Monday, September 1, 2014

Questions to Ask During an Interview

IT IS THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN! Most students are still readjusting to living on campus, but job fairs are starting all over the country and interviews will be soon to follow.

One of the (many) things I used to dread before interviews was what questions to ask my interviewer. I knew that coming in with nothing to ask made you look unprepared, but I never knew what I really needed to know about a potential job (other than a couple questions intended to prove I'd done my research). These questions are an amazing opportunity for you to collect information about different potential careers. Remember, job interviews are a two way street- you need to figure out that you want the job just as much as they need to figure out that they want you.

To help others through the interview question debacle, I've compiled a list of questions which target things that have surprised either me or my friends upon arriving at a new engineering job. A lot of this information may be included in the job description, so make sure to read it carefully and not for information which has already been provided to you. Note that this is most relevant for personal interviews, not technical interviews. If you have the opportunity to ask questions at the end of a technical interview it wouldn't be totally out of line, just know your audience.

BONUS TIP: For those of you who identify closer to the socially awkward end of the spectrum (you know who you are), make sure to consider your tone as you ask these questions. You want to sound conversational and not like you are grilling the interviewer in a murder investigation. If you aren't sure how you are being perceived, practice asking your questions to a friend or family member before the actual interview.

What is the position? 

I can't even begin to tell you how many job postings I've seen that say something along the lines of "Engineer needed to work with cross functional team to develop quality products and solve problems." Note that this could be a description for literally any engineering job on the face of the planet. All it really tells you is that somebody who knows nothing about engineering wrote this (probably somebody in HR who was just told "we need more engineers!"). So in your interview, ask some follow up questions like: What niche are you looking to fill in your organization that has motivated you to hire for this position? What other departments or people would I be working with? What product or type of product will I be working on? If you have technical people on your interview board, you can also ask: What type of engineer are you looking to hire? People with technical backgrounds close to yours will be likely to give you a technical answer to this particular question, while business people will be more likely to give you a general "somebody who can engineer" type of answer that won't really help you.

Use the answers to relate your skills to the job for which they are hiring before asking the next question on your list. Creating a dialogue will make the interview feel more natural for you and your interviewer, and will allow you the chance to sell yourself after the initial round of questions.

In addition to helping you get the job, these questions will help prevent the bate and switch. By this I mean some job titles say "engineer" but you don't get to actually engineer anything. Knowing what work will be required in the position will help you decide between potential offers down the line.

What engineering tools do you use for the job I would be doing? 

Many job descriptions do not list what software programs, lab equipment, etc. you will be expected to use. For these positions, finding out what engineering tools are used for the job you are expected to do gives you insight to how much they are willing to invest in helping their engineers perform their jobs. It also clarifies what the job will actually entail, and gives you talking points to align your skills to the work that they need completed. For example, if one job requires you do all of your sketches in Paint and another requires CAD, this may factor into your decision of where you would best fit.

I wish this wasn't an "engineering tool" I've seen people use.
Tailor this question to the types of tools you would expect to see at the job (especially ones you are trained to use!) since "engineering tools" is a pretty broad category. It will both give you a more meaningful answer, and let you highlight your skills (if they haven't already come up earlier in the interview).

Is there a training program? What does it entail?

If you are going to do technical work at a full time job, there should be a legitimate training program. Some internships include training or a mentoring program, although they are rarely as thorough since companies cannot afford to invest in short term employees as much. No matter how thorough your education is, there is plenty to learn in the specific area in which you will be working. When the training program is more of a "trial by fire" program, consider seriously how much of an issue it would be if you messed up and didn't have a mentor to correct you. If you are working on the landing gear for an airplane, this may be a bigger problem than if you are working on televisions. On the other hand some companies have such rigorous programs that employees are fired regularly before they "graduate", which can be an extremely stressful experience.

How would you describe the company culture?

It's an open ended question that I love to ask during interviews because I find that the unspoken reaction of the interviewer is often more important than the actual response. If they seem to be struggling to say something positive, that's indicative of a real problem.

How long has the position been open? Why is the position open?

These types of questions can help you assess if they are having difficulty filling the position or retaining employees. While these facts don't mean that a workplace is bad, you should take into consideration that there may be a reason everyone is leaving. Be careful when asking this, it can easily sound more aggressive than intended.

What is the career trajectory for this position? Where would you see me in 3 to 5 years? What are the advancement opportunities like?

If you imagine yourself quickly rising through the ranks at a new job, it's important to be sure that this is even an option. Some companies don't promote internally, others will quickly promote you out of an engineering role all together. 

Are there any social activities outside of work?

Some companies have coworkers who go out for drinks weekly, or play softball, or some other type of activity. Others never associate with each other outside of work and pretend they don't recognize each other if they run into somebody at the grocery store. If you are moving to a new town, having a built in group of friends may make a difference to you. If you are a misanthrope, required coworker hangouts may be the worst thing ever.

That's all the questions I have for now, thank you!

Hopefully at this point they'll say something that naturally leads to you asking for their business cards. If you really liked the job, don't be afraid to follow up. Hardly anyone ever does it these days, so this can really help you stand out.

Good luck!  



PS. What questions do YOU wished you asked during an interview?

Monday, August 25, 2014

We Are The 62%

If you've been browsing the internet reading about women in engineering recently, chances are you've seen one of the articles that talk about the NSF/ University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee study which found that only 62% of women with engineering degrees are working as engineers. The presentation is actually quite interesting, so you should give it a look. The study included female alumnae from the 30 universities with the most engineering graduates, and from the feedback snippets in the linked presentation- it seems like they got some pretty honest feedback.

But the research isn't done. The research description for the ongoing study says:
"We are surveying a national group of engineers who are currently working as engineers. This research will help us gain an understanding of the most important things that have led to engineers career choices. The results may help us make recommendations for improving the working environment for men and women in engineering careers."
So while I'm not affiliated with this study in any way, I'd encourage you to participate and send it to your friends (male and female) in engineering. As you already know, having a complete data set is important for ensuring accurate results, and studies like this have the potential to help our field evolve. I'm one of the 62% of women who are still engineers, and I for one would love to see an environment where people are happy enough to stay.



PS. What are your opinions on the first study? Do you identify with the results or disagree?

Monday, August 18, 2014

How To Make Yourself Heard

My first week at my new job, my supervisor asked me if I could quickly come to a meeting with him. I had no idea what the meeting was, but I swept my notebook off my desk and followed him through the maze of hallways to a conference room. Once I crossed threshold into the war room and noticed the sea of leather notebooks and iPads I realized that these were not fellow engineers. In fact, it was a meeting of supervisors, managers, and directors. But since I was totally new and hadn't met any of them yet, I could only tell that they were important.

WHAT AM I DOING HERE? I panicked. At my last job, my supervisor always briefed me days in advance if I was going to meet anyone important so I had time to prepare my presentation and not look like a total nincompoop. Given at the time I thought his briefings were totally unnecessary, but finding myself in some mystery meeting I began to wish I knew anything about what I should expect.

My supervisor motioned to a plush leather chair next to him, and I nervously sat down. A commanding middle aged man walked into the room, and the other men all fell completely silent. They began to discuss business, training of new engineers, who had been fired, and the path they wanted to take to success. On one hand I was excited to get to hear this information first hand, on the other hand I felt like I was peeking behind the curtain and I would be in trouble if anyone noticed me there. Maybe if I just leaned back a little I could disappear. Or maybe that would make me look lazy. Maybe I should be taking notes. But since none of these were action items for me I might look like a secretary.

And then, all of a sudden, the commanding man turned to me, "And what about you? Do you have anything to add? I'm sorry, I don't think I've met you yet..."

"Vanessa," I choked out.

"She's a new engineer here," my supervisor said.

"Well, Vanessa, do you have anything to add?"

Was I supposed to have something to add? What do people normally say? Am I missing some social cues here?

"Um, no," I smiled weakly, hoping the pathetic smile would help lessen the blow if I was expected to have some ground breaking answer.

"Okay," he said, moving onto the next subject.

It was the first time in ages I'd been afraid to speak up during a meeting, and I was ashamed of myself. I'm not a shy person by nature, but I was so distracted by mitigating the consequences of saying something off point that I ended up saying nothing. And when I say nothing (especially when asked) people presume that I have nothing to say, effectively causing the same problem if I had said something idiotic.

I wish this was just a personal problem, but research shows that in collaborative environments women spoke less than 75% of the time of their male counterparts. So apparently, I'm not the only one with a propensity for psyching myself out in a meeting.

Feeling like my voice had been stolen by a sea witch who had given me the chance to be a real engineer for a day was something I was familiar with from my intern days, but was a habit I kicked when I really listened to what other people were saying. They were not more qualified to speak than me, and my conclusions were no less valid that theirs. As an engineer, I am paid for my ability to solve problems. If I just sit in a room like a bump on a log while I let others solve the problem, I am not really doing my job.

If you don't get this reference, you got some Disney to watch.
So, I started speaking up in meetings. The first couple times it came out sounding more like an apologetic question than actual feedback. But eventually I became a regular participant in meetings- unabashedly sharing my knowledge and even disagreeing with other people when I felt otherwise. This isn't a business where they pass around a sharing stick to make sure everyone feels included, so if I had something to say I made sure to interject it. That didn't mean that I would chat through the entire meeting and make unfounded statements. Just that I was no longer afraid to act like people should respect my opinions. The world didn't implode, and once I learned how to speak in statements instead of questions people took my input seriously.

After years of practice it was second nature, which is what made the most recent case of meeting jitters so strange. Luckily it seems like it was a result of me not knowing what to expect and I've already gotten it back under control.

Have you ever had a tough time speaking up during meetings? How did you convince yourself to speak up?



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Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Apply to Jobs Without Being Fired

At many companies, there are cultures of happiness, creation, and productivity. At certain companies, there are cultures of depression. At some point in time, people at the latter set of companies begin to discuss with their coworkers their plans for their future- which do not include the current company.

So obviously talking at your current job about quitting and moving on to greener pastures is super inappropriate, especially when nobody in the conversation actually has another job yet. If you are truly unhappy you should just confide in your close friends, right? It's a weird line that adults don't warn you about when you are in school. Once you join the working world and spend 8+ hours a day with the same cast of characters, a lot of your friends are people with whom you work.

Enter one of my coworkers (and friends) who made a habit of walking over to my desk to loudly talk about the job applications he had filed over the weekend. He'd asked me to review his resume outside of work, and always texted me when he came across a job he thought I'd like. But during the work day I sat close to our supervisor's office, so I'd hush him at remind him we were at the office and not at a bar.

"I don't care. I want them to hear," he'd say in a huff. "Maybe then they'll fire me. That would be the best day of my life."

For those of us who don't want to be fired but are looking for a new career, here are some simple ground rules.

Don't look at job sites while you are at work. I know when you are unhappy or bored it can be extremely tempting to pick up your phone and check your Monster app, write scathing Glass Door reviews,  or search "anything better than this" on Google. But if somebody sees you doing this at work or notices your browser history shows you spend hours each day doing something that is not your job, this could turn out very poorly for you. Most companies have policies about internet usage (and that usually includes what you browse on your personal phone while on company time). Don't let an unprofessional environment make you an unprofessional person.

Don't talk about your job applications at work. Even if somebody else comes up to discuss his or her future plans (which is behavior you should kindly discourage), you should not respond with information about your search in return while you are in the office. You should probably not discuss this with coworkers at all, since juicy office gossip has a tendency to spread like wildfire. But if you feel like you have to tell your best friend that you have an interview, do it after work when you are not on company property.

Continue to do your best work. This can be very difficult when you are distracted dreaming of new possibilities, but don't let the theory of a new life get in the way of the job you have right in front of you. We live in a world that is continuously getting smaller with the advent of better transportation and more accessible communication devices, so a bad reputation in your current job may carry over into your future life.

Take interviews sparingly. Before you decide to leave work for an interview, make sure you are actually interested in the potential job. Ask questions if you are unclear about the opportunity and be honest with yourself. Is it a good job or just not the terrible job you feel you have right now? Many opportunities will be available to you, but you don't want to have a poor attendance record if you already know you aren't interested in the potential job.

Minimize dishonest behavior. When you have an interview half way across the country on a Wednesday, it's kind of hard to figure out what to tell your boss on your "vacation request" form. My advice is to not say anything unless directly asked, and to tell the truth (minus the interview portion) as much as possible. Don't use anything that requires others sympathy as an excuse (such as "my grandfather died", "my son is ill", or "my roommate is in the hospital"). If everything works out, they'll figure out later that you were at an interview when you accept the new position and you don't want to look like an asshole. If you decide not to take the job, you don't want the story to be interesting enough to bring up questions.

With this advice, you can find a new job without compromising yourself as an employee. By keeping your conscience clean, you can take your time looking for new work and find the perfect next step in your career.



PS. Have you ever ended up in a sticky situation while applying for jobs? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, July 28, 2014

When Skin Revolts

I like to think that I'm not a vain person, but this week I realized that even I have my limits. I don't know if it was the stress, or the change in climate from my move, or some terrible karma having it's way with me, but I had the worst breakout I've had since I was fourteen. It was like some small country decided to take up residence on my face, and no amount of coverup short of a prosthetic face could hide it.

This sketch is to scale. The zit was huge, I swear.
I tried my best to camouflage the invading forces with treated makeup but it seemed like all that did was make my normal skin paler giving the acne the opportunity to really stand out. I realized that this was a result of me never having learned how to properly apply concealer, but at five o'clock in the morning with a zit the size of Mount Everest above my lip the most I could do was I regret my lack of education immensely. 

The worst part of this outbreak was that I wasn't going to see people who had known me for years; this was my second week on the job and I was still meeting people who would think that the normal state of my face was total disaster. They will probably think I am totally unkempt and dirty. I thought as I continued to slather concealer on my face.

After about five minutes, I finally gave up. This happens to everyone sometime, I assured myself. I had put on acne spot treatment that promised a reduction in my problem by lunchtime. Everything would be fine.

But when I got to work I realized that not only was this my second week of work, but we had important people visiting from our corporate office to conduct an audit. And not only were there important people visiting from our corporate office, but I was scheduled for a random evaluation with them. For whatever reason I wasn't worried about the interview itself, just the disaster on my face... the miracle zit cream wasn't working at all! It seemed like if anything my problem had gotten worse. What if they don't realize this is just the worlds worst zit? They might think it's a cold sore and think I have some sort of STD...

By the grace of science, my evaluation slot was double booked and while my supervisor apologized to me for the "lost opportunity" a wave of relief washed over me. It was only then, as my panic was waning, that I realized how ridiculous my response to the entire day was. Why was it that something as simple as a completely temporary blemish on my appearance felt like the end of days? Why was it that I felt like people would be so distracted by a few zits that they wouldn't see my engineering prowess? Would a man give it a second thought if he were in my position? I felt terrible that I'd let myself get so distracted by something so trivial.

I know there is a dialogue today encouraging women to go natural and embrace their beauty, but what about some of our less beautiful days. Does the "natural look" still apply, or does it only apply when you are so flawless that makeup wouldn't make a difference anyways? I am not saying that I have all the answers, but I can't help but think that our society has not made it past the point where something as shallow as a horrible zit can impact how people think of you. It's hard to be comfortable in your own skin when it's covered in acne. Even in a profession like engineering, where it really shouldn't matter.

What do you think?



Monday, July 21, 2014

On Quitting Your Job

So if you are wondering why there has been this awkwardly long hiatus in posts, it's not because we forgot about you. It's because we have all been going through major life changes (perfect for new posts!), that made it difficult to catch a moment to just sit down and write. "What kind of life changes?" you may ask. Well, for starters, I quit my job.

I'm not going to lie, I fantasized about quitting my job countless times. About throwing down my papers and saying "YOU finish it!" when my bosses gave me an assignment they wanted finished by yesterday. About not coming back to work with clients who just spent the day cussing each other out. About telling clients what I really thought when they told me that if I ever considered a career change I could always be a really great secretary. In my mind my quitting was nothing short of spectacular; filled with drama and high emotions like a telenovela breakup scene. But in reality, it was something quite different.

I was in the midst of working as technical lead on multiple projects, all of which were reaching a critical point  in their development. I knew that the timing was terrible, but I'd received a much better offer and I needed to switch. But part of me felt laden with guilt at the fact that that I'd be dooming these projects to which I'd devoted months or years of my life, and I still cared deeply about the projects and the clients.

As I was on my way back to the office after turning over one of my projects, I got a phone call from my new employer-to-be telling me that they had picked my start date and that I needed to put in my two weeks. As soon as I got back to my desk I opened the resignation letter that I had saved on my desktop. Should I just email my boss, or should I hand it to somebody? I figured I should woman up and hand it over in person. Otherwise they have to figure out how to come over and approach me, and this will already be weird enough without making my boss approach me in my cube. Should I hand it to my direct supervisor, or my manager or somebody else? How do I even bring this up? What happens if somebody sees this on the printer before I get there?

I glanced around the corner and noticed the printer was momentarily unhampered by its normal onslaught of drawings and regulatory documentation, so I quickly printed two copies and sped-walked like an old woman on an early morning mall workout to grab them while they were still hot.

I stared at the words "I hereby resign my position" and thought Oh fuck, I'm actually doing this. I took a deep breath, wiggled the nerves out of my shoulders, and screwed up the courage to see my manager. On my way to his office the lights flickered and went out with the unmistakable moan of a hundred computers slowing down, and I stopped in my tracks. Of course there was an electrical storm today.

My manager saw my silhouette lurking outside of his door, "Vanessa?"

I can't do this in the dark, that's too weird. "Darn power out again," I chuckled nervously and turned on my heels. Okay, that was weird too. BE LESS WEIRD, Vanessa! People quit all the time, get over it.

I laid the resignation letters face down on my desk and nervously phantom typed on my keyboard as I stared at the dark screen and listened to my coworkers' cries of anguish about the unsaved work they had lost. The lights flickered back on and I swiped the letters off of my desk and walked to my manager's office again.

"Can we talk for a minute?" I asked, tentatively.

"Sure," he replied. I closed the door and sat down across the desk from him.

"So, I don't know how to say this. I was offered a job with significantly better compensation, and I'm going to take it." I placed the resignation letter on the desk, and he sat in a stunned silence for a moment.

"Wow," he finally said. "This is a huge loss for the company, Vanessa. Have you made up your mind or is there anything I can do to keep you?"

He offered me an increased salary, other jobs, and I told him I was sure I was taking the new job. He kept repeating that this was a huge loss, and that he knew I'd be a hard one to keep. Honestly I felt kind of terrible, like I was abandoning my old company. I kept having to remind myself that I was seriously unhappy there, and that my leaving was about me finding a better job.

In the end, I left with two weeks on the clock and an open offer to come back if I ever changed my mind. And while there weren't fireworks and I didn't tell anyone off, I think that that's perhaps the best way to quit a job. What do you think?



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Contracting Lifecycle

As I've mentioned before, I work as a contract engineer. While my title and company remain the same from month to month, my projects and clients are transient. After months of working closely with clients on a project, when I've finished the job I pack up my laptop bag and move on. Sometimes I'll end up working with the same people in a matter of days, sometimes I won't work with them for a year or more.

Leaving at the end of a project can be kind of awkward and anticlimactic; people don't know if they should make some grand gesture to say goodbye, or if they should just say "have a nice life" and move on. One client insisted on me stopping by his desk on my way out after completing a six month project.

He shook my hand and proclaimed, "It's been a pleasure working with you. You've done excellent work here."

Yet somehow after six months of pouring my heart and soul into the project, even that kind ending felt like I'd lost something. For six months I had talked with the same cast of characters every day, stayed in the same hotel, and even eaten lunch at the same table in the same chair at the the same time with the same friends. And while I was doing so much the same, I felt like I was changing my environment. I fixed a complex system, I got two divisions who hadn't worked together in over a decade to play nice, I created real friendships, and I earned the respect and trust of people who had initially doubted me. As a result, I felt like going back to my "home office" meant that I was losing my new friends and that I would not get to enjoy being the respected engineer I had become.

This isn't to say that there aren't times when I am not super excited to get off of a project (because there are), or that I would ever try to extend out a project to keep my life constant (because I wouldn't). Just that as I was walking out of my client's office on the last day, I felt a sense of loss even though it was another win on my resume.

I definitely moped around  internally for a few days upon returning home, although I was all smiles when coworkers I'd spoken to once a year ago greeted me back to the office like a long lost sister. I can never tell how to deal with people who proclaim how much they missed me when I don't even remember their name. Luckily for me, by the end of the week I had another assignment at an old site but with a new team.

After walking through a cubicle maze which doubles as a menagerie of old clients and friends, I headed into a room of unfamiliar faces filled with doubt at who this stranger was. I could tell they were wondering if I was truly capable of helping, everyone does at the beginning. I took a deep breath, and braced myself to start from scratch again. This time, I told myself, it would be easier since my reputation preceded me. I extended my hand to each man in the room (since there were, of course, no women) and said, "Hello, I'm Vanessa. I'm the lead engineer for this project."

When you keep going around, it's hard to feel like you are moving up.
When it's all said and done there will always be an expiration date, and there will always be a new project, and a new team. The trick is allowing for me is allowing myself to care deeply about each new project regardless of the expiration date, as that is what drives me to succeed. The projects may be temporary to me, but they are permanent for my clients.