I have a friend of mine who’s in the process of job hunting right now, and I had to council him on an interesting dilemma. Apparently he received a lengthy questionnaire in email as part of the “screening” process for a software engineering position. Some of the questions worded in such a way he could tell the person writing it hadn’t a clue as to what they were asking and worse yet, parts were asking for a technology he hadn’t dealt with in over ten years–and his resume even reflected this. He ranted about it to me for a good ten minutes before I advised him to turn down the position.
Why did I think that was the right decision? Simply put, it’s obvious that an HR person with no technical background decided to do some Googling of his/her own in order to help weed out the candidates and crafted that “technical screening” document. The question is why? Why would a company have a non-technical person provide a technical interview? Technical “screening” questions emailed to me on Word documents are a huge red flag for me. They tell me that they want someone who knows how to Google answers and sound good on paper. Those sorts of people may not have the necessary technical skills they’re looking for, and people hired prior to me using this method would undoubtedly be my co-workers should I get an offer and accept the position. Would I really want to work for such a place? Do I want to spend my time cleaning up after other developers’ messes or possibly taken the fall for their incompetence? Most definitely not!
In general, I can tell from an interview right up front if I’ll like the job. How the interviewers talk to me, what topics they consider to be important, and the rapport I feel with them provide me with the essential information I need to know whether or not the position and company happen to be the right fit for me. Are they focused on my spitting out textbook questions, or do they genuinely want to know the type of work I’ve done in the past and what I did in order to accomplish it? Do they want to talk to me about the differences between an abstract class and an interface, or are they more interested in a project I did involving Web Parts in ASP.NET and C#? How relaxed is the interviewer? Are they interested in what got me into computers and programming in the first place?
Here are some red flags that tell me instantly that I need to run away screaming from either the interview and/or the recruiter sponsoring the company, and YES, they are based on real experiences I’ve had:
- Technical screening conducted over Word documents on email. As I stated before, do they want to test my knowledge and understanding of the technologies used, or are they hiring candidates who can Google and talk a good talk?
- Significant changes in job description/title while interviewing. This tells me they have no clue what they want and need to hire a good consultant before they start interviewing. May also indicate a serious breakdown in communications between individuals and their respective departments. Working at such a place would be a nightmare. Run, run, run for the hills!
- Legacy technologies and a reluctance to move past them. While a lot of places still have code that isn’t up to date, if a place is solely working with an outdated language this is a red flag for me. For starters, how soon they update what tools they work with tells me is how much they want to move forward with the industry. My career is very fast-paced, much more so than pretty much any job field out there. If I am still coding in ASP.NET 2.0 while the rest of the world is on 3.5, it sets me and my career back significantly. Then there’s the indications to me of how sloppily they’re developing their architecture and coding standards. I once interviewed with a company that had ASP.NET 1.1, 2.0, and 3.5 software which they claimed they were “finally going to convert over to 3.5″. Why didn’t they convert the 1.1 back when they took on 2.0? Why all of those different versions of .NET? HUGE red flag to me right there.
- Bizarre questions bordering on the unprofessional which have no genuine bearing on skills/background. Now, what do I mean by that? Being told that they’re looking for “mature individuals” with hints that they didn’t read my resume far back enough to know I graduated college back in 1999: “So did you just move here recently after graduating?”. If they hem and haw if you ask them to clarify what precisely they mean by maturity, you know you’re in an interview where ageism is into play. I’ve also had a recruiter comment that he didn’t know whether or not the “demographics” of the team were what I were looking for, as he didn’t know how “young they were or what their genders were”. WTF does either gender or age of a team have to do with my job search? I don’t care if the team consists entirely of 70 year old transsexual male-to-female programmers. Can they code? Do they have a passion for the industry? Is the environment a good one?
It goes without saying that I am a purple unicorn: a woman employed in IT as a software engineer with senior level experience who got here not just for a paycheck but because I’ve been involved with computers for most of my life and have a passion for the craft. I also look significantly younger than my actual age. Both have played a role in the past–especially with recruiters–in people’s assumptions and expectations of my performance. This is why I insist upon meeting each and every recruiter in person and talking to them in depth about my background and what I am looking for in my next position. People who claim there are no biases in the job market regards to gender or age are either oblivious or incredibly sheltered.
- Asking for more years of experience than a technology has been around. .NET 1.0 came out in 2002, 1.1 debuted in 2003. Obviously a job description requesting more than 6-7 years worth of experience in .NET has been written by someone too clueless in the field to know what they’re asking for. Not to mention given how few jumped onto it during the 1.0 period, 5-6 years is the most amount of experience you can reasonably expect someone to have. I remember this scenario happening back when Java was the dominant language in IT and people wanted “10+ years of experience” back in 1999. Run away screaming if you see this in the position requirements, you won’t regret it.
- A lack of understanding of the IT industry and the economy. Recruiters or potential employers giving you a hard time because your jobs lasted on average 1-2 years don’t understand the job market, the economy, and how fast the IT industry moves. The average full-time job in my field is around two years (if that), and I know of very, very few people in my field who have stayed at a place for as long or more than 3-5 years. If you’re one of them, you’re quite fortunate and I frankly envy you–doubly so if you love working there. I spent between 1999-2001 either escaping a dot-com going under or getting laid off, and it pushed me towards moving to the Boston area for a bigger tech market–a decision I have not regretted since. If you’re forced to move on because a place has grown unstable (high turnover, layoffs) or they weren’t moving with the times (ie., stuck on .NET 1.1 when everything else is using 3.5 with no desire to move forward no matter how much you push), you are entirely within your rights to move on from a position in order to both preserve your career and do what is necessary for you financially. Don’t let any recruiter or employer make you feel otherwise.
Quick side note: I stayed underemployed but fortunately remained in my field between 2002-2004 and afterwards took up contracting in order to get back on track and get the .NET experience I badly needed in order to stay employed in my career. Best decision I ever made. If you ever find yourself lagging behind due to your job situation and/or the economy, consider going into contracting to make up the difference and get the years of experience you require in a new technology in order to get full-time employment in it.
No matter how well you interview and what you do to make sure you get the good ones, it’s never a guarantee you won’t find yourself stuck at a place considerably less than ideal. Job interviewing has been compared to dating, and I’ve found it to be a pretty accurate metaphor. Like with relationships, things can start out great and go sour due to reasons beyond your control. It’s entirely possible things will be spun during an interview which sound great, but once you start, you learn otherwise. Weeding out the red flag companies doesn’t always help, and no one has a crystal ball.
The dos and don’ts during your interviewing process aren’t terribly dissimilar to the same etiquette used while dating: demonstrate an interest, but don’t come off as desperate. Don’t ask questions during the first interview which would be inappropriate for a first meeting. You wouldn’t ask whether or not they wanted children on the first date, and you certainly don’t want to ask on the first interview whether or not their 401k is matching or if you could have an office. Basically what it comes down to is this: two different people are meeting each other for the first time with a desire to have some sort of relationship. Each has an idea of what they’re looking for, and each knows what will make them reject the idea of partnership. Identifying red flags sooner can help you find the best match.
The red flags above are the biggest which I know of, but I’m sure others can think of more. Feel free to add to the list!