Interviewing hints (or, so you’ve been laid off…)

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This post is an attempt to collect a set of general hints and tips for resumes and interviews. It is not concrete truth though, like all things this process is subjective and will differ from place to place. It originally started as a Google doc shared around a previous workplace during some layoffs, but it seems more useful than that so I am publishing it publicly.

I’d welcome comments if you think it will help others.

So something bad happened

I have the distinction of having been through layoffs three times now. I think there are some important first steps:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Hug your loved ones and then go and sweat on something — take a walk, go to the gym, whatever works for you. Research shows that exercise is a powerful mood stabiliser.
  • Make a plan. Who are you going to apply with? Who could refer you? What do you want to do employment wise? Updating your resume is probably a good first step in that plan.
  • Treat finding a job as your job. You probably can’t do it for eight hours a day, but it should be your primary goal for each “workday”. Have a todo list, track things on that list, and keep track of status.

And remember, being laid off isn’t about you, it is about things outside your control. Don’t take it as a reflection on your abilities.

Resumes

  • The goal of a resume is to get someone to want to interview you. It is not meant to be a complete description of everything you’ve done. So, keep it short and salesy (without lying through oversimplification!).
  • Resumes are also cultural — US firms tend to expect short summary (two pages), Australian firms seem to expect something longer and more detailed. So, ask your friends if you can see their resumes to get a sense of the right style for the market you’re operating in. It is possible you’ll end up with more than one version if you’re applying in two markets at once.
  • Speaking of friends, referrals are gold. Perhaps look through your LinkedIn and other social media and see where people you’ve formerly worked with are now. If you have a good reputation with someone and they’re somewhere cool, ask them to refer you for a job. It might not work, but it can’t hurt.
  • Ratings for skills on LinkedIn help recruiters find you. So perhaps rate your friends for things you think they’re good at and then ask them to return the favour?

Interviews in general

The soft interview questions we all get asked:

  • I would expect to be asked what I’ve done in my career — an “introduce yourself” moment. So try and have a coherent story that is short but interesting — “I’m a system admin who has been working on cloud orchestration and software defined networking for Australia’s largest telco” for example.
  • You will probably be asked why you’re looking for work too. I think there’s no shame in honesty here, something like “I worked for a small systems integrator that did amazing things, but the main customer has been doing large layoffs and stopped spending”.
  • You will also probably be asked why you want this job / want to work with this company. While everyone really knows it is because you enjoy having money, find other things beforehand to say instead. “I want to work with Amazon because I love cloud, Amazon is kicking arse in that space, and I hear you have great people I’d love to work with”.

Note here: the original version of the above point said “I’d love to learn from”, but it was mentioned on Facebook that the flow felt one way there. It has been tweaked to express a desire for a two way flow of learning.

“What have you done” questions: the reality is that almost all work is collaborative these days. So, have some stories about things you’ve personally done and are proud of, but also have some stories of delivering things bigger than one person could do. For example, perhaps the ansible scripts for your project were super cool and mostly you, but perhaps you should also describe how the overall project was important and wouldn’t have worked without your bits.

Silicon Valley interviews: organizations like Google, Facebook, et cetera want to be famous for having hard interviews. Google will deliberately probe until they find an area you don’t know about and then dig into that. Weirdly, they’re not doing that to be mean — they’re trying to gauge how you respond to new situations (and perhaps stress). So, be honest if you don’t know the answer, but then offer up an informed guess. For example, I used to ask people about system calls and strace. We’d keep going until we hit the limit of what they understood. I’d then stop and explain the next layer and then ask them to infer things — “assuming that things work like this, how would this probably work”? It is important to not panic!

Interviews as a sysadmin

  • Interviewers want to know about your attitude as well as your skills. As sysadmins, sometimes we are faced with high pressure situations  — something is down and we need to get it back up and running ASAP. Have a story ready to tell about a time something went wrong. You should demonstrate that you took the time to plan before acting, even in an emergency scenario. Don’t leave the interviewer thinking you’ll be the guy who will accidentally delete everyone’s data because you’re in a rush.
  • An understanding of how the business functions and why “IT” is important is needed. For example, if you get asked to explain what a firewall is, be sure to talk about how it relates to “security policy” as well as the technical elements (ports, packet inspection & whatnot).
  • Your ability to learn new technologies is as important as the technologies you already know.

Interviews as a developer

  • I think people look for curiosity here. Everyone will encounter new things, so they want to hear that you like learning, are a self starter, and can do new stuff. So for example if you’ve just done the CKA exam and passed that would be a great example.
  • You need to have examples of things you have built and why those were interesting. Was the thing poorly defined before you built it? Was it experimental? Did it have a big impact for the customer?
  • An open source portfolio can really help — it means people can concretely see what you’re capable of instead of just playing 20 questions with you. If you don’t have one, don’t start new projects — go find an existing project to contribute to. It is much more effective.
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