Failure: Interviewing for a position

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes – Oscar Wilde

Continuing on my series of posts themed around failure, we’re here to look at an interview that I once did. It resulted in me taking the job. That was the failure. Before we get too far into this, let’s step back to the beginning…..

When I was just getting started contracting/consulting independently, I was presented with the opportunity to be a team lead for a project. I was told that the client was very excited to have me as a possible candidate and with my experience. Feeling good about the fact I was desired by a company I went off and did what I thought would be the first in a series of interviews with them for this position. I arrived at my interview and nothing seemed out of place when we got started. There was the obligatory HR person and another who was introduced as the Project Manager. As I’ve found to be the case, HR takes the reins and leads us down a touchy-feely path about how I work with people and “tell me about one time that you were in a stressful situation and how you dealt with it” stuff. As I was expecting that this was simply a starter interview that would determine if HR and the PM thought that I’d fit in their environment and team, I played along for about half an hour. That’s when it got different…and I didn’t notice enough to act on it.

The PM started to investigate my technical skills, or so he said he was going to. He led off with a monologue about the team, the project, the client and the importance of all these things. After about fifteen minutes of me listening to his manager-speak he asked if I thought I could handle this, to which I replied that I could. He immediately followed that by asking “So you know about design patterns?” I was relieved. Finally I was going to be able to show some of the technical skills/knowledge that I’d amassed over the years.

“Yes, I have experience with the theory of them as well as their practical applications.” I left the door open for the PM to take the design pattern conversation where he wanted to which was….

“Okay, I think you’ll be able to work with our library of them then.” Looks at HR person, “I think we’re done here.”

And the interview ended. I was so dumbfounded at that being the technical portion of the interview I couldn’t react and left, my mouth agape.

The next day I was offered a contract that saw me leading (at one point) a team of sixteen developers on a project that nearly had an eight digit budget.

Where is the failure in getting a lucrative, long term contract? I had no idea what I was getting into. Zero idea. I didn’t make sure to ask a single question. Interviews are a two way process. The employer needs to ensure that the interviewee isn’t selling a false bill of goods, will fit the culture, etc. The interviewee has to ensure that the role on offer will fit them, the culture is one they can work in, the project is interesting, etc. Employers get a detailed CV detailing the history of the interviewee. Usually it’s a couple, or more, pages in length. The interviewee gets a boilerplate job posting and Google. The knowledge of each other is firmly slanted in favour of the employer. As a result interviewees have to spend more time probing during the interview to try to level the playing field. I didn’t do that and, as a result, failed myself into a position that was a less than enjoyable experience.

I needed to ask to have a technical person in the interview. I needed to ask why it was rumoured that this project was nearing 100% developer turnover rate in the last twelve months. I needed to know what the codebase looked like. I needed to know what the current developers were bitching about. I needed to know a lot more than I did.

I’ve since learned that I don’t allow an interview to end until I’m satisfied that I have enough information to make a decision. If people claim to have to end the interview due to other commitments, I ask to meet with other members of the project or team. If they won’t produce those members, it counts against them. If they won’t schedule a follow-up (if required), and one that has more than just HR in it, it counts against them again. The process isn’t done until you can make a well informed decision. If you can’t you need to tell the employer that and walk away if they won’t help you to.

Allowing that interview process to get me into a long term contract was a mistake…and an experience. Certainly one that I’ve learned from.