Lessons Learned Negotiating for my First Car

In my early adulthood, I hated negotiating. The process seemed dirty, one which often felt like it required dishonesty. I remember my one attempt to haggle for a $25 t-shirt at a market in the Caribbean when I was 17. My strategy: opening my wallet and saying I only had $5. Somehow the merchant saw through this ruse. I ended up paying full price with the money from my other pocket.

Negotiating down the price of something is uncomfortable for many people:

  • It creates confrontation
  • Logically, items should be marked with a price that everyone pays
  • Even after coming to an agreement, there’s always a sense of wonder if the price could have gone even lower
  • “Professional” negotiators often exaggerate with guilt trips such as “I’ve got kids to feed”

    In Business As in Life, You Don’t Get What You Deserve, You Get What You Negotiate

Immediately after getting my first job offer soon after college, I went with my mom to the local car dealership. She was the negotiator in the family who drove the hardest bargain. I bought a car that Saturday from the first dealership I visited because I needed one for Monday. I went in expecting my mom to work her magic, but I sat and watched while the only additional value we extracted was an extra year of oil changes. Over time, I realized that I basically paid full price for something I didn’t have to, and I became determined to reduce my ignorance of negotiation.

An important concept to understand about negotiation is optimal pricing. Essentially, this means that the dealership wants to charge as much as any individual customer is willing to pay. The price is set to an arbitrarily high amount and each customer negotiates it down to an amount he or she is willing to pay. The dealership would not sell a car below what makes a profit. The salesman’s job is to make you feel like that baseline price is higher than it actually is. Does that make you feel more comfortable about negotiating? The additional money being paid above the baseline is going straight to profit!

The same applies to other scenarios, such as at a street market or negotiating salary. Obviously, there are many additional economic factors to consider, of which I know only a little. However, knowledge of this simple concept can ease discomfort about the negotiating environment.

Reaching the end of a job interview, the human resources person asked a young applicant fresh out of business school, “And what starting salary are you looking for?”

The applicant said, “In the neighborhood of $125,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.”

The interviewer said, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks’ vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50 percent of your salary, and a company car leased every two years, say, a red Corvette?”

The applicant sat up straight and said, “Wow! Are you kidding?”

And the interviewer replied, “Yeah, but you started it.”

-from Recruiters Network

Over the years, I’ve negotiated much more on my own, another car, home prices, salaries, etc. While I’m still very far from as proficient as I’d like to be, these experiences have taught me what to do and what are my weaknesses.

Create Objectivity by Having Someone Negotiate for You

A tip I learned from You Can Negotiate Anything is to ensure an objective party is negotiating for you. Because emotions often get in the way of logic, having someone who is invested only in reducing price can be highly beneficial. Relating this to my story above, my mom should have been objective in the situation but her own emotions were in play. She wanted to make sure I had a car so I didn’t have to borrow hers anymore. She did not want to experience the “pain” of lending her car any longer and was willing to have me pay to get my own.

Willingness to Walk away

The number 1 rule of negotiating is being willing to walk away from the deal. This gives you leverage.

In my example above, my mom was not willing to walk away, because she wanted me to have my own car. In other practical scenarios, this rule means that no one will give you a better price if he or she thinks you are going to buy something anyway. In contrast, if he or she senses your willingness to not come to an agreement, he or she will be more likely to meet your demands.

Collaborate on Less Significant Issues

Sometimes either party will not budge on the main issue, such as price. However, it can be possible to come to agreement on other items that are more significant to one side than the other. In the above example, this meant getting more free maintenance. In salary negotiation, it might mean getting extra paid time off or tuition reimbursement instead of a salary increase. There are many ways to add mutually beneficial clauses to meet in the middle of a negotiation. Additionally, this strategy is much less confrontational.

“If I give one to you, I have to give one to everybody else”

When going into a negotiation, make sure you understand the worst case scenario. Where possible, prepare beforehand to improve the worst case scenario. If missing out on a job opportunity means not having a job, then you can improve the worst case scenario by trying to line up a second job offer. Little tips like the ones above, plus many others, can help to make you a deadly negotiator, and as with anything, practice makes perfect.

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First-Hand Tips to the Interviewee

Through recent discussions with interviewers such as HR managers, Project Managers and Technical Hiring Managers, I’ve compiled a list of first-hand tips to job candidates. I hope they are helpful to you.

From Conversations

 

“[A] stumper for more entry level individuals is the ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’? Many times (most times) it is ‘manager’. Given that they are probably interviewing with the manager, they should think what the manager wants them to say which is more ‘an expanded role in what I am interviewing for’. This stumps many of the interviewees. Remember, the interview is about the company not about the interviewee.”

Pat Tokarcik – HR Director – ShurTech Brands, LLC

 

“There is one piece of advice to the experienced or inexperienced that I’d pay forward – [get] Gallup’s Strengths Finder & set out some realistic development goals as part of self discovery.

I didn’t think about the book when we discussed ratings the other day, and it’s a pretty important piece of advice that was recommended to me & I’ve been successfully deploying in my ‘self discovery’ phases of life. I wish someone would’ve told me that after college. Nevertheless, interview advice for college grads, especially recent college grads, is to focus on strengths and deploy those for confidence. If you gain confidence through preparation or whatever gets you to that ‘I’m ready’ feeling, then you are going to more easily control your behaviors on the ‘stumping’ questions or even the relatively easy ones. It’s also being comfortable that you don’t know everything and don’t have to, giving the interviewer a chance to draw their own conclusions on that.”

Lacey Strete – Special Projects Analyst – Construction Software Technologies

 

“Bring portfolios of your work if you have it and be prepared to discuss what is included. Interviewers are focused on a variety of your attributes. If I find an entry level candidate who exhibits confidence in their abilities (even if they need to be fine tuned from a technical standpoint), but who also has confidence in their communication skills and can speak to what they have created, I see potential for a future mentor/manager. Candidates who can fill those roles in the future are incredibly valuable.”

Natalie Stuller – HR Manager – WS Packaging Group

 

“I’m reminded of an interview I did a few years ago. I asked a guy about a specific version of a program or application, and his response was something along the lines… ‘I did xxx which is similar in the past, and since it should be the same principles, I could adapt to figure it out. Plus if I have specific issues I can always use Google and figure it out.’

I thought it showed his ability to work outside of the box and solve his own issues, and he turned out to be one of the few people on my team who could.”

Jeff Strempel – Consultant – Accenture

 

Already in the Public Domain

Of course, there are some tips already on the Internet that can be very useful for interviewees.

In this YouTube clip, Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur, speaks for a minute or so about having candidates self-rank themselves.

 

 

Lastly, this YouTube clip was produced by Toastmasters, an international organization helping members to be better public speakers. Here are 5 key tips to interviewing for a job.

Watch These Movies if you Want to Work at Google

How Many Characters are in this Blog Post?

Brain HurtsDo you remember being taught math when you were young? If you were anything like me you hated word problems. That was the only time during math class that we could not just use mechanical processes. Instead, we had to think about how to apply those processes to real world problems.

The natural evolution of word problems in the adult world is Brain Teasers, those pesky puzzles that are supposed to be fun but, more often, are frustrating. For most people, the skill of solving riddles and impossible estimation problems has never had much use. That was until clever software companies, such as Microsoft and Google, famously began asking these types of questions during job interviews. The legends of these companies’ interview tactics are so predominant that they have essentially become their own category of technical interview questions.

How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?

Unprepared candidates confront brain teasers with shock and horror. A feeling of futility drapes over them like a giant rain cloud. Fortunately, all the candidate needs to understand is that he or she does not necessarily have to answer the puzzle correctly to “pass” the test.

 

The Interviewer’s Perspective

Brain Teasers are great because when they work, they are a simple way to lighten the tone of an interview. They are also great at unearthing important traits of the interview candidate:

  • How does the candidate handle pressure, such as a seemingly impossible problem?
  • How well can the candidate express his or her thoughts regarding a difficult solution?
  • Is the candidate capable of “thinking outside the box” or are all proposed solutions too straight-forward?
  • Specific types of puzzles test the candidate’s ability to estimate large unknown quantities.

“A hunter sets up camp, walks 10 miles south and 10 miles east. He shoots a bear and drags it 10 miles north back to his camp. What color is the bear?”

 

Wooden Puzzle

My Perspective

Through years of practice, I became comfortable with the word problems in math class. It was a required step in progressing in mathematics. Likewise, Brain Teasers become conquerable with practice.

Personally, I love Brain Teasers now. I enjoy when a friend sends me one I have not before heard. I find it worthwhile to stretch my mind by thinking about different types of problems.

Still, Brain Teasers are rather overused in interviews. As stated above, they can be useful when they work but, when they do not work, they often fluster an otherwise good candidate. Some puzzles require a certain basis of knowledge that can lend itself to bias. Consider the puzzle about the hunter above, the answer is “White.” Why? Because the only place on Earth that someone can walk X distance South, X distance East or West, X distance North and then arrive at the same point again is at the North Pole. Polar bears are the only type of bears that live there. Polar bears are white. The candidate may be able to logically reason through the problem, but sometimes a small piece of “common knowledge” becomes a roadblock.

Lastly, Brain Teasers take too much precious time during an interview to not uncover anything of import. They test the “A-Ha moment” of the candidate, a long period of silence followed by the sudden discovery of the answer in the candidate’s mind. In cases where the candidate solves the problem right away, it usually does not mean that the candidate is brilliant but that he or she has heard it before.

 

Tips for the Interviewee

As I mentioned, it is not required of the candidate to solve the problem. In most cases, the interviewer is trying to gain insight into how the candidate thinks and describes his or her thoughts. Therefore, the #1 suggestion for approaching these problems is to communicate your thoughts while you are reasoning through them. Talk aloud about alternative solutions you are considering. Ask questions of the interviewer about the constraints of the problem. If you cannot come up with a solution, explain some option that would get you close. Going back to the polar bear problem, it would probably be enough to understand that the hunter is at the North Pole.

For more tips and great job interview Brain Teaser examples, I recommend the book How to Ace the Brain Teaser Interview.

 

Brain Teasers in the Movies

Some of the most fun Brain Teasers to discuss with friends are those from movies. It’s interesting when someone has seen the movie and remembers the solution, but when you propose it again after some time, he or she does not remember it. Below are some examples of the best movie Brain Teasers (hopefully YouTube won’t remove them).

 

Metro (Retrieve a cap from a bottle)


 

Labyrinth (Which door to knock on?)

 

Die Hard with a Vengeance (How to get exactly 4 gallons of water)

 

Batman TV Series (Top 10 Riddler riddles)

 

Post your favorite Brain Teasers in the comments and good luck on your interview!

Were my Microsoft Certification Exams Worth it?

As important as it is for Software Developers to keep current with emerging technologies, it is equally important to choose wisely when it comes to learning them. Indeed, there is a finite amount of time to devote to self-improvement. This truth became evident most recently while I’ve been thinking about my personal goals for the year and trying to decide whether or not I should try to obtain the more recent Microsoft certifications on .NET 4.0, such as Web Developer or Azure Developer on Visual Studio 2010. It got me to thinking about all the time I spent at the beginning of my career getting certified and whether or not that investment has paid dividends.

As described in Contrasting 2 Job Rejections, I was scared about my job prospects after graduating college. Once I got a job, I felt that I needed to ensure I had opportunities going forward and figured getting Microsoft Certifications would be the best way to differentiate myself from the candidate pool. I took 14 tests in less than 3 years, passing 12 and failing twice. I obtained the status Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). You can see my transcript here (enter transcript ID “677424” and access code “insights”).

Some of the tests were paid for by my employer, some were not. I usually studied using the officially released self-paced training kit for each test, but I’ve also purchased expensive training videos, exam crams, used free web casts, etc. I was completely immersed in the certification process. I actually understood all the options and the Microsoft certification path, of which there are now many. Since it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve taken any, I find myself out of the loop, wondering if it makes sense for me to re-enter this world.

At the time of this writing, I have about 7 years of professional software development experience, enough to significantly reduce the amount of studying required to pass a certification test compared to earlier in my career.

Microsoft
Certifications
Expected Study time (hours) Completed Study Time (hours) Practice Tests (hours) Days Studying Hours Per Day Test Date
70-270 (Microsoft
Windows XP Professional)
45 51.00 9.50 35 1.73 February 12,2004
70-290 (Windows Server
2003 Environment)
31 28.00 3 23 1.35 March 10, 2004
70-291 (Windows 2003
Network Infrastructure)
47.5 78.00 11.5 122 0.73 July 9, 2004
Took Test on July 9th 9 4.5 12 1.13 July 21, 2004
70-293 (Windows 2003
Planning a Network)
22 12 4 15 1.07 August 5, 2004
Took Test on August 5th 30.50 8.5 64 0.61 October 8, 2004
70-294 (Windows Server
2003 Active Directory)
21 14.08 4 31 0.58 April 2, 2005
70-297 (Win2003 A.D.
& Network Infastructure)
16.5 16.92 2.5 17 1.14 April 19, 2005
70-228 (SQL 2000
Administration)
55 53.42 5.5 72 0.82 May 27, 2005
70-229 (SQL 2000
Development)
24 23.50 3 151 0.18 October 29, 2005
70-315 (Web Apps with
Visual C# .NET)
34 45.50 13.5 81 0.73 January 24, 2006
70-320 (XML Web Services
with C# .NET)
40 34.00 3 42 0.88 May 2, 2006
70-316 (Windows Apps
with Visual C# .NET)
14 15.42 3.25 22 0.85 June 6, 2006
70-300 (Solutions
Architecture & Req’ts)
12 7.58 9 47 0.35 September 28, 2006
70-553 (Upgrade MCSD to
MCPD : Part 1)
82 16.00 4 428 0.05 April 12, 2008
70-554 (Upgrade MCSD to
MCPD : Part 2)
55 0.00 5 22 0.23 May 5, 2008
Took Test on May 5th still counting 0.00 February 28, 2009?
70-502 (.NET 3.5 –
Windows Presentation Foundation)
14 14.00 6 108 0.19 December 13, 2008
70-561 (.NET 3.5 –
ADO.NET)
12.25 12.50 0.5 18 0.72 May 2, 2009

Would obtaining more certifications be valuable? Looking back, I feel that it was worth it to work towards achieving the certifications that I did. They served 2 purposes:

Milestones for Self-Motivated Learning

By deciding to get certified, I was declaring a personal goal that was tangible and had benefits other than just self-improvement. Many of the topics involved in certification were topics that I wanted to learn about anyway, especially early in my career. For example, I was assigned to my first professional web application project about the same time that I was ready to begin studying for the related certification. Since my professional life and personal interests were colliding, I found it much easier to be motivated to study and create small side projects to practice what I had learned. Better yet, knowing the milestone of passing the test would aid in job security added to the incentive to learn.

Measurable Proficiency

I have heard people in the IT industry downplay the significance of certifications, especially those from Microsoft. Some have argued that the tested topics do not accurately reflect skills that are required to perform well on the job. Others state that the proliferation of “brain dumps,” practice tests that have actual questions from real exams (and are considered cheating), marginalize what the tests represent.

My feeling is that there is a lot of truth to these points. However, employers still seemed to have placed some value on certifications. They may have asked, “If certification tests are so trivial, why doesn’t everyone have them?” I found in the years after my achievements, that it did help in my job search. I believe it exhibited measurable proficiency in topics that I claimed to have experience in. This differentiated me from others who could merely state something to the effect of: “Experience = ASP.NET – 2 years.” The achievement generated conversation in interviews. When asked about my certifications, I got to explain how I set personal goals and followed through on them, learning a great deal of relevant skills in the process. @MikeWo also reminded me on twitter that companies need certain certification requirements of their employees to keep partner status, yet another benefit to hiring someone who has them already or displays the ability to pass them quickly.

Having established that it was worthwhile to get certified in the past, does that mean I should set a goal for future certifications?

It is yet to be determined, but I don’t think so. The direction I am trying to take with my career is not to spend focused time learning the details of the next version of ASP.NET, for example. I have also already built my resume to a point where “getting my foot in the door” is not the problem it used to be. Therefore, the benefits listed above do not quite align with what I want to achieve going forward. I could always afford to learn more about Microsoft technologies, such as .NET, but I already know enough to be effective. I am more interested in learning non-Microsoft technologies these days, like jQuery, Mercurial, or anything Google, so I may be convinced to take a test for a new, interesting technology once it is released and known to have value throughout the industry. Lastly, I believe that the best way to get a great job is a great network and by establishing the ability to get things done.

Time to buckle down and get things done then…

Exam Tip: No matter how much you study before-hand, always cram: it’s important to have that info in short-term memory going into the test. It’s also highly beneficial to gauge your readiness by taking a practice test with a company like Transcender.

Contrasting 2 Job Rejections

Job interviews have 2 purposes: the 1st being the need for a company to evaluate a job candidate and the 2nd being for the candidate to evaluate the company. Far too many interviewers forget the importance of the latter.

In my experience, I have several interesting stories regarding interviews from both sides of the table (candidate versus interviewer), but 2 personal stories stand out from my job search. Both of them involve the same outcome, rejection. However, the 2 companies could not have been less similar in the process that got us to that outcome.

(Photo by bpsusf)

Job Search 1.0

After graduating college years ago, I did not have a job lined up for me. To overcome this, I admittedly began applying to jobs with brute force. My resume got fired off to any ad in the newspaper, whether I was qualified or not. Being inexperienced with the job search process, I was also fairly unorganized. I commonly received follow up phone calls from companies that I didn’t recognize. One such company was headquartered in Westlake, OH. Despite my confusion about how I applied, my lack of knowledge of the company, and general stumbling behavior, I was invited to a job interview for a technical support position.

At the time I was naïve. I had prepared for behavioral interview questions such as, “what was an example of a conflict you have resolved?” but I had not prepared for a technical interview. I did not realize that this type of interview would be a comprehensive test of everything I learned during school. As a result, the interview did not go well.

I failed to answer 70 to 90 percent of the questions delivered to me. I was in way over my head and so were the interviewers. There were 2 men on the other side of the table, firing basic undergraduate level computer science questions at me. With each of my failed attempts, they reacted with impatience. I could see them trying to hold back the disgust and frustration from such a miserable process. Near the end, I asked a canned question: “what are the next steps?” While 1 of the men tried to be professional, starting with “we’ll get back you if…” he was immediately cut off by the more senior employee with the statement “I don’t think so.” I suppose that was his idea of a rejection letter.

Clearly, I did not make a good impression with this company. Had I realized that I could not simply go into a technical interview and wing it or had I done some review of the syntax, definitions, and algorithms from my previous terms I would have passed the test. I just hope I didn’t end up on The Daily WTF. The result was demoralizing, in a good way. Just as clear as my incompatibility with the position was the unprofessionalism of the company. My embarrassment motivated me to get my act together. After I did, I knew better than to send this particular company another job application.

Job Search 2.0

Much more recently, I applied to Fog Creek Software with an excellent cover letter and resume. In case you have not heard of Fog Creek, it is an exclusive company in New York, known for hiring elite programmers. The CEO is Joel Spolsky, about whom I have referred multiple times on this blog. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I received a cleverly written response in the form of an email inviting me to have a technical phone interview with a Fog Creek developer. I became extremely excited and began to prepare for the interview immediately. Because Joel is so open about his interviewing techniques, I knew that I had to re-learn the C programming language, so I spent the few days I had reading as much as I could and writing some sample programs.

Despite my preparation, I struggled mightily during the interview. I fielded difficult questions designed to eliminate a high percentage of applicants that were qualified based on their resumes. The questions were not completely foreign to me, but I wasn’t able to internalize C programming to the degree I needed to in order to answer these abstract questions quickly. Consequently, I received a pleasant rejection letter about a week later.

In contrast to the 1st story, the interview with Fog Creek was a much more enjoyable experience. Throughout my struggles answering questions, the interviewer remained patient and calm. He seemed to grasp the importance of being a professional vector for the company to the outside world. When I struggled, he rephrased the question. I am pretty sure he even ended the interview early, but I have no problem with that. Why should he continue to waste either of our time? Despite ending the technical part of the interview early, he thoroughly answered all my questions about the company and sent me off with a cheerful blessing. As a result, I still speak highly of Fog Creek Software and would recommend other software developers to apply there.

Lessons Learned – Job Interview Tips

When performing job interviews, I urge you to place importance on making a good impression for your company to all job candidates. Being professional and courteous leads to positive word of mouth, which in turn leads to a better array of candidates. To remind my readers and myself of this goal, here are some tips to remaining professional during a candidate’s train wreck:

  • Be patient with failing interviewees. Let them answer questions at their own pace. At a certain point, try rephrasing the question before moving on.
  • Smile and be friendly. Think of the interview as an opportunity to have an intellectual conversation. There will likely be something you can learn from it.
  • Finish short if necessary, but do not do it abruptly. Find a good breaking point after a fair minimum amount of time (for me this is usually 15 to 20 minutes). Politely mention that your questions are finished but that you are open to fielding questions from the candidate. Field those questions as you would to any candidate.
  • Send a rejection letter to rejected candidates. Do not just remove them from candidacy without informing them.

Great Questions to ask at an Interview


Photo by TheoGeo

Throughout my experience, I have found a wide variation in the quality of work environments of my employers. Speaking as a software developer, some have been healthy & productive, while others have been bureaucratic and restrictive. Therefore, it became a goal of mine to compile a list of questions that I could ask an interviewer of a prospective employer to determine if it would be a place I would like to work. I didn’t get far.

Then recently I stumbled upon a great StackOverflow question. It is essentially an attempt to do what I had always wanted to do: collect a list of indicators about a company that should be viewed as warning signs.

With this content as inspiration I give you my small list of original questions as well as a summary of my favorite entries from Stack Overflow.  My questions cannot uncover all issues.  However, the questions are meant to be questions you can actually ask your interviewer and not be viewed as nosey.

What is the potential for Developers to have to do support? Is Developer support necessary during non-business hours?

Unless working for an EXTREMELY small company, you do not want to be responsible for first-level support. This is bad for several reasons: it limits your productivity, is not an efficient use of your skills, and can be unnecessarily stressful.

What access do other departments (e.g. Sales, QA, Technical Support) have with Developers?

This is simply another question to determine how often other departments may interrupt your productivity. If the person doing Technical Support asks you to fix every issue without troubleshooting first, then you are essentially doing first-level support.

What does the team typically do for lunch (e.g. going out, eating together vs eating at desks)?

The response you want to hear should be based on personal preference but I like to see that the team eats together a couple days a week and the other days work at their desks.

What is the make-up of the team (e.g. experiences, roles)?

I want to hear that the team is diverse. Most important, to me, is that there are at least some people who are more advanced than me. Secondly, I like to see different cultures & perspectives represented, such as males/females, different nationalities & attributes.

How are developers measured?

Lines of Code, although popular, is an extremely flawed metric.

Favorites from the responses on StackOverflow

  • Is the primary development language an in-house only product?
  • Was it too easy for you to get an offer from the company? (Are there no programming questions when interviewing a new developer?)
  • Is the work environment noisy making it difficult to concentrate?
  • Is the work schedule an inflexible 8-5?
  • What is your refactoring strategy?
  • Is access to the internet blocked at work?
  • Do the developers work on multiple projects in parallel?
  • What are developer workstations like? Single-Monitor?
  • What is the tester to developer ratio?

Remember, an interview is a rare opportunity for you to try and determine where you want to work. So ask these questions and good luck!