It’s that time again! Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert officially kicks off his annual summer interviewing series with a provocative suggestion.
It’s a quiet and rainy here in Texas, and I have the house to myself. The rest of the family disappeared shortly after sunup for activities that don’t require me, so I get to play my music as loud as I like while I write – and Ineed to get a lot of writing done. My latest print column has been posted, which means I need to get cracking on my next submission. My first book has been selling well on the Amazon Kindle Store and I’m about halfway done with my next manuscript. My proposal for a new security white paper just got approved, and that’s due to the editorial board before Christmas. I have plenty to do, an empty house in which to write, a delightful rain falling outside my office window, and hours in which to try and work, blissfully free of interruptions. The only thing that I don’t have to make it a perfect morning is a decent breakfast. 
That’s entirely my own fault: I’m a bloody awful cook. I didn’t learn much about food preparation as a child. Let to my own devices, my breakfast is usually a fistful of dry Cheerios and a large mug of coffee (assuming I bother to eat at all in the morning). I look upon cooking as an alien science; one that I screw up more often than not. I rarely ever get the results that I want out of an attempt, so why try? I’d just as soon not be bothered with it at all, which is why I let someone else do the cooking whenever I think that I can get away with it.
Most of the managers that I know feel exactly the same way about hiring new employees.
Sorry for shifting topics there without putting in the clutch. It’s summer, which means that it’s time once again for me to rant for a month about the best and worst ways to hire people (or to get hired yourself, should you be so inclined). This tradition came about entirely by accidentearly on in my writing for Business Technology when I started writing about a topic that took four consecutive columns to finish making my point. The next year, when the heart of summer rolled around, I found myself embroiled in the topic again – mostly thanks to chance encounters with some… colourful… hiring managers. That series went on for a month’s worth of relatedcolumns, thereby cementing this as my new annual tradition here at BT. It also led to the compilation of all of those interviewing columns into my new book, Why Are You Here?: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to IT Interviewing. 
The cooking-to-interviewing comparison struck me as I was puttering about in the kitchen this morning, trying to figure out which box of dry cereal to raid so that I could get to work. As I brewed my coffee, I remembered having a discussion about this exact topic with a manager a couple of years ago. This particular Bob  was a bit socially awkward and very confrontation-averse. Having to sit opposite a job seeker and engage in (as Bob saw it) an interrogation was torture. No matter how miserable the candidate might have felt, Bob always felt worse. He didn’t know what questions to ask, and had no idea how to interpret the answers that the candidates offered. He admitted that he had no idea how to figure out whether or not a candidate was lying to him. Therefore, he never felt like he was making the right decision when selecting any one candidate over another.
That’s where that cooking phrase came from: Bob shared with me during our chat that he perceived personnel hiring as an alien science; one that he screwed up more often than not. He rarely ever got the results that he wanted out of an attempt, so why bother? He’d just as soon not be bothered with it, which is why he preferred to let someone else (me) do his interviewing for him.
I have a great deal of empathy with this particular Bob. He wasn’t a bad person in any way. If anything, I think that he possessed a great deal more self-awareness and humility than many of the Bobs I’ve had to endure. I respect the man’s willingness to admit that he was out of his depth.
I find it amusing that no one bats an eye when a modern gentleman admits to being a complete failure in the kitchen, but it’s career suicide for a bloke like Bob to admit that he’s a hopeless failure as an interviewer. Both statements can be objectively proven. Both personal inadequacies are easily remedied with some outside help, and can be overcome with study, mentoring, and practice.
For me, I tried overcoming my culinary skills gap about ten years ago by watching a great deal ofFood Network shows from my hotel room when I travelled on business. I made through almost all of Alton Brown’s exceptional Good Eats series, mostly because he took the time to explain the science of what he was doing, and that helped me wrap my head around the subjects that he was presenting. I dabbled in a few other hosts’ shows, which is how I stumbled onto the first episode of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef series one night. I can’t say that I learned anything from Mr Oliver’s show, but his tag line in the opening credits sequence (‘It’s not me [that’s naked], it’s the food!’) struck a chord with me – and it directly applies to today’s topic of interviewing people.
On 14th August, Forbes magazine contributor Liz Ryanexpressed the point exceptionally well in her article‘Here’s a Job Ad I’d Like to See.’ I think that she nailed the heart of the problem in her opening paragraph:
‘I wish employers would give up trying to pretend that they’re perfect and have no problems at all. I wish they’d stop trying to pretend that a job-seeker who gets an interview with them should get down on their knees and thank the employer for the privilege. It’s a fantasy. If organizations didn’t have problems, they wouldn’t run job ads.’
That one inescapable point is the heart of the job interview process; admitting it on the way into the interview room is probably the best way I know for a weak interviewer (like Our Bob) to start overcoming his inadequacies. Companies hire new employees to fix problems. When you place that point foremost in your mind, the interview process becomes much more focused and meaningful. Both parties are in the room to determine whether, in the interviewer’s opinion, the candidate can adequately mitigate the company’s issue(s). If two candidates both demonstrate that they can address the company’s primary problem, the differentiating factor between them will almost certainly be which of the two can best address the company’s next most vexing problem(s).
Is that overly simple? I submit that it isn’t; it appears to be too simple to be relevant because it’s embarrassingly direct. Just like Bob’s admission that he’s a crap interviewer, the posting of an open position is the company’s admission that there’s something that they simply can’t handle with their available resources. From a strictly fiscal position, if the company could solve its own problems without the expense and hassle of a new hire, then they would have, full stop. The fact that they haven’t makes the logical conclusion self-evident. Pretending otherwise is both disingenuous and counter-productive. If both interviewer and candidate can speak candidly and openly about the company’s unmet needs, it greatly increases the odds of making a tactically advantageous hire.
I call this ‘naked interviewing’ out of deference to Mr Oliver and because of the visceral reaction that the phrase evokes. Very few people would consent to enter a conference room to conduct an interview stark naked in its literal sense; many people will also refuse to enter that same room for that same purpose, but naked only in a metaphorical sense. Exposing weakness in a negotiation is anathema to people because it squanders any relative power that you might have over the other party. Viewed emotionally, that makes sense. Viewed objectively, refusing to come clean about the most important issue on the table is a terrible way to get the best results out of a discussion.
I’ve experienced this phenomena many times over my career. Here are two examples that illustrate what I feel strongly are the right and wrong ways to go about it:
Frist, the wrong way: many years ago, a head-hunter secured me an interview for a sysadmin role at a company in the food and beverage industry. When I first met the hiring manager, he told me that he needed a line-level administrator for a cluster of web servers. We were walking through his production work centre at the time – an enormous common bay with fifty desks and no cubicles to block my view of people ‘working’ amidst the cacophony. Mostly, I saw people lounging, shooting the breeze, staring off into space, and otherwise demonstrating that they had cycles to spare.
When the manager finished his vague and oblique orientation, I asked him directly why he needed anyone for this new role. Didn’t he already have people? He looked uncomfortable and told me that he did. I asked what the problem was that the current crew of sysadmins couldn’t solve. The manager looked deeply unsettled, and tried to fob me off with a nebulous platitude about ‘requirements management’. I pressed harder, asking why that guy (I pointed to a random IT worker across the room) couldn’t do the work. The manager hemmed and hawed about people not being trained. ‘So, if you have a technical problem that your current staff aren’t trained to deal with, you don’t train your employees to handle it?” I asked. ‘Does that mean I can expect to receive no training on new technology if I’m an employee here?’ The manager looked like he was about hurl, but said nothing. Uh huh.
I actually did get an offer from that company – one about 20 per cent higher than I had any right to expect. I politely declined. First, the company’s location was awful. More importantly to me, the manager I’d be working for wasn’t honest with me about the critical deficiencies in his corporate culture. I couldn’t help him if I couldn’t trust him to be honest with me.
Compare that example to this one: when I was head-hunted to help stand up the internal consulting practice at Yahoo! Broadcast, the first two managers who interviewed me did an abysmal job of it. They revealed nothing about the role, their expectations, their needs, or why the position was being hired. They weren’t even interviews, really; both men were surprised by my (scheduled) arrival, and had no questions prepared for me. They hadn’t even read my CV.
I was about to write the outfit off, when I got to meet the senior consultant that I would up working with – both at Yahoo!, and again later at Streaming Authority – James Harris.  Within two minutes of meeting me for the first time, James explained in unambiguous terms exactlywhy the company needed a consulting practice: they’d fouled their relationships with several important clients. They’d already tried sending engineers and salespeople out as pseudo-consultants to try and manage client relationships, and both endeavours had failed miserably. James had just invested a year investigating the company’s business practice, and had determined that a professional consulting service was required. Then he explained to me in blunt language why he needed a sidekick: he was awesome at working with clients, but he came up painfully short when it came to operational planning and documentation. He needed someone to mitigate his specific weaknesses.
That three hour long conversation at Café Brazil with James Harris was the most naked interview that I’ve ever experienced. It was raw, honest, forthright, and focused throughout on solving the company’s problems in the most efficient manner possible. I signed on with James’s operation, and together we delivered on the new practice’s potential. By the time we’d posted our first fiscal quarter’s revenue numbers, we’d delivered double our combined salaries worth of business, and had booked an astonishing nine times our annual cost in new business. Problem defined, problem solved.
I shared that second story with Bob, the hapless interviewer. I encouraged him to simply come clean with himself about why the company needed a new employee. Once he could articulate the source of his pain, he could start speculating on ways to alleviate his pain. Those mitigating skills, experiences, and abilities that would improve his quality of (working) life were exactly what he needed out of a new hire. Therefore, those factors were what he needed to actively search for in each of his candidates. Once that idea took root in Bob’s brain, his confidence soared – and his next hire turned out to be a killer addition to the team.
Sure, you can argue that it may be risky for the business to openly discuss serious vulnerabilities with outsiders. I understand and respect that. I counter that there are control measures that a good interviewer can take to get the necessary points on the table for discussion without exposing the company to excessing risks. As a candidate, I’ve signed many Non-Disclosure Agreements before interviews. As the interviewer, I’ve fictionalized and abstracted real problems such that the core elements of an issue could be discussed in detail without ever revealing the actual nature of the company’s heartache. In both cases, the mitigating techniques mean a little extra work, but they’re entirely worth it.
That gets us back to that Jamie Oliver quote from his TV show opener. With apologies to the chef, an interpretation of that catchphrase should (for our purposes) be: ‘It’s not the candidate that’s naked; it’s the interviewer!’
Interviewing naked is the interviewer’s responsibility. Its about being honest with yourself about what’s troubling you so that you can start addressing it. It involves a certain measure of moral courage and a willingness to appear foolish in a stranger’s eyes. I realize that can be tough… but it’s worth it over the long run. Your primary function in that interview room is to find the right person to patch the metaphorical hole in the ships hull. You’re not in there to impress anyone, or to be liked. You’re there to solve a problem – so solve it, and take your own ego out of the equation.
Bear in mind, too, that the person on the other side of the table from you – the guy or gal seeking your job – is every bit as nervous as you are, and won’t judge you too harshly for being candid and guileless. If anything, they may just respect your candour enough to reveal something interesting about themselves in turn that marks them as the perfect addition to your team.
Give it a try. If it turns out that I’m grossly off the mark, I’ll fry something up for us and you can tell me that I’m full of crap over an indigestible pile of ruined protein and tasteless, burned carbs.
 Typing all this is torture; I’d do unspeakable things for a full English breakfast right now.
 Which you can get for free at Amazon’s Kindle store, if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
 We’re all comfortable with Bobs in my columns by now, right? Groovy.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.