Getting Some Good Out Of Bad Interviewing

©2007 Jerry Weinberg

Contract
professionals, on the average, change jobs more often than employees, so they
are involved in lots of interviews.† One of our SHAPE forum threads was started
by Pat Ferdinandi, an independent consultant, who complained: “I am
continually amazed at some of the ridiculous or inappropriate questions I get
when interviewed by prospective clients. Keeping a straight face and not losing
my cool is sometimes a challenge.”

The Shapers then contributed many examples from their own experience,
and I’d like to recount some of them and the lessons they might carry for
my readers.

Insensitive and Oblivious
An interviewer made the following statement to Pat: “A psychiatrist has a model
that answers to specific questions fall within. So, by having a base model, he
can identify that the problem with the marriage is the lazy wife.” Pat, being
a wife herself, didn’t care for this analogy. The problem here is, of course,
his gender biases, which might exist throughout the company – but even more,
his total insensitivity to the person he was interviewing.

Well, not total insensitivity.
For that award, I have to turn to a story from a
woman who was interviewing with the manager of the department she would work in
if she took the assignment.† During the interview, he said, “I want you to
feel free to come in and talk to me any time, about anything. Think of it like
a young girl talking privately to her father where she can practice her
techniques for sexual advances knowing that she’s perfectly safe with him,
because he’s her father.”

How did she handle this?
Apparently, the same way everybody present handled it when
she told us. We sat there for about five minutes with our mouths open,
not able to make a sound. She then just walked out.
Maybe he’s a masher, or maybe he’s totally out of touch,
but in either case, you don’t want to work for him.

Gender bias is bad enough, but maybe you’re the right gender.
Sexual innuendo is worse, but maybe the interviewer won’t find
you attractive. Insensitivity, however, eventually snags everyone
working in the environment, so stay away
even if you’re not a “wife” or a daughter.

The Nedlog Rule
There’s
a variation of the Golden Rule that applies to these and a great
many other the bad interview lines:

As they do unto others, they will eventually do unto you.

I call this the Nedlog Rule. Here are some examples:

Candidate: “So what happens to the staff from the other sites?” (The company was a merger of several companies)

CIO: “We offer relocation to the ones we want. That’s the nice thing: we can start over and define our culture”

The candidate has just learned how he will be handled should he become excess
baggage. The interview continued:

Candidate: “Given that, what culture would you want to have?”

CIO: “That’s a good question.
I haven’t really thought about it.”

The candidate figured they wouldn’t start thinking about the culture
they wanted just because they hired him.

Here’s another Nedlog example:

Interviewer: “We would like to have you working for us.
I already heard about you from them
(thumb pointing over shoulder at his employees) … By the way, one of them,
namely George is not very productive, but I can’t fire him”

This candidate figured she didn’t want to be called “them,”
nor did she want her performance deficiencies to be discussed with
actual or potential co-workers. If they badmouth other employees,
you have to wonder what they’ll say about you.

Dumb or Ignorant
Sometimes, the questions you’re asked tell you all you need to
know about the kind of people who will be managing you if you
take an assignment. A software consultant was interviewing for
an assignment in a hardware organization whose managers knew
nothing about software. They asked questions like these:

  • You know something about software?
  • Do you write computer programs?
  • Can you type? How fast?
  • How long does it take someone to write a computer program?
  • What’s a database?
  • What programming language should we use for everything?
  • What’s the one thing we should tell people to do to cut
    development costs in half?

My own answer to this last question would be,
“Get rid of the managers who ask questions like this one.”

Where do such questions come from?
In trying to understand this, I tried to imagine
what questions I would ask if I were going to interview,
say, a brain surgeon:

  • You know something about brains?
  • Do you operate on brains?
  • Can you cut with a scalpel? How fast?
  • How long does it take someone to do surgery on a brain?
  • What’s a nervous system?
  • What surgical tool should we use for every operation?
  • What’s the one thing we should tell people to do to cut
    surgical costs in half?

Looking at these questions,
I realized that any surgeon would know instantly that I
knew nothing about surgery, let alone brain surgery.
I would think that the surgeon’s next move would be to ask me,
“What is your role with respect to the job I’m interviewing for?”
If there was any role at all, no decent surgeon would take the job.

Should it be any different if you’re a software developer,
or tester, or project manager? It’s not the lack of knowledge that’s
the problem; it’s the lack of knowledge about the lack of knowledge.
I can work for someone who doesn’t know beans about my specialities,
as long as they know they don’t know.

Hidden Agendas
Sometimes, what the interviewer says will reveal to you that they’re
not really trying to fill a position. Sharon Marsh Roberts identified
two common types of hidden agenda interviews. The first are
“professional courtesy interviews” – ones which are scheduled because:

  1. the interviewer owes someone a favor;
  2. the interviewee has some (hopefully worthwhile) connections; and
  3. there is time on everyone’s schedule.

Sharon opposes this to the “comparison shopper interview”:

  1. the interviewer has someone in mind;
  2. Human Resources hasn’t approved the decision; and
  3. the corporation demands some sort of record of “due diligence”.

Many of the worst interviews fall into these categories,
and the best thing you can do (since your’ll never get the job)
is save time by getting out quickly. One
young contract professional was invited for an interview,
believing that she was under consideration for a particular assignment.
The interview started badly enough and went downhill fast enough so that
she asked the defining question:
“Is there something that I should be telling you to explain that
I could perform this job?”

The answer communicated bluntly something on the order of,
“No, because I’m interviewing someone who’s isn’t qualified
for this position.”

She gracefully departed. There wasn’t much she could say,
and besides, why waste more time?

Conclusion
There are dozens more ways in which interviewers reveal this kind of
information, and if my readers clamor for them, perhaps I’ll provide
some more. The important thing to know, though, is no matter how
inept an interviewer may be, you—the interviewee—can almost
always get the information you need to make a decision.
Just don’t lose your cool and thereby lose the information.

About Gerald M. Weinberg

For more than 50 years, Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg has worked on transforming software organizations. He is author or co-author of many articles and books, including The Psychology of Computer Programming. His books cover all phases of the software life-cycle. They include Exploring Requirements, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, The Handbook of Walkthroughs, Inspections, and Technical Reviews, and General Principles of System Design. His books on leadership include Becoming a Technical Leader, The Secrets of Consulting, More Secrets of Consulting, and the Quality Software Management four-volume series. His book, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, appeared in 2005. His first techno-thriller novel, The Aremac Project (Dorset House), will appear in 2007. Email Jerry or visit www.geraldmweinberg.com to read excerpts of the Shape Forum. Picture (c)2004 Steven M. Smith
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