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Employment, Interviewing, Job Hunt

Honest Advice Series: Brutally honest personal assessments

I’m going to continue on with my advice series on pursuing a career within the warm and nurturing bosom of a large (5,000+ employee) company.  In the spirit of complete and brutal honesty (to be elaborated on later) I am forced to admit this series is becoming something of  a chore for me.  This particular subject is more of a chore than all the others combined.  Why is it?  It’s probably the most useful advice in the entire series yet I suspect it will also be the most often ignored, intentionally misinterpreted, or outright dismissed.  It will likely be dismissed because people will just assume the advice does not apply to them or to their situation.

Why do I bring this up?  Because it’s part of the next stage in your career search, and its one you should never stop practicing as my experience recently proved to me.  The next step is to take the corporate information you’ve gathered about your company, division, department, and personnel and honestly weigh yourself against what you’ve found.  Coldly efficient honesty is the key to this exercise.  You cannot, and I repeat this emphatically, you cannot rationalize or deal your way into a job with a large company.  The process is simply too long and has too many layers designed to weed out just such behavior.  Sooner or later some one will hear you typing their question into a Google search or will ask you to walk up to a blank white board with a dry erase marker in your hand.  Tricks like repeating the question just asked as you stall for time or throwing the question back at the interviewer will not work as sooner or later you will face some one who knows what your’e doing.

So if you’re going to be coldly efficient in your honesty and self-reflection, on what areas should you focus that attention like a laser.  That’s easy.  You need to be realistic about the following things:

  • What are the actual expectations and areas of technical competency?
  • What are the actual expectations and areas of non-technical competency?
  • What type of personality appeals to this company?
  • How inclusive or committed to diversity are they really in practice?
  • What exactly is it that I can offer this company the 1k other applicants cannot?

The first two questions are complementary so I’ll address them together.  The first thing you should know is job descriptions always lie by omission if not outright false statements.  It cannot be helped.  The job descriptions in large companies are usually generic documents that if anything are simply edited by the hiring manager should they have the time, inclination, and perceived need to take on the HR department.  You should have already peeled back the onion to find out more about the people actually hired by your dream team.  Now is the time to assess them for common technical and non-technical traits.  A common issue is whether or not some one seeking a product team position (ie: tester, system engineer, product manager, director, etc) will be expected to code.  The answer is almost always “yes” by the way, even for management or product research positions.  But you should be able to answer that question definitively for the specific company.  You should also be able to answer questions about their preferred technologies, tools, languages, and methodologies.  Non-technical competencies could include financial markets information, drug trial protocols, regulatory compliance standards, or literally anything not related to software but which you will be expected to know as part of your job.  And before you ask yes, I’m sure some of these companies will happily spend the money and time training you on these non-technical subjects.  However if we assume a company like Google will receive an estimated 500 resumes in a single day, why should they?  Sooner or later some one with that knowledge will present themselves and you’re expenses won’t  be necessary.

Non-technical requirements leads us nicely into a fuzzy area, personality.  While its true large companies tend to have a certain homogeneous feeling about them, they all have an iconic personality to whom they still associate even if the reality is far from that.  Apple employees still like to think of themselves as creative revolutionaries seeking to bring down entrenched megalithic corporations with their visionary ideas and products.  The reality is they are one of the largest megalithic corporations in the world and will sue some one and their family into debt slavery if they feel their intellectual property has been sniffed around, much less breached.  But who do you think they want to hire, the vindictive little climber who will scratch and claw their way through the dirt to get ahead or the idealistic dreamer willing to sacrifice everything from their health to their family for that dream?  I apologize if it looks like I’m picking on Apple (please don’t sue or make my wife switch to a PC, she just finally stopped asking me support questions); they’re all like this.  The iconic Google employee is a counter-cultural individualist who supports open source software and the free exchange of ideas.  The iconic Microsoft employee possesses a genius level intellect which they use to help save the planet while biking into work every day and recycling their plastic bags.  It doesn’t matter what the reality of their day to day business actually entails, this is how a lot of them see themselves.  You need to ask if that’s how you see yourself as well, and if you can handle not being that anymore.

Now comes what I call the hornets’ nest question.  Everyone claims they are committed to diversity and want to hire the best and brightest minds from around the world.  Don’t believe it.  You’ve already researched the company/department and its employees.  Ask yourself honestly if you are like them.  If you’re applying for an internship at a major financial services company and all the current employees are graduates of the Ivy League with last names like Stevens, Pendarvis, Johnson, and Aldrich, you’ll need to seriously ask yourself if some one with the last name Parmahattmani will have a serious shot at a post.  This may not be fair and it may not be popular, but its honest and its pervasive in the business world for a simple reason outside racism, xenophobia, or sexism.  People like to hire people they feel comfortable spending time around.  A typical job can expect to claim one a little less than one third of your life while you’re there, which means a hiring manager will put a lot of time finding some one who “works well with the team.”  This can result in some really silly if not unethical situations.  A pretty woman might be passed over because a manager will fear his team of socially undeveloped nerds might feel intimidated around her and slow down their performance.  An immigrant programmer with a doctorate in engineering and several well received articles might be passed over because the some one in the loop complained they couldn’t understand a thing they said because of a slight accent.  An experienced manager will let slip he and his wife are expecting a child which will take him out of the running as the hiring team will simply assume he will soon be asking for paternity leave, taking sick days to care for runny noses, and not available nights and weekends to meet deadlines.  So it’s time to be perfectly honest with yourself to avoid time spent fruitlessly.  Look through your research and ask yourself if those people are ones you could see hanging out with socially, or wanting to do the same with you.  Do you share similar interests, hobbies, and backgrounds?  If not, you’re welcome to still try and you might get lucky.  However my advice is to try someplace that will actually value your contributions.  Don’t let it get to you as there are literally hundreds of companies out there looking for talented people.  Any place that doesn’t actively practice diversity is only ensuring their own demise.  Besides, companies stocked with a healthy diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints are ALWAYS more fun to be at.  Always.  And  not just for pot lucks.

Finally there’s the single most difficult question to answer truthfully.  What sets you apart?  As we stated before, a large company will see hundreds of resumes submitted in a single day from qualified and skilled candidates from around the world.  Part of the allure of large companies is they attract great candidates like ants to spilled sugar.  Part of the problem is making sure you are noticed as the colony converges on the mound.  Make an assessment of the skills you think would appeal to the company or team, then ask some friends to do the same if possible.  Anywhere you see duplication, cross it out.  What’s left is a good indicator of what you have to work with.  If you’re left with nothing, go get something.  Perhaps you know this company values certifications you could earn, as is common in the healthcare software or device industry.  Perhaps they value people well versed in their products already, as is common in the video game industry.  Whatever it is, highlight those attributes.  The trick is to make sure its pertinent to the company and role to which you’re applying.  If you’re applying for a technical writer position it’s probably a good thing to be already published within the industry, but no one’s probably going to care that your fan fiction blog has over 2k unique views a month.  They won’t care, unless you’re applying to Lucas Films and your running a popular Star Wars blog.  So all specific advice is as they say, useless.  This is work you need to do on your own and do it honestly.  If you don’t have anything to offer above and beyond the norm, you probably won’t be given the chance.


About cowboytesting

Hi. My name is Curtis S, and I'm a tester.


8 thoughts on “Honest Advice Series: Brutally honest personal assessments

  1. Nice article! If I were to add anything, I would suggest that it is possible to rationalize your way into a company. You can get an “how to pass the interview at X” book and do your homework to beat the interview. You can “study to pass the test.” However, why would you want to? If you’re just tricking your way into the job, you’ll likely be very unhappy within a few months. Then what?

    In addition to the brutal self assessment, check that your values match those of the company. If you have to hide the fact that you and your wife are expecting, is that really a place you want to work? Trust the interview process. As silly and beaurocratic as it can be, the interview is an indication of the company’s culture. If you prepared and interviewed well and were not selected, it’s probably a good thing for you.

    You pretty much said all of this… Nice post.


    Posted by Damon | July 19, 2010, 9:50 am
    • In addition, make sure you check your grammar before posting on a blog lest a future employer think you not know the difference between an organizational notion and a fine French desk.


      Posted by Damon | July 19, 2010, 9:56 am
    • I think it was McFarland who said he detests the phrase “corporate culture” as it in no way reflects values and day to day judgments. He prefers (and I concur) the term “corporate character” when talking about values being in alignment with your own. Again all but a few companies these days will say they value work life balance and are family friendly, but those statements must be balanced with day to day reality. The same is true for diversity, hierarchical structure, and personnel development.

      And as for work life balance, Jack Welch had some interesting things to say on that subject. He pointed out companies are not in business to provide stable family lives for their employees. The executive willing to work over the weekends and uproot their family when asked to go head up a new division in Duluth will always be thought of higher than the executive to clocks out at five and doesn’t want to take their kids of of school mid-semester. It’s just a fact you have to live with when making decisions about what is important to you. Do you want to make vice president by 40 or do you want to provide a decent lifestyle for your family and watch them grow up.

      That’s the rationalization I’ve seen the most people make when choosing to join a company.


      Posted by cowboytesting | July 19, 2010, 12:11 pm
      • I think much of Jack Welch’s management guruness is myth(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Welch#Criticism) and I’m not advocating the notion of “work-life” balance. What I am saying is that if you’re notion of work-life balance differs from the definition of the company you’re interviewing at and you “trick” your way in, you’ll be sorely disappointed. So trust the interview process and be honest with yourself.

        Also, I reject the notion of work-life balance. It’s zero-sum concept: either you can work your tail off and miss your child’s dance recital OR you can have a lifestyle job and be a lazy hippy. If you are honest with yourself and put some work into understanding what you truly want, you can “have it all.” The problem is that people only think about finding a job when they need one and they never really think about understanding what their purpose is.


        Posted by Damon | July 21, 2010, 1:48 pm
  2. Have you thought about using Disqus to manage your comments?


    Posted by Damon | July 21, 2010, 1:50 pm

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