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Tooling Up: Views on an Interview, Part 1

CREDIT: Comstock Inc.

The night before

Scott arrived at the airport and got himself over to the hotel, just a few minutes' drive from ABC Technologies where his interview would take place the next morning. At check-in, the desk clerk handed him a manila folder with his name on it. Someone from ABC, most likely Reggie Singh, his networking contact, had dropped it off for him. It contained a copy of the company’s annual report and some literature from the Chamber of Commerce about the area, including a realtor’s card and real estate flyers. He had sticker shock after a brief look.

“Toto, we aren’t in Kansas any longer,” he thought, remembering the classic line from The Wizard of Oz. Scott put his dress shirt and suit on a hanger and looked at his watch. He was scheduled to meet Reggie and his prospective boss, Susan Finnegan, in the lobby in 20 minutes. He considered whether or not to wear the suit for dinner but remembered that his fellow diners were coming right from work and, besides, it was just the Macaroni Grill and not a fine dining experience. He selected a fresh polo shirt and a nicely pressed pair of Dockers.

Instead of going through his slides one last time, he had been stuck in Human Resources filling out a generic application form used for all the company's new hires, from warehouse workers to scientists.

8:45 a.m.: The human resources interview

Mary Louise Rappaport, director of staffing at ABC Technologies, prepared for the first meeting of the day. She had three interviews lined up, two of them for that hard-to-fill warehouse supervisor role they’d had open for the last month, and one for the research scientist position that Susan Finnegan had been angling to fill. After a quick glance at Scott Jackson’s curriculum vitae (CV) to refresh her memory, she invited him into the small conference room, inquiring about coffee as they shook hands. She buzzed her colleague, Human Resources Manager Bill Buxton, and asked him to join them.

Bill brought with him a company application form. Mary Louise was frustrated by the fact that half of their interviewing candidates hadn’t completed the form before interview day. “Scott, please take a few minutes after we finish up here to complete this application. Your presentation isn’t scheduled until 10:15, which should leave you at least 15 minutes free after we finish here. Now, let’s talk a bit about this job and your interest in working with Susan and her team at ABC. ...”

Bill and Mary Louise asked Scott 15 critical questions, many of them behavioral interview questions. (For a list of these interview questions, write Dave Jensen at, with “HR Questions” in the subject line.)

Mary Louise noted that Scott seemed relaxed and comfortable for most of the hour they spoke -- he was a good interviewer -- until they asked how Scott's graduate adviser would be likely to describe him. His discomfort was obvious, a red flag to Mary Louise. She made a note to Susan to call, not e-mail, Scott’s advisor at State University.

10:15 a.m.: Scott’s presentation

Scott felt a bit flustered as he was introduced to the small group assembled in the larger conference room at ABC. Instead of going through his slides one last time, he had been stuck in Human Resources filling out a generic application form used for all the company's new hires, from warehouse workers to scientists. He already regretted having put down a number on the “salary expectation” line.

One of the 12 audience members was Ben Chao, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. -- not at all qualified to make a judgment on Scott’s abilities in the area of “Approaches to Developing Serum-Free Media Formulations for Mammalian Cells in Culture.” Scott didn't know it, but Ben was there because his colleague Dr. Finnegan had asked him for a general read on Scott’s communication abilities and “whether or not he seems like ABC Technologies material.” While Ben hadn’t taken Cell Biology 101, he did have the advantage of being an early employee at the company, number 11 to be precise. Six years of experience watching new hires had given Ben a great education in what works and what doesn’t at ABC. Besides, if he was to succeed at getting his new process off the ground, he and Scott would need to work together well.

11:08 a.m.: A difficult question

The presentation had gone fine, easing Scott’s mind. He was good at this. He had presented this material before and he knew what questions to expect. But as he concluded the Q&A and was about to thank them for attending, one scientist asked a real zinger.

“Dr. Jackson, I’m sure you know that our interests are with another cell line entirely. Why wouldn’t you propose some ideas that would be relevant to our needs instead of presenting such a narrow view of the subject?”

Scott had no idea how to answer such a question. After all, he had been asked to talk about his own work; adding conjecture or a review of other approaches would have seemed inappropriate. All he could do was throw out a general comment that he had broad training in cell biology and, in a short time, would find ways to adapt his experience to the development of serum-free media for any cell line.

While that seemed to satisfy the audience member, the question made him wish that he had added a section to his talk pointing to his general problem-solving abilities. He could have asked Reggie more about what was happening at ABC and added detail about how his experiences tied into the company's current needs. (See Tooling Up: The Finer Points of Giving a Job Talk.)

11:30 a.m.: Lunch with colleagues

Reggie came up to Scott after his session and praised the talk. He introduced Scott to three other scientists, all members of Susan Finnegan’s cell biology laboratory.

Lunch was fun. It was a relief from the morning’s stress and it gave him a lot of time to ask questions -- to hear stories about Susan’s management style, and generally to learn what others thought of the company.

Scott didn’t realize that Susan was planning a thorough debrief with his four lunch partners afterwards. While they weren’t involved in the decision to hire, even the two junior staff members would have an opportunity to put their opinions forward.

1: 30 p.m.: Interview with the CTO

Dr. Andrey Babinovich was a company founder and the chief technology officer. It was his technology that had launched the business years ago. That’s why Scott was a bit surprised when Bill Buxton of human resources took him into Babinovich's office. Scott was surprised by the modest size and simplicity of the office. It was hardly the stereotypical corner office suite with the executive washroom.

As Scott entered, Bill made introductions, but Babinovich continued talking with Buxton about a different open position. As they discussed their schedules for a series of upcoming meetings with director candidates, Scott took a look around the small room. Pictures of family on the wall: a wet-suit wearing teenaged son holding up a trophy shaped like a kayak; a smiling daughter with a mouth full of braces; a picture of the three of them, plus someone who must be Mrs. Babinovich, carrying kayaks down to the water’s edge.

When the door closed and Dr. Babinovich’s intense eyes shifted back to him, Scott was less nervous than he had been. Anyone who loves kayaking as much as he does is OK with me, Scott thought. Perhaps he’d find an opportunity to bring it up in the conversation.

“Well, Scott, I’ve looked over your CV and I’m impressed. Your presentation was quite good. I enjoyed learning more about your critical thinking skills and your work in the Smith lab at State. But before we get into some of my technical questions, why don’t you spend a few minutes to take me back a bit further. Tell me about yourself as a person, not just as a scientist.”

Scott had prepared for the TMAY question (See Interviewing Skills: What To Do When They Say 'Tell Me About Yourself'), but he hadn’t expected the “not just as a scientist” twist. As he briefly considered how to respond, he realized it was a great way to ad-lib a bit about that curiosity that had driven him into science in the first place -- and, of course, his love of ocean kayaking.

Up next ...

In part two of “Views on an Interview,” Scott faces the most challenging of all interview environments when a meeting with his prospective boss turns into a panel interview with a number of key scientists, and Scott’s contact Reggie turns quiet and won’t disclose information about ABC’s interest level. Does this all end as a, “We’ll be getting back to you,” or is there an offer in the wind?

Stay tuned.

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