Wednesday, May 01, 2002

You can do what?

When I was little I came across the paperwork that came with a box of tampons. I was an early reader but in other respects was another clueless little kid. So I thought they must be pretty cool - with them, you could swim, ride horses, climb trees.... I was disappointed when I found out more details, and I quit playing with those cool little cardboard telescopes too.

You're expecting a terrific segue here, I can tell. Well, lately I've been reading a bunch of resumes and interviewing the people. And they're not performing per my expectations.

By now I'm a reasonably experienced interviewer. I've been on the other side of the table many times as a contractor, so I can sympathize with the candidates. I've often interviewed people as part of a team, occasionally in the lead, without adverse comment. I do tend to talk fast, so I temper that, especially with people whose native language might not be English. I do what I can to loosen people up. I don't believe I am unfair or unrealistic.

I do expect command of technical material, however. Details, not generalities - the position in question is for an experienced contractor who's ready to go NOW. Nobody will ever be an exact fit, but if we want trainees we'll specify them.

You don't have to be able to recite manuals - I can't do it either. But if I ask you to, say, give me a SQL query to show me all the fields and records from an Oracle table named X (select * from x), I expect a snappy answer without prompting. After all, the position calls for knowledge of basic SQL, and we wouldn't even be talking if that hadn't been claimed on the resume, so what's the problem?

Another candidate did much better on those core skills, but tried to tap-dance past us on some more advanced skills. Hint - if you claim to know something about advanced statistics, have a clue about fundamentals like Χ2. If you claim Unix, I shouldn't be able to trip you up asking you how to list the files in a directory. Ad nauseam.

Candidates from contract firms should ordinarily be pre-screened or "teched" before a prospective client sees them. I had a really winner of one the other day - it's possible I was dealing with someone having a bad day, but I've never seen one that bad. This individual claimed significant experience with a special purpose Web information delivery tool that commands a substantial premium, but couldn't even tell me what it was for. Other topics were more of the same.

So do I have any interview tips? Relax. Don't try to snow me - if you don't know the answer, say so. Don't get rattled if you can't answer a question - we don't expect an exact fit, and we might well be asking you questions that go well above and beyond minimum requirements. Don't put anything on your resume/in a portfolio that you're not prepared to discuss in detail with a practitioner who might know it far better than you do. If I ask you for details, give me details, not generalities. If you can't remember the details, brush up on them before you show up - you want the job, don't you?

I suppose it would be cool to end this post with a tie back to the beginning, but I'm fresh out of tampon stories. But if you feel like sharing...

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