Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's like advice, but easier

This advice was originally devised for a friend who's spent the last year and a half doing theoretical computer science work, but has been tempted into interviewing for an applied position by the prospect of hellish hours and something free food. He's got about a week to prepare, and is willing to put serious time into it. This is about half guesswork, since my own position was similar but not identical: I wanted jobs that (while still testing) had a significantly larger coding component than my last job. Not only have some technical skills atrophied, but he's never done a job interview before and doesn't know what to expect. What I said:
  1. The most common interview pattern is: 1-2 phone interviews, then one half or full day in person circuit. If it's full day, you're probably going to have very long breaks.
    1. The phone interviews last anywhere from 15-45 minutes. If there's two, the first is probably with HR. After a bit more time in the working world, I look forward to telling any HR screener that I'll only talk to the hiring manager.
    2. The in-person circuit will have around four 45 minute - 1 hour interviews, with a different person each time. You will almost certainly get more than one question is that time. Adjust your level of detail accordingly.
  2. If an interview takes substantially less time than you were told, you failed. This includes both a single interview running short or being sent home before the time you were told has elapsed. The only exception to this is if the interviewer actually says "wow, you answered those questions so fast, I have nothing left to fill the time with. All the other interviewees took much longer." At that point, worry about the quality of the company.
  3. conversely, running over is a good sign. Getting more interviews then you were told you'd have is a very good sign.
  4. You will be asked if you have any questions. The answer should be yes, and your questions should be insightful.
In addition, here are some general tips for prepping for an interview you're intellectually capable of completing, but have some brain fuzziness on:
  1. Find or create a project that uses the skills you will be tested on. I actually started working for a friend's company, at wages that wouldn't have been worth it even if they didn't cut into my unemployment check. But it was fun, kept me sharp, and made it a little easier to transition back to the working world.* When you run into things you've forgotten the background of, look them up. Hyperspecific example: if it's an unspecified dev or test position, work on strings, lists, and trees.
  2. Work around what you're not sure of. Hyperspecific example: if you don't remember the intricacies of ints, use bignums.
  3. Testers only: develop a schema of ways to test real objects (I've been asked to test toasters, vending machines, and escalators). For breakage testing, I like to use Faith's five kinds of torture: sharp, blunt, hot, cold, loud. Interpreted creatively, these will take you far.

* It does weird ass things to my resume though. I either have a two month gap or list a two month job that doesn't mesh well with the jobs before or after it. My current solution is to mark is as short-term/part-time, and note that the owner was a personal friend when I list him as a reference.

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