In the last article on technical interviewing, I told the story of how I got my first networking job.  The interview was chaotic and unorganized, and resulted in me getting the job and being quite successful.  In this post, I’d like to start with a very basic question:  Why is it that we interview job candidates in first place?

This may seem like an obvious question, but if you think about it face-to-face interviewing is not necessarily the best way to assess a candidate for a networking position.  To evaluate their technical credentials, why don’t we administer a test? Or, force network engineering candidates to configure a small network? (Some places do!)  What exactly is it that we hope to achieve by sitting down for an hour and talking to this person face-to-face?

Interviewing is fundamentally a subjective process.  Even when an interviewer attempts to bring objectivity to the interview by, say, asking right/wrong questions, interviews are just not structured as objective tests.  The interviewer feedback is usually derived from gut reactions and feelings as much as it is from any objective criteria.  The interviewer has a narrow window into the candidate’s personality and achievements, and frequently an interviewer will make an incorrect assessment in either direction:

  • By turning down a candidate who is qualified for the job.  When I worked at TAC, I remember declining a candidate who didn’t answer some questions about OSPF correctly.  Because he was a friend of a TAC engineer, he got a second chance and did better in his second interview.  He got hired and was quite successful.
  • By hiring a candidate who is unqualified for the job.  This happens all the time.  We pass people through interviews who end up being terrible at the job.  Sometimes we just assess their personality wrong and they end up being complete jerks.  Sometimes, they knew enough technical material to skate through the interview.

Having interviewed hundreds of people in my career, I think I’m a very good judge of people.  I was on the interview team for TAC, and everyone we hired was a successful engineer.  Every TME I’ve hired as a manager has been top notch.  That said, it’s tricky to assess someone in such a short amount of time. As the interviewee, you need to remember that you only have an hour or so to convince this person you are any good, and one misplaced comment could torpedo you unfairly.

I remember when I interviewed for the TME job here at Cisco.  I did really well, and had one final interview with the SVP at the time.  He was very personable, and I felt at ease with him.  He asked me for my proudest accomplishment in my career.  I mentioned how I had hated TAC when I started, but I managed to persevere and left TAC well respected and successful.  He looked at my quizzically.  I realized it was a stupid answer.  I was interviewing for a director-level position.  He wanted to hear some initiative and drive, not that I stuck it out at a crappy job.  I should have told him about how I started the Juniper on Juniper project, for example.  Luckily I got through but that one answer gave him an impression that took me down a bit.

When you are interviewing, you really need to think about the impression you create.  You need empathy.  You need to feel how your interviewer feels, or at least be self-aware enough to know the impression you are creating.  That’s because this is a subjective process.

I remember a couple of years back I was interviewing a candidate for an open position.I asked him why he was interested in the job. The candidate proceeded to give me a depressing account of how bad things were in his current job.”It’s miserable here,” he said.  “Nobody’s going anywhere in his job.  I don’t like the team they’re not motivated.”  And so forth.  He claimed he had programming capabilities and so I asked him what his favorite programming language.”I hate them all,” he said. I actually think that he was technically fairly competent but in my opinion working with this guy would’ve been such a downer that I didn’t hire him.

In my next article I’ll take a look at different things hiring managers and interviewers are looking for in a candidate, and how they assess them in an interview.