Most Engineers Never Learn How to Interview for a Job

Travis
Ziebro

To be an engineer is to walk around with a bit of swagger. That swagger can quickly evaporate when placed in a room with strangers and given 30 minutes to sell your value to an organization. This article is to help you understand how to maximize the interviewing process. The purpose is to reframe your approach to interviewing for a job and by extension, life itself.

Technical Interviews Are Always About the Process

How do solve a problem? Are you cool under fire? Engineers and their desire for black and white answers too often fixate on a finite solution. Any decent technical manager cares less about the answer and more about how a candidate thinks to arrive at that answer.

I was once asked “What pound rating would you choose for a flange under 300psi of pressure and 200 degrees Fahrenheit?” It is a terrible question that amounts to trivia. A much better technical question is “What dictates flange thickness and can you give some common ratings?”

Caught a bit off-guard, I paused, winced slightly, smiled, and tentatively said, “Man, I can’t remember, I need a sizing chart in front of me so I can read off the temperature and pressure and choose one accordingly.” The answer wasn’t there, but familiarity, confidence, and humility bled through in that single answer. I got the job.

By contrast, I was interviewing an electrical designer and he was stumbling over the NEC code as it pertained to equipment spacing. When pressed by my colleague for more detail he tersely stated, “I wasn’t required to learn this at my job” and subsequently fell silent. The candidate sent a clear signal: he would do what was required at his job and no more.

Relevant inputs only, please

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

I was a few classes away from a mechanical engineer degree, interviewing at a plant in San Antonio. It was a round-robin interview with over 20 candidates being pared off with various department heads. And my pen was smoking. I captured nearly every word spoken by interviewers.

Some dozen years later I ran across those notes and was horrified. I had every detail the interviewers provided, but for what good? Did I think I was prepping for a pop quiz? Was I to be judged on how great my note taking skills were?

Engineers are disposed to taking a large amount of input data, processing that data and producing an output. That’s how problems are solved and that mostly describes an engineer’s academic career. But in an interview? What problem is one solving as a new hire? The problem an interviewee may need to solve is declining revenues, poor technical support, or an overreliance on the shop fixing engineering’s problem.

As a result, any good interview should center on understanding the problem to be solved. So, engineer, take all the inputs you want but make sure the inputs are relevant to the problem that requires solving.

Sell the experience, not the features

I managed a DJ business for years. The first few years I spent a lot of time talking about our business model differences (no subcontractors) and our best in class equipment. Guess what? Nobody cared. Because when someone hires a DJ company they care about one thing only: is the company going to provide the best possible experience for me and my guests?

Hiring managers operate no different, even when they are hiring technical talent. Managers want their technical problems solved, but ultimately they want to feel peace. Competent people making competent decisions.

The shift is subtle, but world-changing.

Rather than spending valuable interview answer time talking about what was done, talk about the results. Here’s an example from an accomplishment when I was Engineering Director, framed two different ways.

Answer 1: Under my direction, we changed our standard floor support schema to use less steel which saved the company $500,000 annually.

Answer 2: Our bottom line needed improvement so the engineering team was tasked with creative ways to bring cost down. I worked with an external vendor on an exhaustive load study and collaborated with the guys on the floor. We reduced the amount of steel and ultimately saved the company $500,000 a year.

Give the first answer and you have identified that you might be able to help save a company money under very specific circumstances. Give the second answer and you understand the need for a profitable product, creative thinking, the ability to effectively outsource, and appropriate respect for floor workers’ judgment. An interviewer immediately becomes aware of the value you bring to a company.

We’re onto Cincinnati.

In 2014, the New England Patriots were destroyed by the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14. The Patriots were “not good anymore”. The reporters peppered coach Bill Belichick with questions about his team’s skill level, ability, and even if Tom Brady was to be replaced as the starting quarterback.

Belichick deflected every question with a single phrase.

We’re onto Cincinnati.

The only relevance at that moment was what lay ahead.

Two months from graduation, I taped another rejection letter to the fridge. The count was fourteen now and I took a perverse pleasure in seeing how much of a failure I had been. My attempt to find a job was much more difficult than expected, but I dragged the past along with me and it burdened my future efforts.

Instead of collecting losses and hurt feelings, I should have written a sentence or two about learning lessons from each rejection and posted that on the fridge. Sunk cost, as any amateur economist understands, is just that: sunk. I consistently hear from people who allow the past to dictate their future.

I don’t have a degree.

I’m not billingual.

I’m not great at heat transfer.

I’m not a professional engineer.

Four months after the Chiefs debacle, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. That victory never happens if Belichick focuses on the errors of the past, the shortcomings of his team, and most crucially someone’s snap judgment assessment of something they do not fully understand.

What shortcomings are you focused on? What narrative are you living? Will you allow a stranger in a small room that does not understand your passion and ability to dictate your future? Or will you happen to life?

In Conclusion

Find that swagger engineer. Fight the right battles and look for your next challenge with awareness and excitement. The interview and the future are yours to own.

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