How to explain past problems in a job interview

October 5, 2010 Interviews, Job hunting 1 comment ,

In her recent US News article, the always spot-on Allison Green of Ask A Manager answers the question “How do I explain in an interview that I was fired?” An example from the article is:

“Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high, and I didn’t speak up about that soon enough. I just tried to keep my head down and get it all done. This wasn’t a realistic strategy, and I ended up making some mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a really valuable lesson about the need to communicate better when the workload is a problem and to figure out ways to make sure we’re on the same page about priorities if we’re in a triage mode. Since then, I’ve put a real premium on keeping lines of communication open so that that never happens again.”

Note how this example is much like answering the classic interview question “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well, and what you learned from it.” You describe a problem clearly, without rancor, and how you dealt with it. After that, you describe what you’ve learned to improve things going forward.

Another key point that she brings up is that you must not be angry about having been fired. In the article, Allison says:

Practice your answer over and over out loud until you can say it calmly. What the interviewer is going to be paying a lot of attention to–almost more than the substance of your answer–is how you talk about it: Do you seem bitter and angry about it? Have you learned from the experience? How has it changed the way you conduct business? You want to really pay attention to how you deliver it.

This is fantastic advice for your entire interview, too. Are you one of those people who is easily angered? Do you find yourself irritated when talking about people you work with that you may not pull their weight, or perform as well as you? If so, chances are that irritation is coming out when you interview as well, and it doesn’t help you at all.

Every interview you go on is going to have at least one form of the “tell me about a problem from the past, how you dealt with it, and what you learned” question. Come up with an answer for it beforehand, and know what you’re going to say. Practice it. Make sure you are entirely without rancor or fingerpointing in your delivery. Role-play with a friend and see what they say. You might think you’re sounding calm, but a fresh set of ears may tell you otherwise.

Check out Allison’s article, and visit her main blog Ask a Manager. Allison is a must-add for your feed reader.

Milwaukee JobCamp, a free all-day job hunting event, is this Thursday

October 5, 2010 Job hunting 2 comments

Thursday, October 7th, 2010 is the fourth Milwaukee JobCamp. This free day-long event takes over a huge amount of space at the Potawotami Casino conference. There will be sessions on a huge variety of topics related to the job hunt, as well as a resume help desk room and, of course, lots and lots of networking with others.

I hope to see you there. I’ll be talking about how the hiring manager sees the hiring process, and how to use that to your advantage in the interview.

Fifteen ways to kill your job interview

August 15, 2010 Job hunting No comments

There are hundreds of ways to ruin an interview, but here are 15 that are dear to me, or that candidates have pulled on me in the past.

  • Show up late
    • It’s inexcusable. Drive there the day before to make sure you know you can get there in time.
  • Be unprepared
    • Your first assignment at this company is to show up prepared. Don’t fail it.
  • Smoke, or smell like smoke

  • Have bad breath or body odor

    • Nobody wants to smell your smells. Eradicate them.
  • Shake hands like a fish
    • Don’t shake hands with a death grip, but don’t wuss out, either.
  • Come underdressed
    • If you find yourself asking “Do I have to do X?” for the interview, play it safe and do it. That means wear a suit.
  • Speak ill of anyone, especially past employers
    • If you complain at the interview, you’ll complain all day at work, too. No boss wants to deal with that.
  • Complain; discuss your problems
    • Your boss has his own job-related problems to deal with. He doesn’t want to hear about yours.
  • Bring up your needs, such as money or benefits
    • Your interview is all about what you can do for the company, not what they can do for you.
  • Lie
    • You’ll be found out, and you’ll be worried about it until you are.
  • Appear uninterested
    • No boss wants to hire someone who doesn’t care about the job she’s going to be doing.
  • Fail to ask your own questions
    • The best way to show that you care, and that you have a mind for business, is to ask your own questions about what you’ve discussed during the interview.
  • Appear desparate
    • Enthusiasm is one thing. Desperation is another.
  • Leave your phone on
    • There’s no way you could be expecting a call that’s more important than this interview.
  • Cut the interview short
    • Allocate adequate time for an interview. A longer interview is always better, so plan for the good. Don’t try to squeeze in an interview on a long lunch hour. Make sure your kids are adequately covered and you don’t have to say “Sorry, I have to leave, my sitter can only keep my kids ’til 4:00.”

“I just slammed out 300 resume applications for which I am more than qualified for this week, I doubt I will hear from even one”

June 27, 2010 Job hunting No comments

A recent poster to reddit asked I just slammed out 300 resume applications for which I am more than qualified for this week, I doubt I will hear from even one…..any advice for [engineering] job hunting?

If I’m hiring people, the slammed out resumes mean nothing to me. You want to know the number one way to attract my attention? Write a cover letter that says that you’ve actually done some research into the job for which you’re applying.

It’s a buyer’s market out there. You’re putting your resume out there with, say, 500 other applicants. Wading through that much shotgunned resume crap is daunting at best. Give me something to grab hold of. Give me a reason to say “Hey, this looks interesting.”

Don’t waste your time applying for 300 positions. There are not 300 positions out there for which you are qualified, and that you would be happy doing. Instead of shotgunning them, work on two or three or five and really get into understanding the job. Research the company. Research what they need. Find out everything about the company that you can, and spend the time figuring out what you bring to the table that will help the company the most.

Finally, those 300 applications came from where, Monster or some job site? Less then 10% of jobs get filled through job boards. Personal networking accounts for about two thirds of job placement. Instead of wasting time with shotgunning resumes that are obviously shotgunned, work to talk to everyone you can and find pointers to other people who can help you find a job. The jobs are out there, but you have to know where they are.

How to do a web resume right

June 13, 2010 Job hunting No comments ,

I’m humbled checking out the web resume for my friend Julian Cash. It hits all the right buttons.

  • Catchy domain name, hirethisgeek.com.
  • Strong bulleted overview of his skills on the front page.
  • Links to key points in the margin on the right, and at the bottom of each page
  • Subpages about important areas of interest (project management, programming, etc)
  • Contact information at the bottom of every page
  • Testimonials page, although I’d put some information about each person to give weight to their words.

If you can get your web resume to be even one tenth as interesting as Julian’s, you’re way ahead of your competition.

When was the last time you were thanked?

May 30, 2010 Career, People No comments

Seth Godin’s blog entry today sums up so much of my frustration with much of what I see on the Net:

Yes, I know you’re a master of the web, that you’ve visited every website written in English, that you’ve been going to SXSW for ten years, that you were one of the first bloggers, you used Foursquare before it was cool and you can code in HTML in your sleep. Yes, I know that you sit in the back of the room tweeting clever ripostes when speakers are up front failing on a panel and that you had a LOLcat published before they stopped being funny.

But what have you shipped?

What have you done with your connection skills that has been worthy of criticism, that moved the dial and that changed the world?

Go, do that.

Right on, Seth. To that list of “so you can…” I’d add

  • You’re a master debater on Slashdot and Reddit
  • You’re quick with a link to letmegooglethatforyou.com
  • You correct people in the ways in which they ask questions in IRC

The tough part is that most of the things that you do “with your connection skills that has been worthy of criticism, that moved the dial and that changed the world” require you to get off your ass and get out from behind a keyboard.

Ever given a talk at a user group meeting? Ever organized a conference? Or lined up a speaker for a user group meeting? Written an article or blog post where people say “That’s changed the way I look at things?” Or created software where people say “I don’t know how I lived without this?”

When Seth talks about “moved the dial and changed the world,” I’ll even set the bar a bit lower. When was the last time someone thanked you for downvoting someone on reddit, or being an oh-so-clever snark poster on Slashdot? Ever received appreciations for pointing out what you perceived as someone’s shortcomings in a flame war?

Which is more likely?

  • “Thanks for telling that guy your negative opinion of him.”
  • “Thanks for that presentation on Ruby modules.”
  • “Thanks for reaching level 75 on Farmville.”
  • “Thanks for putting together this group. I learned a lot.”

Get out there from behind your keyboard and do something that builds rather than tears down.

Don’t confuse “qualifications” with “skills assumed of everyone”

April 20, 2010 Job hunting 1 comment ,

When employers are looking for candidates, the fact that you can tie your shoes and not pee in your pants are just assumed. You’d never see a job for a computer professional advertising:

  • Able to get to work on time
  • Knows to go to bathroom and not wet self
  • Can tell ass from hole in ground

So why do candidates put these sorts of filler bullets at the top of their resumes in sections called “Summary of Qualifications”?

  • Able to work well with others
  • Strong work ethic
  • Attention to detail
  • Quality-oriented
  • Dependable
  • Responsible
  • Results-oriented
  • Problem-solver
  • Interested in improving efficiency
  • Able to find innovative solutions
  • Proficient in Microsoft Office and the Internet

If you are a professional in the computer field, every one of those bullets is assumed . Those are the price of admission, not selling points. Putting such vague mundane “qualifications” as the first thing in your resume says to the reader “I am completely average.”

Instead, tell about what makes you awesome, not average. Instead, your summary of qualifications should have bullets more like these:

  • Eight years experience in web development, using Perl, Java and Ruby on both Windows and Linux environments.
  • Expert in SQL databases, especially data migration between MySQL, PostgreSQL and MS SQL Server.
  • Designer of seven different e-commerce websites both with HTML/CSS and Ajax.

Bullets like those give specifics. They apply specifically to you, not just anyone like “detail-oriented” does. They make the reader take notice and want to know more. The details grab the attention.

What schools should be teaching IT students

April 18, 2010 Career, Programming, Work life No comments

This past Friday, I spoke at POSSCON on what schools should be teaching IT students. Here are the slides from the presentation.

How to give a tech presentation; also, column archives now available

March 14, 2010 Work life No comments

I’ve been writing a column for PragPub, the free monthly magazine of the Pragmatic Programmers, for the past few months. The latest column is part two of a discussion of how to give informative talks, such as to your local user group.

PragPub is on its ninth issue, and is available in four different formats. You can download the entire magazine as a single document in PDF, ePub and .mobi, just like every Pragmatic book, and it’s also newly available as HTML. The archives of all nine issues are available as HTML as well.

Here’s a list of my columns in past issues:

Every issue has something of interest to me, and I think you’ll find something for you as well.

Use Google Alerts to monitor your online presence

January 7, 2010 Career, Internet, Job hunting 1 comment ,

Next time you apply for a job, the hiring manager is going to Google your
name and see what she finds. Do you know what people say about you? About
things you’ve written? You should.

Google Alerts is a fantastic little tool that I don’t hear people talk about
enough. Google Alerts lets you enter a Google search once, and Google will
update you whenever the Googlebot finds new matches for your search, often
within only an hour or two of the page’s publication.

The most obvious Alert search is your name, as a phrase in double quotes, but
that’s just the start. Here are some more ideas:

  • Your name (“Andy Lester”)
  • Your nick (“petdance”)
  • Your email address (“andy@theworkinggeek.com”)
  • Your company’s name
  • Resumes related to your job market in your area of expertise (I have an alert for “resume Perl Chicago” (but without the quotes)
  • Titles from blog postings you’ve made
  • Links to specific blog postings you’ve made using the link: syntax

Keep an eye on the results. It’s not vanity, it’s understanding your personal
brand.

For more of my suggestions of how to improve your working life in 2010, see the January 2010 issue of PragPub magazine. It’s a free download in three different electronic formats: PDF, ePub and mobi.