A Tale of Two Interviews

Let’s talk about interviews.  Or, for the purpose of this story, two interviews and what we can learn from them.

Interview 1: Red Flags and You

The first interview was for a job somewhat outside my area of expertise, but I saw it as a subset of what I do as an Engineering Manager.  The job was for a Project Manager.  Unfortunately, this phrase gets used to cover many kinds of jobs.  In some cases PMs are the folks who help wrangle the data that indicates the progress of a project and it’s their job to look for when a project goes sideways, call attention to that fact and get the necessary people in a room to address the problem.  Often/usually they don’t have resources they manage directly, so they work with the managers who do control the resources.  In this case I was told that PMs did, in fact, manage resources but reported directly to the Director of the group.  So, although this sounded different than other PM jobs out there, it sounded close enough to an Engineering Manager position that it seemed something at least worth talking about.After an initial phone screen I was asked to come in and meet with the interview team.

The first pair of people I was to talk to were the Director and another PM.  The Director and I talked about general experience, management philosophy, how he ran his department.  Through all this the other PM was silent.  At the end of that interview, which was very short, maybe 40 minutes, the Director asked the other PM if there were any other questions and the answer was no.

Two red flags went up from this first interview:

  1. No interaction or questions with the other PM
  2. Very short interview with me asking more questions than the two interviewers.

The second interview was with a senior architect.

That interview opened with the senior architect stating: “I really don’t know what to ask someone interviewing for this position”.  And then he just sort of looked at me quietly.

Well, crap.  That’s not going to work.  So, I launched in to a discussion about the kinds of questions he should consider asking of a PM that he might be working with.  I gave him the questions, I gave him the answers.

I ran the interview and controlled it from start to finish.

At one point he said “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were in Sales!”  I don’t think he meant it badly, but what was the alternative?  In the absence of any real questions or discussion, I was not going to sit there for 10 minutes and shoot the breeze.  So, I took over the interview and made sure that I had a chance to talk about what I could do, my skills, my value to the process, how I run an organization.  We discussed some technical tidbits, but not a lot since it had been made clear to me that the Developers develop and the PMs manage the projects and the tasks.

Red Flag #3: If you have to run the interview as the interviewee, be worried.  What this tells you is one and possibly two things.

First, it tells you that the people interviewing really haven’t prepped and/or thought much about interviewing someone who might come on the team.  Second, given that I’d been told that they’d already interviewed several people and had more to interview, it likely implied that they were not using a consistent team of interviewers.

I’ve found that very useful to have a core group of interviewers to speak with candidates.  Yes, it’s a commitment, but without it you’re comparing apples and oranges in terms of feedback when you’re hearing Joe talk about his impression of Candidate #1 and Sam talks about his impressions of Candidate #2.  Limit the variables, limit the interview team.

Another thing which works well is to establish areas to interview within.  Perhaps one team member does team fit and another does technical fit and another quizzes on projects past.  You should have the same folks talking to candidates about the same things.  Importantly, this eliminates overlaps which are wasteful of time and resources, but it also makes sure that someone has the responsibility to speak to them about the areas that are important to you to place the right person in a given job.

Finally, I was supposed to talk to the VP of the group.  But he was out and would I be willing to come back another time to speak with him.

Sure, things come up, and yes, I am looking for a job, but ideally try and work hard to be respectful of your interviewees time.

In the end, I came back and met with the VP.  The meeting went fine until the discussion of compensation came up.  I was asked what my last salary wasand I was up front but made sure to let him know that it was important to me to look at the total compensation package and that I was looking for an opportunity to work in a different domain than I had in the past.

The VP replied that their budget was more in the range of about 70% of what I made in my last job.  Well, crap.

So, depending on your count, that’s somewhere between three and five red flags from that interview.

In a perfect world one might take those and say “Hmmm, my gut is telling me that there’s something not great going on here.  Perhaps this isn’t the place for me.”

And that’s fantastic if you have the luxury to trust your gut and walk away from a job offer.  But, as was pointed out to me, even 70% of my last job is significantly more than I was making on unemployment.  And I could always continue to look for a better fit.

In the end, it became clear that that job was not a good fit and there was a parting of the ways.  So, gut was right, but I did work for several months, which is good.  But, on the negative side, there was a parting of the ways, which has not happened to me in 20 years as a professional.

That whole experience reminds me of a story one of my mentors told me about when he interviewed for a position at a company where he and I worked together.  After meeting with the interview team, he was offered the job.  But, before he would take it, he asked to talk with additional people about the job and the company.  He really saw the interview process as a two way street.  Not only was the company interviewing him for fit, but he took seriously the idea that he was interviewing the company to see if it was someplace he wanted to be.  I really respected that approach.  I also didn’t feel like I had that opportunity in this case.  I needed a job and that puts the balance of power on the side of the company in a way which makes it hard to be objective.

Interview 2: Finding My Tribe

The second interview started with me waiting in the lobby of the company.  One of the managers chatted with me while one of the other managers was trying to clear a conference room for us to talk.

As I was chatting with the first manager, the folks in the conference room began to exit.  Engineers wearing jeans and t-shirts and the last guy out … had bare feet and a ponytalk.  Ah, my people!

That first interview portion was with all three of the current managers for that company.  Everyone talked, everyone asked questions, everyone participated.  I got smiles and handshakes all around and they seemed genuinely interested in talking with me.  What was supposed to be 45 minutes turned in to an hour before they decided to hand me over to the VP and HR.  Again, smiles and handshakes.

Next I spoke with the VP and HR.  A bit more on management philosophy, what works and doesn’t work in engineering organizations.  I got an overview of the company, how they run things, where their business comes from and a general sense of the values of the company.  HR talked about all the usual HR subjects and was very helpful, very nice and a pleasure to talk with.  Again, roughly 45 minutes turned in to an hour and we parted with handshakes and smiles all around.

Finally I spoke with the owner of the company.

So, for this interview for this job I spoke with the entire management team, HR and the owners.  That’s an example of folks who are interested and involved with who they are bringing in to the company.

We talked some more about the opportunity, what the position would entail, opportunities for growth, necessity to be technical.  All the things I would want to be clear on before I consider whether this is someplace I’d like to work.

But here are the kinds of details that jumped out at me from this discussion, in addition to all the meat and potatoes subjects: The owner has a bookshelf behind him.  In the book shelf were two kinds of books: Technical and Science Fiction.

Not management philosophy, not How to Build and Sell a Business or How to Get Rich.  Technical and Science Fiction.  And Good Science Fiction (which means Science Fiction that I like).

So, let’s walk through the second interview:

  1. Great location in downtown Portland
  2. Interesting technical work and the managers (me!) have to be technical
  3. Pure engineering organization
  4. Minimal management structure
  5. Growing in the midst of a really atrocious economy
  6. Company values were talked about the talk is walked
  7. Bare feet and Science Fiction

Now, had both of these interviews happened at a time where they overlapped, it would have been a no-brainer which was the right fit for me.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, but this second one was certainly worth waiting for.

For the first time in probably a decade, I’m excited and looking forward to starting a job.  Excited about the challenges and the opportunities.  Excited about the people I’ll be working with.

I think I found my tribe.