The Weirdest Interview I've Ever Prepped For
And the life-long lessons learned along the way
12 min read
It's no secret that prepping for an interview helps calm the anxiety of walking into a set of questions that you're utterly unprepared for. Questions that you hope are straightforward enough that you'll breeze through them, while maintaining a pleasant social demeanor to keep up that perfect first impression.
Back in college, we were tasked with working in the real-world for a minimum of 8 months as part of a co-operative education program (aka co-op) where we would be trained and graded based on our performance in the field. In order to land these positions, we had to go through the traditional application and interview process, sometimes travelling well outside the college to the businesses themselves.
On one such adventure, I found myself needing to travel to a nearby city, not 20 minutes away from my studies, to have an on-site interview for an IT position. The college had prepared a package of information for me including where the interview was to take place, what time, and some other nitty gritty details. With the package in hand, I departed for their office, eagerly anticipating a very easy interview and hopefully a job offer on the spot. My over-confidence stemming from the fact that I had successfully completed my first work term at RIM (now BlackBerry) in their IT department, coupled with a good deal of studying up on any technologies I thought relevant. However, all this prep work and prior experience did not prepare me for what was to unfold, just 20 minutes down the road...
I arrived about 20 minutes early for the interview and immediately realized that the building I was at was not a normal office at all. You see, I was expecting a sign that would lead me to the office lobby, where I would check in and patiently wait for my interviewer to retrieve me. To my dismay, this building was small, but absolutely packed with random businesses. Tiny signs littered the outside and my destination was listed nowhere. I tried a few different doors to find them locked or leading into random offices. Finally, I found a set of larger doors that led into what looked like the hallway of a mall straight out of my childhood. In there I found the odd public facing business including a barber shop, and a dentist office, alongside even more entrances to random businesses. I ran to the nearest business directory sign to find out that my destination was still listed nowhere. I was well and truly stumped, and now with little more than 15 minutes left until my interview time, I was starting to panic.
With sweat dripping down my brow, I franticly rushed into the barber shop and dentist office, I asked if anyone knew where my destination was. Nobody knew anything about the office I was looking for and so I did the only thing a rational human would do, I started entering random open doors into rooms filled with cubicles, asking anyone I could find if they knew where I needed to go. I got a bit of intel from answers like "Oh I think they're in this building somewhere" to "I know they're in here somewhere, have you tried to check the business directory in the hall?" These responses came between the puzzled glances and standoffish demeanor of some of the office occupants as I rummaged through the building into places I clearly had no business being in. After a while of this panicked runaround, I finally found someone who knew what had happened and he informed me that my destination's office had moved out some months ago, but he was pretty sure they were close. He gave me some details about another building down the road and I was off.
I hopped into my car and flew down the road, finding the building that was mentioned, but once again had no sign to speak of. I entered this building and rushed to the front counter. Unfortunately, I was met with even more dismay as the person at the counter informed me that they had never heard of my destination and that the building I was standing in was a physical activity haven of sorts for everything from indoor pools through physiotherapy facilities. With that information in hand, I rushed out the door and rummaged through the info packet the college had given me. I found the number for my co-op coordinator and gave her a call, but she didn't pick up. I realized that there was also a number for my destination in the package, so I tried to call that, but the number was no longer in service.
Jumping back into my car, I figured that I was finished at that point. I had done everything that I could do to find this place, and although I dreaded the thought of being marked down as a no-show, I had no choice. You see, back then smartphones and data were new, so I couldn't just simply use Google Maps to find where this place was, and it would be several years before using a smartphone GPS would become as second nature as it is today. While sitting there in my defeat, I had a thought that maybe the directions I was given weren't as precise as I thought they were. You see, I was primarily travelling down a service road alongside a highway to reach all these destinations and so I figured instead of backtracking my way to the highway, I could continue down this road the way I've been going to see if my destination was simply further down.
With this impromptu plan, I drove down the road and not one block later, I found my destination. This office had a huge sign and what seemed like a massive section of the commercial building reserved for them. The sign and branding on the building was all shiny and brand new, which lined up with them having moved just a few months before. I rushed into the parking lot and then up to the clearly labelled office, making it to the front desk with just a minute or two to spare. I checked in and was told to fill in some forms while I waited in the waiting room. At this point I was relieved, my stress was virtually gone, and I thought that after all that, the day's dismays were over. I was wrong.
My interviewer showed up and greeted me, he was friendly enough as he guided me into the main doors and down a hallway towards the interview room. We shared some casual conversation about what had just transpired, some funny small talk to break the ice I thought, until he started talking about tech. Now remember that I'm there for IT so tech talk is normal, but it is not normal to change your voice's volume suddenly and to a level only those with supersonic hearing could hear. This led to me accidentally overtalking him awkwardly at a few points in the conversation because I couldn't tell if he was still talking; I just couldn't hear him. It also led to me asking him to repeat himself a few times as he was trying to direct me through the building once we had reached the end of the hall, and I immediately made a wrong turn.
My anxiety started to kick into high gear as I realized that already I've overtalked my potential future boss a few times just a few sentences into our conversation. On top of that, I had already failed to take instructions well because, you guessed it, I couldn't hear them. I rationalized the situation as maybe he had a sore throat or that he just couldn't speak up well and that going into the private interview room, instead of a rather noisy open office, would help me recover from this sticky situation. It did not.
We sat down and he started the interview. He started by introducing himself and how he had landed the position he was now in. He also kept saying how much he enjoyed my college's co-ops as we were almost always who he ended up hiring. We exchanged some rather normal questions and answers, but then things took a turn for the worse once again. He started talking about random tech and about how "I already knew all about it" speaking as if he somehow knew my prior work experience. He wasn't talking about anything I had in my resume either, as I had little, to no experience with the tech he was referring to. He went on to say that even though we were considered desktop IT, whose job it is to primarily service anything on the desk, like PCs and their peripherals, smartphones, printers, and some networking; that, that was all easy stuff and that he was going to throw me into the fire by giving me tasks with minimal explanation and a deadline that would give me real challenge. Alongside these tasks, he said, that of course people would still bug us for help with their computers and peripherals and that we would help them with it, but we considered it small stuff.
As the interview progressed in this way, I started realizing that this place was not going to be a good fit for me. You see, in my previous position at RIM, I was certainly challenged by new pieces of tech that I had never worked with before and it was my first true office experience with a plethora of procedures and teams working together. At RIM I had a large team I could consult with to ask questions, and had grown accustomed to having proper infrastructure in place when I needed something (ie sourcing a new hard drive came from a specific team, networking issues were given to another team, etc.).
The work environment that I was looking down the barrel at during this interview was largely going to be just the boss and me. With only a little over a year of college semesters and 4 months working in the field, I just wasn't comfortable with such an arrangement. Especially since I wasn't even sure if he would be okay with me asking questions and checking in to get help whenever I was stumped. This coupled with the already disastrous commute to the office, awkward social interaction, and the dismissive tone taken with what tech "I knew all about" had me writing off this job before I had even left the interview room.
Despite my growing distaste for the position, I continued the interview the best I could and finally got to its close. We shook hands and of course another disaster struck. As we were leaving the interview room I went to get the door for the interviewer, but he rushed at it faster than I did and I ended up blocking his path which made him back up. And once again another awkward social situation that I will never forget...
Me: "Oh sorry, I was going to open the door for you"
Interviewer: "Oh, ok, go ahead"
Me "Alright" - proceeds to open door
As I left the office and departed ways with my interviewer, I found myself tired, stressed out, and hoping that I wouldn't be offered the job. At the time, I thought of the entire afternoon as a nightmare that was finally over, but reflecting on it, I learned a lot of valuable life-long lessons about interviews, determination, and expectations. As an added bonus, I was never offered the job.
Determination Pays Off
Instead of blaming my resources, giving up when the address was wrong, I stood my ground. My determined rummage through the building approaching random strangers led me to eventually reaching my goal (albeit a bit indirectly).
Preparation Does Not Guarantee Success
We've heard it a million times before, but life is messy. As one of the first times in my life that I was outside the bubble of a school, or my parents, I learned that despite my studying and prior experience preparing me for a technical interview - nothing I did could have prepared me for what I experienced. However, the prep work did help me not worry about any parts of the day that went to plan (ie Q&A) and let me focus on all the other unexpected elements that filled the day.
Respect Your Privileges, Don’t Be Beholden to Them
When I went into this interview, I felt like I'd be letting everyone down if I didn't land the job. The school had a dedicated instructor and weekly class to help us land placements and my parents had paid for my tuition, so who was I to not like the job I was so privileged to have presented to me. When I started writing off that interview in my head, I realized that I respected all the help I had received, but I just couldn't be tied down to an experience that was so wrong for me. By continuing to conduct the interview with grace, and using the co-op hiring system moving forward, I realized that I was respecting what I had available to me, but I didn't need to have every situation conclude in a textbook finish.
Use Interviews as a Filter
Job descriptions are just not enough for you to determine if you want to work at a place. They're a good start, but the interview should be used as a filter to see if the job might be right for you. It's easy to see a job interview as a one-way street focused on you and your technical knowhow. Instead, take the interview as an opportunity to not only show off your technical knowledge, but also feel out how the office environment is and what responsibilities you'll be given. As I said before, the interview is just a first impression, you should be worried about the first impression you're giving off to the interviewer, but you should also be worried about the first impression you're getting from your interviewer and then that take into consideration when accepting a job offer.
Escape Your Comfort Zone, When Applicable
Your comfort zone is hard to leave because it's comfortable. This is especially true in a tech job because leaving your comfort zone typically means getting a new position on another team where you know nobody and are a newbie to all the tech at hand. Leaving the comfort zone is important as it allows you to grow professionally and socially, but I believe that you can go too far. For me personally, if I'm still learning new things and being challenged in any part of my position then I'm happy where I'm at. I'm not keen on pushing forward into new experiences until I've decided that I've done all I can where I currently stand.