Resumes and Interviews

Directly from:
My father founded his own company in 1984, and in twenty or so years since he has interviewed and hired many, many people. So when he mentioned that he had recently been emailing job advice, I was intrigued, and we ended up having a long conversation about what employers are really looking for. And then I thought, hey! I have lots of friends who might find this information useful.

I should point out that my father runs a midsize (eighty-employee) industrial automation business, and that his perspective is informed by his industry and by the particular corporate culture in which he operates. But I believe that his points are useful nevertheless.

Employers get a lot of resumes.

Even in small-town California, job openings often attract fifty or resumes or more. The relatively small size of the company means that prospective employees are often interviewing with senior members of management - my father often conducts the technical interviews for entry-level positions. So once the resume flow has slowed to a trickle, the pile has to be pared down from dozens (or hundreds) to the five or six that can reasonably be interviewed - a process accomplished using a set of disconcertingly cavalier guidelines. Or, as my father puts it:

We throw out applications that have typos in the resume or the accompanying letter.
We throw out the resumes of people who have a demonstrated history of job-hopping.
We throw out applications if it’s clear that the applicant doesn’t know what we do, or couldn’t be bothered to tailor the resume and cover letter to the available position.
We throw out applicants who do not submit their resume and cover letter electronically. 1
We throw out applicants who show up at our door without an appointment!
Or, who call to follow up about their application.

The last three may seem a little random - what employer doesn’t appreciate the conscientious applicant, carefully following up each Craigslist response with a visit or a phone call? But it’s not the ambition that’s off-putting; it’s the disruption. And this leads to what I consider one of the most important things to keep in mind while applying.

Each company has a specific workflow for hiring, and you don’t want to disrupt it.

For example: at my dad’s company, once the decision to hire a new person has been made, the relevant manager writes up the Craigslist ad and puts it online. They gather the responses and decide on eight or ten best candidates. Then, either that manager or an HR representative conducts a quick phone interview with those candidates that covers things like where they live, whether they would need to relocate, and so on. Finally, based on the phone interview, some number of the candidates are invited for an in-person interview that, depending on the position and the quality of the candidate, can last for several hours and involve any number of people.

During this whole process, resumes and cover letters are emailed and forwarded all over the place. The players are brought in as needed, and not before. Depending on the time frame within which the position must be filled, the process can stall at any step.

When candidates do unexpected things - when they follow up with a phone call, or submit their resumes on paper - they are throwing a monkey wrench into the whole process. Say you call and ask to speak to the hiring representative. You would probably be connected to someone in HR - but depending on whether the resume pile has been sorted through yet, that HR person might not have the foggiest idea who you are or why you’re calling. Likewise, a paper resume can’t be shuttled around with the same facility that an electronic one can, and at that point your print job and paper weight don’t mean anything - the resume is going in the trash.

Bottom line: if a prospective employer gives you application instructions, for your own sake you should follow them. If the Craigslist ad says no calls, don’t call. If they ask for your resume as a Word doc, don’t send them an OpenOffice file. If they force you to use their shitty uploader that strips out all your beautiful formatting, grit your teeth and use it. Just don’t mess with the workflow.

So what do they look for?

It goes without saying that they don’t spend too much time examining through the resumes of the barely-or-under qualified. But when it comes to comparing the resumes of applicants who are all broadly qualified, the evaluation criteria are much more subjective.

We look for hobbies. We look for second or third languages. We look for a stable job and living history. We look for good writing skills - being a great engineer is no good to us if they can’t communicate with customers and with other employees. We look for a clean, well-written cover letter - you can’t get a job based on a cover letter alone, but you can lose your chance at one.

And if someone takes the time to look us up on the web, figure out what we do, talk about our customers and products - that is stellar.

Conventional wisdom holds that in today’s market quantity is more important than quality - that applying to many jobs is a better strategy than laboring over a single application. I don’t doubt that. But I think it’s also true that employers appreciate applicants who do a bit of prep work. It won’t get you a job you’re not qualified for. But it may be the difference between getting a call and not.

He who mentions a salary figure first, loses.

“We’re not like a school or the government; we don’t have a standard pay scale. So we have a little bit of flexibility to pay as little or as much as we want for the right person (within limits, obviously).

When we look for applicants, we always try to ask them what they want to get paid before they have a chance to ask us what the job pays. When we ask this, we always get one of three responses.

Some people tell us they are looking for “a competitive salary”. We hate this answer. Sometimes they think $50,000 is competitive; other times, $240,000. This answer is technically a win for the applicant (since it puts the ball back in our court), but it’s aggravating, so it doesn’t reflect very well on them.

Some people give us a specific figure. This is always a mistake, because we will never pay a dime more than the number they quote (and often we’ll pay them less).

Finally, some people tell us what they are making now, or at their last job. This answer is the best. It helps us, as employers, make sure we’re in the same ballpark - that we’re not wasting our time interviewing someone whose salary requirements are vastly higher than we can offer. On the other hand, there is an unspoken assumption that people rarely switch jobs for less or equal pay, so we usually offer something higher than the number they quote (this is obviously a big judgement call on our part). And it often brings up a more candid conversation about mitigating factors then we would otherwise have - we get many more answers like, “Well, I was making thirty-thousand a year before, but I was an intern / a part-time worker / a foreigner getting taken advantage of, and I could really use the fifty thousand you are offering!” Which is the kind of honest conversation we’re really looking for.

It gets everyone past the question, but it doesn’t limit anyone’s options.

Don’t be weird.

Perhaps the issue on which my father was most expansive were the terrible interviewees. The man who unselfconsciously rocked onto one cheek and farted noisily. The man who, upon learning about the pre-employment drug screening, put his head down, sighed, swore, stood, and walked out without a word. The people who never made eye contact. The people who wouldn’t break eye contact. ”We are looking for someone who is engaged and has good people skills,” he says. ”Be yourself. Try to show the interviewer that you are easygoing and that you’ll be a happy, hardworking employee.

“Hiring is, at best, a fifty-fifty proposition.”

Every hiring manager is acutely aware that a high percentage of their choices will, for whatever reason, flame out. And that’s expensive, time-consuming, and embarrassing. So once you get your foot in the door, you should do everything you can to convince the interviewer that you’re a safe bet. Thinking about moving? Don’t mention it. Think their salary offer is too low? Don’t argue; ask about what you can work toward. And after the interview, send a quick thank-you email to each person you interviewed with - it probably won’t work to play on their sympathies, but it might.

So there you have it! Any further questions that you have can be sent to me using the “Ask Me” link at the top of the page.

  1. I asked my father what file format he preferred for resumes and cover letters to be submitted in. “If I were sending it, I would use PDF,” he said. “However, as an employer I like to examine Word documents because you can quickly tell if they are a sophisticated user. Did they hit return twice for a space between paragraphs? Do they hold down the space bar instead of hitting tab? You can tell a lot about a person by examining their Word documents closely.” This worries me.

Theft, TSA and Blind Faith

On Saturday, January 5, 2013, our family checked in at the airport for our United Airlines flight 194 to Maui. We dutifully weighed our bags to make sure they weren't too heavy and passed them over to the airline, never wondering about the safety of the contents. Later that evening, Pamela was unpacking her suitcase in our hotel room when she discovered that her MacBook Air was missing. The power cord was there, but no computer. There was a nice little tag notifying us that our luggage had been searched by TSA Agent #5414 in San Francisco. Well, according to Pamela, Agent #5414 had stolen her MacBook Air, but had left the power cable behind in the suitcase.

Secretly, the kids and I were pretty convinced that we were going to find the MacBook waiting for us on our bed at home where the suitcase was packed. But Pamela was firm so I went online to find out how to report a theft by TSA. There is a nice helpful phone number, but a call to that number just asks you to leave a message. She dutifully left a detailed message including all of the information about flight, Agent #5414 and what was stolen. Online, there was a form that you have to fill out to file a claim with TSA. After reading it over, we realized that it wasn't simple and certainly not something we could do while on vacation since you need original receipts and other "documentation". We abandoned this particular task and decided to handle all of this when we got home.

Before we dropped the subject entirely, I remembered that when I set the computer up, I linked its "Find My Mac" to my Apple ID. So, using my iPhone, I tried to locate the machine which, of course, was "off line." Not to be deterred, I went ahead and asked apple to notify me if the machine was located and to send it a "lock" code if it does. I stopped short of sending the computer a "Wipe" command because, after all, it probably never *really* made it into the suitcase.

It is a bit jarring when you realize that something has been stolen from you. There were a few thoughts that ran through my mind. The first was disbelief; surely the machine is just sitting at home waiting for us to return. The second was amazement that there are people in the world who steal. Not just anyone but a TSA agent who, theoretically, is being monitored by video surveillance and has to actually walk out of their place of work with something out of a traveller's suitcase. On top of that, this agent had to put a little slip in the suitcase telling us that Agent #5414 did the deed.

On closer inspection, the tag that notified us of the inspection had the agent number written in by hand. I know that thieves aren't smart, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to maybe just write in some other random number on the tags that you place in suitcases you steal from. If this truly is their system than maybe I need to rethink my ideas that TSA has any anti-theft processes in place. Maybe there is NO video surveillance and maybe there is no check when they leave work to make sure they aren't carrying valuables home.

We kept the tag, our boarding passes and went on about our vacation. When we returned home a week later the first place I went was upstairs to check on the bed. Neatly made, and empty.  Now we knew for sure; TSA stolen Pamela's MacBook.


The Infamous TSA Inspection Slip

The Infamous TSA Inspection Slip

And, we weren't alone. If you want some interesting reading, do a quick google search. In fact, so many people do this search, that here is what google shows you when you type "tsa th"...



If you've been reading my blog, you will know that at the end of January, I went to the Giants Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ. One evening I was diligently writing a blog post when two emails came in. The first told me that Pamela's MacBook Air had been found. The second told me that it had been successfully "locked". The first message had a neat little Map showing a house in a dense neighborhood in Milpitas with a blue dot indicating the MacBook's location. Now we really know that it was stolen and that it was still within a day's walk of San Francisco Airport. And we know where the thief lives, or do we?

Apple laptops and desktop machines don't have GPS chips. How they figure out where they are in the world is a bit of a mystery. Apple tells you that it uses known WiFi access points and other information to approximate the location of the machine. Lest you think that this can't be very accurate, you are wrong. It is eerie and if you want to read about it, check out Skyhook's How it Works page.

It is amazing how little law enforcement agencies care about petty theft. At work we have had numerous occasions to try to get police involved in situations only to be thwarted at every turn. First, there is the jurisdictional problem. The theft occurred at San Francisco Airport. The loss wasn't discovered until we were in Hawaii. And, the party that "suffered the loss" (us) is located in a town 90 miles north. Finally, the machine is in yet another city. Trust me, whoever you call will tell you that you need to call someone else.

We experienced this at work when somebody took one of our checks and used them to make their personal checks with our account and routing numbers on it.  So, basically, they would write a check, but when it got to the bank and the machine read those funny little numbers on the bottom of the check, it would take money out of our corporate bank account.    Simple, effective and almost impossible to stop (don't try this at home.)

The first one of these that came through was for an online porn site.    In hindsight, I think that the thieves were just testing the account number before actually forging their new checks.  Nothing we could do about that but cancel our new subscription.  Then came a charge at an Emeryville Walmart.  We found it as soon as the check cleared, and a call to the bank quickly reversed the charge. 

This happened a few times so we decided to call the police.  From the checks that had cleared, we had an address in Emeryville, so we called the Emeryville Police Department.  They told us to call our local police department because the loss was suffered in their jurisdiction.  So, I sat with an officer and went over all the fraudulent charges.  Then he asked if we were out any money.  Of course the bank reversed all the charges so we were fine.  That means the party who suffered the "loss" wasn't in their jurisdiction either.    He told me we had to report it to the individual stores were the checks were passed.  They were spread around in different cities and we gave up. 

This is a complete failure of our law enforcement system.  Petty crime to be sure, but still crime.

This time instead of calling the police, our intrepid IT Manager, Scott,  got the call.  I had kept him in the loop about all of this and he was convinced that we could get the machine back. I only had one condition.  Whatever we did has to be anonymous. I didn't want to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the house saying "You are a thief!" So, he devised this convoluted solution that involved using the local UPS store, a helpful staff, and a lot of luck.

One morning, I went with him to the UPS store with a box. Inside the box was packing material, including strapping tape to reseal the box, and a note. The note basically said "You have our laptop. Put it back in the box and return it to a UPS store and we won't call the police." He also created a throwaway gmail address so the thief could contact him anonymously.

I humored him through this process. First, I didn't believe for a minute that the MacBook Air's location was good enough to pin point an exact street address in a neighborhood. Second, I didn't think that any self-respecting thief would actually follow our instructions. I was wrong on both counts. Kinda.

We anxiously tracked the package's arrival the next day. A few hours later, Scott received the following email:

  To whom it may concern:

I bought a Macbook air on craigslist. When I met the guy he told me he had suddenly lost the charger and so he'd drop the price from $750 to $650. He told me there wasn't a password, so after inspecting it including turning it on, etc. It looks like a 2012 model and according to the seller he bought it only couple of months old. It looked legit at the time. By looking at the mac book it looks pretty new. I gave him the cash and went home. When I got home I tried to create a new account, suddenly it was a password in the system preference it was locked.  I tried contacting the seller and he hasn't responded. I tried calling him back but the number is disconnected. I had no idea it was a stolen until I received your letter. So I am returning laptop. Hopefully you will be able to return it to the owner.

The next day we picked the MacBook Air up from the local UPS Store. It was in perfect shape and, after unlocking it, had all of our data still intact.

We sent the guy who was out $650 a $50 gift card for his trouble. In this whole cycle, he was the only loser. We got back our machine. The TSA agent is probably still stealing at San Francisco Airport with an extra $650 bucks in his pocket.

It's nice to have the computer back.  I will never trust TSA again.

Update: 8/5/2013 As many people have pointed out, maybe it wasn't TSA after all.     Here is an article about the arrest of a United employee.    So sorry, TSA!


Man, Am I Busy!

Here am I am sitting in my office on a wonderful Saturday in February. Pamela is off at a CPR/First Aid class at the Healdsburg Fire Department. She got up early to go, but turns out that the class didn't start until 9 so when she arrived at 8, there was nobody home. So she called me a I hauled myself out of bed for a quick shower and grabbed her purse (which she had forgotten) and met her at Starbucks at 8:37. Enough time for a quick coffee and sitdown. Then she was off to her class. Nelson is at Youth Orchestra until 1:00pm, so I figured it was a good time to go to the office and try to get the year end GL ready for the accountants. It isn't exactly late, but I like to have it to them early February and today is the 11th. So, my goal is to get them stuff on Monday so that our taxes will be done on time.

As I was sitting here accruing 2011 commissions and bonuses that were paid in 2012 back into 2011, I was thinking about all the things going on at the moment. It isn't always like this, but right now, I'm doing a crazy number of things.

So, I thought I would take a quick break a list some of them.

First, we have been in massive and sustained development of our iPad App, Io for almost 2 years. And we have a meeting with the Germans on Tuesday and Wed of the coming week. So, I have this large punch list of things that need to get finished.

I'm also getting all the books ready for the accountants. The end of the year has W-2, 1099's and a whole bunch of year entries that need to get made. So there is a bit of work on that front.

We are also right in the middle of construction for the new Hotel. Although it doesn't have a name, everyone is calling it the Hotel Deas. There are huge and tiny decisions that have to be made daily. I'm the one that appears to be in charge of all decisions, or at least focusing on getting people to make decisions. What kind of lighting? Bedding? What colors do we use? What about artwork on the walls? Should this wall really go here? You get the picture. Thousands of decisions each week, or so it seems. I think I'll write another blog post just on the hotel!

I am also playing in two bands. I really like the Healdsburg Community Band, but I love the Windsor Jazz Ensemble. I get to play lead. I think I'll write another blog post on my trumpet!

Then, I decided to take jazz improv lessons from Gary Johnson once a week. So, each Wed, I go home and sped an hour feeling like a fool. But it is interesting and I am learning (I think).

On top of all this, Kevin and I decided to restring a piano. This is definitely a labor of love. I'm really enjoying it and learning a lot. The piano was pretty sad when we got it, but it is looking wonderful. I need to write about this process too!

See what I mean, life is crazy! Seriously, it is one of the things that I am proud of about myself. I get a lot of stuff done on a regular basis. I can honestly say that very little grass grows under my feet!

The Glamour of Travel

I used to travel a lot. The best part of that sentence is the "used to" part. It gets old pretty quickly, especially when there are kids at home. We used to have jobs all around the country and I would often spend weeks at a time trying to get all the bugs out of some system. Some of the places were glamorous like Hawaii and others were Podunk towns in the middle of nowhere with a single Motel 6. On some level it didn't matter much. Wherever we were we worked ungodly hours often getting to in at 8 or 9 and working late into the evening. So, the biggest difference between Van Wert, OH and Denver was the food. Seriously, all we did was work, eat and sleep. Most of the work sites were the same, and it's hard to care much about your hotel room while you are asleep, so food was the make or break differentiator. The local Bob's Big Boy for breakfast, lunch and dinner was hard to take.

There were some exceptions. I once of found myself in Tampa attending a Dry Cleaning Convention (don't ask). I realized that Orlando and Disney World was just a short drive and I had a free day, so I went to Disney World - by myself. You might think this was strange, but I had a blast. It was empty, so I could go on rides multiple times, sit down and relax for awhile it was fun. Standing in lines was a little weird, but I soon found that if I talked a bit to someone else in line, I didn't look do alone.

Working in Hawaii wasn't as much fun, but did have its moments. The first time I went, I stayed at the airport Holiday Inn. The people at the refinery were appalled. They asked if we were charging them for expenses. When I confirmed that they were, they told me to move immediately to the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which is where I stayed from then on. Even the one time that Scott and I had to spend a few weeks leading up to Christmas when everything was booked except the most expensive rooms. We had bathrobes that trip.

There were other nice things. Since we had to wear blue nomex fire suits in the plant, we didn't need anything but T-shirts and shorts. Easy packing and the Smurf Suits weren't too bad to work in. Also, Hawaiians don't work the crazy hours that we usually did on jobs. Each day at 4:30 we stopped. That's it, no negotiation. That left a lot of evenings to hang out on the beach or wander the streets of Honolulu. Got old pretty quickly, but it beat the heck out of Pocatello, ID.

The laid back approach to all things in Hawaii did lead to some conflicts in culture. There was one time in late January 1990 when I was on a mission to get the job done and get home. I kept pushing Lorrin (finally remembered his name!) to leave me behind when he went to lunch, and to stay late. He resisted this, so I told him that I had a deadline and really had to finish the job. Lorrin says, "What, are you having a baby?". To which I answered, "Well, not me, but my wife is!". They stayed late, worked long (well, longer) hours and I was home three weeks before Kevin was born.

The strangest thing about working in Hawaii was this correlation with major medical events in our family. After Kevin's birth, my next trip was scheduled for April. I flew out although Pamela was a little under the weather. I landed in Hawaii about noon and was met at the concourse by Lorrin who told me that Pamela has had emergency gallbladder surgery. I never left the airport, instead, I caught the next flight home. Must be close to the worlds record for the shortest stay in the vacation paradise.

But, the job was still waiting for me. And, in their incredibly laid back Hawaii way, the folks at the refinery kept asking when I would be able to travel. Everything seemed to be settling back to normal at home - well as normal as it can be with two small kids and a mom who is recovering from the last non-laparoscopic gall bladder surgery performed in the United States. I scheduled a flight out late on a Sunday and also Mothers's Day. I figured if I get there the evening before, I'll get an entire Monday of work and that would get me home sooner.

But it was Mother's day and Kyle had a stomachache and then threw up all the junk that he had eaten at brunch. We were worried about him, so we took him to the doctor who agreed that it was nothing to be worried about. We were relieved but, I had already missed my flight. There was another flight that we could just make. So we loaded the kids in the car and off to the airport.

When we arrived, I jumped out of the drivers seat, grabbed my bag and started sprinting to the ticket counter. Pam pretty quickly realized that I have the car keys in my pocket and that I am about to leave her stranded in the white zone forever. I heard calling my name and turned around to see her making the universal car key sign (I guess that is like turning on the air-ignition). So, I grabbed the keys out of my pocket and threw them to her. Luckily this worked, but it could have been a disaster on so many levels.

Anyway, it turned out that I missed that flight anyway, do I spent the night in the city and flew out early Monday morning. I think that this single event led me to developer a "never run for a flight" philosophy that I still adhere to to this day. I don't run for a flight. If I miss it, I was meant to miss it. It I make it, I was meant to make it. Period end of story. Unless, of course, I was headed home. Then wild horses couldn't keep me away for 1 minute longer.

But, I digress. Back to Hawaii and that Monday morning when I arrived in Honolulu. Since it is only midday, I went straight to the refinery where I was handed one of those huge Motorola cell phones from 1990 and told that I had to call my wife. Turns out that Kyle did have appendicitis and has already had surgery. All while I was over the Pacific. He's in his room in a hospital gown for children that Pamela thinks shouldn't exist in the world.

At the hospital the next day, Dr. Mucci chastised Pamela for carrying Kyle so soon after her surgery, so she said, "Well, YOU carry him, then." So, he did. It was during that part, when he was burning up with fever that he kept asking for water, if he was good.

When I got off the phone Lorrin said, "so your son had his appendix removed and he's fine, now, do you can stay, yea?" The other Chevron folks are slowly packing up the tools But, Pamela has told me to get the damn job done, so I stay 3 days and come home to a recovering Kyle and Pamela and a very young Kevin.

About the only good thing about traveling a great deal is the perks that come with being a 100k flyer. For 3 or 4 years most of my flying was in first class. Nowadays when I try to upgrade, my name appears on the list at the bottom. You know, an aircraft with 8 first class seats, and I'm number 25. That bottom. But not back in the early days. I was even seated in economy once and they came and got me because of a no show and moved me. I enjoyed that.

Once, on my way back from Hawaii, I asked how much a first class ticket cost. I got one of those, if you have to ask, you can't buy one looks. Turns out that my little $800 ticket was more like $4,000 for first class. It made me appreciate the free upgrades!

One time that I wasn't upgraded was on a redeye flight leaving SFO and headed to JFK. I ended up sitting in the very last row that didn't even recline on a full flight. It left San Francisco bout 9:00pm do I had been able to spend the whole day with the family. By this time we had two kids and were building our house.

I wasn't happy about being on the flight and put out my best "don't talk to me" vibe. The woman sitting beside me was a writer for Vogue Magazine and she started up a conversation anyway. The flight was dark and quiet and we spoke in quiet tones for most of the flight. I told her about the frustration of not being home and the toll that travel was taking on everyone. She told me about her unsettled life shuffling between offices. She had a boyfriend in San Francisco and one in New York. Neither knew about the other.

At some point, she decided to sum up our situations:

Wait a minute. You are bummed and frustrated by your place in life, but look where you are. You are happily married to a woman who is obviously wonderful. You have two kids who sound awesome. You are building your own house and doing a lot of the work yourself, AND you have your own business with employees and everything! All of that and you are only 30! I, on the other hand, am 35 and can't even figure out which boyfriend I want to be with. Get a clue, you are living a charmed life!

I don't remember if it was get a clue, or buck up, but the meaning was clear. I think about that conversation when I get disheartened or overwhelmed. A random flight: a random person: and a perspective for life.

Speaking of random beautiful women, here is my favorite travel story. This one happens before the Vogue encounter, but it is another late night long travel day. I get off the big plane in Boise and head over to the regional terminal where all the puddle-jumpers depart. It's probably close to 9pm and I've been traveling for hours and still have one more flight to get to some tiny town that is about 90 miles from the Chevron pumping station that I have visit.

I'm hungry and not in a great mood when I walk up to the United Express ticket counter. The lighting is subdued at this time of night in this small terminal, not the glaring brightness or the main terminal. Behind the desk are two beautiful women; one in uniform and one out of uniform, but dressed to kill for a night on the town.

There is nobody else around as I checked into my flight. Just little chit chat going back and forth, when the women out of uniform leaned over the counter and said in a sultry, low voice, "If you miss this flight, I will buy you dinner.". I was stunned. This sort of thing never happens to guys like me. Yes, I am married and have kids at home but, seriously, this has never happened to me.

As these thoughts are going through my mind and I'm working my way back to the "Wow, thank you, but I'm married" response, I can see her expression change as she realizes how I have interpreted the situation. She stammers and says "ah, I'm sorry, ah. I would buy you dinner, but I wouldn't be with you, I just want your seat on the plane to go visit my boyfriend."

Sigh, these things just never happen to guys like me! Someone else must have taken her up I her offer though because she sat next to me on the flight. Her boyfriend sounded like a great guy and, yes, she only had one.