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October 26, 2018

Evaluate a Company as they Evaluate You

Written by

Austin Wu

Duke University 18'

*This blog piece was originally published on Medium by Austin Wu, iXperience 2018 Full Stack Coding Teaching Assistant, and general legend.

A Few Recruiting Thoughts

The last few weeks, I have been chatting with a few people about recruiting for internships and post-grad jobs. I found myself discussing three topics more frequently than others, so I wanted to share my thoughts around them. Also, my experience recruiting is limited to product management/software engineering roles at tech companies and management consulting, so this may not be as relevant to other companies.

Dilbert cartoon

These points are entirely my own and I have no reason to think they’re shared or not shared by any employer of mine.

Evaluate the Company as they Evaluate You

You should evaluate a company as they evaluate you. Now my reaction when I first heard this was to shrug it off as silly, but it actually ended up being very valuable.

It can be weird to evaluate a company. Whichever companies you care most about you probably find super impressive, and on the other hand you’re just you. Wouldn’t it be cocky or entitled for you to evaluate the company? As if they should hire you and now you’re just picking what you want? Shouldn’t you wait and see if you get offers to evaluate other companies?

Let’s call this the “I’d be lucky if” mentality. As in, “I’d be so lucky if I could get a job at your company.” I cannot stress how unhelpful this mentality is. It isn’t great for your confidence, and it shows. People want coworkers who know they are qualified and compelling, people who think they’ll get a job on more than just luck.

Now you might not be consciously thinking “I’d be lucky if” for each company you’re applying to. However, if you’re not evaluating a company as they evaluate you, there may be some of this feeling underneath. Evaluating companies as they evaluate you builds confidence that shows. Plus, it might even help you make a better choice.

So what exactly does “Evaluating” mean?

Evaluating is not assuming. Assuming you’ll get hired would, in fact, be entitled. For me, evaluating a company comes down to thinking about what your experience with the people in that company would be like. Doing this not only makes you appear more confident, but it actually creates confidence.

There’s two parts to this evaluation for me. First, understanding that a company as normal people. Think of it like the last group project you did in school, but bigger.

Nothing about that group was larger than life, and neither is any company. These people aren’t any different than you. How could they be? Unless the company has some transformational onboarding process, they’re the same regular humans they were before working there.

Once we’ve established they’re regular humans, then the “evaluation” happens. It’s nothing fancy, just ask yourself about them and their goals: What kind of people do they seem like? Would you like working with them? Do you like their goals (both individual and company level)? How do you feel about how they do work?

Actually think of an answer for each of these questions, and any other questions that come to mind. If you don’t have enough information to form an answer, then learn more by asking people, ideally those who work there. Take time to think about these questions and actually come to an answer you believe in. If you don’t know or are ambivalent, figure out why that is the case.

Evaluation creates Confidence

Answering these questions creates confidence because it brings this company towards being an equal. It might not feel like a complete equal, but the closer you get to that feeling, the more a company’s employees and thus your interviewers will feel like peers. And in the interviewing process, that’s a lot of what confidence really is. These are people working on stuff, let’s see if I’d want to join them and work on similar stuff.

This confidence also shows. Without this confidence, it’s really easy to slip into trying to land a job just on hope. And if you’re riding on just hope, why would someone hire you? Would you hire someone whose thinks their strongest qualification is hope? It’s very hard for someone to see you as a good fit if you haven’t even considered how you could be one.

This confidence shows, both when you ask those questions above and believe in answers to them. Asking those questions, doing your research, shows you value both this role and yourself enough to think about whether it is right for you. Showing this is valuable because people want to work with confident people who care enough about themselves to find what’s best for them.

Finally, I’ll just say that the company has invited you to evaluate them. By having an application process, a company is opening themselves up to your judgment, and even inviting it. By applying, you have qualified yourself to evaluate them. So do it. You’ll make a better decision, and you’ll seem and actually feel more confident.

Practice Interviewing… with Anyone

If you have interviews, you’re probably planning to practice for them. Practicing can seem difficult, especially when it comes to finding people to practice with. I fell into two big pitfalls when practicing for my interviews: unnecessarily limiting who I practiced with, and misplacing the value of practice.

When I say practice, the natural thought is to find someone with the job you’re interviewing for to mock interview with. This often seems very difficult, because not only do you need someone working the job, but you also need enough of a relationship to ask for a mock interview.

Now if you do know people who are in the job you’re applying for and are willing to interview with you, that’s great. Do that. But if you don’t, don’t fret. You can practice interviewing with people who don’t have the job you’re applying for.

A majority of a mock interview’s value comes from the fact that you’re actually practicing. The “who” doesn’t matter that much. Indeed, there are also actually benefits to practicing with people who don’t have the job you want, least of which is that there are more of them around. But to understand why we can practice interviews with anyone, we should look at where the value of practice comes from.

Speaking for an Interviewer

It’s worth practicing with people outside the job you’re recruiting for because the value of practice is in learning to speak for an interviewer. Speaking for an interviewer is an important skill, but also very unnatural and thus difficult to focus on. But as I’ll explain in a second, you can practice this with almost anyone, even yourself.

The most challenging part of interviewing for me was never how to answer questions or what to answer them with. I struggled most with literally speaking. With taking those ideas I had learned from prep books, articles, and mentors and turning them into spoken responses.

When you interview, you know someone is evaluating your every word. This is very different from normal talking. Normally, we don’t consciously think and choose each word as we say it. But when we’re interviewing, the instinct is to do exactly that, and carefully choreograph each word.

Trying to think about what we say while we’re saying it creates a lot of issues. We might completely forget those frameworks that we had spent hours reading and memorizing. We might stumble on a word, get distracted by it, and then freeze or lose our entire train of thought. This is where people, more often than not, mess up interviews. It’s not that they don’t know what to say, but rather they’re not used to saying it for an interviewer.

What should Speaking for an Interviewer look like?

Speaking well for interviewers looks very similar to normal conversation. You speak smoothly and can keep your thoughts just ahead of your words, but in this case you’re following some specific structure or content that fits the question. More importantly you no longer get thrown off by specific mistakes. You speak more smoothly overall because you become more comfortable with any bumps that do happen.

I don’t have any framework for how to do this, as the whole point is to not have to think about everything you’re saying. But while most of it does come down to practicing as much as you can, there are a few tactics you can use to practice more effectively.

Practice interviewing with anyone. Don’t limit yourself to just people with role related knowledge or experience. The hardest part of learning to speak for an interviewer is just being able to think and speak coherently knowing someone is listening. Anyone can be that listener. Even if they know nothing about the role, just have them ask you a question and then respond out loud. Instruct your practice interviewer to respond to any clarification questions you have during the interview with “I don’t know, what do you think?”

I found it didn’t matter if someone practice interviewing with me didn’t know about financial markets or web architecture. Most of my mistakes weren’t because I didn’t know the content, but because I wasn’t used to saying it out loud.

Furthermore, everyone has relevant knowledge to practice behavioral questions with you. These are the “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me about a time you worked with a team” questions. There’s nothing better than having someone unflinchingly ask you “What’s a weakness of yours?” And then ask it three more times (thanks Rachael).

Practice (partially) with people who know you well. Their feedback will be tailored to you and your personality. They have a baseline for what’s most natural for you. They also tend to be a lot more willing to practice with you (thanks Michelle). Most importantly, they’ll know how to best give you feedback.

I say partially because feedback from your friends will be biased. Also practice with people you don’t know at all. First impressions are a huge part of interviews, and practicing with strangers can get you feedback about the first impressions you make. Thus, practice with a wide range of people. Find people ranging in closeness (strangers to best friends) and role knowledge.

To be clear, you definitely should practice with people who have the job you want (if possible). They just shouldn’t be the only people you practice with. If these folks have less availability (i.e. you can only find time for 1–2 practices), space out these practices with other people. The role-related folks can suggest changes about the role-specific content of your responses, but you can go practice them with anyone even if they don’t have role-related knowledge. You’ll be able to tell if you’re implementing the changes correctly.

Ask for Stuff

Finally, ask for stuff. People who succeed ask for stuff. Even people with privilege (which very much includes me) who leverage social capital and connections still ask for stuff. You can ask for a lot of things, including specific advice or information, referrals, mock interviews, and even introductions to other people.

The most helpful things for me in making asks have been to be upfront and clear. I mean this both in communicating your overall goal (“I want a job at/in XYZ company/industry”), and the specific ask (“Can you mock interview me?”).

Ask for these things from anyone, but especially those at the intersection of who can help you (have the job or work at an organization you’re recruiting for) and who would enjoy helping you (friends, family, alumni). And when you ask, make it easy for them to help you. Be considerate of what their work hours are. If you think you don’t know them well enough to ask, think about how you can get to know them better.

Being upfront means you don’t start a conversation unrelated to work (“let’s catch up”) and then swerve to a recruiting ask a few minutes/texts in. People don’t like that. It makes the beginning of the conversation seem intentionally dishonest. It may seem awkward to be upfront, but that’s on you to get over.

If they were going to say no, small talk for five minutes won’t help, and may even hurt you. If you’re really concerned, just call out how upfront you are being: “Hey I know this is really upfront, but can I talk to you about your job?”.The less uncomfortable you make the other person, the better and more likely they are to help you.

Being clear means you actually say what you’re asking for out loud. Don’t hint at something and hope they offer — they might never. And definitely don’t hint at something, think you were clear enough, and then expect them to do it. Nothing is confirmed until it is.

Seeming Transactional

A slight tangent on this topic. One risk of being so upfront and clear is seeming not genuine. I struggled with this in college, both around pre-professional recruiting and school clubs. People disliked that it seemed I only wanted to be friends with them to get something from them (what I mean when I say transactional). I don’t think I’m transactional, but I understand where people are coming from.

This issue happened to me in two layers, one of which is much easier to avoid than the other. At the practical layer, it happened when I wasn’t upfront and did the swerving I mentioned above. In order to avoid the awkwardness of rejection, I’d start my conversations with signals of friendship, and then eventually shift the subject. I’ve since learned to try my best to be upfront.

There’s a deeper layer, however, about relationship modes that’s much harder to avoid. Even if you are upfront and call out your upfrontness, sometimes people will still feel you’re transactional. And honestly, I think that’s ok. I’ve come to realize it’s a part of life that doesn’t always have a solution, no matter the discomfort it causes.

Relationship modes are the different sets of expectations and behaviors that can exist within one relationship. Think of the modes you have when you’re friends with a professor (student vs. friend) or a coworker (professional vs. friend).

The way I view seeming transactional in this context is that I’m mixing the “friend” and “recruiting” relationships, and some people don’t like that. This can happen in both the micro (“Let’s catch up” swerving to “Can you refer me”) and the macro (He’s nice to me, but is it only because of my network?).

People dislike this for many different reasons. some people think about relationship modes proportionally, saying “it feels they only want to be friends with me for my connections, which means they don’t really want to be friends with me.” Here it feels like the professional mode somehow takes away from friendship, which makes the overall relationship feel uncomfortable.

Other people simply don’t like the professional mode at all. They abhor the idea of valuing someone within a professional mode (i.e. on connections), yet are fine valuing people within a friendship mode (i.e. on shared interests).

These are just two ways people dislike mixing professional and friendly relationships I’ve noticed, and to be clear I don’t have a problem with any of them. They are totally natural ways to think, no better or worse than other ones.

For me, the line is just being upfront. This goes both for what I try to do and what I prefer from others. In fact, if possible I try to make asks independent of any friendship. I try to ask as if we’re not even friends, maybe by framing it as mutually beneficial or professional courtesy . I find that this helps me both be upfront and prevent someone from feeling they’re doing something in a professional mode (or any other) because of our friendship. Again, make it easy for someone to help you.

Hi there, long time no see! I’m back to writing after a long summer. One sentence life update: I graduated from school in May, moved to San Francisco in August, and am hopefully going to be writing more moving forward. Thanks so much to Mike and Cole for their feedback on this. I haven’t really written “advice” type posts before, so if any of you also have feedback please let me know.

Thanks, Austin

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