Interview Tips

James, I think your cover's blown!photo © 2008 Ludovic Bertron | more info (via: Wylio)
Lately I’ve been interviewing a lot of people at my new company, and knowing that in this economy a lot of people are looking for a job, I really want to share my experience as an interviewer. Three years ago, I had written about my interesting interview stories, and some more weird interview stories. But here I just want to give some practical advice to all you job seekers and interviewees.

1. Make a strong first impression
Nothing irks me more than an interviewee who is not being courteous and not able to address people appropriately. At the very least, when you go up to the front door of the company, say something like “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” before saying “My name is XYZ, I’m here to see Mr. ABC. ” And whenever you meet someone new, greet the person with a confident smile and attentive eye contact, and address that person by his/her name at least a couple of times. Believe me, although all this seem to have nothing to do with your skills on the job, the first impression is still super important.

2. Proactively impress your interviewer
Usually there are several candidates are vying for one job opening these days. Therefore, you need to stand out from the crowd. Many times, as an interviewer, while I talked to an interviewee, I kept thinking, “Hey, tell me something that impresses me about your skills and abilities and about how unique you are!” Recently I talked to someone who’s very experienced, and I was asking some leading questions to try to get him to talk about how good he is, but he kept just answering my questions with short answers. Although his answers were correct, I couldn’t find anything particularly impressive about him. That interview was just a one-way question-and-answer session. However, if you are a skilled interviewee, you would try to steer the interview into a two-way conversation, seizing golden opportunities to talk about your strengths and about stories that illustrate how good you are, without having ot wait for the interviewer to ask you such questions.

3. Ask meaningful questions
This is the part that most interviewees fail at. You have to do your homework, and one of the things you need to do is to prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewers. Many times I end my interviews by saying, “Do you have any questions for me?” If the interviewee paused for a minute, and then blurted out, “Er, how many employees do you have?” Then I know the interviewee hasn’t done his/her homework. Here are the things you need to know about asking good questions:

  • The questions you ask tell the interviewer what you care about. For example: a question like “Do your products usually deliver on time and with quality? How do you make sure that’s the case?” tells the interviewer that you care about being on time and doing things with high quality, and you want to work at a place where these values are upheld.
  • The questions you ask tell the interviewer that you understand what the company is about. For example: a question like “I really think your company have a good chance of being successful, but how do you address the needs of consumers who might want to do XYZ using your product?” tells the interviewer you’ve done your research, and you also understand the context that the company operates under, so you’re probably a good fit for the company.
  • Good questions should be addressed to the right person. If you’re interviewed by a software developer, ask questions about his/her software development issues. If you’re talking to a department director, ask him/her about personnel and management issues. When I was an interviewee, I would do my homework and write out different questions and categorize the questions according the type of organizational role that the question is best suited for.
  • Sometimes it’s ok to ask questions before the end of the interview time, if you can frame it as a “burning question.” One time, I interviewed a graphic designer, and he asked me right when I went into the room, “Tell me, how important do you think it is for the product to look good?” After I answered his question, he explained, “I’m glad your company has a culture that values making products look good.” Well-timed “burning questions” can be effective at communicating your passion toward your craft.

4. Do the post-interview followup
Whenever anyone gives you any contact information such as a business card or an email address, use it. After the interview session is over, write an email to each person who gave you his/her email, and say something like, “I really appreciate you taking your time out of your busy day to talk to me. It was interesting learning about your work on XYZ. I hope my experience and skills and passion convince you that I’m a fit for the job. I hope to have the chance to work with you some day.”

There you go. I hope these tips would come in handy for you all!

BTW, be sure to check out the job postings at my company. Perhaps I would interview you some day.

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Puritans & Work Ethic

Today I read a blog post entitled “Worry Isn’t Work” by Dan Pallotta that made some good points, but also included some points which really irked me.

Pallotta wanted to say that it’s not necessary to equate working hard with punishing oneself, and that self-criticism and anxiety would end up hurting productivity. I think these are good points. However, it’s unfortunate that Pallotta wrongfully blamed the Puritans’ work ethic for causing people to over-worry about their productivity. Ironically, he pointed out, by quoting historian Perry Miller, that “without some understanding of Puritanism… there is no understanding of America.” It is ironic because Pallotta shows much misunderstanding about Puritans and history in general. At one point, he claimed that, because the Puritans burned witches at the stake (this is not true historically — burning of witches never took place in American history) that we should discredit the Puritan work ethic as anything worthwhile (which shows both a misunderstanding of Puritan work ethic and also a gross logical fallacy).

Many people think that because Puritans are very self-deprecating about their own sins, they think that Puritans are guilt-ridden people. By extension, Puritan work ethic was somehow misunderstood to see work being motivated by guilt, and that Puritans believe in working hard to gain wealth and good moral standing (for example, read this, which claims the Puritan work ethic is an “archaic religious belief”). But what is the real Puritan work ethic?

Most ideas in history were a response to the ideas that before them, whether it’s disagreement or refinement. The Puritans were no different. What is the historical context here? Before the Reformation, the only valuable work was seen as religious work in the church. Martin Luther changed this view by saying that all work done in Christian faith is pleasing to God. Later, John Calvin expanded the term “calling” to apply to one’s work.

What the Puritans did was they built upon Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas by stating that everyone has a calling to a vocation. So the Puritans bring work to a more central place in one’s life, and they emphasize working hard and living life to its fullest. However, to the Puritans, work is not an end, but merely a means. The goal of the Puritans is to live a God-centered life, and since God-centered-ness implies achieving their God-given calling, they work hard. In other words, their work is not driven by guilt, but driven by fulfilling the meaning of their lives in God.

I’ve actually done some studies about Puritans in the past, and I must say I really appreciate how they are intensely serious about aligning their beliefs and their actions. They also contributed to a lot of profound intellectual and artistic/poetic work in American history. Sadly, Puritans are also sinful humans, and some of them also committed some gross atrocities in American history, such as the Salem witch trials, slave trade, and abuse of Indians, and these things caused many people to discredit them totally. But we must not distort history nor forget the valuable lessons we can learn from the great Puritan ideas.

For further reading:
“The Original Puritan Work Ethic” by Leland Ryken
“Work Ethic, Protestant” in the “Complete Book of Everyday Christianity”
“Who Were The Puritans?” by J. Glenn Ferrell
Jesus Made In America by Stephen Nichols
The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective by R. Paul Stevens

“Remember, You Work For Me”

“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23)

This past week had been a stressful work week for me. I had to design a major software component, deal with multiple urgent customer issues, interview candidates, help out with QA, etc. I felt like I was stretched out like an octopus in eight different directions. And I was so stressed I made many mistakes and I had to spend extra time to fix those mistakes. At the same time, different people were demanding that my work had to be done as the top priority thing for each of them.

But throughout this week, one thing that my boss had said kept replaying in my mind. You see, whenever I sat down to tell my boss about my stress and how I had to deal with multiple top priorities to please different people, he would tell me, “Tim, remember that you work for me, not for them. You have to remember that.” I would reply him, “Thanks for reminding me… I do sometimes forget that.”

Somehow this sounds strangely biblical. When I feel stressed out at work, I think I need to hear God say to me, “Remember, Tim, you work for me, not for them.” And I would reply the Lord, saying, “Thanks for reminding me Lord, because sometimes it’s easy to forget that I don’t work for men, but I work for the Lord.”

Recommended Free Software/Services

I last wrote about this same topic (i.e., about free software) almost 3 years ago, so it’s time I give my new recommendations of free software/services. These are the software/services I use all the time and I heartily recommend to you all these software/services (ordered by most recommended listed first):

Flock
When I started using Flock 0.9, it was not well-known at all, but this Firefox-based “social web browser” is beginning to be appreciated by many people. If you like Firefox, you’ll like Flock even more. Both Wendy and I cannot surf the social web without it. And Flock 2 is just about to be released and it’ll be even more fun to use.

Google Docs
I’ve pretty much stopped using Microsoft Office a year ago and switched exclusively to Google Docs. This way I can edit my documents and spreadsheets and presentations anywhere. In fact, I most often draft my Xanga entries in Google Docs at home, and when I feel like it, I could login to it at work and continue editing it, or even keep working on it at someone else’s house. Microsoft Office just doesn’t cut it.

Planning Center Online
A little more than a year ago, my church started using Planning Center Online for worship set planning and worship team coordination. The free version allows you to have 10 users but no file uploads (although you could link to files you uploaded at another server). We used the free version for a while, and then switched to paying for the Lite services. It has been a great help using it to teach other worship team members new songs and coordinating the diverse schedules of everyone. I’ve test-driven other worship set planning software/services and this one is by far the best.

OpenDNS
The concept of OpenDNS is an automatic website-filter to prevent you from going to certain websites. There are two reasons to use OpenDNS. One is to avoid accidentally navigating to porn sites. The other is to make your web surfing experience slightly faster by blocking ad sites. It’s easy to use. Just change some settings in your router and you’re done!

MindMeister
Whenever I need to do brainstorming for ideas, I use MindMeister to create “mind maps” to help me organize thoughts and discover new ideas. Somehow the concept of mind maps makes a lot of sense to me and I gather a lot of ideas that way. For example, I use it to figure out what to teach in my worship sunday school class, or I use it before leading a bible study to organize my thoughts.

Vyew
If you’ve ever used WebEx, GoToMeeting, or Adobe Connect at work, then you know what this is: a way to share your desktop for a meeting. Except Vyew is free (with small service limitations compared to its paid subscription services) but in some ways Vyew is actually easier to use and more powerful and more user-friendly than those other commercial ones I mentioned. I just had an online meeting with a friend earlier today with Vyew.

Rescue Time
Basically it’s a small application that logs whatever you do on your computer, and then it’ll show you how productive you’ve been. For example, it logs the names of the websites I visited, the applications I’ve used. And I can assign productivity indexes to different types of websites and applications. Usually my productivity is only about 45% .

ididwork (I Did Work)
Actually, ididwork is more useful for work than for personal life. The concept is dead simple. It’s a work progress logger for the Twitter-generation. You type in what you’ve done and tag it. Then you can let your boss know to look at it. To understand why it’s so cool, try it out for a week or so and it’ll be a lot clearer to you why it’s so simple yet so useful.

I hope you’ll find at least some of the above free software/services useful for you!

You might be interested in:
Free Software (Oct 2005)

Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening

Yesterday I had to wake up early for a 7:00am meeting at work. It was yet another meeting when we had people call in from different locales. But yesterday’s meeting was a little crazier. While some of us were gathered in California at 7:00am, a couple of guys called in from the East Coast and their local time was 10:00am, another guy called in from UK and his local time was 3:00pm, and a few guys called in from India and their local time was 7:30pm. It was truly a “good morning, good afternoon, and good evening” meeting.

When I started working in the industry 15 years ago, outsourcing was probably a pretty bad word in the US. In my first jobs, I had to work with people from different timezones within the US, but I never had to work with people in different countries. It was almost unthinkable for me.

But in one of my jobs, we merged with a company in UK. We started having video conferencing with them on a regular basis. And in subsequent jobs I had more and more chance reaching out across the world to various people. At my current company, in the past 3 years I’ve worked regularly and occasionally with people located all over the world, including Israel, India, UK, Vietnam, Norway, etc. It’s almost maddening how global the workplace is.

BTW, yesterday’s meeting was basically a training session that was 3.5 hours long. The East Coast and the UK guys had to leave early for lunch and dinner respectively, and by the time the meeting was over, the Indian guys were fighting to stay awake, and my stomach was growling for food…

Changing Face Of The Workplace: Customers ==> World Changers

“Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” (1 Corinthians 10:24)

This is the last installment in a series of writings about my perception of the changes taking place in the workplace, and how it relates to Christian life. Last two times I wrote about the changing definition of employees and managers. Today it’s about customers.

Here, like in the previous two articles, as I’m talking what I learn about a new view of customers, I will also talk about how the church should view its “customers.” Admittedly, “customer” is a strange word to use for people who come to church. But as you can see below, I believe the church really can learn more than a thing or two from the workplace about how to run a church.

More than 10 years ago, I was in a company meeting when the sales guy told us we signed a lot of customer contracts to offer our products and services. To my surprise, the general feeling after the meeting was very negative. At the time, my colleagues thought: oh no, now we have to be so busy producing things that those customers ask for, and we also have to handle so many people using and complaining through our customer service, etc. It seems ridiculous now, but the traditional view of customers was actually to sell them things, then say bye bye to them, and hope to never hear any complaints from them. This reminds me of an evangelistic concert I once had in a church in which lots of people came and even signed up to want to learn more about the faith. During the evaluation meeting, the mood was negative. They were saying, oh no, we have to accommodate all these people coming to our church, and we have to get so many people to mentor them, how can we handle it, etc. It was just as ridiculous.

The company I work for makes software that helps companies to innovate. Our CEO is a great motivational speaker. In his speech to our company in January, he said that we need to sell our products to more and more people. The reason? Of course we have to increase our revenue. But he also said that we have a “responsibility” to sell our products. If we truly believe that our product can help other companies innovate better, we have a responsibility to this society to foster innovation and contribute to the benefit of this world. In other words, we want to help our customers become world changers.

In the same vein, author Kathy Sierra’s blog posted this illustration about this new view of customers:

Often, churches try to be “culturally relevant” by adding rock music or drama or videos. There’s nothing wrong with doing rock/alt music or using drama, but there’s something wrong if a church thinks that it can get people to say, “Hey, church is cool too!” Doing so only promotes church consumerism, and it won’t make people feel any more positive toward the church. The reason is that people are not looking to find culturally relevant stuff at church. Rather, churches do well to be authentic, and to foster an environment where people can feel authentic and yet connect to God personally, intimately, and authentically. Churches do not need to be cool. They should help people to experience and to connect to a cool God.

When someone becomes a happy customer, it’s less about the product itself but more about the experience. One of my colleagues at work told me he likes going to a dentist which has a mini coffee bar in the dental office. It’s similar to this other picture from Kathy’s blog:

I used to go a church which has a policy of “no eating, no drinking, and no physical cuddling” allowed in the sanctuary, let alone coffee. I never really understood the reason for this policy. Is there something so “sacred” about the sanctuary that a little food or beverage stain can’t grace the carpet? They might as well say “no breathing” allowed also, because my breath can contain germs that contaminate the air in the sanctuary. I really feel less than human when I was there observing their policy.

Leonard Sweet, in his book “The Gospel According To Starbucks” (see book summary here), hopes the church can learn from how Starbucks provides an authentic experience for its customers. Why would people flock to Starbucks just to buy an expensive cup of coffee? Because when they go to Starbucks, they’re getting more than just coffee. They find a cool environment and music they like. They find community in Starbucks, where meetings and social gatherings are frequently held. You probably notice that the Starbucks coffee cups have “The Way I See It” messages that are great discussion topic starters for people. Even Pastor Rick Warren’s words made it onto one of those cups (see news about controversial Starbucks cups’ messages here).

At the same time that Starbucks is giving its customers authentic experience and community, churches are still mostly feeding people with just intellectual ideas and information. Many people are attracted to Starbucks, but fewer and fewer are going to church, and most of those going are going out of obligation and habit.

Here’s a true story. One time at my church we were having a baptismal service. A non-Christian was invited to be there, but he got so bored during the meeting. One of my friends saw that he was bored, so he said, “Hey, let’s go over to Starbucks!” So they went to Starbucks, drank coffee, and then my friend shared Christ with this non-believer. And here in that Starbucks, he trusted his life to God and accepted Christ as his Savior. The moral of the story: Starbucks turned out to be a better environment to connect with God than in my own church.

Companies have learned that its less about them and more about their customers getting an authentic experience, and empowering them to be world changers. Churches should also learn to focus on letting people experience Christ for themselves. As Leonard Sweet wrote: “Authenticity is not about being more relevant but about being more Jesus.”

Changing Face Of The Workplace: Managers ==> Servant Leaders

“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1)

This is a continuation of a series of writings about my perception of the changes taking place in the workplace. Last week I wrote about the changing definition of employees. Today it’s about managers.

When I first started working, I heard that one should aspire in the ranks, or “climb the corporate ladder” so to speak. So in one company I finally rose to become a manager of a team of software developers. I was feeling “superior.” I felt the power to direct people.

But then two moments brought me back to earth. The first moment was when I had to deliver a poor performance review to someone in the team. It was a horrible experience. I tried to sound authoritative but she was being defensive and angry. It turned out be an unpleasant meeting. The second moment was when our projects faced a delay, and we held a cross-team meeting consisting of the director and the managers of the different teams. We were saying how things went wrong and caused schedule delays, and the director actually demanded us to attribute the blame on specific things or people. I felt ashamed to have to blame others for failures, and to have to try to push my team members to achieve impossible deadlines. After those two moments, I swore never to become a manager again.

Fortunately, later I got to work under some great managers, and I started to turn around and understand that I had a total misunderstanding about what being a manager was like. One thing I noticed about the great managers I worked with was that they really trust me. In the past, when I say it takes 5 days to get something done, the manager would turn around and say, “Well can you try to get this done in 3 days?” But the great managers trust my judgment and help me to accomplish my goals.

In fact, I started to see that the managerial function has undergone some paradigm changes in recent years. Traditional managers were power-yielding, command-and-control types that are focused on getting things done. Today’s managers are people-based leaders helping the team to succeed. Success is no longer measured by whether something is done, but whether the team members succeeded in their goals.

I sometimes reflect on how the church should learn from this. Many times we try to serve God and try to get a church project or program done, but in the process we lose people to burnout. It’s a sad thing. I do have the belief that we can learn a lot from the workplace.

Instead of giving out commands and holding a whip to get people to finish tasks, today’s great managers are great listeners, great motivators, and great encouragers. They trust you and they share their power with you. Their belief is that since the team is closer to the project at hand, the team members know better than they do. During meetings, this kind of manager is focused on finding how what inspires team members and helps provide those inspirations and motivations. On the other hand, the manager will also try to find out the obstacles that impede each team member and will work to remove those obstacles.

In Mike Griffiths’ blog on project leadership, I find a comparison chart between traditional management focus vs. today’s management focus (which he prefers to use the term “leadership”):

Management Focus Leadership Focus
Task/things People
Control Empowerment
Efficiency Effectiveness
Doing things right Doing the right things
Speed Direction
Practices Principles

While reading his blog entry, I was also surprised to see the term “servant leader” being used to describe today’s managers. Of course for Christians that term brings to mind the example of Jesus Christ as a servant leader. Indeed when we lead, when we manage, when we serve, we need to model Christ’s example. Again, today’s changing workplace actually helps us reaffirm our need to learn to become servant leaders.

Next time I will finish this series by talking about the changing definition of customers.