Exactly Why Are You Looking for a New Job?
What aspect of your career needs the most improvement? Please describe for us the most challenging problem you have ever faced, and how you overcame the obstacles to solve it. Do you work better by yourself or in a group? What would you do if you were under great pressure to complete a project and suddenly discovered that you had made a critical flaw in a simulation or test result? I see in reading your resume that there was an eighteen-month period where you were unemployed; please explain. Why have you had so many different employers in such a relatively short time? How to you handle stress? Our company has mandatory diversity and tolerance training - how do you feel about that? We expect all our engineers to be available for at least ten hours per week of overtime.
Those are the kinds of questions and requests that I and many of you have faced at one time or another during interviews throughout our careers. Your responses to those questions determines whether or not you receive an offer. According to most interview experts, the purpose of an interview is for both the interviewer and the interviewee to have an opportunity to assess each other to decide whether the company is a good fit to the employee. Prior to the onsite interview, the job seeker has had the chance to investigate the company via its website, stories in technical magazines written by current employees, and perhaps even check out its reputation through posts to online forums and blogs. Unless the job applicant is renowned within the industry or is being recommended by an existing employee, the only thing the company knows about him or her is what is presented on the resume. Even though the process is supposed to be a two-way street, in reality most of the time the potential employer has the upper hand.
Unfortunately, most of the times that engineers are actively looking for jobs is when they are unemployed, or have reached a point in their current positions where they are desperate to get out. Hiring companies know that, and are usually prepared to exploit the situation to their favor, and they have every right to do so in a free market. As with other forms of goods and services, the price demanded and the price paid are based on the perceived value of the product. A rare coin sitting on a table in a local yard sale could sell for a small fraction of its real value if the owner is not knowledgeable of its true value, or if he is not skillful enough to convince the buyer of its true value.
Correspondingly, a buyer (the employer) is not convinced of the value declared by the seller for that rare coin, or a buyer who desperately wants the coin but cannot afford to pay the market price for it is left with two choices. The first is to do without the coin. The second is to search for a seller that does not recognize the true value of his product. It is up to both the employee and the employer to determine what the necessary venue is for reaching their goals.
There is plenty of risk in the interviewing process for both sides. As mentioned earlier, either side could fail to convince the other of its true value, or either side could oversell its assets. In either case all will suffer the agony of the resulting mismatch. To continue the metaphor (speaking of agony...), the purpose of an interview, then, can be viewed as a tuning process to determine whether the source and load will produce a happy medium where the ESWR (Engineer Suitability-to-the-Work Ratio...now that's really agonizing) is or can be made as close to 1:1 as possible. In other words, the return loss (for returning the engineer to his former employer) should be as small as possible, preferably less than 20 dB (one engineer in a hundred). Okay, I'll stop assaulting you now with lame attempts at cleverness.
At the time of this writing, there appears to be a dearth of qualified design engineers in the analog and RF / wireless realm, so it is somewhat of a seller's market for experienced engineers. Integrated circuit (IC) designers are particularly high demand, but knowledgeable systems designers and integrators are also being desperately sought after. The companies themselves are largely to blame for the lack of qualified engineers due to a reluctance to hire new graduates or those with only a few years of experience. For U.S. and a lot of E.U. companies, there has been a tendency to import pre-qualified foreign engineers through the visa process, or to outsource engineering work overseas rather than developing national talent. The price is right, and there is no waiting for years to obtain the needed talent. The argument offered by a lot of companies for not training engineers internally is that most will seek higher paying positions with other companies once they have obtained the requisite skills. Of course, the obvious retort to that is while they might lose an engineer to another company, they will likely obtain a replacement from some other company that invested an equal amount of time and resources on that person being received.
The Internet is full of websites giving advice on how to conduct effective interviews as well as how to be effective while being interviewed. Most reiterate the obvious like do not misrepresent your accomplishments (formerly called lying), use proper grammar in your cover letter and resume, be punctual with appointments for phone and in-person interviews, speak clearly and make eye contact, do not attempt to BS the interviewer, be acceptably dressed and groomed, never discuss salary expectations on the first encounter, do not bad-mouth your current or past employers or fellow engineers, know the new company's product line and history, explain why you are seeking this new position, and be prepared to tell why the company needs your services. Do not go into any interview for a job that you really want (and/or need) without adequate preparation. Be appropriately humble, but unless you are desperate, do not allow yourself to be intimidated.
If you are conducting an interview, be sure to read through the applicant's resume thoroughly and jot down some specific questions to ask. Try to memorize them rather than whipping out the scorecard in from of him/her and checking off the list as you go. It is good to take notes, however, and it is considered acceptable to keep them out of the interviewee's view. There has been a tendency to not present engineering applicants with a series of problems to be solved where writing is required. If the position absolutely requires a demonstrated ability to perform under pressure, then by all means do so. Otherwise, it is better to present scenarios and ask how the person would attack it for arriving at a solution. This is particularly true for very senior level people. For new graduates or someone with only a couple years of experience, don't hesitate to pull out a Smith Chart and ask where 50 ohms, a short and an open are, or maybe ask them to draw the basic circuit for a lumped element bandpass filter. Doing that for Bob Pease or Lance Lascari, though, would likely earn you a (figurative) slap on the head. Stick to topics and degrees of challenges that you and your project teammates truly believe are critical for success - a strategy meeting ahead of time to divvy out questions is a good idea. Since you will potentially be working with this person for many years, be sure to also try to get a feel for his/her temperament, without venturing too deeply into personal questions. A bad experience with a single interviewer in a day of talking with several people can drive a desirable candidate away.
"The best-laid plans o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley...," or so-says poet Robert Burns. Now, if you are not conversant in the archaic Scottish dialect, you have probably heard it spoken, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." This is certainly true when it come to interviews. One defense contracting company I worked for as an RF systems engineer was in the market for a senior level design and development RF/microwave engineer with experience running difficult projects and managing a team of top-notch engineers. As is usually the case, word was put out within the organization looking for recommendations by current employees for names of co-workers from former jobs or from other professional associations. I submitted that name of a gentleman whom I knew, and he came for an interview. For some reason not ever really known by him or by me, the company decided not to offer him the job. That was about 12 years ago. He subsequently went on to work as a top level design group manager and earned patents for another company prior to his recent retirement. The work he did was exactly the kind sought by my company. Maybe the interviewers asked the wrong questions or did not properly interpret the answers given by my friend, but the result is that they missed a huge opportunity.
In another case, I remember a new guy coming into our group who had all the necessary qualifications according to his resume and during his interview, but ended up being very unknowledgeable about even the basics of RF system analysis. Remember what I said earlier about risking insulting a senior level person by pulling out a Smith Chart? Well, it certainly would have been a good idea in this guy's case, even though his resume showed him having attained a very senior level at his previous company (a defense contractor, no less). The guy was a burden to everyone for a couple years until he finally got laid off.
So, as with most things in life, there is no exact science to either side of the interview. The best plan is to actually have a plan, both for the job seeker and the employer. Otherwise, it's a total shot in the wind*.
* This is an intentional use of a mixed metaphor that I had the misfortune of making one time. It combines, "A shot in the dark," with, "Toss it to the wind." To this day,
those who remember me saying it constantly remind me of it by quoting me at every opportunity.