Job Interview Tips from Someone Who’s Been There

Someone recently talked to me about their upcoming job interview. They were nervous about what to expect, and asked me “What should I know?”

They’d already done a bit of research. They knew what they planned on wearing, they had a rehearsed answer for “So tell me about yourself,” and they knew about the importance of a firm handshake with eye contact. So what was left?

I think it’s important to note that I’ve never been on the other side of the table. Although I’ve been to many job interviews, it was always as the person being interviewed. In all truthfulness, every situation is going to be unique. Every hiring manager will have their own take on things, so no single article on interview tips will have the “right” information. This being said, you can definitely gain an advantage if you arm yourself with recommendations from more experienced interviewees.

First Job Interview

First things first, I think the interview process is pretty broken. The interviewer will plan on spending the interview asking you lots of questions, but they will never ask you the one question that actually matters: “Can you do this job?”

They want to ask you how much you expect to be paid for the position, and they often want this information right away. The reason they want it is so that they can immediately dismiss you if you’re asking for too much. In order to stay in the running for the position, never bring up the topic of compensation first. It gives the impression that you’re more concerned about the money than the work you’ll be doing. Furthermore, never name an amount. It can only hurt you, by either letting the interviewer know you’re too expensive, or letting the interviewer know you can be bought for cheap.

When the interviewer asks you to suggest an amount, you should duck the question. Like I said, they’ll ask this quickly — often in the very first phone interview. Don’t give them an amount, no matter what. Good phrases to use to defer them are: “Until we’ve determined that I am a good match for (company), I feel like discussion of compensation is premature.” and “I would like to be compensated a fair wage for the skills needed to fill this role.”

Generally speaking, you don’t want to talk about money during the first round of interviews. When I got my last job, the HR recruiter gave me a phone interview. After passing that, I had an in-person interview with my future boss, and finally had a second interview with the person above him another day. No real discussions about money were made until after all the in-person interviews took place. The HR recruiter called me with a job offer, which was the first offer.

I’ve found that negotiating salary over the phone, AFTER the company has determined that they want to hire you, is the best position you can be in. When you’re discussing compensation in-person, you are more inclined to accept an offer immediately. I can’t fully explain why, but I suspect it has to do with body-language, and presence: The job offer seems within reach, it’s right in front of you, and you want to just grab it the moment it’s on the table.

As unintuitive as it might seem in an economy where jobs are hard to come by, you should not accept the first offer, ever. Even if it’s more money than you expected, you need to keep cool. Realize that at this point, they’ve demonstrated that they want you. You are their choice for the position. If you accept their first offer, then you successfully got the job, but you most likely accepted a “low ball.” You won’t be eligible for a salary increase for another year or more, and the increase will often be a small “cost of living” increase. What you want to do is maximize your starting salary, because that negotiation opportunity is the best chance you have at increasing your wage. It’s much harder to increase your salary after accepting the position, and it will be a while before it’s appropriate to ask for a raise or promotion.

When they give a number, say $40,000, don’t say anything. If you’re on the phone, they can’t read your body language and they don’t know what to make of a “no reaction.”

Count to 25 to yourself. The silence will be uncomfortable, but it’s uncomfortable for the recruiter too — and sometimes that silence can help you. If the 25 seconds passes and they still haven’t said anything else, repeat the figure back to them slowly, like it’s a question: “For-ty, thousand?” See how much longer you can hold the silence, and then ask them if you can have their phone number and get back to them. Explain how you need to put some numbers together and think it over.

I’ve done this. Maybe it sounds crazy, or stupid, but I’ve done it and it has worked out well for me.

You see, your future boss doesn’t always know how much money is available for your position. The HR recruiter does. This is especially true for large organizations in the private sector. The HR person’s job is to fill the position for the lowest amount possible, but if your future boss selects YOU for the position, then the HR person’s job shifts to making sure that you’re going to accept the job. Think about how upset the boss would be at HR if they messed up a negotiation, and lost their first choice! When the employer is in a “we must have you” mentality, you’re in a position to bump up your compensation more easily.

When I was contacted by the HR recruiter over the phone, and I sat in silence counting to 25, she became uncomfortable and said “If that’s not to your liking, would another $2k make the offer more appealing?” She interpreted the silence as disappointment, and basically gave up the game. Now I knew that the offer was negotiable and they were willing to pay more.

I said “Of course it would make the offer more appealing, but (my current employer) might be willing to match that salary in order to keep me, if I explain that I’m leaving for higher compensation. Can I have a bit of time to crunch some numbers and think it over? How can I get back in touch with you?”

In situations where they’re not willing to offer additional compensation, you can frequently ask for added vacation days instead. Your job offer is a contract, and in my experiences, everything is negotiable. You want to adjust the job offer in any way that will make it more appealing to you. Your future employer doesn’t want you to accept the position and leave 6 months later, that’s a “lose” for everyone involved. They will need to invest the time and resources into refilling the position, and perhaps you left because you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. Maybe you didn’t get exactly what you wanted because you didn’t ask.

At any rate, these are the strategies I’ve successfully used to negotiate salaries that allowed me to change jobs (in a lateral move) while increasing my wage as much as $10k/year. As I already mentioned, everyone will have their own take on things, and each situation is unique. You’ve got to decide what’s applicable to your situation.

Of course, after I told my friend all of this, I realized how I didn’t completely answer their question. Although negotiation is really important, it comes much later in the interview process. It’s something to keep in mind so that you can avoid the compensation discussion in the early rounds, but there are other important things to know in order to nail the first interview.

You want to appear informed. Don’t come in without the slightest clue about what the company does, or what your position is for. They will let you finish the interview, but you won’t get the job.

In order to seem well-prepared you need to ask relevant questions. Demonstrate that you’ve invested time and energy into researching the position and the company. For example, if you checked out their website, maybe they had a link to a news story where their organization was mentioned. Bring this up in the interview, and talk to them about it. Prove to them that you’re not just a person qualified for the job, but someone that’s genuinely interested in the what the company is doing.

If you ask enough questions about the company, you can sometimes turn the tables on the interview completely: You’re actually asking the interviewer more questions than they are asking you, as if you’re interviewing them. The atmosphere will suddenly shift to the point where the interviewer is trying to impress you. In my experiences, this strategy has never failed to get me a second interview, if not the job.

See, an in-person interview is most often just a test to see if you’ll fit in. They want to see if they’ll enjoy working with you every day. In a way, working for someone is kind of like going steady.

So when the interviewer spends the duration of your interview talking about themselves, after the interview is finished they’ll subconsciously like you more than the typical candidate. You see, the easiest way to get strangers to like you is to let them talk about themselves. People LOVE talking about themselves!

Ask questions like “What makes (company) a great place to work?” Engage the interviewer in casual conversation with “How long have you been with (company)? Knowing what you know now after working here (that long), would you do it all over again given the chance? Why?” The important thing is to really get them talking. If you’re asking questions that have simple, one-word answers, be sure to have some related follow-up questions that will cause them to tell you stories. Have fun. Smile. Laugh.

Simply put, the first interview is more about getting the interviewer to like you than proving you’re able to do the job. They already know you can do the job from your resume, and that’s the reason they invited you to the interview in the first place. Now they’re just trying to determine if you’ll fit in there, and if they want to work with you every day.

Good luck!

How to Be Satisfied with What You Have

There’s a lot of excitement over the release of the new iPhone 4S. I’m reading news stories about people lining up outside of stores so they can get their hands on the latest version of the popular phone.

I have trouble relating to the “must have it now” mentality. I’ve observed early adopters of the iPod quickly abandon their first generation mp3 player for the smaller iPod mini, only to do it again the next year for the even smaller iPod nano. Later, when the iPhone effectively combined Apple’s mp3 player with a cell phone, every previously released music device was abandoned, and the “gotta have it” frenzy shifted towards the iPhones.

Of course, this behavior isn’t unique to Apple products. Many people choose to upgrade their cell phone the instant they’re eligible, so that they can enjoy the thrill of getting something new. My girlfriend Cassie has been through three different phones in the four years that I’ve lived with her, and she’s already looking forward to becoming eligible again for her next upgrade.

I’m not suggesting that anything is wrong with liking gadgets, or wanting new things. After all, I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege of affording a brand new car, brand new laptop, brand new furniture, etc. I’m only sharing my fascination with those who seem to always “need” new things, and I’m curious about what drives people to crave that “new gadget feeling.”

To offer some perspective, I’ve only ever owned two cell phones. The first one I got in 2001. I was 21 at the time, and got it at the request of my employer. I was a traveling consultant for his computer firm, and having a phone made it easier for my boss to keep in touch with me when I was on the road.

I got my second phone in 2005. My father wanted a cell phone, and could save the cost of a phone if I let him have mine. I renewed my contract, obtained a free phone, and gave my dad my old one.

The free phone that I got in 2005 is still the one that I’m using today. It’s in my pocket as I’m writing this.

Sure, it’s six years old — but it works, and it’s served me well for all these years. Of course, people sometimes make fun of me for it. It’s not uncommon for people I’m meeting for the first time to actually take a picture of my old phone using their smart phone, so they can upload it to Facebook for a laugh. It’s like they’re saying “Seriously? What’s wrong with this guy?”

My old phone

They tell me to get with the times, and ask why I won’t upgrade to a newer phone. Although there are several reasons, the main one is that it still works. I guess I subscribe to the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Still, I suspect that there’s more to it. There’s a reason why other people are always buying the next best thing. Some people are compulsive shoppers, some are self-proclaimed technophiles, and some just want to be accepted as part of the crowd who’s “with it.”

And I’m not going to lie. I’m not anti-iPhone. In fact I’m a bit curious about it. At one point I got to use one for my job and I did like it. It had some cool games, and if it lacked any features you could easily find and download something extra ones using Apps.

All this considered, I’m still comfortable with not being part of the “gotta have it” mentality. Maybe I’ll get one when my phone finally dies. If not, that’s okay too. I’m satisfied with what I have.

Hole in the body - Comic by Dresden Codak

How to Break Out of a Vicious Cycle

I will do the opposite.
I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day.
So now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

— George Costanza, Seinfeld

Recently I was having some trouble keeping up with my wordcount goals for writing fiction. The creative aspect of novel-writing is a lot less natural to me than writing blog content, so although I’ve been dedicating my Tuesdays and Thursdays to fiction, not much was actually getting done.

My Tuesday/Thursday routine was to shower, eat breakfast, and then head to the library with my laptop. I’d set up my writing space using one of the desks in the center of the 2nd floor, boot my laptop and open my word processor. In an effort to force myself to simply start writing, I’d often begin with an outpouring of negative internal feedback, for example:

You can’t be serious. You can’t write. You’re not going to succeed as a writer. You’ll never do it. You’ll goof off and lose track of what you’re doing and fail miserably. You’ll never amount to anything good in life. You’re a tool. You’re a wannabe. You’re just trying to be something you’re not. Suck it.

Then I’d hit enter twice to start a new paragraph, and continue writing my fiction story where I had left off the day before. Although this process might seem a bit masochistic, for a while it seemed to work well for me. I’d get all of the negative thoughts out of my system, and then move forward with the task at hand.

The problem was, that after many days of doing this, the negative feedback portion of my writing started growing larger (and the fiction I was supposed to be writing became smaller). I was gradually spending more and more time doing things I didn’t need to be doing, until there were entire days when I’d accomplish nothing at all. Put another way, I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

Vicious Cycle, or How I Live My Life - by Dr. Doobious

Even on days when I managed to get myself to the library, I’d avoid the word processor application. Instead of writing, I’d spend my time checking my email, poking around on Facebook, browsing Reddit, or even playing online games. Eventually, I’d get hungry and leave the library before even trying to write at all. I’d spend my lunch regretting the bad habits I’d adopted, but then I’d go back to the library and keep doing it. It was stupid.

Procrastination can turn into a vicious cycle if you let it. Goals that you can reasonably accomplish with the routine of taking small steps over a long period of time start to slip away from you. You realize that you need to make up for falling behind, but the once simple task has now grown into a more difficult task. The task becomes more intimidating with every day that you spend doing nothing, but instead of tackling the beast you shy away from it. You lose days to fear, spent worrying about failure and the always-approaching deadline.

For me, the best strategy for overcoming these fears is to look at the situation objectively. I tell myself “If I keep this up, then I will certainly fail. And if I fail because I barely tried, then I must not have really wanted to succeed.”

It’s an honest, deliberate motivational speech I sometimes give myself. It causes me to snap back into “go” mode because I DO WANT TO SUCCEED!

The library environment wasn’t working for me. I’d gotten into the cycle of going there but never accomplishing anything. Consequently, I started associating the library with the negative feeling of shame. Furthermore, the fact that so many students surrounded me who were focusing on their work — studying, reading, and researching — only made me feel worse about wasting time. I needed to do something different.

Yesterday, instead of going to the library or staying home, I went for a change of scenery: a nearby coffee shop. Although I think it’s really cliche to write in public, I was surprised at how much good the change of scenery did me.

Instead of being in the center of the quiet library, I set up my writing space in a corner of the coffee shop beneath a music speaker. At the library I felt nothing but pressure and guilt, but here I felt relaxed and refreshed. As an added bonus, I noticed how background music actually helped me focus. You see, in the library I frequently got distracted when people would talk, or even whisper to each other. Here, I couldn’t really hear other people’s conversations unless I was trying to listen. Best of all, when I inevitably got hungry, I didn’t need to pack up and go someplace else to eat. I just bought a muffin at the counter, then went right back to writing.

It was the most productive “fiction-writing day” I’d had in weeks, and it was all thanks to one simple change. I still have 45 pages left to write in order to meet my 80 page goal, but I’m back on track. I’ve broken out of the vicious cycle.

If you’re trapped in a vicious cycle, think about simple changes that you can make that can help you break out of it. You won’t necessarily need to do “the opposite,” the way that George Costanza does, but you will need to do something different. After all, when you keep things the same, you’re only feeding the cycle.

There is No “Easy” Button, only a “Go” Button

The idea of hardship is relative. I started thinking about this after watching a documentary called “Born Rich.” In it, different heirs and heiresses who inherited millions after being “born into money” share their perspectives on the topic of wealth.

I found it really fascinating. See, everyone that I’ve ever known has been short of money, myself included. Consequently, I’ve grown up alongside people who are often imagining how wonderful it would be to win the lottery, or otherwise become rich. The allure is thinking how “Once we win the lottery, we can do whatever we want!”

The creator of Born Rich is Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. What I found fascinating about Jamie is how even with his inheritance, at 21 he’s extremely confused about what to do with his life. He explains that he’s very fortunate to have the resources, and consequently the opportunity, to make a film about people that have been born into money. At the same time, the film makes clear that the rich also consider “talking about money” to be a social taboo. In spite of this, Jamie’s anxious to explore the subject with his friends and family. He’s seeing how other people feel about it, so that he can try and understand it better. In a way, he’s finding himself.

The film depicts two sides to the money spectrum. First, you have people like me, and possibly you, who need to work for it. We view money as the quick solution to all of life’s problems, and want more of it. Second, you have people like Jamie, who obtain immense wealth from their family, who never need to worry about getting more money. They give millions away to charity every year, yet still have trouble understanding what life’s all about.

A recurring theme in the film is the suggestion that “you can do anything you want, but you have to do something.” For the heirs and heiresses, there is no need to work. Still, their parents explain how “doing nothing” isn’t an option. They must do something, or risk being cut off from their inheritance. Interestingly, Jamie’s decision to “do something” turns out to be his decision to make this film.

It’s interesting to watch a discussion between Jamie and his father about their different ideas regarding what’s worth doing. Jamie mentions how he and his father were faced with the same situation when they were born: Neither of them needed to earn their own living, ever. So naturally at one point in his life, Jamie’s dad was faced with the same question we all face: What should I do with my life?

It’s not totally clear how Jamie’s father spends the bulk of his time, but this particular conversation takes place in a art studio while his father is painting a picture. With a brush and painter’s pallet in hand, Jamie’s father says “After graduation you might pursue the filming a little bit. But you might also get interested in graduate school, further studies, building a collection of historic documents, papers, publications…” Jamie asks “As a career?” and his father quickly says “Yes.”

Jamie considers his dad’s advice and meets with a historical expert. As they’re looking over an old map together, Jamie asks the expert “Well, considering I don’t have to work, what advice would you give me on…” The expert erupts in laughter, saying “Then don’t work! Then don’t work! Why would anybody in their right mind work unless they had to!?

I relate to what the expert is saying, as he is speaking from my perspective. We imagine that if we had enough money to give us the option of never working, we could then spend our entire life doing only what we really wanted to do. Jamie, however, is speaking from a perspective I don’t fully understand, but still relate to. He’s confused in the face of unlimited possibility. He has countless opportunities for things that he can do, but he’s not sure about what he actually should do.

To me, that’s all anyone is ever looking for. You’re trying to figure out what to do with your life, but it’s not always as clear for you as it might be for everyone else.

The truth is, there is no “easy” button. According to Jamie, access to riches is worthless if you don’t know what to do with your life. Although he acknowledges that being rich is a privilege, the process of creating the documentary helps him understand the significance of the things that you make on your own. He takes pride in earning something through hard work, and even gives the impression that he’s somewhat ashamed of all the money that he’s been given.

At the end of the day, we all have our problems — and they’re all relative. I was always told that life isn’t supposed to be easy, and I’m totally on board with that suggestion. In my experiences, and judging from the documentary, there really is no “easy” button, easy route, or easy way out. There is only you, and the choices you make.

In other words, you don’t have access to an “easy” button — only a “go” button. What you make of your life is up to you. You will undoubtedly encounter hardships in life regardless of the hand you’ve been dealt, and it’s your choice to decide how you’re going to deal with them.

If you do nothing, you’ll cut yourself off from your highest potential. If you wait until you win the lottery before pursuing what you want in life, you’ll be dead before you’re given the chance to be happy.

Don’t let this happen. Press your “go” button. Run with the things that interest you, and make you happiest. It may not be easy, but there’s no telling how far your passions will take you until you go after them. So go on! Go!

Go! Button

Don’t Force It

I remember a commercial from the 90’s where a guy is having his car serviced. Two mechanics are shoving a battery into his car, using a hammer to cram it inside. The owner is concerned maybe that’s not the right size battery for his car, but the mechanics insist they’ll make it fit. “Don’t worry, we’ve been doing this for a long time.” Cue a flashback to when the mechanics were children, playing with a shape board together. While trying to force a square peg into a round hole, one kid says, “It’s not going in!” The other kid looks confused, then declares “Just keep hitting it!”

Square Peg in a Round Hole

The message, of course, was that you don’t want to trust idiots to work on your car. If I recall correctly, the ad was for an auto service chain that was promoting the value of qualified mechanics.

What’s interesting to me is how the idea driving this commercial — “Don’t force it” — has stuck with me into adulthood. I credit a lot of this to my father, who seems to be able to fix anything despite the fact that he’s always dropping screws.

My dad loves fixing things. Never fails — he’s either working on something, or he’s thinking about something that needs to be worked on. Just yesterday, my mom called me to wish me a happy birthday. When she handed the phone to my father so he could do the same, he was fixing their dishwasher.

“Boy I wish you were around to help me get this back together,” he said. I laughed and said “Why, so I can hold your tools for you?”

That’s how it’s always been with me and my dad. He’d be crawling around on his hands and knees, working hard on his “project of the moment,” while I stood nearby keeping track of his tools and the small pieces that he always managed to lose.

I learned a lot just by watching him. He’s a bit of a perfectionist, but that’s part of his charm. While some dads might just grab a shovel and dig a hole, my dad was a lot more thorough: After using the shovel to turn the garden, he’d not only clean the dirt off the shovel, he’d even rub some oil on the blade to keep it from rusting.

He and I have pulled apart cars in junkyards together. We’ve painted rooms, reupholstered furniture, and built science projects together. We’ve chopped down countless trees, and stacked the resulting firewood to “set” for the season so we could use it in the wood stove the following year.

No matter what kind of odd repair job we were doing, I always appreciated riding with him to the hardware store. Among all of the possible choices in all the different aisles, he always managed to find exactly what he was looking for, or at least something that “would work.” My dad, the unstoppable fixer of things.

What sticks out to me most, though, are the times when he’d put down the drill and let me take the reins for a change. After we’d covered the topic of safety, then double-checked that we were being safe, he’d give me a one sentence pointer about the task at hand, and then remind me about safety just in case I’d forgotten.

“Now, if I can make a suggestion…” he’d always start. Maybe it was how I needed to keep both my feet on the floor when steering a power saw. Maybe it was how you always wanted to retract the blade of the knife when you were finished with it. Maybe it was how you always wanted to measure twice, and cut once.

And often times it was a simple, elegant suggestion: “Don’t force it.”

He could have been talking about a single screw to prevent it from stripping or re-threading. He could have been talking about the oil filter on my car of the moment. He could have been talking about the garage door lock that just wouldn’t open. Whatever the case, the advice rang true.

Whenever he said it, my mind brought back that image of the mechanics monkeying with that guy’s battery. “Don’t force it” was a recurring theme for doing things right.

What I’ve found as I’ve grown older, is that his simple advice goes beyond home repairs. “Don’t force it” can be a mantra for making new friendships, meeting a significant other, and doing work you love. You can’t force friendship, or love, or fate. Sometimes you’ve got to take another look at what you’re holding, or what you’re trying to accomplish. Look with patient eyes. Really analyze the situation, and find out what’s stopping you. Then, instead of trying to force it, you fiddle with it. If you’re still having trouble, walk away for a while and try again later.

I’ve found the act of NOT forcing things to be one of the most empowering processes imaginable. Instead of trying to hammer out a piece of music in perfect tempo, you can enjoy the musical process. Instead of worrying about everything going according to plan, you can relax and enjoy the party. Instead of trying to arrange everything you want in life into a distinct order, you can truly live.

After telling my dad about my birthday plans, he asked how everything else was going. I told him that I expected to have a bit more about my life figured out by now, and that I was still frustrated with the slow-going status of my career. He told me that he was well over 30 before his career really started, and reminded me not to force it.

I won’t. Thanks dad.