Archive for February 25th, 2008

As a sometime-consultant and a sometime-manager, I’ve sat on both sides of the interviewing table many times. Which side I prefer is impossible to say: Given a choice between the tension of trying to sell myself to a person who’s largely unknown to me and the discomfort of judging strangers, I will gladly choose none of the above (no doubt that explains why I’m in business for myself). However, being the interviewer does have the advantage of giving me a wider view of human types than being an interviewee. Over my career, two interviews in particular stand out as examples of some of the things you should never do when you go for a job.

Both occurred when I was a manager at a startup specializing in GNU/Linux. I was new to both startups and free software, but I was learning quickly – in fact, I was the only manager, up to and including the CEO and COO, who had any sense of the software life cycle or of free software (and even my knowledge, I admit now, was new and shallow in a lot of places). However, I had hired before, so I ended up on the hiring committee, along with an HR veteran from the startup’s parent company who was there for guidance.

The first interview looked good on paper. He had years of Unix experience, and claimed to know something about GNU/Linux as well. However, one look was enough to show that we’d made a mistake in calling in this interviewee. Looking like he had come straight from makeup to play an English academic, circa 1936, he wore a thick brown suit of tweed with patches on the elbow that looked decades old. His glasses were even thicker, and didn’t match his suit. On his feet were mud-splattered running shoes. His hair was not only uncombed, but looked as though he might have lost combs in its tangles.

His posture – well, a bonobo would have called it shambling and stooped, and died of shame to be seen holding himself that way.

Shaking his hand, I also realized that he was a heavy smoker. A miasma of tobacco swirled around him, nearly visible and making me gag.

This interviewee sat down at the boardroom table, and immediately put his feet up on a chair. Then he leaned back and cradled the back of his head in his hands.

Questioning him, we soon learned that he had applied for the job because “he needed the money.” He had no idea what the company did, and had no questions about it when provided an interval to ask some. Although it was a startup and therefore demanding of everyone’s time, he told us that his idea of an ideal job was one where he could work maybe ten or fifteen hours a week.

I was sinking lower in my chair, embarrassed for him, when the HR veteran interrupted the interviewee.

“No, no, no –” he said. “This isn’t working.” He then gave the interviewee a five minute lecture on the basics of dressing and deportment for a job interview, while I sat watching them, even more embarrassed.

From the way the interviewee slouched away, I don’t think he absorbed much of the lecture – especially since he asked for his resume back, saying it was his only copy.

The second bad example was an applicant for the same company. Its horrors were different, but no less intense.

This second interviewee had worked on a free software project related to the company’s core business. Several programmers knew his work in the community, although they had never met him, so we brought him in.

Once again, first impressions said everything. This applicant was appropriately dressed for a corporate interview, but, from the first, everything about him showed that he considered the interview was only a formality. He was a round man of average height, and everything from his gestures to the slight sneer that was the natural position of his face at rest suggested that he thought himself condescending to apply for the job at all.

This time, we finished the interview. Looking back, though, I really have to wonder how. The interviewee was so patronizing that I had a faint urge the urge to either make deflating comments or to punch him out – and normally I am neither rude nor confrontational.

The problem was not what he said, but the way he said it. Of course we would want to hire him, his tone seemed to imply (although he was no clearer than the first interviewee about exactly what the company did, and no more interested). Of course we would pay him what he asked. Of course the knowledge test we gave all programmers would be the merest formality. And we would let him work on whatever interested him, wouldn’t we?

All these implications came with little sniffs and flicks of the head, as if condescending to be interviewed was almost more than he could bear. I half-expected him to take out a pomander and sniff it, the better to endure the tawdry atmosphere of commerce around him.

Then we introduced him to the lead programmer and team leaders – and the way he shook their hands, you might have mistaken him for visiting royalty.

I don’t remember how we ended the interview process – probably with some version of “Thanks, we’ll call you when we’ve made a decision” – but I do recall that I was exasperated beyond belief.

Needless to say, he was as much out of the running as the first candidate, even though he had survived longer in the interview.

Both these candidates had their own brands of obnoxiousness, but they shared some common faults. Neither gave any thoughts to first impression. Both were so egocentric that they never thought to curb their natural tendencies in the hopes of getting employed, or to find out anything about the company they were applying at. You name a basic mistake in interviewing, and one or both of them made it.

In fact, the behavior of each of them was so extreme that, looking back, I wonder if either had any genuine interest in employment. Perhaps they were only being interviewed so that they could continue to collect unemployment insurance. But I think that their real roles in life were to provide bad examples and good stories. And certainly, they have played both roles many times since.

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