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.