Saturday, November 20, 2010

Your Permanent Record

She looked hopefully across the desk as he casually flipped through the paper work forwarded him from the HR department. Occasionally, his eyebrows would rise and then fall as he craned his neck towards a particularly interesting item, a "hhmmm..." emanating from his throat or a slight whistle passing through his lips. Sympathetically, she'd lean forward with him, hoping that by mimicking his gestures, she'd somehow glean insight into what he was thinking, but she couldn't tell whether he was pleased or nonplussed.

Finally, he sat upright and tossed the papers to his left. Leaning forward on his elbows, he threaded his fingers, tilted his head to the right and looked her in the eye.

"Ms. Noordermeer, I must tell you that no one has ever scored as well as you did on our entrance exams! Not only did you show proficiency in your areas of expertise, but also in your communications and leadership skills."

She beamed, finding it impossible to conceal her excitement at the potential that was unfolding before her.

"You're more than qualified for the job for which you've applied. In fact, you're qualified for some senior level positions that have just opened. You're the best candidate we've ever seen!"

She couldn't believe it! The world was her oyster (whatever that means).

"There's just one problem", the needle skidded across the record.

"There are several issues we found here on your permanent record going back to that indelible-marker incident in second grade and the cigarettes confiscated from your locker second semester, freshman year of high school."

She sat back in her chair, the air escaping her lungs like a punctured life raft just three miles from shore.

"I'm sorry to say that, given these incidents, we won't be requiring your services. Permanent records don't lie!"

Over the years, I've spent lots of time in the world of resume builders: titles and positions, awards and accolades, degrees and publications, patents and inventions. In essence a resume is a self-reported permanent record. It's all the good stuff without those incidents, activities and accomplishments that you'd sooner forget.

I like looking at resumes of job applicants. In addition to providing critical insight into an applicant's ability to construct a resume and serving as a great starting place for questions, I find the phrasing and verbal constructions fascinating. It's as though the goal were to stretch the truth to a diameter so thin that it was one molecule away from breaking. I've met patent holders whose names were added simply because they were the one's who'd written up the patent or they added a tweak at the very end of the process. I've known PhD's who had not a clue about the application of their areas of expertise.

Over the years, I've developed my favorite questions for job applicants, my goal being to unearth their actual permanent records: not the ones maintained in the high school principal's office or the self-reported fictions submitted to the HR department, but instead, the ones etched into their being. Jonathan and I often compare notes on job interview techniques and questions. So, just in case you're planning on interviewing with Jonathan or me for a job, or perhaps if you're looking to mix it up a bit when hiring someone, here are some of them.

What Did You Do?
Few of us have the opportunity to work on projects as a sole contributor; we're almost always part of a team. However, resumes often list projects on which an applicant has worked without getting into the specifics of what she did on a day to day basis.

Sharon, I see here that you worked on a project to control the weather over Houston?

Yes I did. I'm quite proud the work we did.

How many people worked on the project?

Oh, well, umm, it was like, about a hundred or so.

And what was your role on the project?

I was project manager.

Great! We really could use some help with project management. Were you a project manager or the project manager?

Umm. Well, I was a project manager, but I had a lot of responsibilities.

How many project managers were there?

Hmmm... I think about thirty-five. There was a lot of project managing.

I see. So what exactly were your responsibilities?

I was team meeting coordinator.

Oh yes, I see that here as the title listed on your resume. What were your responsibilities as team meeting coordinator?

Well, I managed all the logistics regarding team meetings.

Mmm Hmm... for example?

I would ensure that all the appropriate participants were present at the appropriate time and appropriate place and that all the implements being utilized during the meeting were functional and in place.
It can take a bit of time to navigate from someone personally taking on global warming to ensuring that there were enough donuts for early morning meetings. My permanent record scoring is not based on the quality or type of work performed, but instead, on the disparity between what was is written and what was done, and how the number of questions required to reconcile the two.

Speed Bump Test
I used to ask to be scheduled to take job applicants to lunch. We'd walk out to the parking lot and I'd toss them the keys to my truck saying, "Why don't you drive?"

The parking lots at Bell Labs were huge with long driveways connecting them to the surrounding local roads. Being quite large, they were infested with strategically placed speed bumps. My truck had a suspension made for off-road use and I didn't pay particular attention to the speed bumps. I always liked to see how job applicants responded to the speed bumps as we left the parking lot; the range of reactions is quite amazing and they can tell you a lot about how people respond to challenges they might encounter at work.

For example, there are the crawlers. Once they see a speed bump, they slow to a crawl, not only for the speed bump, but throughout the parking lot. There are the brakers, who brake quickly, inch over the speed bump and then speed on. There are the oblivious who drive along chatting not noticing that there even are speed bumps (before, during or after). And finally, there are the air-timers who seem to view speed-bumps like home-made ramps for skateboards and BMX bikes.

A few years back, Jonathan added the caveat that I should explain my truck's suspension to any would-be air-timer lest he limit himself out of concern for my vehicle. Even then, it's amazing how differently people respond.

Where Was I?
The other day Jonathan called me with what he considered to be the perfect interview question. I have to admit, it's pretty amazing. Basically, as the interviewer, you ramble through gory financial detail regarding esoteric aspects of the business that would bore even the most passionate actuarial. After about ten minutes of diatribe, you stand up and look out the window for a moment apparently distracted. Returning to your seat, you turn to the applicant and ask, "OK, where was I now?"

Friggin' amazing question.

How'd We Get Here?
Assuming that the applicant successfully responds to Where was I? I came up with a variation on Jonathan's technique that I developed listening to Mark Kaufman, king of stream-of-consciousness non-sequitur. Rather than delving deeply into a single boring topic, you spend a few minutes on one topic and then abruptly move to another that is only related to the previous by the thinnest of threads. After several pivots from point to point, you stop abruptly and ask, "Wait, how did we get to fishing in Alaska?"

I have a white Styrofoam cube that I paint red. Now, I cut the cube into a bunch of smaller cubes of equal size by making two cuts in each dimension: downward with my saw moving from front to back, downward with my saw moving from side to side, and across with my saw moving from front to back. The result is that I have a bunch of cubes that have red sides and white sides.

The question is, how many cubes have so many red sides and so many whites side? For example, how many cubes have three red sides and three white sides?

The funny thing is that little kids often do much better with this question than their adult counterparts.

How'd I Get Here?
Talk about rambling on, how'd I get here. What's on your permanent record? How do you determine what's on the permanent record of others?

Happy Saturday!

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