A Job Interview is A Conversation (and Other Neglected Realities of the Professional World)

The Much Maligned Interview Process

The software development industry is known for its notoriouslybad interviewing practices.

The reputation is well deserved.

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Few industries put prospective candidates through the arduous,multi-part interview process that even entry-level softwarepositions often require. Few professions demand that experiencedpractitioners, with a CV stuffed with academic and professionalaccomplishments, complete humiliating skill tests (usuallyscatter-shot testing whether the applicant happened to recentlybone up on an esoteric area of a barely related niche), often underabsurdly unrealistic conditions: It’s sadly common for a candidateto be forced to write pages of code with nothing but a pen andpaper — despite the fact that most developer’s hands cramp upafter the first sentence — supplying them with none of the normaldevelopment resources that they rely upon in the real world(forcing them to unrealistically recall the specific call patternsof seldom-used API functions, which is something that no realdeveloper does in the era of online documentation, rewarding rotememorization while punishing problem solving and intelligence).

Many interviews feature smug “How To Move Mount Fuji”interviewers who are desperately trying to impress the candidate –or their peers in the room — by grilling the nervous applicant onwhatever niche the interviewer happened to focus on thatmorning.

This is unfortunate.

While most shops are trying to hire intelligent, adaptablecomputer scientists, the interview process is often more suitablefor the hiring of software technicians, which is perhaps whycopy/paste, everything-looks-like-a-nail developers manage to hangon.

Yet for all of the well-founded complaints about industryinterview practices, one oft-repeated complaint derives from amisunderstanding of the conversational nature of interviews.

[I’m spurred to write this entry after seeing a number of “idiotinterviewer asked me about more than the limitations of aJavaScript closure!” atop the meme sites over the past fewdays]

What Would You Say Is Your Biggest Weakness?

Unless you were recruited right out of university, you’veprobably been asked that question, and you probably complainedabout it to peers in the real world and online. You have probablyread others complain about the same. You’ve probably heard it andits ilk declared obsolete (and it is true that thebacklash has generally sidelined this particular question, thoughit has been replaced by equally subjective personal questions).

I just BSd and said that my weakness was that I work toohard!” is a frequently heard comment about this reviledquestion.

Even More Fun Cleaning Off The Cars

So why do people hate this question so much?

Usually it comes down to a misunderstanding of the realpurpose of the interview.

An Interview Is A Conversation

An interview isn’t an objective fact gathering exercise: If theinterviewer just wanted to ask what year you went to school andwhat your GPA was, or whether you’d used the masterpagefunctionality of ASP.NET 2.0, they’d give you an application or putit on the requirements list — just like McDonald’s would if youwanted to man the fryer — and be done with it. Many job submissionsites, industry wide and organization specific, do exactly that,getting applicants to concisely complete some structured data entryscreens, describing exactly which skills they’ve used and to whatlevel and for how many years, allowing technican style presortingbased upon skills.

Instead an interview is a conversation. It’s todetermine how you think, how you converse, and how youinteract, and to have a conversation about technology, priorpositions and projects to gain information that can’t belearned from a CV.

An interview is often a test to see if you’re compatible withthe firm. To see how honest and forthright you are on yourfeet. To test how humble or arrogant you are. To gauge if you havea sense of humor. To learn detailed facts about your priorexperiences and exploits.

It’s a bit like a first date.

So what is your biggest weakness?

Answering that you work too hard will often getyou rejected as a liar, or as someone who is entirely unaware ofpersonal weakness. Answering that you’re a perfectionist — anotherfavored “I’m so clever that I game the system” answer — againeither implies that you’re a liar, or worse that youreally are a perfectionist (which in this industry means”someone who’ll never, ever actually finish anything,always deflecting criticism by proclaiming that they’re in thepursuit of perfection”).

Giving an arrogant, can’t-be-bothered-with-such-inanity response– or a PC answer that alludes to the same — could be considereduseful in that it’ll help the interviewer save themselves the timeand trouble of dealing with a prima donna: If you don’t have thetime or patience to answer such a simple, obvious question, toosure of your pompous self-importance, then it’s good that you setthe rules for a very short game right away.

How then to answer Honestly might be a goodstart.

But if I answer honestly, the interviewer will pass over mein favor of the smooth-talking guy who claims that his biggestweakness is that he’s too loyal!” you might retort.

While it is definitely true that sometimes interviewers aremorons who happened into a position by luck, good looks ornepotism, your best bet is to assume that they’re reasonable,intelligent, understanding people. Assume that they aren’tfooled by applicants who pretend that they’re perfectionpersonified, and that they can understand that everyone hasweaknesses, unique personalities and unique strengths.

They know that you aren’t going to be a perfectworker that knows everything, can do anything, and isinfallible.

And if the interviewer is a moron, it’sprobably in your best interest that they nix you as a candidateanyways (presuming you aren’t really desperate): Do youreally want to work at a place like that (On a similar theme, ifyou really desire a certain percentage of telecommuting time, oryou want a private office, or you demand triple-screens, askfor it! You’ll either get it, or you’ll avoid getting a job orenvironment that would make you unhappy: Both sides will walk awayprobably muttering “the nerve!”, but in reality it’s aWin/win).

Just be honest. Relax, and engage in conversation. If you thinkthat an interview is going to be a walkthrough of your CV orquestions about how many gas stations are necessary to serve apopulation 175,000 city, the vast majority of interviews are goingto disappoint you.