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Un-SQL Friday #005: Bad Interviews

By: on July 25, 2011 in Advice, Un-SQL Friday

Jen McCown (blog | Twitter), one half of DBAs at Midnight, put out the request for bad interview stories, so I figured I’d chime in. I’ve got two stories.

As a Job Candidate

I think this happened in the late 90s, during the process which led up to me getting my job with a small corporation named Microsoft. Maybe you’ve heard of them. A little context: this was in the February/March timeframe here in Massachusetts, so it was still somewhat cold with snow still on the ground in parts. I knew it was time to look for a new job, and both of my bosses were out for about two weeks so I had a golden opportunity to make the most of it.

I was working with a recruiter or two. First of all, let me apologize to the good recruiters out there. Unfortunately for their profession, I’ve found there are very few good ones out there. I’ve likened them to car salesmen. To this day I get pings from people who got my resume years ago (haven’t submitted for a job in probably 7 years going back to Avanade) and want updated info such as what I’m doing, etc. Recruiters could be the subject of a whole post, but I won’t go there. They do serve a means to an end (better to have more eyes out there looking assuming they get what you want to do).

When it comes to working with recruiters, often times I’ll do the “gimme” interview. A “gimme” interview is one you know probably won’t wind up being a job for you, but shows you are willing to work with the recruiter. Sometimes you just have to do it, although these days I’m not sure I’d waste my time. Anyway …

This company was out I think in Concord or something like that.  My interview was at 9AM, and proper interview etiquette is to get there at least 15 minutes early. I left around 8 and was there by 8:30. Anyone who has driven Route 128 (nee 95) knows depending on time of the day and weather, it can get backed up in spots. I remember one time when it started snowing while I was an intern at Sybase in Burlington, MA, it took me 3 hours to get from Burlington to Waltham back to my dorm. That’s a 20 minute or so drive not in traffic to put it in perspective.

I sat in my car for a few minutes and walked up to the door. Lights were off, everything was locked. Couldn’t get in. There wasn’t even a receptionist. This is never a good sign. I’m not a morning person (just ask anyone who knows me), but no one at a company before 9AM? Hmm. I believe the receptionist showed up around 8:50, and was surpised to see me there. I took a seat in the reception area.

Finally around 9:15 or so someone comes to get me and take me into a conference room. They give me the standard application form to start filling out (which I should have been handed earlier, but whatever). That person doesn’t come back for at least 15 minutes. It may have been longer. Needless to say, my patience is starting to wear thin and I haven’t really talked to anyone yet. <rant> Here’s a lesson out there for future employers of me or anyone else you are trying to woo: you guys are selling us on you as well. It’s not just the interview candidate trying to sell themselves. The impression I was getting was one of disorganization and not caring. When you set up an interview loop, make sure everyone is aware of it and it runs smoothly as well as relatively on time. </rant>

As if you couldn ‘t tell already, things were going downhill faster than a speeding bullet. I had already pretty much made up my mind this company wasn’t going to be for me, but I would see how things went. Worst case, I would have fun with the interview. And I did. I don’t recommend some of the behavior I am going to talk about unless you really want to sabotage an interview.

The first person comes in to interview me and it was clear they had just gotten the tap on the shoulder to come talk to me. I know that happens (I’ve been on the other end of that where I had to interview someone on short notice), but at least come somewhat prepared. So interview #1 was not awe inspiring and I played nice. I didn’t get a good feel of anything – what the job I was going to do would be, the environment, etc. I then wait at least another 30 minutes for interview #2, and I am seething at this point. I’ve spent more time waiting than anything else, so I decide to torpedo things and end the pain. I think I answered every question with “Yes”, “No”, or some really short answer that had no way of follow up. That second interviewer also rubbed me the wrong way with a bit of attitude, so I gave it back. I was very confrontational and a bit aggressive. You may think that’s rude or wrong, but I knew I wasn’t going to work there, and I definitely knew that I had been there close to 2.5 – 3 hours with not much done. News at 11: I was told shortly thereafter they would get back to me and I could go.

I can remember calling the recruiter and unloading on them about the experience and they were trying to convince me that the experience was not the norm. Forget that. I never worked with that recruiter again. It’s also why I will never do the “gimme” again. I’ve always had a good gut instinct that rarely fails. In the job hunt process sometimes you need to kiss a few frogs before finding your prince or princess (whatever your preference may be).

As an Interviewer
This is one interview I’ll never forget. I was working for a consulting firm, and the way they do interviews is bring a bunch of people around in a single day. I was asked to be part of the interview loop for SQL folks that made it through the phone screen. Whenever I do interviews, I don’t regurgitate their resume. In a consulting role, I’m trying to assess a few things:

  1. Do they have a good skillset?
  2. Can they interface with customers/have good people skills?
  3. Could I work with this person onsite and trust them?

While similar to a normal 9-to-5, a consultant needs to have a few other things that you can sometimes hide or not care about if you’re in cubeland 40 hours a week.

Anyway, whether in person or on a phone screen, I also don’t ask things like “What’s a clustered index?” unless I feel they gave me some answer and they have no idea what they’re talking about. My job isn’t to figure out if you can remember the Nth clause of a WITH statement in some T-SQL command. That can be taught or looked up. Good problem solving skills and troubleshooting methodology is hard to come by.

I’m in my early 30s at the time (I’ll be 40 later this year), so I didn’t have all the experience I have now, but I knew what we needed. This guy was in his 40s, and was supposedly some seasoned veteran. I tend to ask situational type questions that will force candidates to give me a combined technical as well as non-technical answer (for example, how to deal with the problem and the people involved). His first answer troubled me as to his “expertise”, so I gave him a few more and wasn’t convinced that this guy was the expert he thought he was. I asked him a few just technical questions and I was not getting a good vibe either. So I ended the interview and gave my feedback.

The guy was not hired, and I heard that he complained to HR that he didn’t feel he got a fair interview because the people who talked to him (including myself) didn’t ask tough enough questions or something like that. Unbelievable, right? Chutzpah is the only word I can use here to describe that move. To a person, every since one of us that talked to him got the same impression. Just because you’ve been in the industry for years doesn’t mean anything. You could have 10 years of experience but done the same thing for 10 straight years with no growth. It doesn’t mean you’re bad, it means that compared to everyone else out there, even with some with less years of experience, you may still be considered junior. That’s reality. Try to do different things even if you are at the same employer. It only makes you more marketable longer term even if you have no intention on leaving your job.

So to sum up here: never oversell yourself as someone you’re not. Interviewers will figure you out. It’s one thing to be confident, it’s another thing to lie or be wrong and then have the cojones to complain about the interview later. If you don’t know, say, “I don’t know.” I respect that much more.


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