Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Three Pillars of a Tech Job Interview

I felt compelled to revisit this due to the number of people that I personally know who are currently looking for work and are in transition at the moment (a friend of mine uses the term “Under Utilized”). For just about everyone that finds themselves in this situation, there is going to, at some point, be the sit down interview. While this varies from place to place, generally there are three areas that people look for and that will be the make or break for an applicant. Those areas are the technical, the motivational and the interpersonal. While they may not be termed in exactly this way, bet that interviewers are weighing these aspects whenever they talk to an applicant, and the ability to perform highly on each of these areas will determine who gets a second round interview or an offer, and those who do not.


I first became aware of these areas when I was working at Cisco Systems in the early 1990’s. During that time, Cisco was growing hand over fist, doubling in size or more every year. Yet even with that growth, they had a solid process for whenever they interviewed people. What I found interesting was the fact that, many times, even if someone was not as technically skilled as some other people, there was an uncanny ability to pick, most of the time, those people who would excel and grow over time, and be in positions to be solid leaders in a matter of a couple of years. I found that the emphasis on the three aspects of technical, motivational and interpersonal were the key to the success in these areas.

Technical: This is self explanatory. For most jobs, you have to have the technical skills to do the job. What’s not so obvious is that the technical skills are not always as cut and dry as many would think. Yes, if you are going to be a database administrator, you need to understand SQL and how to manipulate it. If you are hoping to get a programming job, you better know how to program. In some cases, having experience in a particular language is important or using a particular tool is important, especially when the company has a specific need for that particular ability right then and there. What’s not so well known is that many companies, especially smaller ones, are early in the process of developing and codifying the standards they will use, the tools they will utilize and the skill set needs are more fluid. If you are well versed in Perl and the shop in question is looking for expertise in Ruby, as long as the immediate need isn’t urgent, it is possible to show your experience in Perl as a selling point for that firm and that you could grow into the skills required with Ruby to be effective. One area that gets short shrift and can doom you is your cover letter and your resume, and your ability to sort words, spell words and write effectively. Yes, this is a technical skill, and one that undermines many candidates. It’s also not uncommon for companies to have a written test to see if you understand key grammar concepts, spelling, and sorting order for entries. Candidates have been bounced at this point and not considered for follow-up, even when their technical skills were excellent.

Motivational: I often phrased this as the “what gets you up in the morning” aspect of an interview. Motivational is a lot more fuzzy than the ability to discuss and ascertain technical ability. Also, motivational is an easy one to lie about, but not for long, because people’s true motivations do show through if probed long enough. Also, motivational factors can be colored significantly by what is going on in someone’s personal life. A person’s financial situation, home life, relationship with their family, friends, and social situations all come into play when probing the motivational aspects of a candidate. Most people who interview want a job, so the most basic motivation (being employed) is almost a given. However, there are other aspects that, when taken into consideration, change the way that a person interviews. When someone is in financial distress, even if they make no mention of it, it shows in the way that they sit and the way that they speak. When this is not an issue, people interview differently. Dave Ramsey talks about this on his radio program when he discusses financial situations with people and getting out of debt. He was the first to give me this idea. The way he puts it is that there is a “smell of fear” for those who have issues that are straining on them, whether they be financial, familial or social. When you have addressed these areas and they are not areas of stress in your life, you interview differently, your entire countenance changes, and what’s more, you are now not interviewing from the aspect of “I need this job” to “I would really like this job”. The difference is tremendous, and being able to speak to where your motivation comes from makes a tremendous difference. The less stress from other areas, the more you can focus on the enjoyment and challenge the position entails, and yes, it will show.

Interpersonal: This is the classic “can they play well with others” area. While the idea that everyone who comes into the work place will be a social dynamo is unrealistic, there is a definite need to weigh how a person interacts with others on the team. Cisco in the early 90’s did this with group interviews, where two or three people sat to talk with a candidate. It was not uncommon for an entire team to interview someone over the course of two or three sessions, and each person was encouraged to be themselves, albeit in a professional manner (no one would intentionally go in and try to push people’s buttons, for instance, though occasionally that is exactly what happened). This interview technique has a great potential to put someone at ease, because it’s much more conversational, and more people translates to a more casual conversation. It was often common to do this part over lunch, where we would go to a local deli and just sit down and talk about the things that interested us. Many times, work would not enter into the conversation at all. By gauging what interested people in their personal lives, what their hobbies were, and many times finding like interests really brought people out and had them freely communicating in a way they might not do in a regular interview setting. One word of warning, though; the Interpersonal part, when a person has been set at ease, does have the danger of veering the candidate into a potential trap. If you are too “free and easy”, you run the risk of offering too much information or putting your foot in your mouth. I remember one applicant who was out with us at lunch, and he started getting rather crude with his comments about previous employers, and offering gossip about where he had previously worked. This action was seen by many in the group as unprofessional, and cost him an offer. While these situations are rare, remember that keeping a professional demeanor is important, and there is no room for gossip in an interview. Love of video games, sure, but telling on co-workers should be avoided at all costs.


Even if your interviews are structured differently, the mix of these three aspects will be important in differentiating you from other candidates. Being strong technically but showing unfavorably in motivational or interpersonal areas may cost you a gig. Alternately, you could rock in the motivational and interpersonal areas, but be lacking in the technical area, and that too will cost you the gig. I will say, however, if you are slightly lower in the technical arena as compared to others, your ability to shine in the other areas can give you the nod over a slightly more technical candidate. So to all my friends who are looking for work or who are considering new vistas, keep these three areas in mind when you interview. You may be surprised at which elements makes or breaks a prospect.
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