Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Once More Into the Breach, Thoughts on Job Seeking and Interviewing: Doing Your Homework

So, you've contacted friends and they've kindly passed on your resume. You've hit the job boards and applied to anything that looked remotely like you could do it. Recruiters are actually calling you.

The way the current job market manages hiring is a multiple step process:

1) Your resume gets through the slush pile to someone who thinks you can do the job/might be a good fit.
2) This person (or someone in their org) contacts you about a phone screen.
3) You agree to a phone screen and schedule one.
4) You do the initial 'is this person insane/lying to me' dance of the first phone screen.
5) You pass! They ask to schedule another phone screen and/or they ask you to come in for an in-person interview (9 times out of 10 it's another phone screen)
6) You pass the phone screens/initial in-person interview! They schedule you for at least one more interview.
7) It is now down to you and whomever else has passed these hurdles (Typically 5 or fewer applicants)
8) You do or do not get the job
9) They notify you, typically via email if you didn't get it, by phone if you did
10) If you got it, you discuss rates, vacation time, contract length...whatever is pertinent to the gig.

Let's break this down.

(1) I've covered in an earlier blog on resumes; everyone has what they like, I have what I like. Check it out - there are comments from other managers indicating their preferences to get resumes through the slush pile, as well.

You schedule a phone screen (3). I'm going to state the obvious here, but bear with me: if you are currently employed do not do the phone screen on the time of the company for whom you still work. Do it on a lunch break or after or before work. I'm generally okay if you are a contractor and no one else is using that room during the time, in scheduling time in a conference room over lunch to do the interview. If you are a permanent employee, its up to you whether you feel comfortable doing that or if you want to take the call outside/in the cover of the stairwell/whatever.

The first phone screen is usually not the person who can make a hiring decision. However, it is the person who gets to decide if you get anywhere NEAR the person who makes the hiring decision. Also, you never really know who you are talking to; I've done an initial phone screen with the CEO of a company because she was managing HR while the HR director was out at the start up where I was interviewing. This person may seem like the first obstacle on your path to this job, but really, they're the first person who can remove that obstacle for you. BE NICE.

Before you even talk to them, if I have a name, I Google it to get a better idea of whom I am speaking to. I wouldn't immediately drop the name of their dogs or ask them how their kids are doing when you talk to them--that sort of escalates to stalking and will definitely get you banned from moving forward with that company--but it does mean if you also like dogs, bringing them up is probably a safe concept. If you have kids, it might also be a safe area for small talk. Read carefully though; no one wants to talk about dogs when Betsy, their baby, passed away Tuesday. The emotional mood of the person with whom you are talking will influence their opinion of you (whether they think so or want it to or not). So try to keep them positive, talk about things they like, and to do that, you need to look them up.

You also need to look up the company. I've screened a lot of people who had never even glanced at the website. When asked what they thought we did, the number of "ums" was in the hundreds. Don't be the person "umming" their way through this part of the interview. Read about the company. TAKE NOTES. Write down the name, what they're famous for/main product is, find out where they are (so you aren't asking that embarrassing question in the interview when you could have found out yourself), and anything of interest on their "breaking news" or "marketing" division sites. Companies like it if you can a) spit their buzzwords out at them and b) know what they mean. So, look up anything you don't understand. For example, I've been in tech for wow, 20 years now, and I can NEVER remember what SaaS means. For the record, it's "Software as a service." Enjoy your acronym.

Finally, look over the job description to which you applied again. Make sure you understand those acronyms. Review the expected job experience and requirements. Prepare stories of the times you did those things--or things like them--at other companies if the question comes up. If you are shy required experience and you got the screen anyway, there's something they value in you, so prep for why that lack of experience is not a drawback/how you will get caught up/how you have it in this other way/etc.

Take your notes, the open job description, and a copy of your resume and have them with you when you do the phone screen. Try to keep answers positive; if you don't know something, that's okay, just answer how you'd find out (or how you've handled a situation in the past with a positive ending).

Traditionally the initial screeners aren't going to go for the throat--they may just be making sure that if you wrote "Agile/Scrum" experience on your resume you know what an Iteration is and what a daily stand up means. But sometimes they will. Be prepared.

I recommend against having a computer in front of you, other than for data that is already up on the screen (such as their website). People can hear you typing when you talk to them, and phone screeners are not stupid when there are short delays between asking a question and getting an answer. No searching the internet for stuff you're supposed to know once you're on the phone, unless you're explaining every step of the search process to the person on the phone and why you're doing it. And even then, avoid it.

I like to interview people about the job, just as much as I want to put my best foot forward in being interviewed. One of the ways I do this, as noted in a previous blog post, is to ask what people like about the job themselves; it tells you a lot. It also typically puts the interviewer in a good mood because you've asked about something positive. Every little bit of good mood while you are present helps in the interview process.

After the interview is over, you're likely to receive an email about next steps (or a "thank you but no thank you" typically in email form). I like to respond to that thanking the interviewer for their time, expressing interest in the upcoming interview, and if the upcoming interview is an in person interview, asking a little about the dress code at the company.

Do all the same prep for (6) again about a half hour before the interview. If it's an in-person interview, prepare to kill some trees. I like to bring at least two copies of my resume, a copy of the job description, my notes, a copy of the email thread or written notes for the name/contact info of the first call, and directions on how to get there. I like to review all this before I leave for the interview.

If they do not expressly say "jeans" in the reply email about the interview, or do not provide any information about normal company dress policy, slacks (for men) and slacks or skirt for women are the best option. For men I recommend a button up shirt, buttoned to the top, slacks (that are not part of a matching suit, but still nice), and a jacket (again, not part of a matching suit). In this way if it turns out you're over dressed, you can take off the jacket and unbutton a few buttons. For women, a utility dress--that can be dressed up with a jacket and jewelry--or slacks/skirt and blouse that can be dressed up or down with a jacket or scarf, is the equivalent. Something that can be upped if you need to look nicer with accessories from your purse, or that can easily be taken off to get you closer to what your interviewers are wearing. You want to look nice, and you want to be memorable, but you also want to play on the fact that people like people who are like them.

Don't lose heart if you have to be interviewed more between options (4) and (6). Depending on the market, there may be a glut of competitors out there, and to weed you out, they'll have everyone they can think of talk to you. Additionally, especially in places where they really need the additional help, they need help because they haven't got time...such as the time needed to hire you to help them. You could do three phone screens and four in-person interviews, or you might get one phone screen and one interview and get the gig. But take heart--unless two weeks pass without word OR you receive the very nice "thank you but no thank you" letter, you're probably still in the running. Just, it's a really long run.

When I find out (7)--that I'm one of the final candidates--I like to send an email to those who have given me their email (I never ask for it, because people worry about that whole "stalking" thing); each on personalized thanking them for their time and letting them know I enjoyed speaking with them...typically, if I can remember something fun we talked about, I will try to recount how awesome it was there. Keep it short--a four sentence paragraph or shorter. Then leave them alone to make the decision.

If a week passes with no word, ping the person responsible for telling you the news with a polite inquiry.

If several weeks pass (and no response to your query), call it done and move on. If they call you back a month later, it's up to you if you still want the gig (depending on your needs, etc.), but if they do that to you during the interview process, what will it be like to work there?

If you do get the gig, you'll probably get a phone call. Thank them profusely. If you haven't already asked about dress code, ask. Get their take on the best commute routes and places to eat locally (or who in the office might help you with that). Talk to them about rates (if you haven't already, which you should have by this time), vacation time, contract length...whatever is pertinent to the gig. Note: a lot of things are negotiable, but companies frequently bank on the reciprocity principle--they're giving you a job so you feel like you owe them--to prevent you from even thinking of asking. But it cannot hurt to ask about a third week of vacation or extra sick leave. As long as you don't threaten to fail to work without those things, the job will still be yours. But if you don't ask for what you're interested in, you certainly won't get it. After all that, thank them again and show up when told.

If you didn't get it, typically you get a very nice email explaining how close you were, but that someone else was just a titch closer.

A lot of people just stop here. DON'T. Instead, send a polite email thanking them so much and letting them know how much you liked everyone you talked to/met. Name names. Ask them to think of you if they have additional openings in the future. Sometimes initial candidates accept and back out, or turn out to be crazy and don't make it through the company's probationary time. Candidates that respond positively, and paid attention, get called back when there are job openings. You want that to be you. And maybe it won't be this time you're hunting, but people remember your good deeds--if you're looking three years from now, it might help you out.

I'm sure I'm sure I'll revisit this topic again, but in summary: be nice to everyone, you never know when it will come back to bite you if you're not, or when it will come back to help you when you are; prep small talk as well as technical and job related skills; do your homework before you talk to people; and don't burn any bridges behind you. The job market may seem vast, but it can be a rather small pool depending on your career choices; you always want people to want to work with you and they talk to each other. Keep that in mind, and you'll soar through this process like a pro.

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