Deja Interview

In 1988 I wanted to find a better opportunity and arranged to get a job interview with a reservoir engineering manager at a large independent company. It was my first interview in two years and I was serious about improving my career. I was also realistic about my chances for getting an offer but thought the interview would be good practice.

It was a sunny afternoon when I met with Bob in his office. I recall the weather because the window blinds were down but partially open, and the sun was in a perfect position to set up a dazzling slotted-light pattern directly behind Bob’s chair.

Bob’s interview style today would be considered “old school” but back in 1988 it was just “school”. He pulled out a legal pad and told me he was going to ask some “specific” questions. I stifled an urge to promise to give specific answers and said I was ready.

I only remember a few of his questions but they were typical. What was your greatest accomplishment in your previous job?  What do you feel are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? If you were an endangered native California species which one would you be?

No, he didn’t really ask that last one. After I responded to each question Bob wrote a note on his pad.  I attempted to maintain eye contact and speak with confidence, but as the interview progressed I realized I was getting an “ocular migraine”. That angled light/dark pattern from the window blinds behind Bob was really bothering me. It was developing into one of my typical migraine headaches complete with temporary vision and speech problems and numbness in my face and fingers. I did my best during the discussion but fumbled my words a bit and my train of thought was derailed a couple of times. Bob must have noticed my difficulty but gave no indication.

We finished the meeting and I thanked him for the opportunity. Before I left the parking lot I opened my notebook and wrote down everything I could remember about the interview, including Bob’s questions and my answers. After struggling through the headache I didn’t feel confident about the way things went but I had obtained some good empirical data and I planned to use the notes to prepare for future interviews and develop better responses.

As expected, I didn’t receive an offer.  I continued looking for opportunities but the industry was still in a downturn.

Two years later in 1990 the same company had another opening for a reservoir engineer.  I contacted the HR department and was somewhat surprised when they invited me back for another meeting with the same manager.

The night before this second interview I studied the notes from my discussion with Bob two years earlier. I was impressed with, and thankful for, the level of detail I had captured and carefully reviewed the questions and my answers. The notes helped me remember Bob’s personality and style, and how I had fumbled quite a bit due to the headache. I was pretty confident I would perform better this time.

I met with Bob in the same office and this time there was no problem with the window light. After exchanging pleasantries Bob pulled a file out of his desk with my name on it. He said he had notes from our previous interview and was going to update them during our conversation.

He asked me his first question, and I recognized it instantly as the same first question from the last interview. I gave my answer and he looked at his notes. He paused with an interesting expression on his face, then continued. He asked another half-dozen questions and during each answer he studied his sheet. Finally he put the paper down, gave a little laugh, and told me all of my responses were “remarkably similar” to those I had given two years earlier. He appeared to be impressed with my consistency, and I guessed it never occurred to him that I might have my own notes from our previous conversation.

I felt much better about this interview, but still took time to write detailed notes before driving home.  A few days later I received an offer which I accepted. Bob was my manager for the next three years.

I recently heard a writer recommend the practice of “being good to your future self.” The idea is to look for actions you can take today that will make things easier for yourself in the future, a form of being your own best friend. Writing everything I could remember after that first interview with Bob certainly helped me out two years later, and I continued to write detailed post-interview notes through the rest my career.

(Adapted from the forthcoming professional memoir “Plugged & Abandoned”)