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What not to do on a job interview: Pressing the Self-Destruct Button

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I’ve been with my current employer for the better part of two decades and I was thinking back to the job interviews that I went on before taking this one.  There were two places that I interviewed at where I deliberately blew the interview because I realized we not compatible.  Before I continue, don’t do what I did.

The first place was a company that was not long passed it’s startup days.  They did web development and they had probably less than 20 people.  A friend of mine had started working there a few months earlier and he was still bullish on the company.  I applied and on his recommendation, I was brought in for an interview.

I met first with the owner of the company.  That part went OK, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the owner.  I couldn’t narrow it down to anything specific, but something just didn’t feel right.  It could have been his personality, it could have been my unease being back in the job market after less than a year at the current position.  I just wasn’t comfortable with him.

I then met with the director of development.  Let’s call him “Sam”.  My interview with Sam started off well, we seemed to hit off.  At that point in time, I knew nothing about web development and had been upfront with that.  They were looking for more of back end coder, so my SQL skills more than made up for the lack of all things HTML.  We talked SQL and performance analyzing and things of that nature.  The more we talked, the looser Sam became.  He started saying negative things about some of the developers on his time.  Nothing in depth,  but totally inappropriate to mention in an interview.  Actually inappropriate to mention at all.

Sam had been a C programmer and loved to write code that was more complicated than necessary.  On a white board, he had written a single line of code that was an unholy mess of functions and pointer arithmetic and array offsets.  It was his standard programming challenge for job applicants.  He asked me to parse it.  And this is more or less what I said

I would fire the person who wrote this code.  It’s an exercise to show clever you are for writing this.  By writing all of the code as a Nested Series of Functions from Hell, you eliminated readability and maintainability from the code.  And just forget about the error handling, there’s no room for it.  If any one part changes with a parameter or return type, the best that you can hope for is that it fails to compile.  At worst, it would continue to run and you would get the wrong results and then spend hours trying to figure out what had changed .

Well that was not answer that Sam was expecting.  He made a big production of going over the code, function by function, pointer by pointer.  He had to make his point, which to be fair, my remarks were pretty rude.  He tried to get me to agree with him that the code was elegant. I politely demurred and the interview was pretty much over.  To no great surprise, they did not call me back.

The next interview was with a larger company.  I was interviewing for a Java developer position.  I had taken some Java courses, but had little real world experience with the language. I was comfortable enough with Borland’s jBuilder Java IDE to talk somewhat about it.  My current job was transitioning from Delphi to Java, so it was a skill I was starting to pick up.  My current employer was big on what was then called the AS/400.  Other than writing SQL queries to an ODBC connection to an AS/400, I knew nothing about the AS/400.

This interview was the type where you spent 20 minutes at a time with a person or small group and then was passed to the next group.  They had told me to plan on 3 hours for the interview.  I met first with the Java people.  That went well.  They understood that my actual Java experience was limited, but I knew the tools they were using and I knew had to write client/server applications.  I then met with the AS/400 people.  Or rather the people would be managing the AS/400 people when they hired the AS/400 people.  They wanted me to be the first person on the team, to port their application from UNIX to the AS/400.

I explained that I was not an AS/400 expert and my level of AS/400 skill could be measured as none.  They didn’t care, they wanted an AS/400 developer and that was where they would put me if I was hired.  I said that I was looking for a Java developer position and I didn’t have the AS/400 skills they were looking for.  They said that would be OK and I could learn the AS/400 as I went along.  They then said that I could move to Java team after being on the AS/400 team for 6 months.

They were either lying to me or they had no idea of what they were talking about.  There was no way that I would accomplished anything meaningful in 6 months.  Between not knowing what their app did and how it was designed with not knowing anything meaningful about the AS/400, 6 months was too short a time period.  And from a business perspective, you are not going to spend 6 months getting a developer up to speed on a technology that no one else knows and then allow him to transfer to another team.  That made no sense.

I was then shuttled off to marketing team and sales team.  They showed me how the app works and how they sold it. They did mention how excited they were to be getting an AS/400 version of their application.  They seemed to think that I was going to be the guy or one of the guys who gave them the AS/400 app.  Either way, it was going to be a non-starter for me.

Finally, I met with the president of the company.  She swore like a sailor and kept switching topics.  At one point she started talking about a delay of some new feature from of the teams. She named each person and described where she thought that person could have had dropped the ball.  She then asked me how I would deal with the problem if I had her job.  We then spent the next few minutes talking about the situation.  I broke it down by timeline.  Was the timeline to add the feature realistic?  Were enough resources available to implement and test the feature?  Did they have a manager measuring progress against the timeline?  The usual management stuff.  It was just very odd that we were talking about a specific problem with specific people.  I ended up working with people that used to work there and they said that development delays was a constant problem.

We then got around to talking about the position.  I said that I came in for a Java position but the job was being pitched as combination AS/400 admin/developer.  And that was not my skill skill.  She said that when they discussed my resume, my current employer’s experience with the AS/400 was more important than any other skill that I had.  I thanked her for her time and finally left.  It was another opportunity where I did not expect or receive a call back.

I have gone on very few job interviews and I handled both badly.  With the first position, I should have made an attempt to parse the Code From Hell and kept my opinion to my self,  It was a programming pissing match and my comments did not move the bar forwards.  For the second one, I should have halted the interview process once I realized that our job expectations did not match up.  Even if you don’t want the job, you don’t want to blow the interview.  People move around and you could interview with some of the same people somewhere else and lose the opportunity for your dream job.  Always do your best in the interview.  If you don’t think that the job is right for you, you can always turn down the job offer.