if he just got it out of a stock list of questions to ask.

I know what my answer would be, if I was ever asked this live: “I don’t know JavaScript as well as I should. I know enough to do basic form validation and graphic mouseovers, but as far as applications being written with tools like jQuery, I just haven’t gotten into that, and I should because that’s clearly where much of the web is headed.”

What about you? Have you, personally, ever been asked the question in a job interview? How long ago was it? What year? How did you answer, and how did the interviewer take your answer? How was the rest of the interview?

Or is “What is your biggest weakness” almost a sort of urban legend of interview questions, the one that you hear about other people getting asked, but never yourself?

How can I help my 50ish sysadmin brother find a job?

November 9, 2011

A reader wrote me yesterday:

I just finished your great book Land the Tech Job You Love. I wish I’d had this to refer to when I was job searching over the years. This afternoon I’m going to give my highlighted copy to my brother who is currently in his 4th year of his search for a UNIX Sys Admin job.

My brother’s situation is the reason behind this email. He has 14 years of programming experience (at [big technical company]) and 14 years of UNIX Sys Admin experience (mostly at [company] but the latest 4 years were various short term contract positions). We’re in [big tech city] so there are jobs available. He seems to be able to get phone screens and some interviews but hasn’t been able to land a job. The brutal fact is that he is not very verbal and doesn’t interview well. I also suspect his Sys Admin experience lacks some breadth. It doesn’t help his cause that, even though the subject is taboo, he is in his early 50s (see: The graying of the long-term unemployed).

I would appreciate any thoughts you might have specific to my brother’s situation.

You say he doesn’t interview well, and his experience lacks breadth. Sounds like you have the two things to fix right there! 🙂

As far as his lack of experience, I’d do as much on my own as possible. I don’t know what he has NOT done, but I’m guessing you have some ideas. What do employers in the area want that he’s lacking. Do people want him to know LDAP? Set up an LDAP server on your home box. Does he not know enough languages, or maybe the last “new” language he learned as C++? Get a copy of a book on Ruby or Perl or Erlang and start writing some apps. Set up Ruby and Rails on a local server and start learning. Pragmatic has many introductory Ruby titles.

The perception of “This guy is too old” is, I suspect, a vicious cycle. They see him as “an old guy”, and then it turns out he knows old skills, which reinforces the “old” part. So he’s got to know new skills even more than a kid fresh out of school.

As to interviewing well, I can only suggest practice practice practice, and help him identify the areas that he’s weak. Again, I get the feeling you have an idea what these are. Does he not answer questions with enough detail? Then help him practice giving longer answers that focus on business. Or is it just that he doesn’t keep good eye contact or speak clearly? Again, practice is key. Maybe you could record a mock interview, with you as the interviewer. Afterward, the two of you can identify and discuss where he can improve. I’ve also heard wonderful things about Toastmasters for helping people get better at speaking with others.

Let me know how it goes!

Readers, have you had to deal with the perils of job hunting in tech later in your career? How did you handle it? Please let me (and the rest of us) know in the comments.

No, you can’t ask about money in the job interview

August 2, 2011

So often I see it posted to reddit: “When do I ask about money?” You don’t. You don’t ask about money in the job interview. You wait until the company brings it up, often in the form of a job offer. There’s a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for compensation discussion is in the job offer, or when the company chooses to bring it up.

When you go into a job interview, your focus must be on the company’s needs, or what work the hiring manager wants you to do. You want to talk about what you can do for the company, not ask about what they can do for you. Asking about salary, benefits, vacation, or other forms of compensation tells the interviewer that you’re more concerned with what’s in it for you, rather than how you can help her. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter. You still run a risk of coming across that way.

(This is also part of why an objective is the worst way to start a résumé, because it says “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and here’s what I want from you.”)

The goal of a job interview is for you to get a job offer, or to move closer to getting one. If you don’t get the job offer, it doesn’t matter how much the job pays.

An interview isn’t a one-sided affair, of course. It’s also about you finding out about the company, about worklife, about the sorts of projects you’d work on, because these all fit into things of benefit to the company. Compensation, however, is a one-way benefit to you. What if the interviewer doesn’t discuss salary? Then you just wait for the second interview or the job offer, where the specifics of compensation will all be laid out.

People have countered my stance on this with “I just want to know what it’s paying so that I can save time for both of us by not going through an interview for a job that’s not going to pay enough.” That’s what we programmers refer to as a premature optimization. Just as it doesn’t matter how fast your program runs if it gives the wrong answer, it doesn’t matter how quickly you get through the hiring process if you don’t get the offer.

Have some patience. Focus on selling your skills and experience to the interviewer. Talk to the interviewer about her problems and how you’ll solve them. And don’t ask about compensation.

Andy’s jobs/work news roundup for 2011-02-21

February 21, 2011

These links are collected from my Twitter feed. If you have suggestions for news bits, please mail me at
andy@petdance.com.

  • Job boards no more “help” you find a job than a billboard “helps” you find a new pair of shoes. (codeanthem.com)
  • A few things every job-seeking programmer should know about project manager (stellman-greene.com)
  • What job qualifications can trump work experience? (askamanager.org)
  • Ten tips for submitting your resume (money.usnews.com)
  • Don’t call to schedule an interview (askamanager.org)
  • This is how salary negotiation should work (askamanager.org)
  • RT @mjdominus A recruiter asked me to rate my programming 1–10. I said 10, since nobody who asks that is qualified to dispute my answer.
  • From the daily @tom_peters email: If your failure rate is one in a million, what do you tell that one customer?
  • RT @AskAManager Be Cautious When Referring a Friend for a Job (bit.ly)
  • What to do when you think you might lose your job (thecynicalgirl.com)
  • Should you work for free? Probably not. This fine chart lays it out. (jhische.com)
  • The importance of being able to say “I don’t know” (chadfowler.com)
  • How to tailor a resume for an employer (bit.ly)
  • 57% of the Inc. 500 use social media to recruit (talentline411.com)
  • Quit whining and send a thank you note after an interview (xrl.us)
  • How to be a better coworker (mashable.com)
  • Ditch Starbucks and work at the library. (52tiger.net)
  • 8 things you should know about job references (from @AskAManager) (xrl.us)
  • Smokers need not apply (bnet.com)
  • Six reasons you shouldn’t quit without notice (bnet.com)