punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,
punkwalrus
punkwalrus

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Interviews

So, I was reading this today, and it reminded me a little about how some people give the best advice, but have the wrong suppositions.

Let’s take one example, #7 in the link above, where the interviewer tries to get the candidate to say something they think is totally, 100% right, and then see how they react to a challenge to that statement. Joel writes, Strong candidates will find a way to persuade you. They will have a whole laundry list of Dale Carnegie techniques to win you over. “Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you,” they will say. But they will stand their ground. Hire. Later he admits that, Admittedly, in an interview situation, you are not equal parties. Thus there is a risk that the candidate will be afraid to argue with you because you are in a position of power over him. Yes, that is a good point. Then he says the truly passionate will belabor the point, and so on.

This is a great example. But this also assumes that the boss has a steady level of confidence and experience in management, and wants to be challenged because he or she sees interviewing a candidtate like a good game of poker. But sometimes... no wait, MOST of the time, the person who interviews you hasn’t a clue how to do so properly. I see it all the time. In fact, when I worked at Cargo, some other managers had me interview candidates for them (either because they admitted they sucked at interviewing, or our boss forced me to do it for them). Judging from my experience, I think a lot of people are put into leadership positions who really shouldn’t be. I saw it in retail and the tech field all the time. Many get “field promotions.” Cargo had a lot of managers come and go who were only hired because the previous manager quit, and they were the assistant at the time. You really had to be a screw-up not to get the job if that happened. So you’d get a boss who has never interviewed someone, and suddenly, they need an assistant. Sometimes challenging them and "belaboring the point" may get you turned down because you're "obviously difficult to work with."

One manager at Cargo had a great “zinger” for applicants: “Give me three reasons not to hire you.” This was one of those questions with no real right answer, we just wanted to see how you’d react. In sales, you sometimes get thrown for a loop by customers, so we wanted people who could take a positive spin on anything. I recall my answer was real weak and smart-ass (since I guessed that’s what he was up to): “I like Chinese food, I tend to still work on a problem even if it’s too late to do any good, and I have 3 cats.” The only person who came back at me with something really smart said, “Well, if the position doesn’t really exist, if the position has already been filled, or if you plan on quitting.” I got a lot of bullshit answers, like, “I work too hard,” or “I like working long hours.” The first one I said, “Why don’t you try working smarter than harder?” and to the second, “How long does it take you to finish a job, anyway?” Yes, I was a bastard. But I was a damn good interviewer. I still am. I use all kinds of tricks to find out the real information. Despite hard questions, I am never mean. Being mean only makes people clam up. I want them to talk and talk and talk. Many people who interview are mean or ask wrong questions. I have seen technical interviews where I had no idea who was qualified, but if the candidates came back a second time, I wouldn’t hire him or her because that would show true desperation.

Here’s what I’d call a good SA interview question: I put in a kernel patch on an OS, and the instructions said, “Reboot system after install.” So I did, but when it came back up, Apache didn’t start. How would I find out why and how might I fix this? I would look for answers like, “Look in the system message logs” or “try and launch it manually from /etc/init.d and see what happens.” Stuff like that. I recently asked this question to a possible replacement for me, and she said, “check the apache error logs” (if it didn’t launch, that wouldn’t do you any good) and “reinstall Apache” (that’s a last-ditch effort). Yes the “kernel patch” was a red herring. I even gave her a hint, and said, “Suppose someone said, ‘Oh, that machine always does that after a reboot, just restart it and it will be fine.’” So she suggested restarting the machine again. [sigh...] I am sure she will do well somewhere else, and cringe at this answer someday. I know I still have those moments ("It's a COM port conflict, not the mouse driver!").

This is a bad SA interview question: Do you know Unix? How about Linux? That could mean anything. Never ask yes or no questions to determine skill. I’d ask, “You’re given a choice to upgrade a new set of hosts to HP-UX, Sun, or Red Hat Linux. What would you choose, and why?” Bad answer: “Sun, because others suck.” Okay answer: “I prefer Linux because I’m more familiar with it.” Good answer: “It depends, what will they be doing?” Great answer: “What did they run on before, and why do we need the upgrade?” Super answer: “I don’t know, but here’s a shoebox filled with 20 dollar bills for you. May I rub your feet?”

Sometimes, managers ask people if they know a list of thinks like off a checklist. If you don’t fill one of them, you already have points against you. Others know it’s nearly impossible to find one person who knows everything your company does, and they know what’s easily trainable. Some hire you because you have big tits, and they are hoping that at some point in the future, they can run their face in the cleavage and go, “rbrbrbrbrbrbrrr!” You never know. Many read all kinds of books, but forget the real reason they were forced to read the book in the first place. Some have half an idea, like, “An applicant who crosses their legs means they are lying!” I’d like them to interview a one-legged man someday, just to see the interviewer panic like they’ve suddenly gone blind.

The truth is, there is no one magic way to interview someone. The best you can hope for is knowing what you want, finding a candidate who fills enough of those requirements to pass, and hope that when you hire them, they don’t claim 40 sick days in the first few months. The best an applicant can do is look eager and interested, have a lot of fun, and if you leave feeling queasy or stressed, go somewhere else.

That one of the reasons I try to interview when I already had a job. I was relaxed. If the interview went bad, I thought, “Well, what did I learn?” Many times in past interviews, I learned the boss or interviewer was an idiot. Usually they felt likewise, and both of us probably thought not hiring me was a good idea for everybody concerned. With this interview, I felt I could be honest. The job I just got (which will occasionally work with customer databases and mail systems), I told them during the interview, “I have never worked with high volume mail systems, and know very little about how databases work. But you know, I have always been curious.” I felt if they wanted me so bad to call me back, they better want me bad enough to train me. I wasn’t going to lie and then look like a dumbass, sitting in front of a terminal, going, “Duhhhh... um... what’s a relational table?” The owner told me, “based on your previous references, I feel you could learn anything, and I feel confident that your curious nature will allow you to grow into this position nicely.” The owner understood I didn’t want to do rote work, he knew I was a tinkerer by heart like him.

And that’s the good feeling I am getting from this company.
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