Mmm, what's that smell: Coffee or sweat? How to avoid a crap IT job
El Reg job expert Dom Connor reveals key clues to look out for in interviews
Part 1 Do not try picking up a girl with the line: “You’re not as fat as my current girlfriend; if you sleep with me I’ll drop her as soon as she’s finished painting our bedroom.” Trust me on this, it doesn’t work. It should set off alarm bells in anyone's head.
Yet during job interviews, hopefuls are told things like: “We’re ditching those fat old VisualBasic peasants after this project because our future is with sharp HTML5 guys like you.” If you hear such words, it's a beautifully clear signal that you should run rather than walk to your next interview.
I was the first person in the UK to write a VisualBasic program; it was not that long ago that VisualBasic was sex on legs. But few skills have more than five years in the sun. Hiring managers say things like the above because they work too often; there is a tipping point in getting a job where the process moves from you selling to them to them selling to you. There is honesty involved, but not always in the way you think.
Smell the coffee - if you get any
During one particular interview, the hiring bosses drank their coffee without offering any to me, yet they seemed genuinely surprised when I flatly refused to come for the second interview. That’s rare, but if they don’t show basic politeness by offering you a drink, thanking you for coming, and not leaving you dangling in reception for what feels like an eternity, they aren’t showing respect. I don’t imagine that interviewers are actually grateful that I spent 20 minutes coming to their offices, or that they will better understand my skills if my caffeine level is raised, but if they don’t put in the effort when they are trying to woo you, a stranger, will it be any better when you are a wage slave?
That means little things - such as how flexible they are about interview times and the minor details of your compensation and joining date - are each a signal, which is a word I use perhaps too much in these articles. If an interviewer doesn’t even try to send good vibes, that's also a signal.
Coffee also tells you about the stability of the firm: the bill for providing it can run into serious money in a large outfit but it's never a large percentage of the cost base. However at some point a bean counter may see the bill and decide he or she can save dozens of bucks on drinks and get a pat on the head. Cut here and there, earn a pat on the head. When I first pitched up at IBM we had tea ladies with fresh brews and buns on trollies, a service that was repeatedly downgraded until we had to put up with something lukewarm that was supposed to taste like coffee. Not long after that IBM reported the largest loss ever made by any company.
It really does matter that you aren’t kept waiting in reception, that you are given a beverage and that they are generally polite. In real life your boss isn’t going to get you coffee, but a big theme in this piece is respect. Also it tells you about the power of your new boss, in part two of this series I will help you spot crap managers, but power is good.
Why questions are answers
You’re an IT pro, you do hard things, some so hard that others declared them impossible. So if you get soft questions, you should be wary. The first clue is that things other than technical competence are key in the company: political shrewdness or sales skills perhaps, looking neat in front of users or clients, or being the right “type” as above. It also signals that the person interviewing you hasn’t really mastered the tech, which not only tells you about his or her ability it also should make you wonder why the staff who do know your specialty aren’t asking the questions.
At one place I was reduced to programming a nearly technical manager with: “Say this and if the interviewee smiles or even laughs in response, they actually get this stuff.” That speaks volumes to the heaviness of bureaucracy and observance of status, but be careful in how you apply this hint.
I’ve had a couple of roles where they hired me because they didn’t yet have anyone who could do some part of the work, and resorted to the entertaining game of firing hard SQL questions at me to judge my C++ skills. Their reasoning was that if I was telling the truth about my strong grasp of SQL, they could trust the assertions about C++.
Questions also speak volumes about the real work. We all know that software development is mostly bug hunting and sysadmins do a lot more firefighting than their job spec says, but if you are asked questions about VisualBasic talking to Oracle that means you will be doing VB-O regardless of the job advert and recruiter insisting “they’re doing sexy high-frequency trading with FPGAs and C++”.
What not to say: 'You should be grateful - the fact that my C++ compiles at all is impressive'
Also if the questions are outside your core area, this can be a concern. A good sysadmin can cut script code and may have picked up competence in software development, but if the spread of skills bosses are interested in is too wide then you are going to be asked to do things you’re not good at. In the right dosage, moderate stretching is good for growing your skills, but the further you have to work outside what you’re good at, the more often you will screw up.
Yes, you can say “I’m an active directory guru, the fact that my C++ compiles at all is impressive so you can’t complain that I used an STL set rather than a map”. But that can betray a resentful attitude compared to that of “more valuable” sales and accountancy staff, so bosses expect you to be good at any IT task that needs doing.
I was called to a firm to work on some tricky memory management code that needed to work as soon as possible, but I made a foolish mistake in my first minute: I sat on the chair nearest my desk. It was a chair of a quality restricted to my betters, which was practically everyone. A HR bod appeared like an evil genie in a Stratford pantomime and shooed me off, leaving me standing there looking more gormless than usual.
At first I assumed the “right chair” would be brought, which tells you how naïve I was. Eventually my manager and I managed to find a chair of the right build quality, albeit with an arm missing, and I was stuck with it. At this software house programmers got the lowest grade of chair, managers the next, then admin, then sales, then accounts, and finally executives got the best. How surprised are you that this firm does not exist any more?
Read the f**king
manual office plan
You must get a tour of the office. Indeed, the more they resist showing you around, the more important it is to find out what they are hiding from you, because you can read an office better than the manuals you're supposed to be familiar with.
After working out the chair ecology, look for training material, because even in a webinar-enabled age training consultants still issue bulky folders full of stuff you never look at again to ensure you feel you got your money’s worth. Their presence or absence is more objective data than whatever slogan they emit as a training policy.
You can tell a lot by the relative quality of the offices. In a startup it may be that everything is a bit shabby - but we both know that a lot of firms put IT staff in rooms that make Gitmo cells look like five-star hotel suites. The "business departments" get offices with natural light and are cleaned rather more often. While visiting the IT department at a large bank last year, I managed to get disoriented because the IT areas were so like everyone else’s that they had to put coloured bands on the columns so that people could navigate. This was an investment bank; they don’t care about people.
Why does your firm trumpets its commitment to people on its website and yet puts you below ground level? Screens are also a signal and bigger is better. Even if you’re on Indian levels of pay the cost of a bigger or extra screen is pitiful compared to the improvement in your productivity. A bog-standard 24” flat-screen monitor costs £130-ish and if that’s more than a fraction of 1 per cent of your pay, you need to move. Of course the politics may be that your rank doesn’t get a big or extra screen. That’s not positive, is it?
Look out - it's human resources!
In large firms you’re going to encounter HR bods sooner rather than later. That's inevitable; they will want to explain pay and other benefits. But a big flashing neon sign should leap out at you if HR do the first interview; it means that your new manager is politically castrated and the bureaucracy has got out of control. An HR professional knows that he or she can’t evaluate the skills of the 200 different types of staff her firm hires, from security guards to infosec-aware BOFHs, and will pass people to the second round pretty much at random. That means you will be working with randomly hired people who went to a university he or she thinks is good.
But never ever lie to the HR droid. At any reasonable company, by the time you get to a HR bod they’re satisfied your skills are the best they’re going to get and your personality defects are at a manageable level. Human resources is an audit function. They like proof by example, and are generally pretty easy going unless they spot anything which might not be true - then they will sink their teeth in so deep you will need surgery to extract them. Fudged employment dates, exaggerated job titles, inflated pay and imaginary qualifications are all blood in the water for them.
It is possible to quit your old job and then run into a shit storm when HR later find you out. Losing a job because you lied in application is, unsurprisingly, really bad for your career. ®
Dominic Connor used to boss IT pros and quants around in banks, and now recruits people for less crappy jobs in the City. Click here for part two in this series.