A job interview like no other

[This is the fifth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

As my senior year in college rolled around, I attended a series of well-intentioned sessions hosted by the school’s Career Services Center. We discussed job hunting, resumé writing, and job interviews, among other topics. The nice people who worked in the office even offered mock interviews, and I duly signed up for one. In the course of that awkward conversation, the lady asked me what my greatest strength was, and I could not even begin to fashion an answer that seemed compelling in any business context. I had no work experience of any value, and while I was an enthusiastic History major, I was not looking for work as a historian. The woman kindly coached me through pasting together an answer about my tenacious curiosity and my analytical rigor, and we left it at that, but it did not inspire any confidence in me. Her next volley was to ask me what my greatest weakness was, and without even pausing I answered, “Self-assessment.” We both laughed over this answer, and agreed that as funny as it was, there was really never going to be a moment in life when one would ever dare to offer such a sarcastic reply to that question asked in all seriousness during a professional job interview.

I should also note that I have always been a plane buff. As an infant, I chewed the wings off of a 1/144-scale North American X-15 model, and I just went from there. For most of my youth my heroes were aeronautic designers like Kelly Johnson, Ed Heinemann, and Joe Sutter. While I ultimately shied away from engineering, my love of aircraft remains, and any friend of mine can tell you about my inability not to look at every plane that flies over, identifying all of them no matter how mundane or exotic.

• • • • • • •

In 2005, my job was to manage capital acquisition contracts at a time when my company had run out of capital and was acquiring nothing. I feared this might lead to a dire outcome, but fortunately the oh-so-independent inspector general hired on an old pal with extensive experience reforming other companies in our sector. When this consultant arrived on the property, he decreed he needed staff, and there was a flurry of activity while the muckety mucks shook the trees looking for staff to fall down to the ground, stunned and eligible for a new assignment. My boss and I did indeed land in this trap, and soon learned we were to be assigned to jump through the consultant’s hoops for an indefinite tour of duty.

I had been present for the consultant’s first department-wide-all-hands-on-deck meeting, and we had all noted his condescension, his arrogance, his disinterest in safety, and his certainty in his ability to do the same things he had done elsewhere here in our company, with no regard for the odd quirks that are inherent to our unique legislative genesis. You can imagine how excited I was to become the deputy assistant for this fellow. When he learned two warm bodies had been conjured up out of thin air, he demanded to interview us to make sure we met his minimum lackey requirements. I am sure you can further imagine my interest in competing for the right to be seconded to this guy against my will.

When the day came for us to sit down with the man, he kicked my boss out of his office, seated himself behind my boss’s desk, and called in my boss to sit in his own visitor’s chair and justify himself. This was done one-on-one, while I cooled my heels out in the hallway. A half-hour passed, then forty-five minutes, and finally, the door opened and the consultant summoned me into the room. My boss had moved to a chair in the corner, and so I took my spot in the chair immediately across from the consultant. This man is a big fellow, brash, often impatient, and clearly starting from the perspective that anyone idling away at my firm must be soft in the head. My desire to impress him hovered near absolute zero, and the urge to yank his chain was overwhelming.

He began with a standard array of questions, including the always popular, “Describe how you came to be in your current position.” The proper answer to that one is worthy of a long blog post all of its own, but I stuck with something short and sweet. We continued on for a while more, and then he paused and looked down at the paper on his desk, which seemed to be a series of suggested questions which he had presumably googled that morning. And then he asked, “What is your greatest strength?” I looked at him for a moment that stretched out in my mind. I considered several replies, but none seemed appropriate to the moment. Analytical rigor? No. My tenacious curiosity? Nah. My rugged good looks? Sadly, no. My spooky ability to recognize music from a note or two at the most? Probably not all that impressive. Then inspiration struck me, and I replied: “Long-range military aircraft identification.”

B-58 HustlerA curious silence filled the room, although I could just make out the sound of my boss trying not to swallow his tongue while he stifled a guffaw. The consultant looked at me steadily, and asked, “Really? Then describe to me a B-58.” (Later I learned he had served in a B-58 unit during his service in the USAF.) Without any hesitation, I told him the Convair B-58 Hustler is a large, supersonic low delta-winged plane with four GE J79 turbojets, the inner two of which were slung under pylons and the outer two were mounted flush to the wing. I also noted that the aircraft almost always flew with a large centerline pod which served as a weapons carrier and a fuel tank. It had three crew and a remotely operated 20mm GE Vulcan cannon in its tail. The consultant took that in and agreed that was so.

With no additional comment, he looked down at his paper and then back at me, and asked the inevitable follow-up: “What is your greatest weakness?” Having mustered the nerve to sass the man over the previous question, I saw no reason not to continue down the same path, and I answered him: “Self-assessment.”

Shortly after that exchange, the interview concluded and I was ushered into the hallway to await the pre-ordained outcome. It may surprise you, dear reader, although it should not, to learn that I was accepted for the position.

• • • • • • •

To make this assignment even more of a plum, we learned our time with the consultant would be spent almost entirely on the road. If you knew how low our per diem was, then you would understand what a grim prospect this would be even in the company of people you enjoy. Trying to imagine myself visiting railyards in the middle of third trick so I could help the consultant justify how he would later eliminate those facilities loomed ahead of me. Yet circumstances evolve in curious ways. My lovely wife was pregnant with our third child at this time, and the poor woman was throwing up all day long. I did not want to leave her alone with two small kids nauseous and suffering, and so I spoke up to the muckety mucks at work and explained that I simply could not embark on the endless field trip of doom. Surprisingly, they all agreed, and my role vis à vis this consultant was changed to back office support and analysis. My poor boss headed out on this assignment, and was kind enough never to lambaste me for abandoning him to his solo fate.

The postscript to this story is that I wound up working with the consultant, on and off, for several years, and came to know him pretty well. It did not take long to realize that while he was an acquired taste, he did have a genuinely impressive record in the industry and much of his opening act was in fact just that – an act. He was smarter, kinder, and far more patient than he had led us to believe, and while many of his proposals succumbed to the politics of my weird company, he did work tirelessly to make things better. Truth be told, if I had the interview to do over today, I do not think I would engage in the same sort of snark that I did eight years ago. Having said all that, I am still oddly glad I found the chance to answer the greatest strength and weakness questions as I did. I also suppose it is fortunate that my twenty-two year old self did not know what an absurd interview lay before me twelve years down the road.


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