Friday, February 6, 2015

Want a job interview? Whip inflation now!

Based on a flood of interviewing that we're doing here at Brivo, I thought it would be good to discuss a couple of very basic principles around interviewing for a new job. Those of you who currently work for Brivo, please ignore... :)

Even cursory scans online will produce an enormous quantity of information for handling yourself well in a job interview. But, for this discussion, I'd like to only cover the points important in actually GETTING an in-person job interview. No, I don't want to talk about writing a well-formatted resume, or whether to use a recruiter, online job board, or massive letter writing campaign to get yourself into contention. I want to talk about what comes right after that... the telephone interview.

The phone interview is your first, and BEST, chance to make a good impression on a prospective hiring manager. Out of many dozens (or even 100s) of resumes, you will probably be one of 10-20 folks who are phone interviewed, and that will result in 2-4 of you being invited to appear in person. Handling the phone interview well is critical, and amazingly, handled TERRIBLY by the vast majority of candidates.

First, show that you can communicate! Speak clearly, be to-the-point, and don't ramble on throwing every buzzword you know into every response. Answer the question. If you like, give a couple of sentences answer, then ask, "Would you like me to go into more detail regarding xxxxxx?" They'll love you.

Next, be prepared to represent your experiences to the best extent possible. You should reread your OWN resume and make sure you are 100% familiar with it, and be ready to discuss any of the items on it in full detail. Just a few examples of items you should be ready to discuss for each job you've had:
  • What was your basic function on the team?
  • What products/services did your participation affect?
  • Which of your skills most came into play?
  • What were your biggest challenges?
  • Etc, Etc, Etc... Ad infinitum... Ad nauseum...
The exact answers to these questions aren't as important as showing that you can communicate, express an opinion, and back it up. Hiring managers don't care if your favorite tree is the elm or the pine, but they do care that you can give an answer and back it up in a couple of sentences.

Finally, here is the WORST mistake you can make, and it is the mistake that is most-often made. Do NOT over-represent your skills. It has become very common for folks to include every skill known to man on their resumes, and to list themselves as "experts" in the area, or as having "extensive experience working with" it. This is called Resume Inflation, and it might get you a call, but it will get you shut out of an in-person interview faster than anything else.

Look, your perspective hiring manager can have a difficult time finding out if you REALLY had a particular function on a particular team. He can't know that you didn't really have someone helping you get that product done 5 years ago. He can't know that you really didn't bring it in on time and with perfect quality, as you say. What the hiring manager CAN do is ask you questions about skills you have represented you are an "expert" in. And, any good hiring manager will do that. Some of the interviews we've been having recently have resulted in conversations analogous to this:
Us: So we see you list "driving a car" as a skill you have, yes?
Candidate: Absolutely!
Us: So where would you say you are on a scale of 1-5, where 1 would be "just passing knowledge", and 5 would be "total expert" with respect to driving a car?
Candidate: Oh I'm a total 5, maybe even a 6. I drive one multiple times a day, everyday.
Us: Great. So tell us, when you drive a car, which foot pedal is on the right?
Candidate: Well, uh, I usually don't have to do that... I have a tool that helps do that for me... what I think is important is that people in the car wear their seatbelts and you use a GPS to get where you want to go, and...
Get the point? If he had said, "Well, I've seen it done, so I'm a 1 or a 2 with that," then we wouldn't ask detailed questions. We might only NEED someone with passing knowledge of something, but misrepresenting yourself will be a showstopper.

Putting a million buzzwords on your resume might get it found by more searches, but separate out those areas you have passing knowledge in from those areas you are truly gifted in. That way, the search will still find you, but it will be clear what you truly know. You might not get as many calls, but those that you do get will be more targeted to what the employer is really looking for.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On being an open book...

It was just a week ago that I began my work at Brivo here in the Washington, DC area. The opening caught my eye because I had actually bought one of the Brivo products last year to act as a card access system at the Mindnest office. It actually operated through the cloud, rather than having some ridiculous local programming interface. When doing that research, the Brivo product kept coming out on top of any comparisons and ended up being a pretty easy decision for me.

Yes, we're in the process of relocating eastward, something that's been a mixture of sadness for reduced family and friend contact, but excitement for the prospects of the future. Although the company has existed for about 15 years, it has the look and feel of a 1-2 year old startup right out of the bay area. That is not common. The people are smart, excited, and ready to blaze new trails, and I'm happy to be there with them.

When putting out my book, I never really considered that anyone would bother reading it. I know a few have, and I hope they're getting something out of it. But, what I hadn't thought of was what affect the book might have on the next job I would take... I was literally an "open book." All my thoughts on management were right out there for anyone to read... even prospective employers and teammates.

During various interviews (at Brivo and some other spots), some folks acknowledged that they had perused the book and had some questions and comments on it. My new boss basically said, "I saw the book, read the blog, and I know exactly who you are." I guess that's a good thing. :)  I suppose the only downside is that I've already published many of the crazy and funny "stories from the past" I would have to relate over lunches and such. Well, hopefully nobody will read them.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A simple tribute to my dad

My father, Bob Wagner, passed away about a week ago. He had been in good health until that point, and was an integral part of my life. We constantly hung out together whether to grab a meal, work on computer stuff, fix things around the house, or take a trip together.

In my formative years, my dad gave me the inspiration to be a real scientist or engineer. He was a top engineer at Motorola until his retirement. In my early high school days, he smuggled home a computer terminal that I used to hack into Motorola's computers and teach myself programming. Such was my introduction to what would become my chosen profession... although I try to keep the hacking to a minimum.

Even more importantly was one interchange my dad and I had underneath my 1968 Ford Torino, working on the water pump. I never brought it up, and he would never have remembered it if I did. I explained something about what I was working on, but I wasn't entirely clear and descriptive enough. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "If you want to be an engineer, make sure you say things clearly, and describe technical situations in ways that make it easy for others to understand." Yeah, not a huge deal on the surface, but it stuck with me. I still think of that every time I start to describe an object, a problem, a situation, or a procedure.

He was a great guy, devoted to my mother and family for over 60 years. We had a celebration of his life yesterday, attended by many family members and friends. You can try to describe someone in the conventional way -- great dad, great husband, good neighbor, hard worker, close friend. Or, you can simply look at the people that surround that person, and get a really accurate idea of who he was, what he stood for, what he enjoyed doing, and what his life represented.

Looking around yesterday at all the fantastic people that came to celebrate him, it was all clear to me.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The dreaded all-department meeting

Take a look at almost any company-wide survey asking for general employee feedback on what’s working well and what’s not. Almost invariably, the one item that will top the “not so good” list is “communication.” Regardless of how good the communications are, they’re still not good enough. Although I must admit to having seen, once, a comment like, “There are too many communications!” workers tend to feel left out of the loop quite easily.

Your job is to fill the vacuum that forms usually in about a 2-4 week timeframe. Even if you
thoroughly communicated everything that was going on a couple weeks ago, by the time a few weeks have gone by, your folks are starting to feel like they are out of touch. Fretting doesn’t help. It’s just a fact. So resign yourself to doing whatever is necessary to make them feel like they’re always in the loop. Better yet, why consider it some sort of detrimental situation? This is actually a great opportunity for you to do much more than speak -- you can also get everybody rowing the boat in unison. Generally, a message must be communicated 2-3 times before everybody will really hear it, and 5-10 times before they’ll start believing it. So, by taking advantage of these pre-scheduled opportunities, your bigger messages will be believed that much sooner.

At the very least, get everyone who reports to you (directly or indirectly) into a departmental briefing every month. If you do them frequently, concentrate on important items, keep up the pace, and layer in a little humor, you should be able to take no more than 30-60 minutes and provide enough information to loop everyone back in. It’s good to switch up the presenters as well -- don’t try to do the whole thing yourself. Not only does this offer the gathering a more dynamic feel, but it also gives others an opportunity to address the team, and even show off something interesting that they’ve been working on.

I’ve seen some managers that have used frequent departmental meetings quite well, only to abandon them when projects were getting down into their final stages and time was getting precious. Let me state that this is exactly the reverse of what should happen. When the pressure and stress levels get high, it is more important that the briefings continue. In fact, in those instances it is preferable to shorten the gaps and have the meetings more frequently. You have to keep everyone informed and motivated, and if things are happening fast, then more things are changing, and all the more reason to fill everyone in. There will always be a few of the, “I just can’t afford the 30 minutes out of my day to listen to this stuff” folks, but in the end, everyone gains from the experience.

In between your formal departmental meetings, use email for what it’s best at… general announcements. Give folks a periodic update on cool happenings in your department and from activities around the company. Sometimes, you will be lucky enough to have a boss who does this broadly enough to include all your own employees. That kind of communication can partially offset the need for you to send your emails, and the skip-level information will be appreciated by your team.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Indoctrinating new managers

An old friend called me a couple of days ago to help him out with a problem he was having with a new manager under him. The new manager, let's call him "John" for the sake of this discussion, was making some bad calls on how to handle some situations that had cropped up, and he was wondering how to best bring John under control.

This is a key part of any new manager's training... teaching them how NOT to become a Dingus (as I call it in the book). When moved into their first management post, most people don't have enough experience to properly deal with the myriad of situations that will arise. If they are left totally on their own, they will make mistakes. They need to be gently weaned into the management role.

My suggestion to my friend was to instruct John to come to him each and every time he encountered a situation that was new to him. Not just in situations where we wasn't sure of an appropriate approach, but in EVERY new situation. Then, have John relate the situation, then ask John how he would handle it. If correct, then all future situations of that type are "cleared" for him, and he doesn't need to repeat the process. If not correct, he and John can thoroughly walk through the situation, discuss other alternatives, and eventually show John the right way to handle it. This will include expanding John's knowledge of people issues, HR issues, legal issues, etc... And, again, John is then "cleared" for future occurrences.

Please note that it is critical to provide positive feedback and praise to John in every situation. If he initially figures out how to handle the situation, that's pretty easy. If he hasn't come to the correct initial solution, praise him for small things as you walk through the discussion. John has to go away from the conversation feeling pumped up and energized... not distraught that he didn't already know what to do.

Over time, John will encounter new situations less and less. By the time 2 months have passed, he'll probably have seen enough to be highly independent, and by 6 months, he'll have seen just about everything.

Although we've been discussing weaning new managers, the same holds true for new non-manager employees that report to you. Use the "what would you do if I wasn't here" approach to grow them and be more independent.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On the Radio (on the internet anyway)

If you have the better part of an hour to kill, feel free to listen to today's interview on VoiceAmerica. Very nice interviewer, and we got into some pretty good subjects from the book.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Avoiding the Firing Squad

Everyone has heard about “not shooting the messenger,” but when the rubber hits the road, few tend to actually remember it. When someone comes to you to discuss a problem—whether he is alerting you to a situation, confessing to a mistake, or simply in all-out venting mode—never make him feel personally responsible for the mess.

This can be harder when you’re alerted to a problem that’s developed due to a decision that you’ve made. It’s easy to unload on the messenger in self-defense. Instead, take a breath and savor the fact that someone actually trusts and respects you enough to come talk to you about it. Remember that we as managers are not always right! Having folks out there acting as real-time barometers is a good thing. And the minute you jump down someone’s throat about a problem that isn’t his personal doing, you can be sure he won’t be coming back to you with similar alerts in the future.

In fact, you need to go out of your way to praise him for his act:
“Hey, thanks for coming to me with this. I know it wasn’t something you did. In fact, we both know that if anyone’s at fault for this, it’s me. I don’t know if it was hard for you to come point this out to me, but I appreciate it. If we’re going to succeed, we have to quickly adjust anything that’s not working, even if that thing was created by me. Then we all look better in the end.”
Now, that guy won’t hesitate to come to you again when he needs to.

Finally, when you announce a change you’re making as the result of this kind or information, say something like, “Jeff pointed out that my decision to such-and-such wasn’t working so well. So now we’re going to…” Acknowledging the “messenger” instead of shooting him will help get the word around that you appreciate that kind of feedback.