Posts Tagged ‘career’

Slapped in a Dark Tunnel at an Interview

The interview cycle is in full swing. I came across a post on Contractor UK about tricky questions posed by interviewers, which I think are just jaw-dropping. Someone needs to have a reality check and stop taking themselves so seriously. I have nothing against difficult, even impossible, questions in an interview situations. Most of the time they are great indicators of the way someone approaches a problem, and they provide a good starting point into a conversation about technologies, techniques, associated issues etc. But the examples here are pretty silly.

“You’re in a dark tunnel and someone slaps you in the face. What do you do?”

Should you have a bit of Krav Maga under the belt which emphasizes protection through offense, your reaction might be to cover your head, flail the elbows in the “drunken monkey” maneuver and lunge in the attacker’s direction, turning their attack into a fumble before removing them as a threat. However, apparently not what an interviewer wants to hear! A perfectly sensible self-defense strategy dismissed off the cuff. Why?

“This insinuates that the person is prone to react in a stressful scenario aggressively and without hesitation. These hypothetically aggressive questions can also increase a person’s tension there and then, which could mean that they are susceptible to stress and prone to make dramatic responses and reactions.”

Umm… yeah. It could also suggest that you have previously thought about such a scenario and are prepared for it in the event of it happening. That’s kind of what self defence is supposed to teach you. You’re probably not going to deck your manager in a meeting, though. Unless the meeting’s in a dark tunnel. And he slaps you.

Hiding is also not a good idea. “This generally indicates that the person cannot adequately deal with sudden events, resulting in an alarmed state of mind, freezing in a stressed scenario.” Seems to me like it might also be a sensible reaction. Someone hits you, you avoid getting hit again then worry about how to get out of the situation.

The preferred solution?

“I would first try to figure out from which direction I was hit and then find the fastest way possible out of the tunnel. Analysing the immediate situation first, and then consider the options that would solve the event. This answer indicates that the person will take a calm and calculated approach to a possible problem situation. That all the possible scenarios should be considered before any direct action is taken.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to work out to run away from where it hurts. While you’re standing around analyzing, you get a follow through to the groin. Hmm… great solution.

Other gems include expecting candidates to be calm and collected after making them wait for 45 minutes (while their kids are waiting to be picked up from school), and hoping that people calmly ask police officers whether it’s them they’re yelling at to get their hands up. Right.

If you’re asking behavioral stuff with right or wrong answer, you should probably drop it. Questions of the “what-if” nature are useful only if they lead to an insight into patterns of working, problem solving or similar and lead to a wider discussion. A candidates reaction to getting slapped has as much place in the process as an interviewer in a dark tunnel.

A great example of how to do it right is described in Joel Spolsky’s The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing.

Hiring Great Developers

Dr. Dobb’s journal has listed a great article on what it takes to identify great developers. Being in the market myself, and sitting on the other side of the fence it is interesting as to just how far this is removed from the norm. A few interesting tips?

“Tell programmers in advance (at least a day or two, if not more) what you will be asking questions about. In the real world we have time to prepare for meetings, and to propose solutions to problems. This is a job interview, not a high-school exam.”


“Don’t test people’s knowledge of language specifications. In our jobs we have access to books, people, and the Internet. Good programmers know how to look up references, and use their tools effectively to write code.”

Having been to a few more interesting interviews, even big name tech companies could benefit at taking a look at this article. Great stuff.

How to start your career in programming

I have been meaning to jot down my thoughts on this one for a while, but when I saw this article on First Steps into IT, I figured that there was no better time.

Programming is a tough career to get into. When I was getting into the industry for the first time I was frustrated by what I call the Big Problem. Nobody wants to hire a graduate without any experience, and you can’t get experience without having a job. Catch 22. Or so I thought. So how do you get around this?

You can apply for graduate recruitment. Big companies will do a drive at the end of each school year to get the best graduates. There are two catches,

  • It is the best people that they are after. Most people will not get a job that way. Not because they aren’t any good, but because the very idea of best is so subjective.
  • If you are the best, this probably is not what you really want to do. Smaller companies will give you more experience, of a better quality. I have found that in big companies, you get bogged down into doing one thing. Why would you want to do that when you can work in a place where you get to do a bit of everything? More on this in another blog post.

On alternative mechanisms.

If you read the popular IT press you will read a bunch of stuff on certifications and how they can help you. Most of these are provided by vendors and in my experience, do not help that much. A couple of reasons:

  • Most people don’t know what they are. It’s hard to impress a hiring manager if they have never heard of Brainbench or SCJP. The IT press is a notorious echo chamber. Take everything you read with a pinch of salt.
  • It can be pretty easy to find brain dumps of the test questions on the net, so the value of these tests can be watered down. This is a generalization, but true especially in the case of Microsoft certifications.

I have a number of Sun certifications, but they are an addition to a set of experience, that demonstrate that you know a particular technology. They probably will not get you hired ahead of someone with experience, but they might get you over the line if you are competing with someone on par.

Because of the climate of outsourcing in Australia at the time, and a bit of luck, I somehow managed to get myself onto a practical year program that IBM was running for pre-“final year” Software Engineering students. I did some pretty cool basic work when I was there, but it was enough. When I came out of university after I had finished my course, I now had experience, did not have to go through the graduate programs and ended up in a cool job for a small consultancy. This sort of stuff is great if you can get it, but I stumbled upon it through luck rather than any focused plan.

Those sorts of things are the standard options that everyone talks about. We are in the age of participation. Communities are all the rage, and there is nothing to stop you working within them.

Open source. A friend of mine commented that within one month of working in an open source project, you will learn more about technology than in a year of commercial work. The people that you get to work with and learn from are an awesome resource. You will learn about how to structure real world applications, learn about issues in production as well as best practices. You will also make contacts, which are the single most important thing in any career. These people may be able to recommend you to their colleagues, put you in touch with someone doing similar work commercially near you, or they may have work within their companies. Contributing also demonstrates to a potential employer that you are a self starter, and are willing to learn off your own initiative. Find an area that you would like to work in, check out a corresponding project (check out Apache, OpenSymphony, CodeHaus, and other resources like Ohloh for professional open source projects), and kick the tires, write documentation, report bugs, contribute some fixes and you will be amazed at where it will lead you.

Professional networking is the name of the game. User groups are a favourite of mine, as I am involved with running the Java User Group in Dublin. These bring together groups of professionals working in the industry to talk about new technologies, issues and generally to meet like minded folks. We are generally pretty friendly, and won’t bite your head off if you ask us simple questions. The people around you are an invaluable resource. We are there to help each other. Turn up, while you are still at uni. Aside from learning about some cool stuff, there are often guys looking around to take some help on, and they will contact people that they know before hitting the market. Read What Colour Is Your Parachute if you want to know why. Volunteer to help out with the group, take minutes, run their site, help out with podcasts. Once again, engagement is the name of the game. Rocking up and asking for a job at your first meeting though is not going to help you. Sun and Microsoft have associated user group programs that are well represented, and is a great one for finding other developer groups in your area. If there isn’t a users group around you, start one!

Start a professional blog about your experiences with technology, documenting what you are doing, the things that you are involved in etc. Use it as an example of your work, and the sorts of things that you are involved in. It’s an awesome resource to potential employers in the hiring process in that they can find out who they are dealing with. Start a podcast, do some screencast technology demos. Most of all, get yourself out there. People who are excited in technology and participate are the future. 90%+ of the competition will not be engaged in the same way. Get people to want to hire You, not just a butt to fill a seat.

Alternatively, start your own company. Skip the nonsense, do the research, and do it. There is no better way to get experience.

Jumping through hoops for graduate recruitment drives, sitting certifications and applying for jobs randomly (the shotgun approach) are hard work, demoralizing and generally will not help. However, if you apply yourself and engage in community, you will find the start to your career not only easier and more rewarding, but learn heaps of cool things and meet great people along the way.

Why my resume will no longer be in Word format

Another contract cycle approaches and the question of the CV/resume has once again reared it’s head. The job boards are full of agency ads with instructions that resumes be submitted in MS Word format only.

Often when I have turned up to an interview, I have encountered printouts of my resume with my contact details removed and a huge logo of the recruitment agency slapped on the front. The logic being that the agency does not want the employer to contact me later on without them involved. While I appreciate the logic behind the practice, and have no problem with submitting a resume without contact details, I take objection to it being done by someone else.

A CV is a copyrighted work. This means that I as the author regulate how it is used. While I grant the right of distribution for the purposes of selling my services, I do not grant the right for it to be edited.

Changing the content of a resume often tragically messes up the formatting. The purpose of the document is as a sales vehicle for my services, and lot of time, money and effort has gone into its production. I object to the document being updated by someone who does not have the same intrinsic interest as myself in that work. I take pride in my work, and my resume is representative of this. I do not want for it to look like a dog’s breakfast when I am talking to someone at an interview.

Pasting an agency logo onto my CV without my permission is at the very least undesirable. I do not work through any given recruitment agency before a contract is signed, and do not wish to be represented as such. I am quite happy to put a footer into the document saying that it is prepared for their use, for future reference by their client, but do not wish their brand to be otherwise advertised through it. This practice is dubiously ethical as it makes use of the device of Social Proof, discussed by Robert Cialdini in his book “The Psychology of Persuasion”. The practice effects the perception of the agency through associating it with the skills of the contractor.

As a rarer but nonetheless important reason, I have encountered cases where agencies have changed key terms within the applicants’ resumes in order to make them more sell-able. Often, this is transparent and embarrasses all parties involved. Furthermore, misrepresentation of this type constitutes fraud, is illegal, and can be used as a reason to terminate the contract in the future if the applicant is successful. This is not a risk that I wish to be exposed to.

I understand that there are certain requirements for job applications through agencies. A resume must be able to be read, searchable for future reference, and should not have the applicant’s contact details. In accordance, I will now distribute it in Adobe PDF format only. PDF is a de-facto standard for document distribution, is searchable and protects my rights as the copyright author.

What is your experience? Have you encountered any of these problems, or any resistance to such a stance?