The most important piece to getting hired isn’t the certs or the degree. It’s the interview.

It’s an unfortunate reality that you can be, and maybe already have been, rejected for a position you applied for. Certifications in the relevant fields in hand, a degree to your name…would you be gutted to know that “warm and fuzzies” carries equal weight to the other two?

Improving your warmth and fuzziness is key not only to getting a foot in the door, but advancement in your career. This is one of a few things that go into the nebulous area of “soft skills,” and I have passed on a lot of candidates because the soft skills aren’t there, and it takes a long, long time to train. Lacking IT skills, in comparison, isn’t a big deal; I can tell an admin that if they aren’t comfortable with what the next step is on a project, stop and come find me. When you lack soft skills, I can’t tell you to change who you are.

What goes into “warm and fuzzies” from the perspective of a technical manager? It’s a few things for me, and I’ll lay them out to the best of my ability:

Confidence is one. This manifests as high self-esteem, eye contact, and being relaxed and able to express a range of emotions in the interview. If you’re shrinking away the whole time, looking down, giving fearful responses that you’re very obviously hoping are the ones I want to hear, it gives me concern that you’re not going to be composed in an actual emergency, or that you’re going to embarrass the both of us if come higher-up puts you on the spot.

Another is the ability to speak to topics in your resume, on the spot. I am not a quizmaster-style interviewer. However, if your resume mentions “Configured and maintained Active Directory and Group Policy,” that is highly relevant to the position here, so I’m going to say “Tell me about your work with AD and Group Policy.” A bad answer would be “Uh, you know, all sorts of stuff.” It’s a bad answer for both of us, because now I’m going to have to ask some more direct quizmaster style questions to understand where you’re at with understanding Windows infrastructure. A good answer would be “Sure, before I arrived everyone was having to add network printers by hand, so I set up some security groups for different areas of the building, put the computers in the group that made sense, and set up GPOs to do the printer installation depending on the security group.” That answers a lot of questions at the same time, it shows knowledge of multiple areas at the same time. It probably knocks 5 minutes off the interview that would’ve only been an opportunity for you to dig yourself in a hole.

It’s really important to me that if you are going to put a technology on your resume, you’d better be prepared to explain exactly what you know about it. I have lost count of the times I’ve had someone say on their resume that they know “networking”, but the reality of the situation is that they know what an IP address is and what a MAC address is. They don’t know why they have to enter a subnet mask, they have no concept of basic switching and routing, they don’t know TCP vs. UDP. They would’ve been better off leaving it off entirely, because it feels very dishonest to me, and it puts you in a huge hole for the rest of the interview.

But that’s me, I’m a technical manager. When I had my interview here with 3 other C-levels, I could give a nonsensical answer like “An IP address is what identifies you to the world,” but as soon as the words “IP address” hit their ears, I may as well be talking about tachyon emitters and flux capacitors. My predecessor told me, “The best thing about this position is nobody here knows what you do. The worst thing about this position is nobody here knows what you do.”

So think about this. You’ve got non-technical management evaluating you. Your certifications may as well be from Starfleet Academy. They don’t know, nor do they particularly care, what a hypervisor is. Their needs are simpler:

  • The computers and internet must not break.
  • If the computers or internet break, I must feel comfortable with you being the one handling it.
  • I must be able to have a human interaction with you when things are not broken if I’m ever to let you out of your cage.

And guys and girls, we have a bad reputation when it comes to that third bullet point. Some of it is on our predecessors, some of it is on us, some of it is on the media’s portrayal of us. TV sitcoms involving “nerdy guys” have not done us any favors. But you don’t need to fix the whole world’s vision of IT professionals. You need to fix the hiring managers vision of you. This is more for advancement potential than getting in, because many organizations aren’t expecting that human interaction from an IT person. But they must feel comfortable with you if you’re going to get in.

In the long run, spending $300 on a public speaking course at your local junior college will do more for your career than $300 on another certification.

You may be in the majority of people that say “Ugh, I hate giving speeches.” And that’s totally understandable. Honestly though, the real world doesn’t have a lot of people giving speeches like you had to give in 8th grade History. Sales professionals and executives need that skillset, but that’s not the extent of what you get out of public speaking classes. What you just might get is a bit of confidence as you speak around a table, going over a plan of action, or answering questions in an interview.

What else goes into comfort for a non-technical manager? I think comfort and trust are very tightly linked. You can never be entirely comfortable around someone you deem untrustworthy. Trust, in turn, goes to integrity, it goes to reliability, and it goes to rationality. You won’t be fully comfortable around someone, and you won’t fully trust them, if they aren’t fully honest, reliable, or rational. Consider how each of those can manifest in an interview.

If I find that you really oversold your abilities with little probing, I must conclude that you are not fully honest. If your previous employers indicate that you had issues with absences or tardiness, or that you take far longer than you should to complete tasks, I have to question your reliability. Your overall behavior in the interview is being judged for rationality, but it is gauged mainly by questions about actions you’ve taken in the past, and whether they match up with what I would consider a rational action. I tend to ask candidates about the biggest mistake they’ve made in IT, and the actions they took after they made the mistake. There are two main points to this question. One, if the candidate says “I’ve never made any big mistakes,” they’re either very green or being dishonest. We all make mistakes, and everyone has their own context for what a big mistake is. Two, I’m not particularly interested in what the mistake was. What I’m after is the response. Letting your manager know immediately after the mistake has been made is rational and honest. Fixing a self-inflicted outage and walking away whistling is rational, but not honest. Quitting your job because you didn’t want to be seen after making the mistake is honest, but not rational and raises huge issues about reliability. (This did happen to a candidate, and they were not remotely equipped to be unemployed.)

Oh, and saying “I don’t make mistakes” is neither honest nor rational, and I’ve heard it more than once. Really need to knock that off.

I’m hoping this is helpful for a few of you. I know it can be disheartening to spend so much time and money (and money and money and) on the papers that show you know your stuff, but still not be given a chance. Spend a little time thinking about how you can up your warmth and fuzziness, and I’m confident it’ll help you in the long run.

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