TSQL Tuesday #93: The buzzword arms race


This month, T-SQL Tuesday, the monthly blog party started by Adam Machanic back in 2009 (!), is hosted by Kendra Little (b | t). Kendra’s choice of topic is Interviewing Patterns & Anti-Patterns, a “soft” subject I’d normally shy away from. But darn it, I’m going to play along for a paltry few paragraphs.

Out of the comfort zone

I guess I’m a classic geek who patiently takes the time to engage with code, but have my blind spots on the soft skills side. Be that as it may, some years ago I had to sit in to help with the technical side of a job interview. I prepared a list of straightforward and not-so-straightforward questions, and felt prepared to push only as hard as was sensible for the candidate, and to let him lead into his own comfort zone if required.

Things started out okay. I asked questions, we embroidered on his answers, and he came across as pretty confident. But I found myself straining to really follow some of his explanations. Not his command of language, but simply whether he was sure what he was talking about.

As I started working harder to parse his explanations, I think it turned into an arms race. Whether by devious design or an unfortunate style of communication, he came into focus as somebody experienced at constructing sentences which sound superficially impressive, while avoiding clear statements. So my manner probably got a bit more aggressive as I tried to poke holes in his answers, and his buzzword emission frequency increased in response.

In the end, I wasn’t convinced by him at all. But I can’t honestly say I would have been able to make a fair comparison between him and someone else by that point. Thing is, I was turned off by the defensive mechanism that didn’t allow him ever to say “I’m not sure” or “Not my area of expertise”, and the slickness of his technique smelled of bull to me.

Maybe that approach is a great survival mechanism for some people, and maybe they only play that overconfidence card in interviews, rather than on the job. Perhaps I handled him really badly – if I played it better, he wouldn’t be on that defensive footing, and he would have come across as a better candidate.

Oh well, it’s back to reading the subtext in source code for me.

4 thoughts on “TSQL Tuesday #93: The buzzword arms race”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this — thank you for writing! Great tips in here for candidates on how they can defuse the buzzwords arm race if they end up in a similar situation.

  2. Agree with Kendra on good to think about from a candidate’s perspective. It’s ok to say “I don’t know”, even better to say something like “I’m not sure, here’s how I’d go about finding the answer…”

    I’ve always found that talking to HR/Recruiters playing the buzzword bingo so that they tick all the required boxes is a good way to get *to* the interview, but when the interviewer is clearly technical, drop the buzzwords and be honest when you haven’t got experience…

    1. Thanks Andrew,

      I can’t help but picture myself playing that “I don’t know” card a lot in the interviewee position. But perhaps there is a strange kind of reverse (very British?) arrogance hiding in there: only when feeling secure enough in the big picture can one happily admit not to knowing much šŸ™‚

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