Friday, December 23, 2005

Project manager interview

This one's a project management job with a non-profit serving libraries. Two person interview panel.
  • What attracted you to the job and the organization?
  • What was the most challenging project you've worked on?
  • Give us an idea of the range of projects you've worked on.
  • Are you involved in any online communities?
  • Give an example of a time you worked on multiple projects simultaneously and discuss how you prioritized competing demands.
  • Describe a project you worked on that went wrong.
  • How do you feel about doing the more mundane side of project management (the grunt work that just has to get done)?
  • What kind of tasks do you enjoy most?
  • What kind of supervisor do you work well with?
  • Talk about your Spanish skills.
  • If you had to describe yourself using just three words, what would they be?
  • What one thing do you want us to remember about you?

I'll admit, it was hard to be in interview mode on December 22. On the upside, I was too exhausted to feel nervous.

This one was interesting because it's a different sort of job than I'd been picturing for myself. Actually, the more I think about it, the more it seems like it might be a good fit. Still, it can be tricky to switch gears. You can describe your duties and responsibilities at one job in half a dozen different ways. It all depends on what you choose to emphasize, and what works for one interview won't necessarily work for the next.

There's a lot you can tell about a job from how they conduct the interview. Sometimes the questions are vague and you get a sense that they're not really sure what they're looking for. Other times you can tell that they're looking for something in particular, that there are right and wrong ways to answer each question, and how well you do will depend on your ability to match their expectations. This time, I felt like the questions were pretty open, and the interview wasn't just about my answers, but about judging how I create structure when presented with general guidelines rather than precise instructions. I imagine that is representative of what the work environment would be like.

Personally, I don't like the "pick three words to describe yourself" kind of question. It's a little generic, and I'm more impressed when the questions are tailored to the specifics of the job. As an interviewee, I like it when I can tell why a question is being asked and what it will tell the interview panel about my qualifications as related to the job description.

I still think one of the biggest challenges in an interview is to give specific examples. It's to easy to generalize, and every answer can be improved when you pair it with an example that illustrates what you mean.

And, this was the first time that I talked about this blog during an interview (hello to my interviewers if you're reading this).

Friday, December 16, 2005

20 minute phone interview

This was one of those screening interviews, 20 minutes on the phone, and they'll invite the people they like down for lengthier interviews.

Just one person on the other end, and he dove right in.
  • Where did you hear about the job and what interested you in the position?
  • What skills do you have, as related to the job description, that make you a good candidate? (This isn't just me being vague, he really didn't mention any specifics and left it up to me to identify things from the job description.)
  • Can you give a specific example of one of the skills you just mentioned?
  • Can you describe how you approach working in teams?
  • Give a specific example of a team project you worked on.
  • He also asked how I deal with ambiguity and change. (I loved that.)

That's it.

The entire call lasted 25 minutes, and the last five or ten were devoted to the "do you have any questions about the position" part.

The toughest thing about the quickie interview is there aren't any warm-up questions. I'm always a little twitchy for the first question. It takes a moment to hit my stride and relax into the rhythm of the interview. I think the appropriate thing to do would have been to take a moment, sip my tea, and then resume talking.

It was also interesting because the person doing the interviewing isn't directly involved with the position I was interviewing for. So it wasn't just about the skills and the qualifications, but about how I would fit into the culture of the place.

(Okay, it's always exciting to get a job interview, but part of me was excited for the new blog content. Is that wrong? I mean, I haven't done a 20 minute screening interview before.)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Cover letter formula

Having a formula may seem to fly in the face of all the advice you get to write an individually tailored letter, but I think having a formula actually makes it easier to customize.

Here's mine:

1st paragraph: Just one or two sentences. First sentence clearly indicates the position I'm applying for. You never know who is going to do the first sort through the resumes, and you want to make sure that whoever it is knows which pile to put your application in. HR also likes it if you mention where you saw the job posting, but as I usually see a job posted in a dozen different places, picking just one source can be tricky. Sometimes I'll put in a second sentence that says something about the mission of the institution, but be careful with this one. The cover letter is about you, not them, so limit yourself to one sentence, and make it short. Sometimes I pull a key phrase out of a planning document or a mission statement I've found on the web. This lets them know you've done some reading about their institution.

2nd paragraph: I dive right into my skills and qualifications. These are based directly on the job posting. Don't be afraid to use the exact language of the job posting, especially if it's a civil service or government job. Wherever I mention a skill, I provide an example of where I learned/developed/demonstrated it. As a result, I tend to group my skills by place of employment. Depending on the job and my qualifications, I might devote two paragraphs to my skills.

3rd paragraph: When appropriate, I sometimes include a paragraph with additional skills that aren't mentioned in the desired qualifications, but that might set me apart from other applicants. For example, I'll mention that I speak other languages or that I have experience with grant writing.

4th paragraph: This is where I mention my all-around skills that are useful in any job, again providing evidence of where I obtained each skill. I talk about my professional values and involvement in professional associations.

I tend to take up a whole page. I've written the 4th paragraph so that it can go almost as-is into any letter. That way, I don't start off by staring at a blank page and the whole process seems less daunting. I spend most of my time editing the 2nd paragraph. This is where you get to employ those weeding skills. You may have to delete some things that you're really proud of. But remember, if it's extraneous to the job you're applying for, it's just going to distract them from the stuff that you really want to emphasize.

Once you've got the basic framework, it's much easier to go back and expand on the parts that are especially relevant for a particular job, and the bits that don't belong become obvious.

The trick, of course, is in how you talk about your skills. My cover letter used to be a bit of a laundry list: I can do this and this and that. Then I revised it to apply for a management job, and it completely transformed. I now use wording from that version even when applying for non-managerial positions. The difference: my cover letter now focuses on accomplishments. I tend to mention special projects and activities where I directly contributed to a measurable improvement. (I even mention numbers and percentages.) The place to talk about the basic duties and responsibilities is the resume, not the cover letter.

So, here's a fun exercise. Try writing a cover letter for a job that's a real stretch. Find a job posting for a library director or department head, or anything that is one step beyond your comfort level. How would you sell your skills? What would you emphasize? Which parts of your most recent cover letter would the hiring committee not care about?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Statement of Professional Concerns (first draft)

I've been meaning to get around to this, but certain things get left undone at the end of the semester: dishes, laundry, submissions to the elections committee...

With school under control once again, I feel like I should get back to the business of running for ALA Council. Samantha's already beat me to it and blogged a draft of her statement. I shouldn't have read hers first, because she says a lot of the same things I want to say.

I've only got 150 words, and here are my talking points so far:

  • As one of the nearly 10,000 student members of ALA, I'd like to see strong student involvement throughout all levels of the association.

  • As a resident of the west coast, I will contribute to the geographic diversity of Council.

  • I've worked in variety of library settings: public, academic, special, and school.

  • I began my career as a paraprofessional and can approach the issues facing libraries from a variety of perspectives.

  • I'm passionate about libraries and strangely fascinated by discussions of policy, planning, and governance.

Hmm. How else to differentiate myself? What would you like to see in a candidate's statement? And what would persuade you to hand over your vote???