Sarah is a 25 year old college graduate from Portland. She works as a project manager for a design company and is the supervisor of the client services department within the company. Though she enjoys cooking, reading, and snowboarding, Sarah has dedicated most of the last few years to her job, focusing on improving the success of the company and improving her chances of growth.
Sarah has been on both sides of the table, experiencing several job interviews as well as conducting her own interviews for her current employer. Everyday Interview Tips sat down with Sarah to discuss her work and interviewing experiences.
What is your average day like at your current job?
If I can describe what my average day is like at my current job in one word, it’d be, ‘stressful’. Frantic, focused, frustrating, challenging, and productive also apply. I manage a team of 3 other project managers as well as have anywhere from 15-20 active projects of my own. For my own projects, I manage the multiple teams/persons and/or external vendors working on them.
Most businesses describe themselves as having slow and busy seasons and I can say that for the last four years I’ve been working at my current firm, there is no such thing as a “slow season”.
Do you enjoy that type of environment?
I think I’m ambivalent. I’m not opposed to hard work or a fast paced environment, but I am opposed to hard work for nothing. I’m very motivated and ambitious and like to see things working like a well-oiled machine and I like knowing that I helped to create something successful. Challenges with the kind of work I do is a given and it’s also what makes the work interesting to me. What I do take objection to is when the work environment is needlessly hard and challenging due to mismanagement or bad habits. These things usually have a negative ripple effect on every aspect of the business. For example, choosing to work with bad clients that don’t pay on time under good faith that they’ll pay up everything at the end. This forces us to make time in our current schedule to do the work for this bad client. Meanwhile, the project schedules for good clients in good standing suffer. This then puts a strain on our staff and resources and also causes us to not finish the previous projects as scheduled. So then the cash for a finished project that we expect to receive at a given time also gets pushed out and this also puts a strain on cash flow. This is irresponsible and unconscionable. Work is hard and that is okay, but if it’s hard due to unwise business decisions, then I would lose motivation to work for such a company fairly quickly.
Did you have any jobs before your current one?
Previously, I worked at an accounting firm in operations and office management. It was a small business, so I also ended up doing other things like billing, payroll, sales management, training new hires, and the list goes on. This was the job that I had all throughout college and I think it’s also what gave me the experience I needed to get my current job. Before that I worked at a call center for Verizon Wireless for a few months. That was just a temporary thing to get some cash. Before that, I tried selling knives for Cutco door-to-door. That sucked, but I think it built character. Plus I can tell people that I used to sell knives! Before that, I worked for my parents helping them with their catering business. They put me to work when I was 12 years old and I was working for them all through high school. I put together their menu, helped balanced their books, went shopping, prepared food, cleaned appliances and equipment, handled money, and whatever else that usually comes with the food industry.
Besides Cutco, since that was more independent, what was your worst job and what made it so bad?
I have to say that my current job is the worst job I’ve ever had. What I described earlier about mismanagement and bad business decisions all occurred with my current firm. I was hired on for my operations background to help improve the business. For the last four years, I’ve established processes, trained and retrained our project managers, and set operational guidelines to make our firm more efficient. Even though these things are in place, the owner continues to disregard them and will consistently make rogue-decisions that end up hurting the firm. It’s like babysitting. If I’m not watchful of his every move, he will act up. Old habits die hard I guess? He’s one of those artistic, head in the clouds type. He hired on managers to take care of the hard numbers sides of things, but he has some major trust issues and has consistently undermined everything that his staff has tried to do there. Somehow he was able to amass a core team of extremely talented and hardworking individuals, but his actions and decisions have caused a lot of undue strife. He’s burnt out a few already who have since moved on and his current team is starting to slowly unravel as certain members are moving from full-time to contractor and others are looking to move on. I’m one of those who’s looking to move on. On the other side of that coin, I would say that this was also the best job that I’ve had so far because I learned a whole lot through it all and got to work with a variety of clients from a variety of industries.
Interesting. Moving on a little, how many job interviews have you experienced?
I’ve been interviewed four times for a job that I was actively seeking. I somehow got hired by my first choice in each case so that’s why that number is low. I have interviewed countless of people in my last and current job for positions that we were hiring for. I have also had countless of interviews with potential clients that I was bidding for work on with my current firm.
Let’s start with your own job interviews. How prepared were you for your last job interview and did you do anything specific to prepare?
It was pretty standard preparation with cover letter and resume. What made the job easy to get was that my previous boss did business with my current firm and he knew that they were looking to hire. Since he recommended me, I was a bit of a shoe in. It really matters who you know. I already have a few job opportunities lined up from people I used to work with who have expressed that they want me to join them and I’m also doing some contract work on the side for my previous employer.
Did anything occur during the interview that was unexpected, such as a question you were not sure how to answer or something you noticed that was surprising?
The owner seemed really interested in my astrological sign. At first, I didn’t put much thought to it. But apparently, he does this in every interview and there have been inside jokes about him hiring based on astrology ever since. The other thing that was unexpected was they asked me how I felt about my previous employer shutting down his business. This almost made me cry because I’m no good when talking openly about my feelings.
Those are the only two things that I remember that are noteworthy. The rest was pretty standard.
Let me ask you about the job interviews you yourself have conducted. When interviewing, what are some examples of the toughest interview questions you ask applicants?
I like to test them by posing situational questions that they could expect for their role. I think knowing their past experience helps, but what I’m especially interested in new hires is their ability to problem solve and think creatively. I prepare by creating a whole list of these types of questions. An example could be something like, “A client has called you screaming and yelling, blaming you that they didn’t authorize their website to be launched yet. How would you handle this situation?” I also prepare a proofreading test if the role I’m hiring for requires the person to review proposals and other sensitive documents.
I also don’t idealize or add fluff about the position I’m hiring for. I know it’s hard work and all the pitfalls so I also make sure that the applicant is well aware of that. It’s almost like I’m trying to scare them out of the job. I’m interested in hiring those who are willing to rise to the challenge. So that’s not a question, but an approach I’ll take.
Do you have an example of the worst interview you conducted, including what the candidate said, how they behaved, etc.?
Nothing really sticks out in my mind as the worst. I do get calls from time to time from straight out of college design students who ask for interviews to practice. One gentleman was so nervous that it became a speech impediment. After I told him that it was okay to calm him down a bit, it went well. Other than that, I haven’t conducted any interviews that I would categorize as the worst. There are strong ones that stand out and the rest usually meet the criteria, but don’t seem to go beyond that.
What makes a “Strong interview”?
We filter through a lot of resumes and the ones we invite for interviews usually already fit the bill for experience, so that’s a given. Besides answering all questions and prompts satisfactorily and passing the proofreading test, I would say that it also has to do with how the interviewee conducts themselves. They’re professional and speak with me on the same playing field as another professional. They not only talk about themselves, but have obviously done research about our company and ask relevant questions about our company and how we work. They’re curious about the firm and are interested about opportunities beyond the job they’re interviewing for. This shows me that they’re considering making a serious investment in our firm and they’re not a fly by show. They’re not clueless and are completely alert during the interview. Also their personality seems to fit our company culture.
Do you prefer if candidates ask you questions?
What are the best questions you have been asked?
In no particular order:
*What opportunities for growth can I expect if I work with your firm?
*If I want to take a vacation, how do I plan for my projects to be taken care of while I’m away?
*What’s your policy for chatting and using the internet?
*What exciting projects is the firm currently working on and what makes them exciting?
Great. One final question. If you could give any advice to recent graduates on finding or interviewing for jobs, what would it be?
When preparing for an interview, ask yourself why you’re interviewing for this particular job. Is it because you admire the company? Is it because you want to make a lot of money? Is it because you want to do great work? Or perhaps, it’s all three. These answers will help you get through your interview and also help you target your thoughts. Whatever your answers for interviewing at a specific company, use that in your interview and be honest about why you are there. If some of your answers are things like, I don’t care and just need something for the time being, then chances are that will show through in your interview and you wouldn’t be hired anyway. It would also seem like you would be happier elsewhere so you’re not doing anyone or yourself any service if you apply for a job just because. Jobs are highly competitive and getting more and more competitive each day. If you’re interviewing for a job, do it because you truly want to work there. For those that are looking for a temporary situation, there are many jobs looking to hire on a temporary or contract basis that might suit you better. Also don’t be afraid! We’re all just people. Try role-playing and having mock interviews with friends first to help ease your nerves.