Interviewing for the Job and On The Job – Part II

This article is the second of three in a series. It’s describes the six basic principles to follow for both job interviewing and informational interviewing.

3. Honestly, Now

I remember a strange incident at my workplace years ago. A manager kept popping out of his office, bursting with laughter. He was fact-checking a job applicant’s resume, and discovered that almost everything on it was a lie: where the applicant went to school, where he worked, the groups he belonged to, and so on. Each time the manager confirmed another lie, he couldn’t wait to fly out of his office and laughingly inform the other managers.

I often thought about that job applicant. What was he thinking? Was he thinking? What if the manager hadn’t checked the resume, and the applicant had been hired? For the answer, we need to look to history.

King Pyrrhus vs. The Romans

Many years ago, a Greek King named Pyrrhus defeated the Romans, the superpower of the time. This was an incredible feat – it would be like Mexico beating the United States. (Can you imagine what would happen? There’d be millions of Mexicans living in America and the government would be trillions of dollars in debt…OK, bad example.) In any case, although Pyrrhus defeated the Romans, he did so at enormous cost – many of his men were slaughtered. That is, he won, but he lost, hence the expression Pyrrhic victory; a victory that really isn’t much of a victory.

So it is with applicants who lie their way to a job. They get the job – now what? They’ve got a job that they are not qualified to do, that requires skills they don’t have, at a place they don’t want to be, working with people they can’t stand – congratulations! When you lie or embellish the facts on your resume or in an interview, you’re only lying to yourself.

Therefore, in an interview, always be honest. If you don’t know how to use a particular piece of software, say so, but also describe how you are a quick learner. If you worked on a project that went bad, be honest about it, but say what you learned from the experience. A little honesty goes along way.

For example, if asked, “Why should we hire you?” answer the question honestly. State how you sincerely believe that you’d be a good fit for this position, and that you have much to offer.

Another question that will test your honesty is: Tell me about a time you failed. Without hesitating, state the failure, but then explain how you learned from it. For example, perhaps you were rushed and released a user guide that you later discovered was missing certain procedures. Talk about how you learned from this, and more carefully planned your schedules and reviews, so that the next release was better than ever.

By the way, this question is a good example of a stress question, where the interviewer wants to see your reaction, and is not just concerned with the content of your response. Be strong and show how you can easily handle the pressure.

Fool Me Once, Fool Me Again, Please!

Honesty also applies to informational interviewing. Often times, when interviewing the SMEs, we’re too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand something. Just remember – it is your job as a professional informational developer to go from not understanding something to understanding it. If you are not initially confused and bewildered, then you’re not doing you’re job. If you don’t understand something, say so! You may look foolish – so what? It’s better to be a fool in private that to create foolish documents, documents that may come back to haunt you – then you’ll really be the fool.

Chaos Theory

All great products and services got to be great by having people ask dumb questions. There’s so much chaos that we don’t see. If you’ve ever been backstage at fashion show or a play, you’ll see it’s often total mayhem – people yelling and screaming at each other, doing dumb things, and asking dumb questions. But the audience never sees this– they just see a beautiful show, or a beautifully complete and concise document.

4. Don’t Be Anti-Active; Be a Pro

It’s no coincidence that the words professional and proactive both begin with the same three letters. To be a professional, you need to be proactive. Proactive should really be called pre-active, to indicate that you take action before (pre) there is a problem, and thereby pre-empt the problem.

Explosive Issues

Being proactive means being responsible, and responsibility is something you hear about in the news all the time. In 2008, there was a huge explosion at a propane facility a few kilometers from our home. We were far enough away that we weren’t directly affected, but we did hear it. Afterwards, almost on queue, no-one wanted to take responsibility for this disaster. The city blamed the licensing facility. The licensing facility blamed the city. The province blamed the city. The city blamed the facility owners. The owners probably blamed the employers. No one wanted to take responsibility.

Compare this with the disaster that followed shortly after, in which various meat products at the Maple Leaf processing plant became infected with listeriosis and several people died. Incredibly, the president of the company, rather than blaming others, took full responsibility. He did not blame the government. He recognized that the buck stopped with him.

Responsibility is an important issue for us, because it relates to the question of who ultimately owns the documentation. The very definition of a senior technical writer is someone who owns, and is therefore ultimately responsible for, the documentation, in the same way that senior coding developers own the code.

Pro-Active Interviewing

Being pro-active and showing responsibility applies in two ways during a job interview. First, you need to be proactive before the interview. Carefully study the company, its history and products, and the position itself. Secondly, show during the interview how you have been proactive in your job. Examples include redesigning the templates, improved the indices, and enhancing the documentation development and review process. Bring samples to indicate the changes you made. Show how you avoided documentation explosions before they happened.

A question you may be asked that will show how proactive you have been is: Why do you want to work here? To answer this question effectively, you must have proactively researched company and the position, and reviewed your skills and work history so that you can clearly state why you’d be a good fit.

Finally, you may be asked: What is the purpose of technical communication? You might think the answer is to instruct the reader on how to use a product. That’s true to some extent, but the real purpose is to reduce technical support costs by creating documents that people actually use, and thereby help avoid the users from having to call in. Therefore, you need to show how you have proactively done this. Examples include creating a detailed troubleshooting section, adding critical missing content, developing training guides, and writing a glossary.

For informational interviewing, being proactive means planning your questions carefully before you sit down with the SME. It means creating documentation plans and schedules, and reviewing and testing the product to find all the hidden and potential problems. It means recognizing that a SME’s time is valuable, so you want to be able to zoom in and get clear answers to your questions by having used and tested the product you are documenting. It also means constantly following up with the SMEs to ensure they answer all your questions and review every draft.

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