Tech Life Stalk Your Future Job

The Sanity Check

As we discovered in A Glimpse and a Hook, it’s almost a miracle when the phone rings and a recruiter wants to set up a phone screen. The fact is, someone, somewhere in the organization has successfully mapped you to an open position. This is a really big deal because, in my experience, the chance that you’ll get this job has improved logarithmically. It’s not 50/50, but it’s vastly better than when you were a random resume sitting on a desk.

There’s a sense of relief when that phone call arrives and as soon as you hang up the phone with the recruiter, you’re going to call your best friend, “Hey, I got a interview with The Company!”

No, you didn’t. You got a phone screen and a phone screen has little to do with an interview. While your situation isn’t as tenuous as the 30 seconds you have to make an impression with your resume, you’re still not in the building and nothing real is happening until you’re in the building.

Like Glimpse, I’m going to walk you through my precise mental process that I use as I walk through the phone screen, but first you’ve got homework:

Stalk Your Future Job

Before you even talk to me, you’re on a fact-finding mission. You’ve got a job description, and after the phone screen has been set up, you’ve got my name. You might also have an idea of the product or technology associated with this gig or you might not, but even without a product name, you’ve got plenty of information to start with.

Do your research. Google me. Find out anything you can about what I do and I what care about. This isn’t stalking, this is your career, and if I happen to be an engineering manager who writes a weblog, well, you can start to learn how I think. Maybe I don’t have a weblog, but I post to mailing lists. That’s data, too.

How is this going to help you during the phone screen? Well, I don’t know what you’re going to find, but anything you can gather is going to start to build context around this job that you know nothing about. This helps with phone screen nerves as well. See, I have your resume and you have nothing. Aren’t you going to feel better about talking with a total stranger when you figure out from staring at my Flickr pages that I absolutely love Weimaraners? Isn’t it going to be reassuring to know I swear in my Twitters? A bit of research into who you are talking to is going to level the information playing field.

Similarly, if you have a product name or technology, repeat the same process. What is the product? Is it selling well? What do other people think about it? I’m not talking about a weekend of research here. I’m talking an hour or so of background research so that you can do one thing when the phone screen shows up: you need to ask great questions.

That’s right. In your research, you want to find a couple of compelling questions, because at some point during the phone screen I’m going to ask you, “Do you have any questions for me?” and this is the most important question I’m going to ask.

Initial Tuning

Before I ask you the most important question, I need to figure out a couple of things early in our chat. What I need to learn is:

Can we communicate? I’m going to lead off with something simple and disarming. It’s either going to be the weather or something I picked up from your extracurricular activities. “Do you really surf? So do I! Where do you surf?” These pleasantries appear trivial, but they’re a big deal to me because I want to see if we can communicate. It’s nowhere near a deal killer if the pacing of our conversation is awkward, I’ll adjust, but how off is it? Are we five minutes in and we still haven’t said anything? Ok, maybe we have a problem.

One more softball. My follow-up questions will now start to focus on whatever question your resume left me with. I’ve no idea what I’m going to ask because it varies with every single resume, so my thought is that you should have your resume sitting in front of you because it’s sitting in front of me as well. It’s my only source material.

Whatever these follow-up questions are, I’m still figuring out how we communicate. This means you need to focus on answering the questions. It sounds stupid, but if it’s not absolutely clear to you what I’m asking, it’s better to get early clarification rather than letting me jump in five minutes into your answer to say, “Uh, that’s not what I was asking.”

See, you and I are still tuning to each other. It’s been ten minutes now, and if we’re still not adjusted to each other’s different communication styles, I’m going to start mentally waving my internal yellow flag. It doesn’t need to be eloquent communication, but we should be making progress.

No more softballs. We’re past the softball phase of the interview and now I’m going to ask a hard question. This isn’t a brainteaser or a technical question; this is a question that is designed to give you the chance to tell me a story. I want to see how you explain a complex idea over the phone to someone you don’t know and can’t see.

Again, who knows what the actual question will be, but you need to be prepared for when I ask the question that is clearly, painfully, open-ended. I’m not looking for the quick, clean answer; I’m looking for a story that shows me more about how you communicate and how you think. Being an amazing communicator is not a part of most engineering jobs, I know this. I’m not expecting Shakespeare, but I am expecting that you can confidently talk about this question because I found this question in your resume and that is the only piece of data we currently have in common. If we can’t have an intelligent discussion about that, I’m going to start wondering about the other ways we aren’t going to be able to communicate.

Your Turn. We’re twenty minutes into the phone screen and now I’m going to turn it over to you when I ask “Do you have any questions for me?”

When I tell friends that this is my favorite question, the usual response is, “So, you’re lazy, right? You can’t think of anything else to ask, so you go for the path of least resistance.” It’s true. It an easy question for me to ask, but it is essential because I don’t hire people who aren’t engaged in what they’re doing. And if you don’t have a list of questions lined up for me, all I hear is: YOU DON’T WANT THIS JOB.

A well thought out question shows me that you’ve been thinking about this job. It shows me you’re already working for it by thinking about the job outside of this 30-minute conversation. Yeah, you can probably wing it and ask something interesting based on the last 20 minutes, but the impression you’re going to make with me by asking a question based on research outside of this phone screen will make up for a bevy of yellow flags. It shows initiative and it shows interest.

The Close

And we’re done. It went by pretty quick, but the question is, “How’d it go?” Here’s a mental checklist to see how you did:

Long, awkward pauses. Were we struggling to keep things moving? Were there long silences? Well, we didn’t tune appropriately. Again, not a deal killer, but definitely a negative.

Adversarial interactions. What happened when we had different opinions? Did we talk through it or did we start butting heads? This happens more than I expect on phone screens, and it’s not always a bad thing. I’m not interested in you telling me what I want to hear, but if we are on opposite sides of the fence, how do we handle it? If a candidate is willing to pick a fight in a 30-minute phone screen, I’m wondering how often they’re going to fight once they’re in the building.

How’d it feel? This is the hardest to quantify, but also the most important. Did we click? Did the conversation flow? Did we both learn something? Ideally, I’m a decent representation of the culture of the team I’m hiring for, so if the 30 minutes passed painfully, I’m wondering what kind of pain hiring you might inflict on the team.

Specific next steps. How did I leave it? Did I give you a song and dance about how “we’re still interviewing candidates and we’ll be in touch within the next week”? Well, that’s ok, but what you’re really looking for is a specific next step like “I’m going to bring you in” or “Let’s have you talk with more of the team”. An immediate and actionable next step is the best sign of success with a phone screen. If I don’t give you this as part of the close, ask for it. If I stall, there’s a problem.

A phone screen is not a interview, it’s a sanity check. I already know you meet the requirements for the job by looking at your resume. The phone screen is going to tell me whether you meet the requirements of the culture of my team.

Unlike your resume where you send your hope to an anonymous recruiting address, the phone screen gives you leverage. The phone screen is the first time you get to represent yourself as a person. It’s still a glimpse, but it’s the first time you can actively participate in your next job.

16 Responses

  1. Lou Factor 10 years ago

    I love the “Do you have any questions for me?” line. I use it because I’m lazy and in reality I can read anyone I’m interviewing in five minutes so I just need to waste 25 more minutes. My success record for these quick reads – 100%.

    As someone being interviewed, I interpret this as “I don’t know what I really want in a new hire, so I’ll see what shit will stick when I throw it against the wall.” I know that you’ve seen my resume. You know I have 15 years of experience and am exactly what you need, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you. The interviewer needs to convince me to want to leave my job and all the benefits seniority brings. When I’m on the interviewee side of the interview, it’s not really me being interviewed.

  2. *Typo Fairy drive by*

    intro, last sentence: firstm

    Stalk Your Future Job, 2nd last para: “if you have a product name” should be “if they” ?

    One more softball, 2nd last para: “not what I was asking.” (period inside)

    *this comment will self-destruct*

  3. Also, you left FizzBuzz out! 🙂

  4. Hi, good article. I enjoyed the last one too. I have a quick question.

    I have a job interview next week and part of that interview i have to give a 10 minuet presentation on a “Web Application I have developed”.

    Do you or anyone have any advise as to how exactly I should structure my presentation. Or what would you be looking for in a presentation in an interview?

    I have given many presentations as part of my university course. However with this one I’m not to sure how to pitch it.

    Any help would be greatfully recieved.

    Julian

  5. Brad Gignac 10 years ago

    Julian,

    I think the format of your presentation largely depends upon whom you’re giving it to, but I have one thing that I like my employees to do. We like to present scenarios and user response to an app, and it has gone over big with our clients and higher-ups in my organization. Simply presenting these things will show that you have put a lot of thought into the design decisions that you made. You aren’t simply flying by the seat of your pants; you are making intelligent, informed decisions.

    Since this is part of a job interview, they will inevitably be asking questions at the end. Having already answered the above questions, you will already be prepared to answer their questions.

    Finally, be prepared. Don’t just show up and give another presentation. You need to make a good first impression.

    Cheers,

    Brad

  6. Weimaraners? No thanks. Taking care of a dog is hard enough. I don’t need one that thinks it’s a person.

  7. Julian,

    a) Pick an app you’re passionate about (positive or negative)

    b) Start with what people gain from using the web app, which problems it solves (it does, right?).

    c) Find a technically interesting spot to cover (something that was hard to do, required a lot of thought/planning or didn’t work at all in 1.0 under load and had to be improved rapidamente)

    d) Wrap it all in a story and don’t hack it up in slides and bullet points (even avoid a presentation, if possible, talk freely and use a whiteboard for writing). Related: See http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2005/12/the_102030_rule.html and http://www.presentationzen.com/

    e) Get a second and third opinion about your outfit for the day. Bonus: At least one female opinion.

    f) Give the presentation to your best friend(s) at least once before. (Or in front of a mirror, if it suits you better).

    e) If you show something on a computer, test it, test it again, set up a backup, and a second, test them, and again. Bring a Plan B in case nothing works.

    f) Bring a watch/clock. 10 minutes are 10 minutes and they are over shortly after you said ‘hello’.

    Hope that helps, lots is obvious. Let us know how it went,

    Jan

  8. I’d have to agree with this article. Being a bit of a nerd, I had strong grades and a year of industry experience before I graduated. I was a pretty good candidate on paper and got through all the resume screenings.

    The phone screen and interviews were a different story. Not putting enough research into the company and not asking enough questions of the interviewer got me mercilessly rejected from 5 different companies.

    The upshot is that I learnt I was actually applying for jobs I didn’t really want and went on to correct my mistake.

  9. Thanks Brad,

    That’s good advise. I think they interviewers are more management type people than developers. The web app I am going to talk about does have some good designs and design patterns in it.

    However it has never had any users as it was just course work for uni. If I’ve understood you right. If I concentrate on the design of the application in my presentation. That sounds like a good plan.

    Cheers

    Jools

  10. Surprisingly relative, as I sit here in a hotel room for a 10am interview tomorrow morning. Granted, this is in the actual office, but I think a lot of what you said applies. And I agree: the “do you have any questions” is one I’ve always prepared for in past interviews.

  11. Scott 10 years ago

    This is a great post, Rands, thanks for writing it. I’m hoping the focus on preparedness and your massive readership leads to more thoughtful interviewees.

    As someone who’s done hundreds of phone screens over the last three years, I’d add just a few things:

    Stalk the job, not the manager (or keep it to yourself). It’s great when a candidate knows about my company, or my team, or my projects: it’s creepy when they’ve found pictures of my family or know more than they should about my career history. You want to find my LinkedIn profile, great – I found yours (and your MySpace page) – but don’t tell me about it. Be subtle.

    Your questions tell me your level. It’s great if you’ve prepared questions; don’t forget that they tell me not just about your research, but about where you are in your career, your self-awareness, etc. You’ve heard of dressing for your next job? Question for your next job. Ask yourself what your boss (or senior engineer) would want to know, and ask that.

    That’s it for now: I’ll add more as I think of it.

  12. Rands: “And if you don’t have a list of questions lined up for me, all I hear is: YOU DON’T WANT THIS JOB.”

    That may be what you hear, but just because you’re hearing it doesn’t mean it bears any resemblance to reality. 🙂

    I often find interviewers passing around pearls of candidate-evaluation “wisdom” like this… usually with nothing other than their gut feeling to back it up. It may be worth asking yourself how you’d even know if you were wrong?

    To be fair, you may not care if you’re wrong occasionally – hence things like the Joel Spolsky style of “any doubt at all => no hire.”

    But again, worth considering – how would you *know* if you’re only wrong occasionally? 🙂

  13. Jon Akey 10 years ago

    I am not even in this field but the article was compelling. It was a great insight into the mind of a manager.

    From a interviewee’s position, I want to know if this is a person with high self-esteem and is geunuinely interested in propagating original thought, or does he have a little too much ego (insecurities) and is mercurial in the management of his talent.

    “Do you have any questions for me?” I also like this question. If my intuition is still neutral, I will respond with a question that has a bearing on his character. For instance, “what has been the turnover ratio in your department the last two years?” Her response will give me a good read on the volatility, or lack thereof, of her character. A curt, “that is none of your business,” or similar response, will tell more about this potential boss than probably the previous 25 minutes.

    The bottom line is that managers, unfortunatly, have a huge input in our overall satisfaction with life. The decision to accept a position is much more life altering than the decision to offer a position.

    An interviewee should not be afraid to flesh out the character of the interviewer. Especially if he is your potential boss.

    Thanks.

  14. Great post. Just one follow-up thought.

    Rands, you say, “And if you don’t have a list of questions lined up for me, all I hear is: YOU DON’T WANT THIS JOB.”

    Some of the guys seem to take this the wrong way. Here’s the bottom line, as I see it: maybe it should have been “if you don’t have questions… YOU’RE NOT RIGHT FOR THIS JOB.”

    People approach things like this different ways. Some folks are the kind of person who will go as far as to think through questions they have at this stage; others may feel like questions are premature or presumptuous, while still others may not be the sort of folks that think of questions in the abstract.

    What is clear to me from your statement is that you are looking for a certain kind of person (or think of it as personality) apart from skills and desire. You want a driven, forward-thinking, confident self-starter. My guess is that everyone one your team fits this description. If an interviewee’s personality is not of this sort, they won’t make it past the screening.

  15. Regarding having questions lined up:

    That largely depends on your work experience. If you are a junior fresh out of college you will have few, if any, questions.

    If you have some years of work experience you will ask questions to see if your boss and the workplace measures up to your expectation.

    The junior who asks irrelevant questions just for the sake of asking, and the senior who have no questions at all… well thats nutty.

  16. Pete wrote: “To be fair, you may not care if you’re wrong occasionally – hence things like the Joel Spolsky style of “any doubt at all => no hire.”

    But again, worth considering – how would you *know* if you’re only wrong occasionally?”

    Because, as Joel also says, it’s much better to not hire the right person than to hire the wrong person.