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Tooling Up: Views on an Interview, Part 2

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

It has been an interesting ride so far -- if you missed it, read Part 1 of this story -- and Scott is beginning to feel conflicted about where he stands.

2:45 p.m.: Susan Finnegan’s big surprise

Scott felt great after his meeting with the company founder. Dr. Babinovich had seemed genuinely curious and interested in Scott. Scott knew he had taken a risk by bringing up ocean kayaking -- this mention of a shared interest could have been perceived as ingratiating -- but Babinovich hadn’t reacted negatively at all. He had even shared stories of his recent trip to the Cape.

Scott, I wanted you to meet your prospective colleagues, and this panel interview format seemed the best way to accomplish that.

—Susan Finnegan

Their conversation about the company’s technology and Scott’s potential role with the firm had left Scott feeling confident as he approached Susan Finnegan’s office. That was before he turned the corner and ran into a huddle of five or six people just outside her office.

“Scott, these are a few of my team members. You know Reggie, and I’ll introduce you around as soon as we get down to the conference room,” she said matter-of-factly. What was this about? He had already delivered his presentation and had met two of these people after his seminar. What made him especially nervous was that Reggie, his networking contact, wasn’t looking him in the eye. That confident feeling faded fast.

The large conference room dwarfed the small group as they gathered around a swanky table that seemed intended for a board or partner meeting. Scott took a seat next to Emilie, who was introduced as a research associate. Across from him sat three other fellows and Reggie. Susan took the chair at the head of the table.

“Scott, I wanted you to meet your prospective colleagues, and this panel interview format seemed the best way to accomplish that,” Susan began. “Each of us will have a few questions for you, so we can follow up on previous questions without forcing you to answer the same question a half-dozen times. Let’s get started.” Scott felt like a Roman gladiator surrounded by a half-dozen lions, with only his wits to protect him. (Read about Panel Interviews in this Tooling Up column.)

4:05 p.m.: A brief hallway encounter

Scott was the first out the door when the panel interview ended. He hadn’t intended it that way; he was relieved it was over and guessed that subconsciously he was longing for the corridor's relatively fresh air.

In hindsight, it hadn’t been as bad as he had expected. The number of eyes on him made him nervous, but the panel asked him questions that he was expecting, alternating between technical questions and details on his curriculum vitae. One person had asked him about his high school science fair project.

Susan followed him out the door so that she could escort him to the Human Resources office. But a few feet down the hall she tugged his arm. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Susan said as she entered the coffee room, leaving him in the hallway. She approached a tall fellow in a suit, obviously an executive team member, spoke with him for a moment, and brought him out for an introduction. It was Stanley Berger, the company CEO.

“Scott, it’s nice to meet you. Susan was just telling me you’ve spent the day with us, and that we’ve worn you out,” he said with a smile. His disarming, friendly demeanor put Scott at ease. Then a door to opportunity opened wide. “Why don’t you take just a few minutes right now and tell me about yourself, and why we can’t drive this program ahead without you.”

4:15 p.m.: The human resources wrap-up

Scott didn’t know what had gotten into him. By all rights, he should have been dead on his feet after the high-pressure panel interview. But he had managed to pull out an absolutely on-target, fully engaged, upbeat response to the CEO’s request. The only question was whether it had been too self-promoting.

As he entered the HR office for his last meeting of the day -- with Susan Finnegan and HR's Mary Louise Rappaport -- he was thinking about his reply to Dr. Berger. He’d gambled his whole day on that 2-minute response. It felt right at the time, but now he was second-guessing himself. He was brought back to the moment by the head of Human Resources.

“Scott, how are you feeling about the day?” Mary Louise asked, although he knew she had already been informed about the “I want to come to work for ABC” response he delivered to the CEO in the hallway. He gave her a short report about the people he had met and his positive impressions of ABC Technologies.

Twenty minutes later, the conversation turned to what would happen next. “I need to talk to my team and the others you met, Scott. We’ll recap your day by the close of the week, and I’ll be back in touch with you soon,” Susan said. No commitment, no real clues about how she was feeling.

Mary Louise handed him an expense form for his travel expenditures and asked him to give her a call if he had any questions. At 4:43 p.m., Scott Jackson’s long interview day came to a close.

Two days later: The report card

Susan Finnegan’s assistant, Cheryl Thomas, took the small stack of interview notes and combined them into a report her boss could review over a cup of coffee. Each of the people who had met Scott had been asked to grade his interview on a scale of one to 10 -- seven or more is generally a recommendation to hire -- and to justify it with a few comments about strengths, weaknesses, and concerns:

Mary Louise Rappaport, HR 8.5 “Good fit with the organization. Excellent communication skills. Suggest moving ahead if references continue to be positive.”
Andrey Babinovich, CSO 7.5 “Liked him. He has zero knowledge of GMP; could be a concern.”
Ben Chao, Senior Engineer 8.5 “Clearly knows his material and communicates it well.”
Reggie Singh, Sr. Res. Scientist 8.0 “Good fit with our team. His strengths dovetail with our weaknesses.”
Edward Wang, Research Scientist 9.0 “Really knows his cell lines. This guy could be a real benefit for the project.”
Emilie Jeffries, Research Associate 5.5 “Didn’t seem to have a good response to the question about his previous experience with our cell line. Generally too academic in nature.”
Linda Jennings, Sr. Res. Scientist 7.0 “Good fit here, looking forward to working with him.”
Bill Buxton, HR 8.0 “Very solid candidate. Could be some concerns with our relocation package.”

Susan took the reviews into consideration, along with the brief conversations she’d had with people who met Scott for lunch or had been at his seminar. CEO Stanley Berger, she recalled, had taken an interest in the process. He was impressed with Scott’s direct communication style and what Stanley called his “fire and enthusiasm.”

One bugaboo remained, and she was less concerned with it than she expected to be. Scott’s boss at State wasn’t one of his biggest supporters. In the phone conversation she had with him, the PI couldn’t be pinned down. Every other written or verbal reference, including two from a lab next door to Scott’s, had been very positive. One of those described Scott’s PI as a “difficult” person to deal with.

Susan picked up the phone to call Mary Louise in HR to discuss the framework for an offer.

One week after interview day

Scott was feeling more than a little anxious about his possible future at ABC Technologies, mostly because Reggie wouldn't give him any feedback. He had left two voicemail messages for Reggie since his visit, but received only a brief, noncommittal e-mail in reply.

And then, at 7 p.m., he was cleaning up after supper when the phone rang. “Hello Scott, this is Susan Finnegan from ABC. Can you take a few minutes to talk about an employment offer?”

Scott asked if Susan wouldn’t mind holding briefly while he retrieved paper and pen. When she said that was fine, he put the phone on mute and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Yes!!"

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