It’s the political party conference season here in the UK. (Yay! Ok, now calm down.)
Last week was the Labour Party Conference and this week it’s the turn of the Conservative Party. I’ve been following politics for about five years, but that’s not why I know where I was and what I was doing during the 2017 Conservative Party Conference. I remember because I had a job interview, a job interview that I thought went pretty well.
The news coverage of this year’s conservative conference brings back very happy memories of that job interview (happy memories about a job interview? Weird, I know;) and not-so happy memories of the interviews that had come before it. I vividly remember sitting in the middle seat, at the back of the National Express bus that was taking me home, reading the coverage of Theresa May’s speech, and feeling pretty good about things; partly because of the interview, and partly because of this:
Unfortunately, not all of my interviews that year had been so good or left me feeling so great. Some interviews left me feeling ok, despite knowing I wasn’t going to get the job. Other interviews left me upset and worried and annoyed.
In this article I’m going to talk about the year of job interviews that I had, both good and bad. If you want to skip the stories, you can nip to the end of the article for my summary.
My first interview was at a university for a Research Assistant job. This is the sort of job I really wanted so I was happy to get the offer of an interview.
My interview was with the academic offering the job and a Professor in the same department. They were both very friendly and welcoming. The interview went well enough, we covered the topics I’d prepared for (PhD work, research interests, background, plans, etc). All was as I expected.
I left the interview feeling ok. I wasn’t sure that I’d done enough to get the job (spoilers: I didn’t) but I didn’t feel terrible about it. Some of the other candidates were much further into their research careers, and the contract was only for one year so it made sense to pick someone (presumably) with more experience.
Since I didn’t get the research job I’d interviewed for, I began searching around for other options. Company 1 were offering a job in safety-critical systems development, so I was leaning on part of my PhD work being on safety-critical programming. During my PhD the manager of Company 1 had spoken to me about them recruiting people with my sort of background, so when I was coming to the end of my PhD I got back in touch.
Company 1 is staffed by a lot of computer science graduates from my university and was close to where I lived, so I thought it was a good choice. The interview was arranged, based on my experience with formal verification and safety-critical programming, and in I went.
Looking back on it, being interviewed for a job without a job description was a bad idea (one that I repeated before the year was out) but I (naively) thought it meant that they wanted me and my skills.
The interview was with the manager who I’d spoken to before, and one of the developers. It started out well, they both seemed friendly enough; but things started going wrong rather quickly.
I was asked the usual questions about my background and PhD work, but the manager dug into the usefulness and validity of my PhD work. I didn’t yet have some of the answers (or answers that weren’t considered good enough by my interviewer) and the manager mentioned that I should probably have these answers for my Viva.
Having thought that I was interviewing for a job about safety-critical systems programming and formal verification (which is my background), I hadn’t prepared for questions about testing (which is not my background at all).
Stumbling over the testing questions set off (what I can now see was) an anxiety attack. Despite being visibly distressed (I could feel myself beginning to shake and the manager interviewing me offered me a moment and some water) the manager continued to dig into my grasp of programming basics. They implied that I should really know these things, as a computer scientist.
My brain locked up. I panicked and forgot how to do basic boolean logic. The other interviewer, the developer, said that it wasn’t something that they did everyday, and maybe it wasn’t a very valid question to ask. I kept apologising and saying that my brain was a blank, but the interview continued.
I considered ending the interview and leaving, but that felt like giving up. I tried to remain stoic and finish the interview to show that I could.
When I left, walking back through the main office that was full of developers, I tried to not catch anyone’s eye and get out as quickly as I could. It left me feeling terrible and worried about my Viva.
I knew I hadn’t got the job and I felt like I didn’t deserve the job or a PHD.
I’d found no other academic jobs advertised, so I applied for another industry job. Company 2 was another that took a lot of graduates from my university and was also close to where I lived. The job wasn’t directly related to my PhD work, but I’d been programming at university for ~9 years and I thought the job looked interesting.
This interview was another that was in a conference room off a development office, so I felt very overlooked. This time there was only one interviewer, the lead developer who was offering the job.
It was another fairly usual interview that covered my background, PhD work, interest in the job itself. I talked about programming being my route into university work and my PhD. I was nervous, but I thought that this interview was going better than the last one.
Then I was asked if I knew about a string of different languages, build systems, etc. Most of them I knew about, but hadn’t used (if I had significant experience of them, they would have been mentioned on my CV or covering letter!) This still seemed to be ok; the interviewer said that they don’t expect people to have all the skills they’re looking for, because it’s an impossibly broad skill-set that they want. So I leant on my years of education to show that I am good at learning new things.
Then the interview took an odd turn.
The interviewer reiterated that I had a good CV and that I’d been giving good answers, but that they were looking for someone who didn’t just come to work because it was their job. They wanted someone who enjoyed coming to work. The problem was that I hadn’t said that I’d enjoy it, this was ‘worrying’ to my interviewer.
I wasn’t feeling great at the time, but I had made sure I went to the interview. Now, it seemed like my emotional state was being interviewed, not just my knowledge and skills. I wasn’t sure how to come back from this (using the work “enjoy” and it derivatives several times in quick succession seemed to be a bit transparent) but I restated that my enjoyment of programming was what took me to university in the first place.
Despite trying to rally, I didn’t really think I’d done enough; and the interview left me with the feeling that it wouldn’t be a nice place to work. I left (again, walking quickly back through the developer office) feeling very off – kinda empty and annoyed. It felt like my skills and knowledge didn’t matter, that I simply wasn’t chipper enough for them.
I was fairly certain that I hadn’t gotten that job, and I wondered if I was good enough to do any programming job.
For this interview it was back to a university for a research job. This time three academics were in my interview, one of whom was offering the job.
I honestly don’t remember too much, good or bad, about this interview. I know I talked about my background, PhD work, interest in the job; the usual. I didn’t leave feeling like I’d definitely gotten the job, but I also didn’t leave distraught and feeling terrible about myself.
After a four month gap, I got another interview for another research position at another university. This was another panel of three academics that included the person offering the job (lets call them Interviewer 1).
I’d been told that, before my interview, I’d sit a written exam. The job was to include a large portion of programming, so the exam was to check my programming skills. Odd, I thought, but fair enough. I (nervously) emailed to explain that I am dyslexic, ask for more details about the exam, and to request to use a computer to write my answers. They responded saying that was all fine.
After some nervous waiting around, the exam started late. It was an exam from a module taught by Interviewer 2, who told that I wasn’t expect to get to section 3 in the time I’d been given but to get through as much as I could. Luckily, it was on a programming language I knew and some of it was multiple choice. This reduced the burden on writing, so only one section needed the computer for me to write the answers.
Once the exam had been marked (more nervous waiting) I went in for the interview. I stood and gave my presentation about my previous work (something I’d gotten quite good at and found more calming that I’d have thought before) and then sat down for the questions.
They asked about my performance on the exam, how I thought it went. (Killer; I gave some on-the-fence answers.) They weren’t very impressed, the marks weren’t as high as they expected. I didn’t want to lean on my dyslexia here, but I tried to tell them (without being rude) that I felt that a written exam was an invalid test of programming ability. I was looking at written code scripts (in black and white, not good for someone who relies on syntax highlighting) and had no means of running code to check out what it would do. I also had no access to manuals for the programming language; I didn’t think that it was helpful to check if I’d memorised the entire language. This didn’t go down well with (lets call them, Interviewer 3) who seemed to be of the opinion that having the entire programming language in your head was of huge importance. We moved on.
We talked about my PhD and what I thought about the project that the job was on, then (lets call them Interviewer 2) took a weird line of questioning. They asked how much help in writing papers etc. I thought I would need from Interviewer 1 (my prospective boss). I thought this was a sensible question and used it as an opportunity to describe my experience in collaborating with my supervisors and writing papers. I was asked, very specifically, what I meant when I said “collaboration” and how much “writing” I had done and how much help I’d needed. (Very odd and now getting rather worrying.)
After a few more minutes of probing, Interviewer 2 came to the point. They had seen two spelling mistakes in the presentation I’d given. I apologised, looked at the slide, explained that it was one I’d tweaked last night and that they were classic dyslexic spelling mistakes (I’d transposed two letters inside a word). I thought I’d reassured Interviewer 2, but Interviewer 3 had other ideas and asked about how dyslexia impacts my work. They were particularly concerned at how I knew that I’d spelt words correctly when writing papers and how I was sure that I was correct when writing programs. (Explaining that spelling mistakes in programs tend to lead to some kind of warning didn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.) Their comments seemed to suggest that I probably shouldn’t be programming, if dyslexia was causing that much hassle for me.
I left the interview with the impression that I wasn’t getting that job, but I wasn’t feeling too bad about myself. I was pretty annoyed at the implications about dyslexia, though.
University 3: Part 2
University 3 again; surprise!
When I was rejected for the previous job at University 3, I was told that Interviewer 3 also had a research job that I was welcome to apply for. I thought ‘why not?’, asked for more details, and said I was interested.
Despite the job being offered by Interviewer 3 (you remember them? Thinks I should have the entire programming language in my head and wondered how I get along if I’m dyslexic) I thought I’d give it a go. It was an academic job and I needed a job…
This interview had another panel of three; which included Interviewer 3, another academic in the room, and the third person on Skype. The Skyper was their industry contact, who was involved in the project too. This was when I found out that the job would mainly be based in their office (not at the university) which was in a different location. (More public transport to work out, if I got the job.)
Now, Interviewer 3 had also wanted me to do a programming test, because the job involved a lot of programming. I’m not sure if they had listened to what I’d said in my previous interview, but they had given me a laptop to program with and section 3 of the exam I did for my last interview. Section 3 presented a problem, asked for a written design of a solution and a sketch of a program that implemented the design.
So, given an unfamiliar laptop with an unfamiliar setup I was left in the room for (I think) half an hour to panic and attempt as much of it as I could. The results of this part of the exam were worse than before. My mind went quite blank when it came to the written design, and the unfamiliar laptop setup left me struggling to remember the right commands for the program.
Fumbling into the interview section, which I’d had only about a week to prepare for, I was already on the back-foot. The Skyper didn’t seem interested in my PhD work, and everyone seemed concerned that my poor exam result didn’t bode well for future performance. I could tell that no one was particularly likely to give me the job; I just waited it out, answering as best I could.
Once the interview was over, I was almost certain that I wasn’t getting this job. The panic in the practical exam, and these two rejections in a few weeks, had left me thinking that I wasn’t suited to programming or academia.
Organisation 1 is part of the council that provides adult education. This was a teaching job, that almost I made for myself. I’d met the manager who offered me this interview at a jobs fair (the single useful thing about being made to go) and asked her who ran their IT courses. They said they weren’t looking for anyone to teach IT at the moment. But, after explaining my background, they got quite excited. They’d been looking for someone to teach very basic, introductory programming for a while now. (They had even been in contact with a lecturer at my university about it!) So, when I applied, they offered me an interview very quickly.
The interview was held in a library (one of the places the organisation runs their courses) which was fine, since it wasn’t open to the public that day. The odd thing was that I was waiting in the reception area, which was next to the IT suite where the interviews were being held. Three of the four walls of the room were glass, so I could see (and almost hear) the interview that was happening before mine. I really didn’t know where to look, so I spent most of the time intently studying the fire safety poster on the wall.
Since this was a teaching job, I’d been asked to give a short introduction to programming so they could gauge my skill at teaching. (I talk about this in my first post and the presentation I gave can be found here) Then I was asked some questions about my teaching experience and specifics about the job itself. This was another three-person panel, all involved in the teaching that the organisation provided (but only one with a programming background); crucially, all three were women.
This interview was great – as far as interviews go. I’d become very used to standing up and talking about my subject, giving presentations, etc; it went smoothly and was very well received. I had been worried that I didn’t have enough experience running a course before, but the way they asked questions about my experience and how I would deal with specific situations put me at ease.
I came away from this interview buoyed and confident, happy that I’d done well. If I didn’t get the job, at least I’d done my best at the interview. They very quickly offered me the job and I had a lot of fun putting together the course and teaching it. Feel free to download the content of this course.
It was unfortunate that it was only a part-time job, it also didn’t start until the next term. So, my job hunt continued.
This was another odd interview, this time with a very big company. My details had been passed to the person recruiting for this company by a friend of mine, who worked in a different part of the company. They had a shiny new office close by and were looking for developers to explore new ways of doing things. I thought that my research background and love of programming would suit the job pretty well, so I was happy when I was invited in for a “chat” (this should have been a warning sign.)
I went into their shiny new office, was met by the recruiter I’d been talking to, and waited around for the team manager to be available for our “chat”. We were joined, by video call, by one of the team’s developers.
I was asked about my background, and I laid our my PhD work and skill set as I thought best (giving it a lean towards the programming side of things, and trying to emphasise the exploratory nature of research). However, it quickly became apparent that the job that I thought we were “chatting” about was not yet on offer. Right now, they were recruiting for a web developer for a specific project with a short turn-around time.
I took a side-step, and started talking about how I’d liked web development (which is true) when I was doing it at university, but was honest that I hadn’t done much more recently. However, I once again leant on my university career showing that I pick things up quickly.
I’m not sure if they thought they were being kind or helpful, but the team manager told me “honestly” that they were also interviewing someone who lived closer to the developer on the other end of the video call and was a current web developer. This basically implies that they wont be offering me the job. This is mid-way through the
The team manager also kept trying to convince me that I didn’t want the job, that I wouldn’t be happy with the job, and that the job didn’t fit my “core skill-set”. I remember trying to remain calm as I told him what my ‘core skill-set’ was for the third or fourth time. it seems his ears were closed.
I left this interview confused, more than anything, but also pretty annoyed. It felt like the “chat” had become an interview and that interview was for a different job. They said they would contact me soon. They did not contact me soon. The next email I had from the recruiter was asking if I was free for another “chat”. I did not reply.
At this point, it was about half-way through the (calendar) year and I’m was getting nervous and desperate. I look back at my CV to see what other skills I’ve got that I can use. During my undergraduate degree I did some IT helpdesk work. There was a similar job at a company near where I lived, so I applied.
I almost immediately didn’t want this job, but I knew I’d have to take it if offered. IT helpdesk work wasn’t what I was looking for, but I had enjoyed it at times. It involves problem-solving and helping people out, often the problems are different each day, there were upsides.
This interview panel was back to two people, the helpdesk manager and their deputy. It was another late start as I waited for the manager to become available and they were a little rushed, so asked their deputy to begin the interview. The deputy asked about my background, experience, etc; while the manager sat reading my CV and covering letter.
It became obvious that the manager hadn’t read my CV or covering letter (or at least, not read them very closely) when they interrupted the interview to comment to the deputy ‘ha, he’s got a bloody PhD’. This was not filling me with confidence. The interview continued, I talked about my skills and why I wanted the job; they talked about the working environment and the team. They made it sound like a sports team or social clique that I’d be joining, full of ‘banter’ and ‘jokes’. This might sound ideal to some; I was dreading it.
About 20 minutes from the end of the interview, someone else walked into the room. Apparently, they had booked it for a meeting, starting now. We got up and left, and milled around for a few minutes trying to find another room. After this disturbance, it was tough to get back on track (both for me and for the interviewers), so the interview was soon finished.
I left this interview with a feeling of dread. I knew that I had to take the job if it was offered, but I didn’t want to work there. Not because the job would be too bad, but because of how they had described the working environment.
This was another programming teaching job, but this time is was advertised at students. I looked closley at the job description, then applied anyway. The student element was mainly because is was part-time and pretty insecure. Company 5 ran after-school and school holiday sessions teaching primary- and secondary-school children about programming.
This was another “chat” and (because Company 5 was a small one-person operation) held in my house – which somehow made me less and more nervous at the same time. Since it was a one-person operation, there was only one person in my
interview chat. They were friendly and calm; we chatted about my background and I talked about the other teaching work I had done, and how much I’d enjoyed it.
They showed me some of the kit they use and explained the sort of activities they do. They also used this as a (not so surreptitious) opportunity to test how good I was at debugging code that I was looking at. I wish they’d just been upfront about it being an interview.
interview “chat” wasn’t too long, but I was left feeling fairly confident about it. But, I was a little annoyed that the “chat” had been in my house and that it was definitely an interview that was assessing my skills. I was offered the job and enjoyed teaching the little programmers a lot. Unfortunately, like the job with Organisation 1, it was part-time.
University 1: Part 2
University 1 again, right back to the start.
This time is was a teaching job at University 1. The job description was very broad, because the department just needed a gang of new teaching staff. The job was one step below being a lecturer, designed to be an introductory role for those new to university teaching.
The job description mentioned that the teaching timetable would be lighter at the beginning and that there would be time for my own research. This was appealing, but also quite scary. I put together a rough research plan for my application, that continued my PhD work. I was very pleased to be offered an interview, because I didn’t have any experience of running university-level courses before.
Being happy didn’t last long.
The email offering me an interview said that I needed to prepare a presentation (as usual). They had specified a topic to give a short presentation on (fair enough, I expected that from a teaching interview). The official invitation for the interview would be sent the next day (fine, I would wait for that email and then start planning). This email arrived just after 4pm, so I didn’t think that waiting until tomorrow would make that much difference.
The next day came, and with it an email, which arrived around 8:30am. It was my official interview invitation, it confirmed the job I was applying for; and it said that if I couldn’t make the interview in person, then I could participate on Skype.
The interview invite confirmed the time and date of the interview – tomorrow. The interview would be the next day. The interview would be barely two days after being told to prepare for the interview (and write a presentation); barely 24 hours after the interview invitation email.
I panicked, my anxiety took over. I tried my best to juggle preparing the presentation, preparing my answers for the interview, and organising the hardware needed for a Skype interview. There was no way I could afford the train to be there in person, so as much as I hated the idea of having an interview over Skype, it was my only option. My 6 year old laptop was just limping along, and my desktop didn’t have a camera or microphone.
I was wholly unprepared and entirely panicked.
I cancelled the interview and withdrew my application.
And so we come to the end. This is the interview that was held during the Conservative Party Conference last year. This is the interview I left feeling the happiest. This is the interview that was a success.
This was also the interview with the largest panel (in terms of the number of people on the panel, I’m not being rude about their weight) that I’ve ever had. There were four academics, from two different departments, and a member of the admin team. Five people. I thought it would make things more difficult, but it seemed to make things much easier.
In the now familiar fashion, I stood and gave my presentation on my background and then we moved on to the questions. The panel were friendly and welcoming. The questioning rotated between each of them; the academics clearly each had a different focus, and the person from the admin team asked the questions that were more about time management and work patterns. I found it very useful to have things sectioned up like this. I felt that I knew what I was being asked. It didn’t, at any point, feel like I was being ambushed.
I felt so at ease that I remember making a joke or two – I can’t remember what they were, but I know they went down well enough, whether that was genuine or just politeness I don’t know. I also felt like I got positive feedback when an answer was good, reassuring me that what I was saying was acceptable. I was asked by one academic why I wanted a research job, and this job in particular. I told them that the job and its context looked interesting, and that it had things I could bring my PhD experience too as well as new things to learn. I commented that I felt that (hopefully) all researchers are looking to learn something new. This was met (for the first time) with some smiles and nods.
All in all, I came away very positive and floaty. I took a little walk around the area of the university and took some touristy pictures, before my bus home arrived. I was very happy about the interview, and even happier when an email arrived from them:
I’d like to think that I can separate the joy of being offered the job from the experience of the interview itself, and that this interview (regardless of the outcome) was the best I had in that 12 months. I remember feeling like that, even before the reply email, so I’m fairly confident that it was the best interview experience I’ve had so far.
Overall I found that academic interviews were much better than industry interviews. Even when I came out of an academic interview knowing that I hadn’t got the job, I felt miles better than after all of the industry interviews. Academic interviewers tended to be friendlier, more welcoming, and more likely to listen to what I said.
I’ve seen a few interviews being called a “chat”. Sometimes I think this is to try and put you at ease. Sometimes I think it’s to stop Human Resources from getting involved so that they can just arrange it as a meeting. Either way, if it’s an interview, call it an interview. I assumed that the “chats” were actually interviews, but it would have been simpler and better for me if I’d have known for certain up front.
On a related note, disorganised interviews might be bad for the interviewer, but they are much worse for the interviewee. A minor disruption, like having to change rooms mid-way through, can put you off your rhythm. Being made to wait around while someone becomes free, or being made aware that your interviewers haven’t read your CV or covering letter, is disrespectful and makes you feel like you’ve already wasted your time. Asking odd questions that seem to imply you shouldn’t have even gotten an interview in the first place is a quick way to crush your interviewee. Giving your interviewee only a days notice of their interview time is a sure-fire way to make them rushed and nervous, and can set off a person’s anxiety in quite catastrophic ways.
Running a job interview should be taken seriously. Preparing for an interview takes a lot of effort and, ultimately, it’s a person’s life you’re dealing with.
The best interviews I’ve had have been:
- well organised in advance,
- had a clear job description, and;
- had a clear outline of the order of the day and what is expected of me.
The best interviewers have been:
- taking it seriously, but not trivially; and,
- listened to my answers and given feedback on them (either verbally or non-verbally).
If you’re running interviews, I’d hope that you’ll consider these points carefully to make sure that you’re a good interviewer.
If you’re hunting for a job, then I hope that you have a better experience than my last year of interviews.