Monday, 19 December 2011

Assessing a Company: Questions you need to ask in an Interview

The following is a guest post I composed for the recent InterviewStreet CodeSprint 2

How to find the right company for you

Applying for jobs is easy. Anyone with an email account can fire off a resume to a company. What I want to cover is how to find a company that offers more than just a job, a company that will offer you a career where you will feel comfortable and valued. Unfortunately every company thinks they are a great company to work for but we all know that the reality is very different indeed.

The first step is research. This may seem obvious but research goes far beyond reading their ‘About Us’ page on their generic corporate website. Job specs give a surprisingly accurate insight into how a company operates. Take a look at some of the positions they are advertising, regardless of how relevant they are to you and you will find that the language used in the job spec can tell a lot more beyond duties & responsibilities. Some people enjoying being a small cog in a massive corporate machine and if the job spec is littered with words and phrases like ‘Proactive listener’ and ‘blue-sky thinker’ then you are on to a winner. Few people fall into this bracket and if you are reading this post then there is a strong likelihood that phrases like ‘blue-sky thinker’ make you want to punch your monitor. If you are the hacker type or simply someone who is truly passionate about technology then you need to avoid generic sounding job specs. If a company hires intelligent Developers then the spec should and will be written with Developers in mind and not a generic audience. If the job spec appears quite formal but is heavy on technical detail then chances are you are looking at a spec written by a Technical Director or CTO that remained untouched by the grimy, generic hands of Human Resources.

There is a trend, primarily among start-up’s to make job descriptions fun & edgy. I’m personally not a fan of the approach but what you find, more often than not, is that in these circumstances the organisation are trying to reflect their office culture and attitude in the most obvious way possible. If, on the day of the interview, you are dodging nerf missiles and being interviewed over a game of foosball then chances are the original job spec had less ‘blue-sky thinking’ and more ‘we build cool shit because all the competition build terrible shit’.

Whilst the latter organisation may sound significantly more appealing, if you are incredibly focused, not particularly out-going and have a clear career path you want to follow then in the long run you may see more benefit from a more corporate structure.

Interview time: What are they hiding?

There is a single piece of advice that I tell people over and over again and I sincerely can’t emphasise the point enough. People naturally assume that an interview is an opportunity for an employer to assess the suitability of a candidate for a job opening they may have and they are right, well, they are 50% right. An interview is designed to also provide the candidate an opportunity to assess the companies’ suitability for them and what they want from an employer. Employers know this, human resource personnel know this, recruiters know this, but far too few job applicants know this. Employers both want and expect you to ask questions during an interview. They want to sit in front of an applicant who makes the effort to learn more about the company as they want to feel like this individual is making the effort to learn everything they need to know in order to make an informed and appropriate choice if they are offered the job. There are two clear motivations for this, firstly, an applicant who digs deep during an interview to find out the nitty gritty of the company is less likely to turn around in three months and quit as the role didn’t live up to their expectations and secondly, the person who asks lots of questions is someone showing a legitimate interest in the business and not simply someone just interested in getting a job.

During an interview, a seasoned employer will do his or her best to find out all the things you haven’t included on your resume. It’s their job to scrutinise every date and every detail to ensure your resume is an accurate and reasonable representation of your skills and experience. Beyond experience they are also trying to get an idea of what kind of person you are as more and more unsuccessful candidates are hearing ‘you weren’t the right culture fit’ as the office culture is proving to be a key driver in motivation and staff retention. They don’t want to spoil it by hiring a socially awkward penguin into a team of insanity wolves or vice versa.

Question time

When was the last time you sat in an interview and the employer said ‘the reason we are hiring is because we treat our staff like shit, they get fed up and they quit’?

Every employer will sit in an interview and try and sell you their company. They want to ensure that you feel like this is a company everyone wants to work for as that makes life significantly easier when it comes to salary negotiations should you get offered the job.

Whilst it’s important to focus on your suitability for the job, never ever shy away from asking what can appear to be difficult and direct questions. The following are some examples which will help you figure out what skeletons, if any, are hidden in their closet:

Why are you currently recruiting for this position?

The answer to this will open discussions about current projects or maybe staff that have jumped ship.

How long has the longest serving member of staff (not management) been working for you?

This is more of a bridge question but if the company is only 4 years old and half the team have been with them since day 1 then you are looking at a company who have developed a great culture from the word go.

What’s the average tenure for your staff?

This is much easier to ask if it follows the last question. Keep in mind that the average tenure with most companies is less than 5 years. The only time you should be concerned about the answer to this is if they are talking in months instead of years and again, that is on the assumption that the company have been around for more than a few years.

What are the biggest challenges your team are facing right now?

This is a broad question and it’s designed that way intentionally. Some employers will talk about key technical challenges that maybe are relevant to the position you applied for, others will talk about deadline issues or budgetary issues that are impacting the progress of a project or product. The latter is one you need to pay attention to. If the teams biggest issue is strict deadlines then it will be worth investigating that area a bit further.

What technologies/languages would you like to see your team adapt to that aren’t currently being utilised?

If you are passionate about technology and the employer is one who shares that passion then this is a killer question. They will start talking about new technology that you may not have even heard of. Make notes, do your research and should you get the job, you have a sneak peak at what language you should be learning next in order to impress those that pay your wages.

Few companies, if any, are 100% satisfied with the way their business is operating. If you could simply flick a switch to fix it, what one thing would you change?

Most companies are relatively happy with how they operate but I have yet to see a single company that is 100% satisfied with how they work. The change may only be slight but again, it gives you a direct insight into what annoys or worries the person you will be working for.

If you struggle to fill the position I have applied for, what impact would that have on the business?

That last question is one of my personal favourites. The answer will get you a direct insight into how crucial your role is in their company. You’ll find that some employers will be quite apathetic in their answer which could lead to the impression that maybe your role isn’t considered to be particularly important whereas some employers will wax lyrical about how the company/project will be doomed if they don’t find the right person soon. They are either exaggerating or else you are about to take on an incredibly pressurised and crucial role.

When you do ask a question in an interview, stop talking. Ask your question and simply stay silent. It can be all too tempting to ramble on to fill an awkward gap but if you have asked the question, the onus is on the employer to fill that gap.

Don’t be afraid to take notes in an interview (with a pen & paper, don’t break out your Macbook Pro or iPad) but make sure to ask at the beginning of the interview if they are ok with you taking notes throughout the interview. Most employers won’t object but permission is essential as otherwise it appears rude. If you are taking notes, make them short and snappy and don’t sit in silence composing a sonnet when you should be asking your next question or elaborating on a question asked of you.


You got your foot in the door and you managed to get face time with people in a position to make a decision. That’s the hard part. From here, it’s almost entirely out of your hands. One point I need you to keep in mind; always, always ask for feedback. Even if you aren’t successful in being offered the job, pick up the phone and ask them why. Don’t be confrontational or defensive. Simply ask those responsible why you weren’t selected on this occasion and what areas you can work on to improve your chances further down the line. Regardless of whether you agree with the feedback or not is irrelevant. If you left them with an impression you don’t agree with, the fact of the matter is you did leave them with that impression so you simply need to figure out how to make the same mistakes next time round.

If you are fortunate enough to be offered a job with a company that truly excites you, don’t let them take advantage of your relatively inexperienced situation. If you are being offered a salary far below your level of expectation, tell them. Tell them that as keen as you are to join their organisation, you are also as keen to feel like your experience and abilities are being valued and ask them if they can re-assess the salary offer. If the answer is a flat ‘no’ then inform them you will need 48 hours to consider your position. Give it serious thought. If you join on a low salary, are you going to be motivated enough to make an impact? If the honest answer is no, then tell them exactly that and inform them that at this point you would prefer to consider other options and thank them for considering you. Sounds crazy right? Never, ever take a job because you need the money, unless of course you and your family are facing eviction from your home and you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from!

If you take a job simply because you need the money then you are compromising and that compromise will impact your resume, career choices further down the line and most importantly, your confidence. Would you marry someone simply because you’re lonely? Inevitably you will spend more than half your waking hours every week at work including commuting time. As uncomfortable as I am with the situation, the reality is that I currently spend more time with the people I work with than my family at home so why would you or I ever spend that much time in a job that doesn’t sit right with you. A career is an intimidating and complex animal. Be patient and think about what makes you happy. Good luck.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

All that is wrong with the Recruitment Industry

Money & greed. It really is that simple.
Let's break it down to bare basics. A Recruitment Consultant should be an individual that helps speed up the recruitment process and take a significant workload of your plate. The better Consultants should be well connected and be able to provide you access to strong candidates that would be otherwise impossible to gain access to. The consultant should be transparent, honest and most importantly, non-intrusive. The way the model should work is that you will elicit the services of a consultant, fill them in on your current recruitment needs and the areas you have been struggling with, agree on a defined timeframe and budget, and then let them work their magic whilst you get back to doing what you do best.
If you currently engage a recruiter and they fit the description of the above to the letter then congratulations. What you have found is an individual rarer than a quark.

One thing that is unanimously agreed about utilising a recruiter is that it is incredibly expensive. I'm not going to waste my time trying to justify the costs, we all know it's expensive and I'll address the reasons why later.
Here's the bottom line: If you engage a recruiter to source an employee who will cost you an annual salary of £50k then in all likelihood you will end up paying said recruiter anywhere between £5k and £15k depending on what agency you engage. That's a lot of money for an introduction.
The significant sums of money involved have caused a drastic shift in how recruitment companies approach their clients. Most have abandoned the mature, well informed consultative approach and instead replaced it with a high volume, sales orientated approach. If you were to walk the floor of any decent agency it would feel like you stepped on to a trading floor in the heart of Wall Street. You will be surrounded by young, sharp salesmen & women with phones glued to their ear whilst admin staff run around frantically processing CV's & contracts and when you leave, your ears will be ringing from the intense volume of people shouting frantic orders to their support teams. Those that own and run recruitment companies know that the consultative approach gains them respect however the sales approach pays the bills.

There are a number of reasons clients get a dozen calls a day from recruiters. It's generally the same reason job-seekers get calls from recruiters who haven't taken time to have a proper look at the CV. Targets. Most recruiters are heavily targeted to the point where they have to speak to at least 10-20 potential hiring managers and 10-20 job-seekers every single day.
The old adage stills rings true in this industry, 'It's a numbers game'. If you speak to enough people, someone will eventually listen to you. When I first started in the recruitment game I was a victim of a heavily targeted environment. My bosses couldn't care less about how much trust & respect I've built up with potential clients, the fact of the matter was if I hadn't spoken to 15 different hiring managers before close of business then I was in trouble. I made great money with that employer but I hated every minute of it. I had to sacrifice my dignity in order to generate business and I was calling CTO's & lead developers and pissing them off simply because they didn't have the time to speak to another recruiter and I would then have to insist why it was worth their while talking to me specifically which generally only enraged them even more. I used to be a developer. I used to work for these people, I know how busy they are and I know how often they got pestered by people just like me and like I said, I hated it. So why stick with it you may ask. Refer to the first line of this post. Money & greed. I soon discovered that if I was willing to sacrifice dignity and allow the abuse and hatred to roll off my back, I will eventually speak to people who are in desperate need to hire new staff. If I fill those roles, I fill my own pockets with commission. There was zero monetary incentive for me to build a relationship of trust & respect, the short term gain was far more appealing. Every single one of my colleagues felt the same. We were all hired because we stated that money was what made us get out of bed in the morning.

I blame Hacker News for pushing me over the edge and making me want to take a stand. I got involved in the community originally because, as I mentioned, I used to be a Developer. Deep down in the dark recesses of my slowly withering heart there was still a flame burning for emerging technology and cool, inventive, ambitious start-ups. Tuning into the Hacker News community opened my eyes to the level of disdain for recruiters and like every good hacker, I saw an opportunity. I realised that if the vast majority of the industry is seen as a necessary evil then surely there is a gaping hole for a Recruitment Company or even a lone Recruiter to take a stand, make themselves known and try and build a successful business based primarily on trust and respect. My partner had recently given birth to a very handsome baby boy and it was simply too much of a risk to go out on my own and launch my own business with no solid income given my personal circumstances. I came incredibly close to ditching the recruitment industry when out of the blue I was contacted by an agency that had noticed my activity on Hacker News as well as Twitter & LinkedIn and asked me to come work for them. During the interview I figured I had nothing to lose so I made it impeccably clear that if they wanted me on board I was to be let do things my way. No intense daily or weekly targets and I needed them to trust that I was capable of building a recruitment desk based on the original concept of what a recruitment consultant SHOULD BE. They agreed on one sole condition, that I generate a certain level of business on an annual basis, the bottom line is that they were hiring me to make money but were willing to let me make money my way instead of the 'used car salesman' way.

It's working! As a result of this blog, Hacker News, Twitter, client recommendations and extensive face to face networking, I have reached a point where the majority of my business is based on companies and hiring managers approaching me and asking me to help them out instead of me pestering them on a daily basis trying to convince them I am not another soulless recruiter. This isn't intended to be a self-aggrandising post, my purpose is to highlight the fact that the original recruitment model still works. I have no doubt that there are plenty of other recruiters who take the same approach and I have no doubt that a lot of them are more successful than me but unfortunately the vast majority of recruiters out there are still money-hungry, greedy, self-centred sales people. I can play a very small part in changing that however the readers of the post can play a bigger part. If you encounter the sales driven recruiter then refer to my previous post 'Questions from my experience as a Recruiter on Hacker News' on how to deal with them and still get the job done. If you come across a recruiter who actually knows his Ruby from his Perl, embrace them, recommend them and encourage them to keep fighting the good fight.

The current recruitment model is dying a slow death. The global recession played a large part in eliminating the fly-by-night recruiters and retained those in it for the long haul however there is an underlying feeling within the industry that we are on our last legs. It was my new boss of all people who highlighted the shift. More and more companies are developing internal recruitment teams to tackle the increasing recruitment costs and more companies are reaping the benefits of having a team in-house that know the business inside out and can do an infinitely better job of selling the company to prospective employees than what any 3rd party recruiter could ever do. It takes a lot of initial investment, time & resource to set up in internal team but those that invest the time and effort are now in a position where they very rarely have to engage a 3rd party ever again. Start-ups can't afford this luxury, however I for one have noticed that start-up organisations are becoming more aware of the poor recruitment model and are investing more of their time in learning how to make their recruitment process more efficient. Gone are the days of the dreaded 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years' questions and instead clued in hiring managers are investing time into digging through candidates GitHub repo's and design portfolios and focusing more on treating prospective employees as a fellow human being rather than just another payroll entry. Long may it continue.