Tag Archives: Interview

Interviews


Although I’ve taken part in many interviews as an interviewee, I’ve only been on the other side of the table on two occasions: in my capacity as Team Leader in Tinplate R&D, and later as part of the Operational Research team.

There was a clear difference in approach between the two sets of interviews. In Tinplate R&D the interviewing team consisted of David Jones, one or two Team Leaders and an HR representative. In a way it gave you the feeling that, whatever the outcome, you had at least selected your preferred candidate. The best example was when we were recruiting for two technicians: There were between 8 and 10 candidates, of which both Brian Bastable and myself selected our own preference, and both of us were eminently satisfied with these additions to our team.

In contrast, the graduate and functional trainee recruitment process was both far larger, more amorphous, and more regimented in its approach. It took place in place like the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, and in the later days an outbuilding of Margam Park. On all occasions there had been a pre-screening by HR, both from the CVs and completed forms, and from subsequent telephone interviews. The recruiting day itself consisted of the candidate giving a presentation to 2 interviewers, a group discussion and a proper interview where 2 interviewers subjected the candidate to a standardised set of questions.

Each of the components of the interviewing process (including the telephone interview conducted prior to the recruiting day) were given a number of points, the candidates ranked, and then given over to those who had positions on offer for the final selection of their preference.

I must say that I have my reservations of at least three parts of the whole process. First of all, anyone who doesn’t have a good telephone manner is likely to do badly, and consequently may not even make it to the final recruitment day. In the case of Operational Research this has the potential of weeding out geek-type candidates who may be very good at the technical side of the job, but lack the social finesse to make the grade in the interview.

Secondly, the group exercise makes it very hard for anyone to come out of it smelling of roses: it’s very easy to come across as overbearing, not being a team player or being too passive and get marked down for each of those perceived defects. And last but not least, standardised questions, whilst good to make an easy comparison between various candidates, does not allow for looking for specific abilities that might highlight a candidate with a specific ability in Operational Research.

In addition, I’ve seen how certain interviewers frigged the system to bring their preferred candidate up in the rankings by changing their ratings in the subsequent analysis. In short, whilst the process may be designed to recruit a generalised graduate, it is far less suitable to identify someone with specific abilities useful to Operational Research: from three graduate and two functional trainee interviews we added over time two graduates and one functional trainee, none of whom lasted more than a year before they moved elsewhere for jobs that they found more to their liking.

Presumably this deficiency in the recruiting process must be known (although maybe not officially acknowledged) in senior management circles, and my replacement must have been identified using a route that was specifically designed for someone who would not only be comfortable with, but also thrive on the type of IT work I had been doing throughout my time in Llanwern and Port Talbot.

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Pressure


A common question during interviews is “How do you handle pressure?”. The standard answer is to give an example of a stressful situation where you came out smelling of roses, implying that to you pressure disappears when you put your mind to it.

However, if I wanted to be fair about my ability to handle pressure, I’d say I don’t handle it all that well. Put me in a situation where the workload is such that it can’t possibly be achieved in the allotted time, and watch me go to pieces. Maybe an exaggeration, but quite close to the truth nevertheless.

So over time you start to learn a number of strategies that make it less likely that you’re going to be confronted with the pressure cooker. One strategy is to cut corners by cutting down the task to the bare minimum that can be achieved in the allotted time. This happened when I was studying for my hydraulics exam in my second year at university: I had less than 24 hours between exams, and concentrated on the “tuyaux” questions (the ones that often came up and could sink you if you weren’t prepared).

A stroke of luck came my way when I had a few hours in the morning prior to the exam, and decided to go over one of the diagrams where you have to predict pressure and flow in complicated set of bends, valves and pumps. Fortunately for me that question came up, and the professor was so pleased that I was the first in that session to get the answer completely right that he gave me really high marks. Something that definitely helped me pass since in that year I only scraped through with 61%.

Other solutions that I developed over time was to be highly organised and prepared. It’s not easy to predict what will need to be done, but once you’ve been in a job for a while, you tend to get a feel for the type of things that might trip you up, and like a good chef in the kitchen, you have a few items half-ready so that the final product can be achieved so much more quickly.

The other side of the same coin is to manage expectations – you know that the only correct answer to the question “Is this an easy job?” must be countered by the sucking of air through the teeth and any variation of a reply that means it’s not. Also, when someone comes to you with the introduction of “I’ve got a little job for you, it shouldn’t take too long”, your immediate response should be “Let me be the judge of that”.

And the final response when all of those tactics prove insufficient is to put the hours in – especially in IT extra time means extra output. You may have developed all the tools in the box to streamline your production process, but in the end it’s almost a given that development time will exceed the original estimated time, so you have to calculate that in from the start.

Also, in order to make the best use of your time when doing IT developments you must minimise the amount of non-productive time: cut down on meetings (unless they’re specific to progressing your work), reduce the likelihood that you’re going to be interrupted when you’re “in the zone”, and don’t be too proud to re-use solutions from previous projects.

So my real answer to the question “How do you handle pressure?” is : at all times I’m trying to avoid being caught in a situation where pressure will become an issue. Does it always work ? No. But at least you can try and minimise the number of situations where you’re going to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?


This is one of those classic interview questions that doesn’t really have a good answer to it, apart from avoiding the arrogant “in your chair” answer. Still, over the years I’ve come to realise that life is often too changeable for this to be a sensible question, a bit like the Soviet era 5-year plans. If annual objectives from your performance appraisal can often become obsolete within that same year, what chance do you have against the vagaries of life over a 5-year period ?

If I consider where I stood on the first of January of a 5-year period, for most of my life I could not have predicted where I would be on the first of January at the end of it. Let’s say we start in January 1975 and progress in 5-year steps, at what stage had my career become predictable enough for a 5-year plan to make sense ?

  • Jan.1975 : Working in 1980 as a researcher at the same university had not even entered into my future plans.
  • Jan.1980 : Absolutely no chance that South Africa featured in my career plans.
  • Jan.1985 : I know I intended to leave South Africa at some stage, but it was not clear that I would be in the UK in 1990.
  • Jan.1990 : One of the few times where continuing to work at Allied Steel & Wire was part of the planned career path.
  • Jan.1995 : Not even an inkling that I would be made redundant, find a job in British Steel, and move on to Ebbw Vale in the newly formed Corus by the year 2000.
  • Jan.2000 : No indication that Ebbw Vale would closed and I would have managed to find a new position in Llanwern in 2005.
  • Jan.2005 : My plan to become closer involved in Port Talbot and leave Llanwern did actually happen as planned – a very rare occasion !
  • Jan.2010 : This must have been a relatively stable period in my career despite the Tata Steel take-over because at the start of 2015 I was doing more of the same as in 2010.
  • Jan.2015 : I had vague plans to retire at some stage between the age of 60 and 65, but I couldn’t have predicted that only 15 months later, retirement would be upon me.

So in short, either my career has shown an unusual amount of flux, or events in modern-day life don’t allow for 5-year plans. The best you can do is have a general direction of where your internal compass leads you, and be prepared to modify your plans as and when the challenges and opportunities crop up.

Afterthought : I once was sitting through a presentation of the 15-year forward plan for Strip Products UK, and in the Q&A session I stood up and raised my doubts about the validity of planning over such a period. After all, I said, “Would you have been able to predict our current situation 15 years ago ?” That was in 2007. We all know what happened the year after, and not surprisingly the aforementioned 15-year plan was never heard of again.