Tag Archives: Essays

Ask 6: Still more questions to ask in interviews

This is the sixth in a series of thoughts I’ve had for unique and penetrating questions to ask during an interview. These days, the expectation is that you will ask questions and there are many articles out there on “stock” questions to ask. I submit these – as an on-going series – in an effort to provide questions that will be revealing in that they’re not going to be the same-old, same-old questions interviewers hear all the time – thus, not only gaining you useful information, but differentiating you in their eyes. The prior ones in the series are Ask, Ask 2, Ask 3, Ask 4, and Ask 5.

Tell me about the last time you went head-to-head in a disagreement with a subordinate. What was it about and how was it resolved? (This can also be reworded to be asked to potential co-workers.)

Hey, if employers can ask behavioral questions, so can you. The positive of this question is that, assuming they answer the question, you will gain insight into how they handle disagreements in the group. The negative, obviously, is the implicit (even if incorrect) message that you are a troublemaker who wants to know how they’ll handle when you don’t toe the line. But, in and of itself, that too would be a useful piece of information about what it would be like to work there. And asking a reworded version to co-workers can reveal if the boss is a “My way or the highway” person, or is open to alternatives and constructive disagreements from the team.

 

Am I the first candidate you’ve interviewed for this position?

Best to ask this early on, and casually. But this can be a critical datum point. Very often in the interview process interviewers learn from their conversations with candidates details and tidbits of what they want that they hadn’t realized they wanted – and those get added to their mental lists. Thus, you don’t want to be first. Then again, they may have already decided by the time you get there and are just going through the motions. Now, there’s nothing you can really do about it, but… consider a follow-on question if they say they’ve spoken to several other people:

I’m curious: Have you refined what you want in a candidate based on those prior conversations?

This should indicate to a hiring manager that you’re really interested in what their needs are. In my experience, there is always something that they’ve identified from talking with the first candidate or two. See if you can get it out of them, and then address those points. Those newly-discovered, but undocumented, wants and needs can make or break you.

Have you seen a lot of resumes for this position?

This is especially pertinent for companies that use ATS portals, and is probably best asked of HR. It’s an imperfect metric, but the number of resumes the HR person has seen can be an indication of how much competition there is, how fine their ATS screen is, and – if they’ve not seen many and you’re talking with them – this is an excuse to then chime in sympathetically about how hard it is to find qualified people and that you’re glad you’ve met the bar to be them in person. Thus, this can be a psychological trick to get them to put you on the short list since they’ve seen so few resumes come through.

What is the last book or magazine you’ve read?

This is a reversal – hey, they can ask, why not you? – of the third question from here. Just as the person who asks this wants to understand your intellectual base, I think it’s fair to understand the hiring manager’s intellectual base too.

When’s the last time you changed your mind about something “big”, what was it, and what changed your mind?

How open-minded is your potential boss? Are they ossified in their cognitive template, or can they assimilate new information even if it disrupts their world view? Note that this has a danger in that it can tread upon peoples’ deep-held beliefs, and threatens to open up the Three Dread Topics: Sex, Religion, and Politics. So I’d recommend this one only if you are having a good, friendly conversation where there seems to be a good rapport.

Who is the last person who left the group, and do you know why?

This is best aimed at potential co-workers, and can be phrased any number of ways to investigate a little. What are you hoping to find? That people leave the group because they are promoted. If people leave because they’re shown the door, or spew bile about the place as they walk out the door, that’s not a good sign. A related question to ask, if someone left to go elsewhere, is:

How did the boss take it when so-and-so left the company?

When someone finds a better career move, it’s sad for the company they’re leaving but good for them. I read about one company – don’t recall which – that as a person exits on their last day, people line up to applaud and congratulate them. (WOW!) If a boss doesn’t even spring for a goodbye lunch, that can be an indicator of vindictiveness. And a parallel question to ask HR:

What would you say the turnover rate at this company is like?

First, HR better know it. If they hem and haw, it means it’s high. And a high turnover rate can mean several things: 1) that they fire lots of people, 2) that lots of people leave, which can indicate lots of problems, whether low pay, high stress, abusive managers, etc. (In parallel, if you have time and access to industry groups in the area related to the company’s business, see if you can dig a little into what the company’s “ people churn rate” is.)

© 2015, David Hunt PE

Ask 5: Some more penetrating questions to ask at interviews

This is the fifth in a series of questions I’ve come up with for candidates to ask in job interviews. The prior ones are Ask, Ask 2, Ask 3, and Ask 4.

Based on our conversation thus far, what do you think I will like most about this job?

This is inspired by a question I saw from Lavie Margolin. It’s a test of how well the hiring manager has “read” you. And by using the word will it’s also a subtle way to prompt the hiring manager to envision you in the position. An optional flip of this is:

And what do you think I will like least about this job?

No job is 100% fantastic all the time, and this is a good way to probe how the boss – and possibly co-workers – views the lesser aspects of the job, in particular in light of their understanding of you. Forewarned is forearmed. The advantage to this question is the opportunity to glean a clue about how they see you and the job, and the possible mismatches in their vision of how you might fit. The danger in asking this is that it brings dislike and your candidacy to mind in the same time frame, something to avoid and which I discussed here (thanks to Neil Patrick of 40pluscareerguru for republishing that essay).

In one sentence, can you tell me the top thing you’d want me to accomplish in the first six months?

This is a different take on the standard question “What would you expect me to accomplish in six months?”. It requires the hiring manager to focus on and articulate what is truly important to them. If you can squeeze this into the conversation early on, it will tell you how to target your conversation focus in a SPARTACUS approach (again, thanks Neil).

What were the characteristics of the best hire you’ve ever made?

Another way to “get inside” the head of the hiring manager to understand what they value in a person. If asked early in a conversation, you can use this to subtly highlight things that will draw an analogy between you and that “best hire”. Note, however, you should not ask the reverse one – once you bring negative traits to mind in the context of hiring, you run a strong risk of the hiring manager starting to try to pin those on you (even just unconsciously).

What do you like most about managing this group? (And the obvious reverse, what do you like least about managing this group?)

This can give some good insights into the group’s dynamics, and how the boss views their role as supervisor, coordinator, and leader.

What’s the most fun you’ve had at work in the last month?

This is for both hiring managers and co-workers. Work is not always fun – that’s why it’s called work. But if a person has to really, really stop and think about the last time they enjoyed their job, that’s a warning sign. And if the hiring manager also has to really scrape through their memory for the last time they enjoyed their job, that’s a huge red flag that they’re not happy – and you know what rolls downhill.

© 2015, David Hunt, PE

Resume Ruminations

Since I’ve seen a couple of columns about resumes lately I thought I’d chime in with some general thoughts about resumes – having discussed resume bullet points specifically earlier. A lot of online articles focus on formatting, key words, trying to beat the ATS portal, etc., I’d like to proffer a few thoughts outside those lines. But in my first point let me reiterate what others have said.

Keep It Updated

Whenever something noteworthy happens and would make a good resume achievement, add it. Don’t go crazy, but anything that you’d want a potential new employer to know about your background should be added. Did you score a record-breaking sale? Save megabucks in a new purchasing agreement as compared to the old one? Launch a material that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars annually? Take a seminar or two about something relevant to your career, or get a certification, or have an expertise-related article published, etc.? In they go. And so on.

(Side note: Not having an updated resume is a huge part of why a friend of mine missed out on a fantastic opportunity to escape the likely-dead-in-five-years factory where we met, and move to a place with better stability and much closer to his, and his wife’s, families. He never pursued it in large part because he was so daunted by having to add the better part of two decades worth of career history and accomplishments.)

Start Afresh

Do not update the same file over and over. As your career progresses you do not want to lose track of old achievements simply because they fall off newer versions. Instead, whenever you update – and this assumes you’re doing so once every few months – use “Save As” to create a new file for the newer version. Thus, if you need to refer back to an older resume for some “choice nugget” accomplishment from earlier in your career, you have it available. (And to avoid folder clutter, create an archival sub-folder that older resume versions get dumped into.)

I have been told that the history of your Word file is stored in the last character of the file, thus a skilled IT person can unlock it to see your revision history. I recommend opening a fresh Word file every few updates, and cut-and-paste everything but the last word into it to create the next version. You might have reformatting work though. Supporting this claim is the fact that the last time I did this, my resume file size decreased by almost 20K.

I’ve actually gotten into the habit of sending PDF-format resumes rather than Word files.

Keep a Separate Journal

A resume bullet-point is a distillation of a lot of information into something succinct and easy to digest – as such items are meant to catch attention and serve as a conversation starter in an interview. Keep a journal with as much information as you can (subject to confidentiality restrictions, of course), so that you can refresh your memory about each and every accomplishment. With the need to customize each resume for a specific position, you will likely be mixing-and-matching accomplishments, and you never know that one not-often-used bullet point might be perfect to attract an employer. And if it’s on your resume, you’d better be able to discuss it if they ask in an interview! (So keep copies of your performance reviews!)

Keep It Dated

At the bottom of your resume (in the footer) you should have: on the left, your name as it appears at the top, a page number in the center (I recommend “Page X of Y” in case they print it out and misplace a page), and “Last Revised: month-year” on the right. This is particularly important when sending a resume to agencies / outside recruiters who will keep your resume on file. This helps them decide if they can go with your current resume, or if they need to contact you to get a fresh version.

Name It Well

Opinions differ, but my recommendation is name it first_lastname_yourtitle_month-year. So, for example, my design-oriented resume’s file name is davidhunt_mech-eng_nov-2014. It gives them a clue as to your overall capability (i.e., you’re an engineer, not an accountant), and how up-to-date your resume is just by looking at the file name. And make sure the date in the filename matches the date in your footer!  (Been burned on that before…)

CV vs. Resume

A CV is an all-encompassing document covering soup-to-nuts of your career, with every job, accomplishment, publication, etc., all in one place. A resume is, in contrast, a marketing document aimed at a specific industry, company, or job; typically 1-2 pages, it is meant to be a succinct summary of only relevant points to catch attention and get you the interview. One thought is to start from a CV, and hack-and-slash trim to get to a custom resume each time. This isn’t a trivial amount of work, but it does have take advantage of the human factors rule that it’s easier to take something out when you see it than bring it to mind and add it if it’s not there.

Highlight Achievements

Consider a section at the top, right below your Summary, entitled “Key Achievements” as a way to catch a reader’s attention in those crucial first few seconds. Place 3-5 bullet points there that show incredible results from your career. The goal is to get someone to say “Wow!”, and then slow down to read, not skim, your resume.

Other Thoughts

1. Stay current on formatting. For example, phone numbers are now using periods; e.g., AAA.AAA.AAAA. Using (AAA) AAA-AAAA or AAA-AAA-AAAA can paint you as out of touch with how things are today. A good way to do this is to contact local college career centers (or your alma mater) and ask questions about “modern” formatting. If you go to networking meeting with new graduates, see if you can get a copy of their resume – you might be able to help them, but you can get ideas about the latest formats too. I’ve also read, albeit in one place only, that Times Roman font is considered passé.

2. On the topic of formatting: do you use two spaces after periods? I do. It dates from when I learned to type on a real typewriter, and has been used by scanning programs to filter you as an “old fart”. I personally think that’s a pretty sleazy practice, but don’t give them an excuse to screen you out a priori. And it’s hard to not do when you’ve done it for so long… but I’m not going back to edit all my essays, so I’m stuck with it on my blog at least! (Watch your cover letters too.)

3. Related to ageism: I’m dubious about hiding dates that show you are over 40. The moment you walk in the door, they’ll know (this happened numerous times to someone I know; people would be excited at his background, but the moment he walked in they’d see his grey hair and he knew he’d been ruled out before he’d open his mouth). Balance that with the need to get in the door in the first place. Just don’t think you’re really fooling anyone as dropped dates are an “age alert” to a savvy reader.

4. If you have a social media presence related to your career, e.g., LinkedIn and Twitter, embed links to these sites in your resume IF APPROPRIATE. And you need to have a social media presence related to your career. Of course, you need to be careful what you post there; some propose the “New Puritanism” while I think that’s an excessive amount of caution (and, seriously, do you want to work for a company that’s afraid of a picture of you holding a beer at a party on your personal Twitter feed?). Don’t share your Facebook link though; make them work for it unless you have a Facebook account specifically for your job search.

And a note about pictures: apparently google+ now had an algorithm where someone can take one picture, e.g., your LinkedIn profile picture, and search for pictures that are a close match on face features… so your perfectly-fine LinkedIn picture could potentially lead someone to your picture in, shall we say, less than savory situations on other websites. In other words, segregation of pictures on different sites is no longer a safe barrier. Another “sneaky” technique is to find pictures of you, then search for other people in those pictures, especially if they’re pictures you posted of you in social events. It’s yet another way to vet you through the people with whom you associate – and IMHO quite stalkerish.

5. Since many others have said it, but don’t have a cutesy or otherwise out-there email address for work-related purposes. Use firstname-middleinitial-lastname or something like that. Consider your domain name too. AOL paints you as a dinosaur, and is often trapped in spam filters. I am not endorsing Comcast’s email specifically, but I have been told it has some of the strongest protections against being trapped in spam filters. I hear gmail is pretty good though, but it’s not foolproof: once, when I was emailing my resume to a friend on the inside, my attempt through gmail got stopped but my Comcast email got through.

And a third email thought: it might be tempting to include your functional title in your email; e.g., david.o.hunt-mech.eng. First, this is a pain given its length, and second, what if you undergo a career change and – to pick an example at random – start building a business of handcrafted artisanal soaps? A changeover will be time-consuming and potentially confusing to all the contacts you’ve developed, especially if this is a late-stage career reboot.

A last email tidbit: consider a remailer service through your alumni association. If you change email addresses, your contact information on your resume doesn’t get dated.

6. Opinions differ, but I’ve seen resumes for people that don’t have a physical address. In this day and age, giving your town should be enough since most communication will be electronic. Once you get to the application or offer stages, with your information being under better control (theoretically), then you can give detailed information on your precise address.

7. Check your metadata. Early in my career I did not have a computer at home, and so used Word at work to create my resume. I was mortified to be told, in response to my submission to a recruiter, that it did not look good that my resume’s metadata had information pertaining to my employer and their ownership of the software.

Any other thoughts? Put them in the comments for a possible follow-up column, or email me. I will give you credit if I write again about this.

 

© 2015, David Hunt, PE

Tarnished Endorsements

LinkedIn has an interesting feature, and has for years.  People with whom you are connected can write a recommendation of your work at a particular position.  I have a number of recommendations from connections of mine, both for work as well as my networking efforts.  I like these.  They represent someone having to give thought to what they say, and base those thoughts on some experience with my presentation, my work, my networking efforts, etc.  I’m glad I have them on my profile.

Fairly recently LinkedIn has put up a new feature – “endorsements”.  Unlike their recommendations feature, these require no thought, just a button click.  LinkedIn not only keys off of skills you have entered on your own, it uses an algorithm to try and present other topics for people to endorse.

People, for the most part, are well-intentioned.  I’ve gotten lots of endorsements in all sorts of things – and I know it’s done to help me especially in my quest to find a new job.  Here’s the first problem: most people who have clicked a button cannot possibly have had experience with my work practices justifying their endorsement.

Again, I understand that people want to help others, and it’s a great thing that justifies my belief that most people are fundamentally good.  I hate to say it, though, that the people who – no matter their admirable intentions – click through to endorse me when they cannot possibly have knowledge of my actual abilities in that topic are cheapening the endorsement process.  And what’s worse, anyone with any experience on LinkedIn knows it.  Which, IMHO, makes it useless.

If you want to help me, write a recommendation for me.  If we haven’t worked together, write a recommendation for me about my networking, advocate for me on a personal basis, or how well I’ve helped others.  That’d be fine and dandy.  But please, if we haven’t worked together, don’t endorse me for a work-related skill.

The second thing is that, as mentioned above, LinkedIn clearly gleans patterns from endorsements to create new possibilities for people to click.  I’ve been endorsed for things I absolutely, positively am not comfortable being endorsed on.

For example, I have not used Pro-Engineer for nigh-unto 20 years.  That hasn’t stopped people from endorsing me for my ability in this CAD program.  I have actually posted in my Update to please not endorse me for it.  The same for medical devices; thought I’ve worked in medical devices for a few months at a couple of different medical device companies, it’s not enough to justify my wanting such an endorsement.  Now it’s popping with endorsements – which I reject – for my ability in start-up companies.

So I am hereby declaring war on endorsements.

I declare:

  1. I will not endorse anyone for anything unless I am confident I have had enough experience with them to be honest in my endorsement.  I will not just push a button because it’s there.
  2. I formally ask that anyone considering endorsing me for anything truly consider if they know me well enough in that field to honestly do so.
  3. If you are not sure about such an endorsement… ask me first.

Thomas Paine, famous in the American Revolution, once wrote “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Endorsements are too easily given – given with no real thought or reflection, but just a cursor move and key click – and thus they have destroyed their own value.

 

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

Ask 2 (More Penetrating Questions)

In my essay Ask, I proposed some “penetrating questions” to ask interviewers, in particular the hiring manager.  Many of these questions had hidden layers of insight that could come out during the answer, whether by the words or by the physical reaction / body language of the person when hit with the question.

I’ve come up with some more.

What three people you admire most; and why are these persons the ones?

Companies these days are desperate to add dimensions to the evaluation process, in order to build a more three-dimensional picture of candidates.  They are trolling through social contacts to see who you know; it’s a fair application of the adage Birds of a feather, flock together.  (The one caveat that I’d add is that this should not consider people, e.g., twitter followers, over whom I don’t think you have any control – can you actually force someone to unfollow you?)  And this is a legitimate, albeit somewhat “stalker-like”, tactic.  But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and I’ll add another layer: Tell me who you admire and why, and I understand who you are.

What are the challenges the company will face in the next few years?

I have seen this in other venues, so it’s not truly original, but the hidden benefits come from asking people in different levels in the hierarchy.  This gives you insights into the degree of perspective people at different levels have.  It also hints at the communication between levels, how important news is disseminated downward, and how the “lower ranks” understand the strategic direction.

How would you move Mount Fuji?

This is, of course, a commonly-discussed question – from google IIRC.  Turn it around.  Ask them, with a great big smile on your face.  Incidentally, I do have an answer which I used the one time I was asked; I’ve never seen my answer listed as one of the answers reportedly given.  (And no, I’m not telling.)

What’s the last disagreement you had with the boss?  What was it about, and how was it resolved?

This is best asked of a potential co-worker.  It can indicate all sorts of insight about how the boss handles disagreements, the dynamics of the group, etc.  And how did he handle a subordinate contradicting him, especially if the subordinate was right?

Aside from the mercenary aspect of a paycheck, what gets you up in the morning to come here?

What motivates people here?  Is there a gestalt mission that’s understood?  Or is this a collection of people there for the paycheck – of course, nobody’s going to admit that, but by asking several people this same question you can get a statistical sampling of the evasions and diversions given to reverse engineer what attitudes really are.

When was the last layoff?  Did the RIF make sense to you?

This gives some indications of the stability / security of the company.  But who got let go, if they are known to the respondent – ask a potential colleague, nobody higher – can indicate how much merit there was to layoffs vs. how political the targeting was.  Ask this towards the end of the time period after, hopefully, you’ve established a rapport… which can lead to their being comfortable venting a little.

Why should I want to work here?

This is a turn-the-tables question based on “Why do you want to work here?”  It has two results.  The first is, obviously, they get put outside their comfort zones, which can open them up to revealing more about themselves and the organization than they intend.  But the second is that it makes them have to justify why they’re good enough for you.  An interview should be a two-way street, not endless groveling by supplicants pleading for mercy from those who have power.  Make them work for the product of your mind.

How long have you worked here?  How has the company changed over that time?

The first is a not-uncommon question to ask.  It’s nice to know that people stay.  But if you get someone who has been there over ten years, ask the second.  A lot can come out unintentionally, especially if they don’t like the changes.

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

Whacking the Nerve Again

… companies are enacting policies that unnecessarily limit the number of high-quality candidates. 

Recently I went deep sea fishing on a charter (out of Plum Island, Massachusetts; Captain’s Fishing Parties).  Having been unable to participate for the prior two years, to the point where I started to fear the “Hunt Curse” where something always seemed to prevent me from going, I was excited as the stars aligned to permit me to go this time.  And I came home happy; I have more fish chowder in the freezer than I know what to do with, and frozen fillets waiting for when I’m in the mood for a beer-batter fish fry.  Plus, of course, memories of a gorgeous, sunny day on the ocean with people I like. (Side note: I am not a “sport fishing” person; if I catch it and can keep it, I eat it – nothing made me sadder that day than traumatizing small fish that I had to let go.)

We cruised out to the first fishing site.  Nothing.  Everyone was catching small fish, nothing of “keeper” status.  There was a shortage of keepers.  What did we do?  We moved to somewhere else.  We went where the fish were.

In my column Where the Money Is, I discussed corporate despair over the so-called shortage of skilled-and-qualified candidates, and suggested companies consider groups of job seekers as a rich mother lode of people.  In that spirit, to quote a comic book villain, Arcade, from memory: “Since I’ve struck a nerve, let me whack it again!”

When faced with a shortage of fish that could be kept, we changed where we fished.  But like that definition of insanity that is often cited – being defined as doing the same thing again and again expecting different results – it appears that companies keep looking for candidates in the same locations as before, hoping for different candidates.

Networking groups across the country, and specifically Massachusetts ones like Acton Networkers         and WIND, to name just a few, plus virtual groups like New England Networking, are brimming with people looking for work.  I’ve met many, many members.  They’re skilled, educated, knowledgeable, motivated, experienced, and thoughtful… a rich source of people just waiting for someone to break the cycle of insanity of only looking for employed persons to hire.  At worst they might need a class or two for some specific piece of knowledge, but so what?  Isn’t getting someone with ability in, and getting things done as they ramp up, better than wasting the better part of a year pursuing that “perfect fit” while tasks remain totally undone?  (Side note: One position, for which I interviewed in January at an organization that made a huge deal of “running lean”, is still listed.  What tasks have fallen behind, what stresses are present employees experiencing*, and what customers are dissatisfied?)

Another thought chain from my fishing trip experiences occurred to me as I wrote this.  My father’s side of the family has been here since before the American Revolution.  Last year I joined the Sons of the American Revolution, documenting my lineage to Benjamin Pearson who fought in that war (I have a sworn affidavit from another ancestor in the Hunt line about his Revolutionary War experience, but I haven’t documented my ties to him officially-and-provably yet).  My late father once dropped a tantalizing hint years ago that I could, if desired, join the Mayflower Society as well.  Being a native Yankee, born and bred in New England with roots here way, way back, the fish “cod” has a special significance for me as it was a staple local food and a principle export since colonial times.  So I always want to catch cod, but I’m not fussy.  I caught a cod on this trip, yes, but also two pollock; my first year I caught a cusk.  All perfectly good and all tasty.  They fulfilled the functional goal of the trip: fresh fish in my kitchen.  Were I to limit myself to just cod, I’d be foolish.

I recently sent my resume to a company for a senior-level engineering position.  Despite the connotations of “senior level” – i.e., there being significant experience after the completion of a degree – the company in question specified only graduates of Ivy League schools, plus a few other top-flight schools like Carnegie Mellon University (where I got my first Masters), need apply.  Seriously?

I understand that for a recent graduate, the reputation of the school may reasonably be factored in, as should GPA.  But a decade or more after graduation, it’s what you’ve done after receiving the sheepskin that’s critical.  Yet this is not the only company I’ve spoken with that artificially limits itself by school and by GPA, even for experienced professionals.

And that’s the rub of this second point.  Whether pollock, haddock, cusk, or cod, all fulfill my goal: chowder, fried fish, etc.  Just as competent, capable people with quantifiable accomplishments over years and years are capable of doing the job, regardless of what school they attended or whether they cracked a 3.0.

I can only conclude that companies are enacting policies that unnecessarily limit the number of high-quality candidates, and then complaining about a “shortage” (it’s like the classic definition of chutzpah: the boy who kills his own parents and then pleas for mercy because he’s an orphan).  How many fish would I have if I had insisted I only keep cod that I had caught in the one, first-choice fishing spot?  None.

A local radio station’s morning show has a saying that comes up in the lead-in to the morning examination of the prior day’s Patriots football game: “You can learn a lot from a skillfully played game of football.”  I agree.  And you can extract usable lessons about a complex task, e.g., finding and hiring people, from the simple activity of fishing.

 

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

* The web is starting to see multiple articles warning companies of employees looking for new jobs, ready to jump.  I suspect this overloaded-for-so-long situation has a lot to do with it. 

Ask

“Since before your sun burned hot in space… I have awaited a question.”  – The Guardian of Forever, Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever.

Questions are the lifeblood of an interview.  The interviewer asks the candidate questions.  Too often, though, candidates do not ask questions in reply.  This should be a conversation, not a one-way interrogation.  Reading the online literature from job search coaches, they all discuss the need to ask questions as a part of the interviewee’s presentation.  Questions show interest, motivation, and they give the interviewee information to judge the employer, not to mention their potential boss, in turn.

Multiple sites and columns exist with scores upon hundreds of questions for candidates to consider asking in an interview.  If you search with google or bing the phrase “questions to ask on/during an interview” you will find more questions than you can possibly imagine – many are good, and when interviewing I try to ask them if I can get a word in edgewise.  But I’d like to discuss a few of my favorites which I’ve not seen elsewhere.

Who will introduce me to the people outside the department with whom I will need to interact to get my job done?

Not “Will I be introduced”, not even “how”, but “who”.  This puts a spotlight onto both the company’s and hiring manager’s onboarding process, and the role of HR.  It also highlights their commitment to you as a new person to help you get up to speed.  A lack of this basic action as a standard part of the process implies weakness in other aspects of your coming on board – the “Here’s your anvil, now go swimming” mentality is not going to be conducive to your success.  Body language can speak volumes here, especially if they have no such process.  I’ve seen people literally squirm and shift uncomfortably when I ask this.

How are decisions made here?

This is actually a double-whammy question.  The first is that it gives insight into how the group functions.  Are big decisions done by committee, by one person, etc.?  But it’s also an insight into the perspective of the manager… because decisions are not made by teams, but by a person.  Teams can recommend courses of action, they can agree on a consensus or majority path to choose, but ultimately the decision to do X and not Y has to be made by a person, even if that person decides to accept the recommendation of a group.

How long have you worked here, and what is your story of how you ended up here?  How has it measured against your expectations?

This is a chance to learn more about the career history of your potential manager.  This is also a chance to see how the company’s marketing to potential employees, and their self-serving spin (and they all do self-serving spin, just as candidates do), matches the reality.  In particular watch their body language as they describe the correlation between their own expectations vs. reality.

If you could change one thing here, what would it be?  And is that a local phenomenon, or is it global to the whole company (if a large company)?

This is another chance to see what a potential sore point your manager might have about the place.  It’s also a great question to ask a potential colleague who also reports to them.  Ideally, do both.  First, you get to see how peoples’ perceptions of organizational weaknesses align with the different perspectives of position.  It’s also a good segue to learn more about your possible new boss from their subordinate, without specifically asking.

How long ago did you move from being an individual contributor to a manager?  What induced you to make that switch, and do you have any regrets?

Again, this is a chance to learn more about your potential boss’ history and motivation.  But there’s more.  If they’re new to their level of responsibility, they might be nervous about someone gunning for their chair, and scared they’re not up to their new responsibilities.  And if they have regrets, that’s a warning sign they might micromanage and possibly meddle in your day-to-day activities, because they want to keep their hands in the business of their subordinates, as opposed to managing it.

What happened the last time a big project went awry?  What did you learn, and how do you keep these issues from happening again?

A number of things can come from these questions – so ask several people.  The first is that there is no organization that is so fine-tuned that projects don’t go off the rails to some degree.  A company that says it’s never happened either has a really poor collective memory, or people are hiding reality.  The second thing is that it gives an indication of how flexible and adaptable the organization is.  It’s also an opening for one of the people to descend into finger-pointing, which can teach you a lot about how the company handles people who make mistakes.  And last, informal companies fight fires but are unable to prevent them from happening again.  Good companies document and disseminate such information formally.  Where are you interviewing?

Describe the best, most successful project that you’ve seen done here.

The answers to this question can reveal if the company does projects well, if things going right is considered normal or not, and what’s involved in a successful project.

I’m curious; what are the top three things about my background that interested you?

This forces the hiring manager to bring to mind specific things they liked about your background (as opposed to the question about any shortcomings or objections, which forces them to think of negative things).  It also gives you insight about what the company values in general, which can help you color your answers to emphasize the traits that led to the accomplishments they cite.  Lastly, if you know you are an “imperfect fit” for the position, it can indicate what they value enough to bring you in anyway despite those things that are lacking.

Have you ever abandoned a significant project (or cut loose a client, or whatever is suitable to your profession)?  What went into that decision?

Not everything in a business works out.  If they’ve never done this, they’ve either been blessed with extraordinary success, or are so desperate for revenue or cost savings that they don’t dare give up anything, or are too stubborn to cut their losses on something… among many possible reasons.  Regardless of the root cause, this is useful to know.

Stock questions have their uses, and many are good and worth asking.  But just as good candidates have created stock answers to stock questions – and there are a million “best answers to top interview questions” articles and books – so too have veteran interviewers created stock answers to the canned questions from candidates.  Just as interviewers try to ferret out information from candidates, candidates must do the same.

In the sci-fi masterwork novel Dune, which I’ve praised before (don’t bother with the movie IMHO; I suffered through it so that I could recommend you avoid it – instead read it, and then immediately start reading it again), arch-villain Baron Harkonnen is gloating to his nephew Rabban about having suborned his enemy Duke Leto Atreides’ trusted employee, Doctor Huey.  The doctor, a graduate of the Suk medical school (famous in that novel’s universe for the loyalty of their students to their employers), has conditioning and training that supposedly precludes exactly this type of betrayal.  Rabban asks “Does the Emperor know you’ve suborned a Suk doctor?”

The Baron was surprised and paused, thinking “That was a penetrating question.”

Surprise your interviewers.  Ask penetrating questions.

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

The “O” Word

As the workforce ages – graphically shown with excellent commentary in the blog post When the Silver Tsunami Hits the Silver Ceiling – people will more often become confronted with one of the most horrible words any older worker can hear in an interview: Overqualified.

I have read numerous articles on what to do when hit with this word.  Some advise soft-pedaling the answer, or attempting to dance around it with varied evasions.  Some advise direct confrontation.  I fall into the latter camp.  This word is a red flag warning that they’re about to rule you out of the running.  Any objection this serious needs to be met and squelched – because at this point I contend you have nothing left to lose.

Before I begin, let me caveat this article’s advice.  I am not a job search coach.  I’m just another guy with an opinion – and hopefully you’ll agree with the logic that leads up to that opinion.  If you are a job seeker you will need to decide for yourself what to do if, in an interview, this comes up.

Again, multiple articles available on the internet attempt to “get inside the interviewer’s head” and examine why it is they are saying this.  I’ve found that it boils down to three possibilities, which I concede are not mutually exclusive.  So what do I do when I get this comment?  I say something like:

“I think we’ve had a very productive conversation thus far, and I appreciate the chance to come in to interview.  ‘Overqualified’ is such a broad word, and I’d like to understand what the core of your concern really is.

Reason One: You will be too expensive.

Let’s face it.  Overqualified goes hand-in-hand with ageism.  If you are an experienced person faced with this, you are definitely someone older.  You don’t get “overqualified” flung at you fresh out of college, you get it having been in your career and chosen profession for years, even decades.  And if you’ve been working that long, almost axiomatically, your salary will be high.

At this point you need to have done your homework – just how much higher than what they’re willing to pay are you?  If it’s a few thousand dollars, possibly even up to $10K, I think this can be overcome.  The key is to show your value.

For example, if you are an engineer like me, you can point to specific examples of cost savings totaling hundreds of thousands a year, or how your experience lead to a speedier launch of a product – there are lots of dollars in every week you can pull a project ahead.  Consider your own career history and your profession; how do people in your profession show value and to what unique examples can you point from your accomplishments?

What are you willing to concede?  What are you willing to trade?  Perhaps less money is worth starting out with more vacation time.  Is there specific, relevant-and-useful training you’d like to get but that isn’t necessary for this job specifically?  Don’t give away the store, but preemptively state your being open to compromise if the position and company are, otherwise, of interest.

Reason Two: You’ll become bored and leave.

This depends, of course, on what your career goals are vs. your life goals.  Things in your life like your family, your friends, social circles, house, hobbies, etc., all get disrupted by switching jobs, and by the time that gets invested in a job search above-and-beyond the time required to maintain one.  

Odds are you’re probably searching beyond your own industry.  My focus is medical devices, in which I’ve only worked less than a year and which has many, many regulatory twists and turns to learn, and defense.  Again, this too has many of its own unique things to learn.  One can be challenged by more than larger, more intricate projects.  One can be challenged by the learning curve of a new industry.

Again, you need to craft your own answer.

Reason Three: You’ll gun for the boss’ chair.

A few months ago I had a phone screen interview with a hiring manager at a company where I’d like to work.  Good location, solid reputation, and in one of my target industries (medical devices).  The phone screener was the hiring manager, a new manager promoted up from engineering literally a few weeks prior.

He was clearly scared, unsteady on his feet in his new position with vastly different and expanded responsibilities.  I had looked him up on LinkedIn before the interview and I knew I was older and more experienced in Engineering.  So he had to be wondering how secure his position might be, given my experience and Masters of Manufacturing Management degree.

In my case, I am most definitely not aiming at the boss’ chair.  I like Engineering, and want to grow as a technical person (the reasons for this career decision will be covered at some point)… now, if at some point I were offered, I’d consider it.  But moving into management is not my goal, and I make sure to say so – especially if I sense that someone is nervous about their position being supplanted.

And on this topic: Survey Reveals What Employees Really Think About Their Bosses, has an interesting paragraph:

Survey results indicate that the youngest employees in today’s workplace are ambitious and are looking to get ahead — and they’ll go to great lengths to do it. 42% of Millennials think they’re smarter than their boss and nearly half (45%) aspire to have their boss’s job.

If you’re older and more interested in stability than rocketing up the food chain, this could be a good thing to use as a compare-and-contrast thought woven into your discussion.

Preemptively Strike

So if you’re getting the O-word, you need to take stock of how you present yourself.  And anticipate these three objections in how you answer.  Head ‘em off at the pass, answer these concerns before they’re even asked, and you will have a much smoother time having preemptively answered and soothed these concerns.

© 2013, David Hunt, PE

 

From HAL’s Breakdown to Competitive Success

In the classic sci-fi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the story by “Golden Age of Science Fiction” giant Arthur C. Clarke, the sentient computer HAL apparently goes insane and kills virtually the entire human crew of the ship.

In the second film, 2010, we learn that HAL had been ordered to lie to the crew, in direct contradiction of his stated purpose: “… the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment.”  HAL reasoned that with the crew dead, he would no longer need to lie to them, thus killing the crew made logical, albeit amoral, sense.  An environment of lies directly led to the failure of the mission and multiple deaths.

Having worked <mumble> years in my professional career, I have seen the lengths to which people will go to spin information to put themselves into a better light and to weaken or even conceal bad news, up to and including blatant lying.  I once found a humorous progression of information transmitted upward to the CEO – it started out with a person saying “It’s a crock of sh*t and it stinks”, and by the time it gets to the CEO it became (going from memory) “Surprisingly small but will powerfully promote growth.”  Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, especially if it is of one’s own making. 

There are, among many different management philosophies I’ve read about, two elements that I believe are necessary for a organization to truly successfully compete and succeed.  The first fundamental trait, as outlined in the essay Why Honesty Is the Secret Ingredient of Successful Organizations, is the freedom to speak candidly.  Sweeping inconvenient facts about internal or external realities under the rug solves nothing; the truth will out.  And better that your boss learns of these facts from you than from someone else.

In the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, which I absolutely loved by the way, there is a scene in which the Minister of Intelligence is speaking to the new Prime Minister, Londo Mollari, a regular character in the series.  The Minister is telling Londo about something he was asked to investigate, a subject whose wracking truth causes Londo great pain, and – during the conversation – comments to the effect “… if you cannot say what you mean, you cannot mean what you say.”  Being able to say what you mean, in order to mean what you say, is absolutely priceless, and absolutely critical to an organization desiring long-term success.

To circle back to HAL and my own profession: As an engineer, it is my job to accurately process the data available and filter it through my education, experience, and even my gut instinct to provide recommendations and solutions I believe best.  Sometimes this means telling management what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear.  But only by saying what one means, in order to truly mean what one says, can the accurate situation-on-the-ground be communicated.  This ties to Integrity, one of the two characteristics I argued elsewhere are truly intrinsic properties of a person’s character. 

Part-and-parcel to speaking candidly is the freedom from fear at making honest mistakes.  In the book Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S Marines one of the central features is the making of mistakes, and learning from them.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that mistakes are without consequences, particularly given the business the Marines are in, with their opponents being in the same business.  A mistake can, literally, be life-or-death.  But the liberty to make mistakes, so as to try unexpected things (with the corollary that one learns from them), is central to the Marines’ philosophy of fluid tactics and strategy.

Only an organization where individuals have the liberty to speak openly and honestly, and can make mistakes while trying new things, can survive in today’s global competition.  Why?  These two characteristics are foundations of another characteristic of successful companies: agility.

The book When Lean Enterprises Collide, by Robin Cooper, was a book I reviewed for my Management course at Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) when I was pursuing a Masters of Manufacturing Management (completed in 2003).  I took away two core lessons; the first will actually be the subject of an essay at some point.  My second observation was that lean companies that compete in exactly the same way that normal companies do.  It is the pace of competition that differs, and the agility of the company to shift and pivot quickly in response to the market that drives success.

Unlike the good old days when companies could build a dominant lead in a core technology or service, lean enterprises clash, develop competitive advantages that last a few years at best, and then must continually reinvent themselves and their products in a desperate race to outpace the competition.

This ties in well with the Marines.  Warring parties clash, and each side learns from the other: In the book The Children’s Hour, a science fiction novel set in the universe created by author Larry Niven during the period of the Man-Kzin wars, one Kzin (imagine an intelligent tiger) reflects that they and humanity are locked in the “best of schools” – war – where nothing teaches you about the true nature of your opposition quite like fighting it.

“Business is war!” said a character in the movie Rising Sun.  And so it is.  Which means companies that can outpace and seize the initiative usually win.  Key to this rapid-engagement between businesses is the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) first developed by Air Force pilot Colonel John Boyd.  (Side note: He is famous for having a steak-dinner-and-bragging-rights bet.  You and he would meet up in the air, with you being in perfect firing position, right behind him.  Shouting “Fight’s on!”, if he wasn’t behind you within forty seconds of the start of the dogfight, you won.  He never lost.  Why?  Because the pace of his decision-making was so fast you would be starting to react to his move, and he’d already be on his next one, making the decision you just made obsolete in the time it took you to make it.)

Only a company where people can speak candidly to accurately describe internal and external realities, and where there is a freedom to make mistakes while churning out new ideas, can truly succeed in today’s frenzied engagements as companies compete.

Not for nothing are the war manuals of Japan, The Book of Five Rings by Miamoto Musashi, and of China, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, intensely studied by virtually every Asian businessmen.  American businesses would do well to learn from these great military men, in essence reading the playbook of the competition, as well as from the lessons of our own great military minds, minds like Boyd, to outpace our global competition.

 

© 2013, David Hunt, PE