Chapter 4. The Sanity Check

The amount of infrastructure sitting between you and your next gig is impressive.

Ironically, this infrastructure was purchased and configured to get you as close to this job as quickly as possible, but it doesn’t. Corporate job sites are usually outsourced affairs, because HR departments traditionally have neither the budgets nor the expertise to build the system they’d actually use. They shouldn’t; it’s not the core competency.

With half-baked solutions manned by contract recruiters, it’s almost a miracle when your phone rings or an email shows up with a recruiter wanting to set up a phone screen. Someone, somewhere in the organization has successfully mapped you to an open position. This is a really big deal because, in my experience, the chance that you’ll get this job has improved logarithmically. It’s not 50/50, but it’s vastly better than when you were a random resumé sitting on a desk.

There’s a sense of relief when you have an actual conversation with a human being, and as soon as you hang up the phone with the recruiter, you’re going to call your best friend and say, “Hey, I got a interview with The Company!”

No, you didn’t. You got a phone screen, and a phone screen has little to do with an interview. While your situation isn’t as tenuous as the 30 seconds you have to make an impression with your resumé, you’re still not in the building, and nothing real is happening until you’re in the building.

Here’s the precise mental process I use as I walk through the phone screen, but before I do that, you’ve got homework.

Stalk Your Future Job

Before you even talk to me, you’re on a fact-finding mission. You’ve got a job description, and after the phone screen has been set up, you’ve got my name. You might also have an idea of the product or technology associated with this gig or you might not, but even without a product name, you’ve got plenty of information to start with.

Do your research. Google me. Find out anything you can about what I do and what I care about. This isn’t stalking, this is your career, and if I happen to be an engineering manager who writes a weblog, well, you can start to learn how I think. Maybe I don’t have a weblog, but I post to mailing lists. That’s data, too.

How is this going to help you during the phone screen? Well, I don’t know what you’re going to find, but anything you can gather is going to start to build context around this job that you know nothing about. This helps with phone screen nerves as well. See, I have your resumé, and you have nothing. Aren’t you going to feel better about talking with a total stranger when you figure out from staring at my Flickr pages that I absolutely love Weimaraners? Isn’t it going to be reassuring to know I swear in my Twitters? A bit of research into who you are talking to is going to level the information playing field.

Similarly, if you have a product name or technology, repeat the same process. What is the product? Is it selling well? What do other people think about it? I’m not talking about a weekend of research here. I’m talking about an hour or so of background research so that you can do one thing when the phone screen shows up: ask great questions.

That’s right. In your research, you want to find a couple of compelling questions, because at some point during the phone screen I’m going to ask you, “Do you have any questions for me?” And that is the most important question I’m going to ask.

Initial Tuning

Before I ask you the most important question, I need to figure out a couple of things early in our chat. What I need to learn is:

Can We Communicate?

I’m going to lead off with something simple and disarming. It’s either going to be the weather or something I picked up from your extracurricular activities. “Do you really surf? So do I! Where do you surf?” These pleasantries appear trivial, but they’re a big deal to me because I want to see if we can communicate. It’s nowhere near a deal killer if the pacing of our conversation is awkward—I’ll adjust, but how off is it? Are we five minutes in and we still haven’t said anything? OK, maybe we have a problem.

One More Softball

My follow-up questions will now start to focus on whatever question your resumé left me with. I’ve no idea what I’m going to ask because it varies with every single resumé, so my thought is that you should have your resumé sitting in front of you because it’s sitting in front of me as well. It’s my only source material.

Whatever these follow-up questions are, I’m still figuring out how we communicate. This means you need to focus on answering the questions. It sounds stupid, but if it’s not absolutely clear to you what I’m asking, it’s better to get early clarification rather than letting me jump in five minutes into your answer to say, “Uh, that’s not what I was asking.”

See, you and I are still tuning to each other. It’s been 10 minutes now, and if we’re still not adjusted to each other’s different communication styles, I’m going to start mentally waving my internal yellow flag. It doesn’t need to be eloquent communication, but we should be making progress.

No More Softballs

We’re past the softball phase of the interview, and now I’m going to ask a hard question. This isn’t a brainteaser or a technical question; this is a question that is designed to give you the chance to tell me a story. I want to see how you explain a complex idea over the phone to someone you don’t know and can’t see.

Again, who knows what the actual question will be, but you need to be prepared for when I ask the question that is clearly, painfully open-ended. I’m not looking for the quick, clean answer; I’m looking for a story that shows me more about how you communicate and how you think. Being an amazing communicator is not a part of most engineering jobs, I know this. I’m not expecting Shakespeare, but I am expecting that you can confidently talk about this question because I found this question in your resumé and that is the only piece of data we currently have in common. If we can’t have an intelligent discussion about that, I’m going to start wondering about the other ways we aren’t going to be able to communicate.

Your Turn

We’re 20 minutes into the phone screen, and now I’m going to turn it over to you when I ask, “Do you have any questions for me?”

When I tell friends that this is my favorite question, the usual response is, “So, you’re lazy, right? You can’t think of anything else to ask, so you go for the path of least resistance.” It’s true. It’s an easy question for me to ask, but it is essential, because I don’t hire people who aren’t engaged in what they’re doing. And if you don’t have a list of questions lined up for me, all I hear is: YOU DON’T WANT THIS JOB.

A well thought out question shows me that you’ve been thinking about this job. It shows me you’re already working for it by thinking about the job outside of this 30-minute conversation. Yeah, you can probably wing it and ask something interesting based on the last 20 minutes, but the impression you’re going to make with me by asking a question based on research outside of this phone screen will make up for a bevy of yellow flags. It shows initiative and it shows interest.

The Close

And we’re done. It went by pretty quick, but the question is, “How’d it go?” Here’s a mental checklist to see how you did.

Long, Awkward Pauses

Were we struggling to keep things moving? Were there long silences? Well, we didn’t tune appropriately. Again, not a deal killer, but definitely a negative.

Adversarial Interactions

What happened when we had different opinions? Did we talk through it, or did we start butting heads? This happens more than I expect on phone screens, and it’s not always a bad thing. I’m not interested in you telling me what I want to hear, but if we are on opposite sides of the fence, how do we handle it? If a candidate is willing to pick a fight and dig in their heels in a 30-minute phone screen, I’m wondering how often they’re going to fight once they’re in the building.

How’d It Feel?

This is the hardest to quantify, but also the most important. Did we click? Now, I haven’t done a technical interview in years. Others with more recent experience are going to drill down there if we bring you in the building. There’s a risk that if you get past the phone screen and you don’t have the technical ability, we’re going to waste a half-day of my team’s time interviewing someone who can’t do the job, but I’m vetting a more important aspect of you.

You are not a cog. The story we tell ourselves when someone we like chooses to leave the group or the company is, “Everyone is replaceable.” This is true, but this is a rationalization designed to lessen the blow that, crap, someone we really like is leaving. We are losing part of the team. Professional damage is done when a team member leaves, and while they are eventually replaceable, productivity and morale take a hit.

All of my softballs and questions are designed to answer the question, “Are you a person who we’d miss if you left?” As the leader of my group, I am hopefully representative of my team, so if after 30 minutes you and I haven’t figured out how to communicate, there’s a good chance you won’t click with part of the team as well.

Specific Next Steps

How did I leave it? Did I give you a song and dance about how “we’re still interviewing candidates and we’ll be in touch within the next week”? Well, that’s OK, but what you’re really looking for is a specific next step like “I’m going to bring you in” or “Let’s have you talk with more of the team.” An immediate and actionable next step is the best sign of success with a phone screen. If I don’t give you this as part of the close, ask for it. If I stall, there’s a problem.

A phone screen is not an interview; it’s a sanity check. I already know you meet the requirements for the job by looking at your resumé. The phone screen is going to tell me whether you meet the requirements of the culture of my team.

Unlike your resumé, where you send your hope to an anonymous recruiting address, the phone screen gives you leverage. The phone screen is the first time you get to represent yourself as a person. It’s still a glimpse, but it’s the first time you can actively participate in your next job.

Get Being Geek now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.