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Tips on Getting Hired – Part 5

I think the hardest part about the job search is interviewing and not being selected. You keep saying “why” with rarely a good answer. It’s not fun to be rejected. I don’t think I can change that with any spin, but it helps if you understand that there are a lot of factors at work and your technical skills are just one small part of them. To show this, let’s imagine that you have decided to hire a lawn service. We start with a job description:

“cut the grass!”

You’d think that anyone could do that, but in truth what you want is probably a little more complex than that. For me, I want:

  • Sidewalks and beds edged
  • Driveway and sidewalks blown clear
  • Don’t blow debris under the front door
  • Bag or stack debris that needs to go for garbage/recycling
  • Make sure any gates that were opened get closed
  • Tell me if there are things I need to look at – sprinkler not working, weeds in one area, tree that needs to be trimmed
  • Reliable – I don’t want to look out and see the grass a foot tall and have to track someone down

I’d like to think all of that is fairly reasonable! I also expect to pay somewhere in a range of x to y dollars. Above Y and I might give up something to keep the price where I wanted it.

Then I post the job to Craiglist or the local paper or bulletin board, and I get five applicants. I schedule interviews, and here are the results:

  • 1st candidate – large commercial company, lots of references, interviewed the sales guy, price is right at Y
  • 2nd candidate – teenager from down the block, neighbor as a reference, price is X
  • 3rd candidate – owner operated company, does the interview and is the guy that cuts the grass, can see all his equipment on the trailer behind his truck, price is Y
  • 4th candidate – another large commercial company, has references, price is Y + 10 but includes fertilizer/weed control
  • 5th candidate – independent guy trying to start a business, hasn’t purchased equipment yet, price is X -5

Now to be fair you might list different attributes about them, but the goal is to show you that the decision is pretty arbitrary. Who would you pick and why?

  • Was it just price?
  • Did you like the large companies knowing they have insurance and redundancy, can provide one stop shopping if needed
  • Or do you support the neighborhood kid, recalling fond days of pushing a lawn mower yourself?
  • Or do you go with the entrepreneur (along with low cost)?

If you think about how you arrived at the decision, you could go back and amend the job description. Here’s mine:

  • Sidewalks and beds edged
  • Driveway and sidewalks blown clear
  • Don’t blow debris under the front door
  • Bag or stack debris that needs to go for garbage/recycling
  • Make sure any gates that were opened get closed
  • Tell me if there are things I need to look at – sprinkler not working, weeds in one area, tree that needs to be trimmed
  • Reliable – I don’t want to look out and see the grass a foot tall and have to track someone down
  • Must have liability insurance
  • Price for services cannot exceed $Y
  • Prefer smaller company or individual owned

Now imagine that I had posted that to start with. If you were the commercial companies, would you still apply? What about the teenager who can’t get/afford insurance? I might get one interview, or I might get all five, but odds are that I get less than five. As a consumer I want some choice, do I really want to just have one interview?

That’s how it works. Job descriptions rarely include everything, and sometimes they discover more as they go from the very people they interview. All you can do is show them that you have the ability and willingness to solve their problem, and how your skills would help them. Looking back at the above, what if:

  • 3rd candidate said that he tries to offset his carbon footprint by setting up a compost bin (which he manages) for each client
  • 2nd candidate states in his opening email that he does not have insurance (being a teenager) but has a contract that releases you from any liability and that it was written by a local attorney

Would those change your mind? For some of us they would, for others it wouldn’t. See how damned arbitrary it is? None of the 5 candidates lacked the core skill, and maybe they even interviewed equally well. One or two things tipped the balance, and it might have been something you would never see or guess. Now stack on how my might feel if you got follow up emails from some – but not all. Maybe one person offered a slightly different price, or a free pressure wash – would that alter your decision? Maybe?

None of them is going to win by telling you how great they cut the grass, or how long they’ve been cutting it – for our purposes they are all equal. We need to validate skills, but we assume that whoever we hire has the skills – it’s the other stuff that matters!

I’ll be curious what you think about my scenario. I can see places where I might improve it, and it might make a heck of a good training video! But hopefully what you see is that it’s skills + presentation + follow through + luck that lead to a job. You do the things you can do.


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by Steve Jones on 23 June 2009

Interesting analogy. I think it applies in that the company learns a bit about it's position as people apply.

However it seems that most companies use HR and ask for way more than they'd accept as far as skills/experience. It's like a catch all for many job descriptions that I've applied for.

Posted by Dan Guzman on 24 June 2009

For those of us that don't interview at Humongous Enterprise R Us, this is spot on.  Thanks Andy.

Posted by honey_tnr on 24 June 2009

nicely presented article, good work Andy

Posted by Timothy Packard on 1 July 2009

Great Article...

 In fact it is timely.. I am presently interviewing and constantly finishing 2nd at the moment.  It is very frustrating as you start asking questions why??  

 I think it is important to stress to keep busy doing something to occupy your time while waiting for that next job.. and work hard to keep yourself positive.

 Thanks for writing a series article offering good advice

Posted by Jon Monahan on 2 July 2009

Great spin on how to look at this Andy. It could end up being the personality as well - whether that first impression leads you to believe you can trust them or not...

Posted by -- Cranfield on 2 July 2009

I'm often an an interviewing panel and it amazes me how many times I think a candidate is perfect for the role yet my colleague thinks the opposite and vice versa. Often while the candidate has his back turned to us while writing up his strengths and weaknesses on the whiteboard (yes, we ask the candidates to do this to give us an idea of their confidence and presentation skills) I'll give my colleague the big thumbs up and he'll respond with a luke warm gesture and vice versa.

The point I'm making is that it often depends on the interviewer so don't beat yourself up over it. Obviously, if  you're being rejected regularly then you may need to change your interview style.

Posted by talltop on 2 July 2009

Most DBA jobs I have found in the REAL world are 80% personality and 20% skill level. That is just the way it is folks.. It's very political in most cases. If you don't believe this just try interviewing with Citrix...They will tell you right up front it is not about your tevhnical skill level, it is about getting along with everyone! and I do mean everyone... Skill level is secondary... but that has a down side because as a result they have very high turnover because most of their people can't cut the technical grade...there is lot more to being a DBA than being friendly to everyone. It's a big expensive lesson for a lot of companies out there today... :)

Posted by john.campbell on 2 July 2009

Having done a lot of contracting for the last several years, I try to gear up for and study for the next sql server test that would be nice to have on the resume.  Microsoft seems to have an endless supply of them :)

Posted by berobertson on 2 July 2009

I have interviewed for DBA and Lawn positions and the Lawn positiion is easier. Personality is important but my biggest obsticle is my age - it took me a long time to learn how to do all this stuff but that don't count for nothing. Most employers I have interviewed with want the youngster even if he/she only stays for 6 months.

I have found that skills and experience are not always of any use and it is the first impressions that counts. At one company in New Zealand I was the first candidate to get 100% on both the Maths and SQL test run by the company but that scared the manager and I didn't get the position.

I have now come to believe that, as Steve hints, companies want as much more than they claim and only they know it. A lot of companies even lie about what the positions involve - contracts and fulltime jobs.  As for keeping postive Timothy it does get hard after 375 job applications in 9 months but I suspect that there are less positions in New Zealand and a bigger pool of DBAs per position here.

Posted by smurphy on 2 July 2009

I got to agree that it is your personality that gets you hired and your skills that help keep the job.  We have been interviewing for programmers to finish a job where the originals programmers had to leave suddenly.  The resumes are coming from placement firms and contract companies who sometimes enhance them to meet the job request.  So really it is in the interview that you can fully TRY to judge the person, but you can only judge skills in performance so it is the personality that you end up judging and hiring on.

I think someone has said before that they want a team player more than they want a hired gun/solo artist.  If you have time you can teach anyone to program or be a DBA but you can't teach everyone to work in your team!

Posted by Pooja on 3 July 2009

hey, that's a really nice article.

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