The Interview

Interviews are interesting things. When I first started out, I thought they were all about me and, in a way, they were. I wanted a job and the company had to establish whether I was worth taking a risk on and giving me the job. As time went on I learned a lesson: As much as an interview is an opportunity for the company to interview the candidate, it should be, at the same time, an opportunity for the candidate to determine if that is someplace he or she wants to work!

This was a lesson impressed upon me by a mentor who pointed out that as much as they are trying to interview him, he’s trying to understand what he can about the products, the company and, most importantly, the people.

Interviewing for a manager position, especially in an engineering organization, can be an additional challenge. Typically you’re coming in to an existing organization where the people already know each other and have, in many cases, been operating just fine without you. Management above is trying to figure out if the new candidate is going to cause more harm than good and the team needs to work really hard to be sure they don’t hire in a new manager who going to make their lives even more difficult. As a result, I found in a recent interview that I had the opportunity to interview with quite a number of folks. I had one all day interview, one half day interview and at least a few of those were via Skype/remote.

In-person interviewing is hard, interviewing with someone via telepresence/Skype is even more difficult because you lose all the information we all gather, consciously and unconsciously, from being in a room with someone. Worst of all is an interview over the phone with no visual feedback. This is often the case with a phone screen and those are really tough to get a good read on someone.

And what I’ve found in the past, and I don’t know whether this was the case at this most recent interview or not, any single person giving the candidate a thumbs down may be sufficient to remove that candidate from consideration. I described this to someone as a painful version of the Dating Game because you’re trying to land a date with everyone you talk to! But, for all of that, I get it: The company is potentially bringing in someone that the team will spend more time with during the work week than they do with family, so choosing wisely is worth the time and considering everyone’s input is important. And, again, from my perspective, it’s equally an opportunity for me to learn about the company and the team as it is an opportunity for them to learn about me.

Here’s a story from a recent interview and then we’ll see what, if anything, I learned.

This was during an all day interview that went from 9am to 4:30. As an introvert and acknowledging that I am, to some extent, performing, it was exhausting!

During one of the slots, I had something happen which has never happened in all my years of job hunting.  It did such a number on me that I was speechless and for a few moments I felt like I might be having a stroke – it was that much of a surprise.

I sat down with one of the engineers and he had his laptop with him.  The very first thing he does after we sit down and he introduces himself is to set the laptop down, point at the screen and in a very serious tone said “Explain this page to me”.

I thought maybe it was some sort of test and at first I wasn’t even sure what he was really asking.  I looked a bit more closely and realized it was the company’s content blocker which was blocking access to a page.  I thought that was a pretty weird thing to explain, but okay.  Then I paused a moment more because I parsed the content of the page a bit more and saw my last name, or rather, Mossor.org. My domain was being blocked by the company content blocker!

Looking up at the URL bar – this seemed like it took five minutes to work out, but I suspect it was closer to 10 seconds that just SEEMED like forever, and saw that he was trying to go to mossor.org but the content blocker was blocking access.  Looking again at the block of text in the middle said the following:

Reason: PORNOGRAPHY

I looked at the guy and he was just giving me a total deadpan expression.  That’s when my brain broke again for somewhere between an hour and five or so seconds.  In the midst of my interview, it was being pointed out to me that MY SITE WAS BEING FLAGGED FOR PORNO!

I stuttered for a moment and then became a bit more indignant because, as I told him, I know every byte on that site and there is NO pornography!  He asked, again, deadpan, if I was prepared to clear this up with company IT and I said, of course!

It was at that point that he he let me off the hook and started laughing.  I know a couple people that work there and one of them had apparently tried to show him something from my site and they found that it was blocked and they both thought it was hilarious that it was blocked due to supposedly pornography.

It was, at the same time, one of the most challenging things that’s ever happened in an interview and, by far, the funniest.  You know, afterwards. After my blood pressure returned to normal. After the tunnel vision went away. After I could make sentences again.

What’s the takeaway from this? I could look at that and say, “Geez, that was a really mean thing to do.” But, I don’t think it was. Or at least I believe that wasn’t the desired intent. I think it takes some guts to do something like that to your prospective manager and I think it tells me a fair bit about the organization that I’d be coming in to. They don’t take themselves too seriously, there’s a sense of humor and a prank, even out of the gate, was fair game. All right, I can work with that!

And, as the Chinese say (and stole from the Klingons) “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Note
Image courtesy of http://pixabay.com/en/manager-person-people-group-308474/ and licensed via Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en

Deja Vu All Over Again

I won’t go in to detail here because of the public nature of the Internet, but after two and a half months of employment, I find myself in search of a new job.

I learned first hand many things that contribute to a successful organization and what doesn’t, so it’s not a total loss.

Best of luck to the place I was as I move on to the place I will be in next!

Vocabulary

It’s good to learn new things.  It keeps us fresh, keeps us from getting complacent.

One thing that is true of moving not only to a new job, but a new job in an entirely new domain, is that there will be plenty of new things to learn.

Today’s observation relates to vocabulary.

It’s probably true that every group larger than four starts to create a unique vocabulary.  It’s certainly true when you move from one company to another and even more so if you move to a new industry.

With my new job, I get to learn a new industry as well as a new host of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) and vocabulary.

I’ve read entire emails where while I recognize each and every individual word, I have no bloody idea what the author is talking about.  That’s scary!

And then, if you like words, occasionally you simply get to learn a new word and its usage.

My favorite new word for the week is: Idempotent.

I’ve seen it used three times in the last two weeks and, to the best of my knowledge, have never seen the word before that.

I had to look it up on Wikipedia.  No, I’m not going to explain it here because they do a better job of explaining it there.

Turns out it has an application in software as well which I’d never been exposed to before and was not clear from the context.

New things to learn!  Life is good!  Now to use it in a sentence…

“If I have a sex change operation and then have another one, I’ll be back where I started,” he observed idempotently.

Hmmm.  See, that’s funnier after you read the Wikipedia article.  But not much.

Back to work!

Well, as much fun as it has been to be part of this growing new movement we call rampant unemployment during the largest economic recession/depression since the early 20th century, it’s time to do something else.

I’ll be starting work as a Senior Project Manager at an information management company here in the Portland area.

It will be an exciting new opportunity for me and I look forward to the challenges it will bring!

Searching for a job during the Apocalypse

Whether “Apocalypse” is the right word or not is certainly up for discussion.  Certainly David Sirota at Salon thinks so in his article here.

What I can say is that Oregon is sliding in to whatever this is (recession, depression, economic event, End Times) at a rate in excess of the nation as a whole.  Oregon unemployment exceeds 10% now, which hasn’t been seen since the early 80s, I understand.

Many seem convinced that our new president is badly misjudging the necessary correction necessary, though since that judgment comes from the very people at the rudder for the last eight years and who bear a great deal of the responsibility for letting the greed of the market run roughshod over the country for much of the last eight years, I’m inclined to take it with a grain of salt and to remain hopeful.

It certainly is distressing when even a room full of economists cannot seem to agree on the necessary course for the very economy they are presumed to be experts in.

Going in to this, back in mid-November, I posited that my job search would be at worst a three to six month experience.  Sadly, it appears that events in the economy and world seek to prove me quite wrong.

After three months I am still looking and could not, in good conscience, tell anyone that I have a clue when this will be over for me or the country.

I am an engineer by temperament and by training.  In my experience what distinguishes an engineer is a critical mind that loves a problem, loves to take it apart and solve it.  What separates a good engineer from the pack is that their solutions are well thought out and stand the test of time.  I believe I am a good engineer.

With that comes a confidence that I can be successful in any position requiring software engineering.

Unfortunately, when a hiring manager looks at my resume, what they see on the engineering and development side is that my time actively developing software was something like eight years ago as I’ve moved in to management.

A staffing expert at a local agency stated that software skills more than eight months out of date are considered to be obsolete.  Such is the rate of change in software development, tools and practices.

Now, I don’t actually buy that.  I believe that I and any software engineer worth their pay can pick up the necessary language and specifics of a problem quickly.  What you are paying for, especially in an experieneed engineer, is not whether they were coding in that specific environment yesterday, it’s their ability to problem solve.

I’ve long believed that another characteristic that separates a good engineer from the pack is not that they can keep all of the details of the dozen or more languages they may be able to work in in their head at one time.  It’s that they know where to find the answers quickly and how to apply them efficiently and with a high level of quality.

When I was just out of college, I could work on a problem for 60 hours a week and generate a great deal of code.  Today I can create better, higher quality code in 30 hours because I know what *not* to do.  Energy does not equal productivity.  Time spent at a keyboard banging on the keys does not equate to quality code.

But, all that is moot if you cannot get in front of a hiring manager to seal the deal.

“People hire people they know or are comfortable with”

This is something I am hearing over and over again these last few months.  And, as I reflect on my own career, in all cases each job I took or moved to was made easier by the network of people I know and who can vouch for me and that I’m worth talking to.  So, networking is clearly critical, especially during a time when the market is saturated with people and resumes that all look much the same.

The other path I’ve been pursuing and will likely move to be my focus is to find a job managing.  This takes on several facets.  Apparently there is a hierarchy of management that goes something like this, from more to less difficult:

  • Engineering Management – Responsible for managing people, programs and product direction, often with input from Marketing and customers.  Responsible for schedules, task prioritization and delivery.  Main knobs on the process include the classics: Scope, Schedule and Resources.
  • Project Management – Much like the above but often without the people management.  Wikipedia describes it thusly:
    “A project manager is the person accountable for accomplishing the stated project objectives. Key project management responsibilities include creating clear and attainable project objectives, building the project requirements, and managing the triple constraint for projects, which is cost, time, and scope.

    A project manager is often a client representative and has to determine and implement the exact needs of the client, based on knowledge of the firm they are representing. The ability to adapt to the various internal procedures of the contracting party, and to form close links with the nominated representatives, is essential in ensuring that the key issues of cost, time, quality and above all, client satisfaction, can be realized.”

  • Program Management – Responsible for tracking the progress of a project, often without responsibility for the resources.  Often a collector/reporter of status without direct access to the resources doing the work.  Wikipedia differs with me somewhat, though:
    “Program management or programme management is the process of managing multiple interdependent projects that lead towards an improvement in an organization’s performance.

    Projects deliver outputs; programs create outcomes. A project might deliver a new factory, hospital or IT system. By combining these project with other deliverables and changes, their programs might deliver increased income from a new product, shorter waiting lists at the hospital or reduced operating costs due to improved technology.

    Program management is concerned with doing the right projects, whereas project management is about doing projects right. Successful projects deliver on time, to budget and to specification.”

  • Product Management – According to Wikipedia, “A product manager considers numerous factors such as target demographic, the products offered by the competition, and how well the product fits in with the company’s business model. Generally, a product manager manages one or more tangible products. However, the term may be used to describe a person who manages intangible products, such as music, information, and services.”  Further, “Diverse interpretations regarding the role of the product manager are the norm. The product manager title is often used in many ways to describe drastically different duties and responsibilities. Even within the high-tech industry where product management is better defined, the product manager’s job description varies widely among companies. This is due to tradition and intuitive interpretations by different individuals.”

By the way, I think these definitions are pretty subjective and likely would not be agreed upon by a room full of people who may claim to have done any or all of them.  It’s pretty fuzzy.

What I’ve discovered recently is that I am currently in a difficult position because my development experience is old and rusty by the above “eight month rule” and my management experience potentially over qualifies me for many of the jobs which are looking for Project/Program/Product Management.

In my time looking I’ve only seen a single job that I would call “Engineering Management” and it turns out I was competing with at least two friends who also are out looking.  In the end the hiring company had many, many people apply and were able to choose people with very close experience to what they were looking for and didn’t have to chance bringing on someone who might have to come up to speed in their specific technical domain.

So, I continue to work on tuning my resume, I continue to figure out how better to leverage my network and I’m looking in to some Project Management certifications which, though I’ve been doing the relevant activities for the last decade, possession of the certification will set my resume just one more skill above some of the masses.

It is a black box, though.  Since you don’t get feedback on why you didn’t get called or get the interview, you really don’t have enough information to figure out how to tweak the resume or the phone screen to do better next time.  Whoever might have that feedback has gone on their way and has no reason to make themselves available for that kind of feedback.

I do believe things will work out, but I also believe that the market has swung dramatically in favor of the hiring company in their ability to have a large range of talent to choose from and in possessing a very strong negotiating position when it comes to salary because there are a dozen people waiting to take that position at a reduced rate of pay.

Perhaps this will turn back around.  Certainly one hopes that is the case.  But, I would not hazard a guess about when that might be.

I had a friend tell me that when they were looking for work for seven months a few years ago, they were struck by how when you are working, you lament how you wish you had time to do all the things on your “to-do” list, be they chores or projects or hobbies.  Then yout find yourself without a job and suddenly you have all the time in the world (minus the considerable time you can spend looking for work), but you lack the means and you cannot enjoy that time because you don’t know when you’ll be working again.

Another friend made a similar observation: If someone could come up to you and tell you “The first day of your new job will be June 12th”, you could plan for that, relax and enjoy the remaining time.  Without that, all you can do is stress what you don’t know.

Much of this comes down to trying to be patient about the things we cannot control and that list is considerable.  But, another characteristic that separates a good engineer from the pack is a confidence in their ability to solve *any* problem if they can just figure out the buttons to push and the levers to pull.  So to be presented with a problem that doesn’t seem to amenable to all the button pushing and lever pulling I can come up with is close to intolerable.  That’s not how things work(ed) in my world.

That’s tough to accept.

There’s probably a lesson in there if I weren’t too stubborn to accept it.

How to Work Better

A nice article on how to work better.  I like that it focuses on simple ideas that can have profound impact on how we work and how we think about working.

The list appears simple on it’s face, but is worth thinking about as we do our day-to-day task, but especially, I think, as we try something new.

Here’s the list:

  1. Do one thing at a time
  2. Know the problem
  3. Learn to listen
  4. Learn to ask questions
  5. Distinguish sense from nonsense
  6. Accept change as inevitable
  7. Admit mistakes
  8. Say it simple
  9. Be calm
  10. Smile
[Lifehacker via Scott Berkun via Team Genius Book Report

Better Presentations

Merlin Mann at 43Folders did a great presentation on presentations that is worth a read.  This was from 2007, but is still a good way to shake up your presentations.

I admit I struggle with how best to apply some of the ideas since most of my presentations tend to be pretty technical and filled with details.  So, I struggle with leaving them out and as a result, they tend to look like a bullet-fest-apalooza.  And, you pretty much don’t see technical presentations given with stock photo footage.

This leaves me wondering why that is and not having a great answer.

Nevertheless, it’s a great article on better presentations and if it gets me thinking differently, that’s not a bad thing.

Better Public Speaking

Lifehacker has a nice article on improving your public speaking.

Years ago I took a week long class in public speaking at the company where I worked.

It started out with video taping a short impromptu speech.  We didn’t get to see the results of the tape at that time.  Later, we talked about many of the basic of better public speaking: eye contact, cadence, pacing, etc.

Two of the areas that I had struggled with and, to some extent still do struggle with, are pacing and non-words.

I speak fast, especially when nervous.  I can also be a quiet talker.

In the course of the class I became much more aware of controlling the non-words (Um, ah, uh, etc), more aware of pacing and the value of a pause, a moment of quiet to gather your thoughts.

At the end of the class we were video taped again and when we graduated, with certificate and all!), we received the tapes of our opening speech, several that we’d done in the middle and our final speech.  The difference in that time was pretty striking.

I’m not nearly as concerned at the notion of talking with a group or even one on one with a stranger as I used to be and I credit that class, along with time and practice, with helping me to be a better speaker.

And, the far and away best recommendation from the above article is to record yourself and review it while practicing your speech.  Pay attention to non-words and pacing.  Look at body language and work on eye contact.  The latter two won’t be natural when practicing alone, but it’s still useful.  And, best of all, if it is  possible, record the presentation itself.  You may find it a bit cringe-worthy, but the feedback you’ll get from that will be invaluable.

The Most Recession Proof Jobs

Get Rich Slowly enumerates the most recession-proof jobs in the current market, as chosen by some experts.

Let’s see how I’m doing.

Per Expert #1:

1) “Engineering, because the abandoned U.S. industrial base will need to be re-tooled.”

7) “Computers and high technology, one field in which the U.S. continues to lead.”

Per Expert #2:  Well, I’m pretty hosed there, unless I hop over to IT or networking.

Expert #3: Nope, nothing I do plays well in a recession according to this opinion.

Expert #4:

2) Software design/development

11) Project management

Interesting article and I didn’t see anything in there to make anyone feel that they were not at risk.  So, buckle down and be indispensible!

[Via: Lifehacker]

The Cost of Paying Attention

Mike Elgan over at InternetNews wrote an interesting article about what he calls Work Ethic 2.0.  In it he argues that hard work is dead, replaced by the ability to function in an environment actively working to rob us of the ability to focus our attention.

This resonates with me as it seems the Internet breeds more and interesting ways to pull us away from focusing on things.  Even taking aside the Internet, which I believe still offers real benefit, despite the shiny lights and noises, the same applies in the workplace, and add in additional sources of attention grabbing.

One of the things I’ve appreciated as I’ve moved from Development to Management to customer-facing roles and back is that each offers different levels of opportunity to focus.

In my experience, a developer often has a fixed set of requirements and a fixed schedule.  There is always the possibility that a high-priority customer issue or business opportunity will come up and upset that apple cart, but largely, the opportunity exists to go heads down and focus.

In one of my other roles as a Customer Applications Engineer, it was on the opposite end of the spectrum: almost entirely interrupt driven.  The ability to plan larger, longer term projects existed only in and around meeting the immediate demands of customers.

Somewhere in the middle is the management role.  Trying to manage a set of Developers, themselves focused on the individual tasks while I, as the manager, try to keep them focused and minimize the disruptive interrupts, but having to choose to let some by as necessary.

The challenge in that role is to focus on the needs of the team to meet the goals of the company to make money and be successful, while trying to serve as a guard on the Developers time.

It’s an interesting problem, especially in light of the plethora of interrupt mechanisms that exists in a moderns workplace.

I’ve worked in environments where the interrupt mechanisms included all of the following: email, phone, IM, in-person visit.  That doesn’t cover the hallway or bathroom, which also offer opportunities for added interrupts.

The ability to focus in light of all of those challenges will be, I think, an increasingly important skill to cultivate in a environment that increasingly demands our attention be split when we most need to focus.