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The Unspoken Job Interview Secret

In a break from my usual rants on security, I thought I'd take a moment and discuss something that's been discussed a lot recently: getting a job.  As you may have heard (ha ha), right now it's an employer's market- jobs are scarce and employers get hundreds (sometimes thousands) of job applications and resumes for practically any job they post. Once you get a job interview the competition is fierce. Some people end up going to interview after interview but never get the job itself. There's a reason for this, and it's got little or nothing to do with job skills or experience.

When I was doing regular jobs and contracts, I almost never failed to get hired. The reason is simple: 99% of the time what an interviewer wants to know is NOT the extent of your job skills. What they want to know is, "Can I work with this person without them driving me crazy?". THAT'S what they want to know. Seriously.

I've found that the "skill" question is usually already decided upon by the time they call you up for an interview (otherwise they wouldn't even bother calling you, right?). What they really want is to find out what kind of a person you are, i.e. do you have a strange body odor, do you talk too loudly, do you act like a nervous nutcase, are you creepy, etc etc etc. In other words, can they work alongside you without going insane? Do you play well with others?

Here's my secret: I always look at the stuff on their walls or desk (pictures of their kids, hobby stuff, etc etc) and I make a some friendly, innocuous comments about some of it. I do this because it defuses the whole interview and suddenly they see you as a real person, not just another person to be interviewed. I swear by this, and I've been through my share of interviews over the years, often competing with people much more qualified than me, and I usually got hired over them.

"Oh, are those your kids? I have one about his age." (or, "I remember when mine was that age…")
"Oh, you're into rock climbing? I tried it once but I'm too chicken to do it as a hobby."
"Oh, you worship Satan? Me too."

(Okay, I'm kidding about that last one, but you get the idea.)

We'd chat for a bit about whatever it was that I mentioned, just like we were already pals. People love to talk about themselves, their kids, and what they like to do. Pretty soon it was no longer a tense, formal job interview, it was just two friends chatting about stuff. And I'd get the job.

A month or so later I would casually ask them, "So, why did you hire me?" And the answer I got nearly every time was something along the lines of, "Well, you seemed like a nice person, and you knew your stuff."

Let me repeat that, because it's important:  "Well, you seemed like a nice person, and you had the skills."

Did you catch that? The fact that I "seemed like a nice person" came before the part about "having the skills".   The truth is I'm not a nice person, but by taking a little friendly interest in who they were engaged them, I put them at ease. Before long they were thinking, "Yeah, this guy is okay" and after that it was just a matter of me asking when they wanted me to start.

Unless they live in a sterile cube, there will be something for you to comment upon. If not, improvise. Chat about something, anything. The weather, the traffic, whatever. It almost doesn't matter what you talk about, just engage the person in some chit chat.

If they interview you in a generic, bland interview room, my advice is to get out. It often means the company or department has little or no soul and you will be a faceless, underpaid cog.

Case in point: I interviewed at Microsoft several times for contract positions and I got the job each time. The jobs where I was interviewed in a person's personal work area were great. The jobs I got after surviving the bland "Drone Interview Room" sucked, and it's why I quit Microsoft in disgust and will never go back there. (Yes, their recruiters still call me from time to time. I always say the same thing: "Tell me if this sounds like me hanging up on you.").

To be fair, working at Microsoft was a mixed experience; I worked with a few teams (like the Dealerpoint team) that were genuinely good folks. Creative, fun, and very focused on making sure the customer got a good tool. The team was good, the product was good, and we all came away feeling like we'd done a good thing. On time, under budget, and it worked like a dream. A useful tool still running to this very day as far as I know. My name is hidden in parts of the code. (Reynolds & Reynolds eventually acquired the Dealerpoint sales lead platform.)

On the other hand, I worked with some teams that were absolute friggin' nightmares, thrashing and flailing in spin-cycle day and night. For example, the manager of the Hotmail SLA group was notable for his total lack of common sense, civility, and management ability. The manager (I'll call him "Van", even though that's his real name) was in my humble opinion a talentless evil schmuck whose only skill was making his slaves, err, I mean "team members" feel like crap. He was really good at that, and if he's smart he won't step in front of my car at a stoplight.

But I digress.

I'm not going to brag about how many job interviews I've been to, because I've probably been on fewer interviews than most people. That's because I almost always landed the job, which meant I could stop going to job interviews (and start working). I'm telling you right now that a little bit of personable behavior and interest expressed in the interviewer (NOT the job) is worth 1,000 years of experience and fancy degrees printed in babies blood on gold leaf.

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