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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Know what you're getting into

Conduct research (and lots of it) before a job interview
Here's what to look for

November  1996
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Over the last few months I've received reader mail from people who have had unsuccessful interviews, asking for advice on how to better prepare themselves for the next time. Oftentimes, it is not a question of better interviewing skills, but better preparation. This month I treat the subject of research. Before you pursue employment at any company, know what you're getting into. This can not only help you get the interview and succeed when the big day comes, but also help decide whether the company you are interested in is right for you. (1,800 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I've been considering a job search for quite some time now. At my request, a friend recommended me to his company. He works for a fairly well-known firm and I think I have pretty good understanding of his job. I'm going in for an interview in a few days and it just occurred to me that maybe I should do some research. My friend has told me a bit about what to expect, though I guess I should really learn some other things. Where should I start? What should I look for?

Your help is much appreciated,

Looking Up

Dear Looking Up,

You're at an advantage having a friend recommend you for the job -- not only because of the interview and good recommendations that he can earn you, but also because of the information he can provide. But this doesn't mean "you're in" and don't need to do your homework. Having access to a person who works at a company helps, but there are many important things you can find on your own.

There are two reasons why you should conduct research before you interview. First, you want to walk in knowledgeable, impress the interviewer, and ask savvy questions. Second, and no less important, the time and work put into studying a company will help you decide if it is right for you. Interviewing can be a very helpful process to go through no matter the outcome, but ultimately you don't want to waste everyone's time if it's not a good match -- particularly if the meeting was arranged as a favor from a friend. Through research you should also get a better sense of the job you desire.

The first stop for research is your local library. There, you can find many publications that collect both industry and company specific information. Look in periodicals directories for relevant articles, as well as encyclopedias of trade associations. Be sure to review a copy of the company's annual report.

All public companies are required to file a document called a 10K, which conforms to a specific format defined by the SEC. In them you will find a business description, a listing of the officers, financial data, information on competition, etc. 10Ks are generally more helpful and offer more substantive data than flowery, corporate marketing propaganda.

Even if you can't make it to the library, you should fire up your browser and see what's on the Net. With volumes of information being added every day and Web pages for virtually every company in the technical industries, this is an excellent and easy way to obtain background information. Since so much of what is being written about the computer industry is online only, you should go to a few search engines and see what the online news services are saying about the company. If you can't get your feet or computer up and running, you can also give the company a call and request literature on its products and services.


What you should have learned
Before you walk into any interview you should have established a few basic facts: the products and services the company in question provides, how long it's been in business, something about its current growth and reputation, and an idea of its strategic direction. You should know a bit about the industry. Simply being good at what you do is not enough. Say, for instance, you have been doing some sophisticated programming for an investment bank, using the latest languages, tools, and hardware, but are offered an interview at a company that makes games or develops software for the medical industry. Each of these areas is its own little world, with dominant players, big releases, and future projections.

If you also have an insider feeding you the naked truth, you should try to get a more intimate feel of the company's strategic direction. With that you can get a sense of where you might fit, and ask more intelligent questions. Your spy may also give you a sense of salaries and benefits -- issues that normally arise later, but can be potential sticking points.

Another excellent source of information can be recruiting firms. If you are working with a good search firm, it should give you information about the company, as well as a few tips on the person who will conduct the actual hiring.

Informational interviews?
People sometimes talk about informational interviews. This is an informal way to meet with the management of a company. Unfortunately, informational interviews are quite rare in the computer industry. Managers are often so busy that they must sacrifice important work to take time to meet applicants. I have seen instances where managers have not even had the time to meet qualified applicants that they are actively looking to hire. Informational interviews are a luxury few can afford.

This is not to say that it never happens. If you do manage to get an informal meeting with a hiring manager, keep two things in mind: First, don't assume that you can walk in with absolutely no previous research. There is not much on the line and the entire pretense of the interview is to learn more, but there is also the understanding that this may eventually lead to something more. Second, don't beg for a job -- this isn't a job interview.

Beware of HR
Rather than schedule leisurely informational interviews and lunch with the CEO, CIO, CFO, and the board of directors, the reality is most companies run candidates through their HR departments. This is normal, but try to get around it. Standard HR people ask standard questions to qualify candidates for the next level of interviews. You will not be able to show off all the research you've done, but be forced to explain why, for instance, you switched jobs twice in the last five years. If, on the other hand, your research has been thorough, you might make the most of this meeting and find a way to speak to a hiring manager who can make an offer.

Companies want to hire smart people. More importantly, they want to hire people who display gumption. Show enthusiasm through your homework. Know the business and how you can contribute to the team. Demonstrate you're not warming a chair because you're lucky enough to have a well-placed friend, but because you are interested.

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