Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Interviews [Kimberly Wiefling]

Not long ago I was discussing job search with a colleague.  He told me about two interviews he had gone thru.  I asked him to write up both stories, as I felt they would be of interest to engineering leaders.  Here they are.  My colleague has asked to remain anonymous.

It was the best of interviews… It was the worst of interviews...

Well, not exactly, but here are two interview experiences that I’d like to share with you.  Both employers shall remain anonymous.

At Company A, the first interviewer asked me to describe how a search algorithm might be designed.  The interviewer emphasized that a complete design was not expected, but that he was interested in how I would address different requirements.  So far, so good.  However, everyone else who interviewed me challenged me with brainteasers – pirates, coconuts, monkeys, etc…  Now, brainteasers can clearly play a useful role.  They give the interviewer a chance to see how the candidate analyzes a problem.  And since the answer is rarely obvious, typically one’s first response is incorrect or misleading.  This gives the interviewer a chance to see how the candidate reacts to challenges when a real engineering problem does not work out as one might have initially expected, and also to see how the candidate works with others to solve a problem.  But at Company A, I got asked brainteaser after brainteaser – at least four or five.  After a while, I began to wonder whether they were looking for a software engineer or a televised game show contestant!

Company B is located outside the San Francisco Bay Area, so they put me through a rigorous phone screening process first.  Each interviewer posed one or more simple programming problems, easy enough to be solved on the spot, but with a twist or challenge requiring some kind of insight. I passed all of the phone screens and was invited to an in-person interview at corporate headquarters, all expenses paid, of course.

Two sessions at their headquarters left a strong impression on me.  The first session was a “panel interview” – two engineers were in the interview room, although only one asked a lot of questions.  They led me through a discussion of selected elements from the standard C++ Template Library, and asked my suggestions for how to implement items such as arrays, lists and queues.  I remember it as a very stimulating and enjoyable discussion of various design approaches.  The second session was lunch with the Director of Software, someone who supervised a fairly large team of about 50 engineers.  She took me to a local restaurant.  We were having a nice casual discussion when she suddenly asked me to describe a time when I had made a mistake.  It serves as a reminder that the job interview process is continuous, and getting taken out for lunch or dinner is just an extension of the process.

Although I did not join Company B, I felt respected and appreciated by everyone there throughout the interview process.  Each person approached me as a potential peer.  Their goal seemed always to be to find out how I would approach and solve problems, and their questions provided me the opportunity to best demonstrate my skills and experience for the job.

A company’s reputation plays a big role in attracting candidates for jobs. People naturally share their experiences with their peers. Companies who want to continue to attract top quality potential employees should consider the impression their interview approach leaves on candidates. The ability to attract and retain the talented people required to succeed is a competitive advantage for any business. With the wealth of information available via social media, and websites like publicizing what employees think of their own company, it ‘s vital for business leaders to protect their reputations by assuring the interview process is conducted in a way that leaves a positive impression with interview candidates – regardless of whether or not they are offered a job.

Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management, one of the top-ranked project management books on Amazon in the US, published in Japanese, and growing in popularity around the world. She splits her work time between the US and Japan.

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