Thursday, 17 November 2011

The dreaded interview question

My wife and I disagree all the time. This probably comes as no surprise to any married person. She thinks I’m on the Autistic Spectrum. Naturally, I disagree. I do concede she might have a point though. I am very black and white, and sometimes fail to see the real intent behind what people are saying. One such situation arose today. I’m in a redundancy consultation process at work and so I’m looking for another job. Today I had an interview. The company was about a 45 minute commute away so I wasn’t really considering this as an ideal job opportunity. Still, I went along to the interview just to get in the zone since it was nearly 6 years since I last had an interview (my wife disagreed, of course : “Why would you want to interview for a job you don’t really want”). I sat down in the interview room and straight away the interviewer hit me with the dreaded question : “Why do you want to work for Acme Ltd?” (name changed to protect the innocent). I hate this question, and surely the people who ask this must know what a crap question this is. I mean, how the hell are you supposed to answer it? You’re between a rock and a hard place. I quickly went through the options in my head

1) Lie and come up with some bullshit, cringingly sycophantic answer

2) Be honest

I chose option 2. I said “I’m looking for work and I was put forward here by my agent. I hadn’t heard of your company prior to the agent telling me about you”. Not a great answer, but it was honest. And they didn’t recoil in horror, although I’m sure I didn’t earn many points for it.

“Did you look at our website?”

“Yes” I replied truthfully, preparing to add further qualification. And then I thought ‘I better stop there’. I understand where they’re coming from. I know what they’re getting at. They want you to care, to show you’ve researched the company. But please.

I had looked at their corporate website. It told me that they can help me reduce business risk and increase my ROI. It had quite a nice flashy, slideshow thing showing pictures of people with unbelievably perfect teeth and even more perfect hair, looking thoughtfully at a laptop. I Googled the company which turned up the corporate website and a couple of inconsequential and uninformative paragraphs on a couple of business news sites in the first five pages of hits.

There was nothing that told me anything about why I would want to work for this company. I’m a developer, I write software, I build it, I fix its’ bugs. What I care about is the tools and the technologies and working with like-minded talented individuals in a dynamic, intellectually stimulating environment. None of this I can glean from a bland corporate website or a few tidbits thrown up by Google. I can only know this once I’ve worked there. And interviewers, you should realise this! Let’s be honest, if you’re hiring a developer then unless you’re called Apple or Microsoft or Google or are headquartered in southern California (and not some identikit office in a business park on the outskirts of Chippenham) they’re not going to want to work for you any other reason than financial necessity. That’s not to say they won’t do a good job or be a valuable employee. Most techies are proud people, who take their competence and professionalism seriously. Respect of your peers is what it’s all about. Not to mention that keeping a roof over your head is a very effective motivator.

All that said, I wasn’t happy with the answer I gave. It was honest, but a little too glib. After the interview I thought about this and how I could answer it honestly, without selling my soul to the devil but also intelligently. I decided that henceforth, this will be my stock answer to this terrible question :

“I care about the work I produce, the tools I work with and the people who I collaborate with. I like to work in a stimulating environment, where I can feel that I can contribute. If this is what [insert name of company] provides, then I would very much like to work here”. I like this because it allows me to answer the question positively and without a whiff of bs. It might come off as a bit “what can you do for me”, but it’s honest and a bit more eloquent than the answer I gave.

Of course, if you are actually going for a job at an organisation that you’ve coveted and you do get asked the question, then the answer is easy. But I’m neither talented enough to pick who I work for or altruistic enough to work for an organisation that inspires me (i.e. doesn’t pay much. Hey, I have a family to keep J ).

On returning home from the interview, I was telling my wife about the dilemma and asked her how she would answer the question. “Look at their website and lie”. Well, she would say that wouldn’t she.