Sunday, 9 March 2008

Phone - a friend...

I was back in the Guildford office last week to do a few interviews and catch up with some administration, or more accurately, to do all of the things which my contract or professional etiquette prevent me from doing from my customers' offices.

I had a couple of phone interviews lined up. I don't particularly enjoy phone interviews, firstly because it's much more difficult to get a candidate to relax and open up than in a face-to-face situation, and secondly, when we come across good candidates, I'm into selling mode. For the record, if I had to make my living from telesales, I am convinced I would starve.

Last week, the phone became my friend. It saved my credibility.

Whenever I'm interviewing a candidate who has done some technical research, I ask them to explain to me what they've done, pitched at the level of an intelligent but non-technical lay-person. (Two reasons - firstly, we need people who can explain the complex and the technical to non-teccy customers, and secondly, pitched at that level, I can usually understand enough to be able to ask reasonable questions (or so I hope).) It's a particularly harsh exercise to do well over the phone, as it's usually the case that a quick sketch will aid the understanding no end. So when my name cropped up as the interviewer for a gentleman who is just finishing a mathematical PhD, my heart sank a bit. I have had bad experiences of listening to seemingly endless, non-contextualised formulae over the phone. Having looked over this chap's PhD, though, my mood lifted.

So, I'm on the phone to the candidate. At some point after I'd run through the admin and a bit of spiel on the company, I launched myself at the CV.

"I'd like to move onto discussing your experience - I see from your CV that you've spent the last four years of your life studying the way sperm swim. Perhaps you could explain to me why the prospect of spending four years studying semen appealed to you, what you've actually done during your research, what conclusions you've been able to reach, and what the motivation of the research was?"

It's not a question I've had the opportunity to ask before...

The candidate launched into a what seemed a well-practiced and humorous routine on the hows and whys of a PhD in modelling the swimming strokes of sperm. Evidently, this wasn't the first time he has been asked those questions, and at times, I felt like I was at a comedy gig - if only more phone interviews could be so funny...

Twenty minutes, much smirking, trying not to laugh, emergency covering of the mouthpiece, and the most engaging and enlightening conversation on the subject of semen I have ever been a party to later, my credibility as an interviewer remained more or less intact, and I was thoroughly impressed with the candidate. Anyone who can explain the effects of fluid viscosity on flagella beat patterns over the phone whilst making four years of life studying sperm seem like time well-spent is someone I want on my team. As an added bonus, he'd also remembered (or had noted down) what my original questions were and answered all of them. That's attention to detail and getting things right - all good signs. He's been invited back for a face-to-face grilling with a colleague.

I hope I'm in the office that day - I'm rather looking forward to watching one of my colleagues try to keep a straight face when they interview this chap in person.


Kahless said...


I wonder what he looks like? Please describe him when he comes in. (I wonder what a man who studies sperm for 4 years looks like.)

trousers said...

Marvellous! Shame you couldn't have recorded the conversation, it sounds fantastic.

In typically tangential fashion, it reminded me of being in a rather insalubrious pub back in Derbyshire watching England playing in a Euro or World Cup tournament qualifier. The place was packed and quite rowdy, though stood in front of me and my mate was a chap with a rather posh-looking girlfriend.

After another fine save from England's goalie, she turned to her man and asked, "why is everyone chanting semen?"

"Seaman is the name of our goalkeeper," he was forced to reply.

But Why? said...

I'm sure he looks like any other perfectly well-adjusted expert in sperm motility ;)

Ah, yes. I remember the days. I imagine the pony tail was supposed to be the flagella...

DJ Kirkby said...

I want to meet him too. You could sell tickets to his interview maybe? A 15 person interview pannel with 11 or 12 that don't ask any questions...that wouldn't seem too odd would it?

Casdok said...

And me!!!

But Why? said...

Fifteen people with only a couple of them talking? That sounds like most of the team meetings I attend.

Sure, come along. The more the merrier - we'll hold the interview in a lecture theatre!

Rob Clack said...

Oh please tell him how many of us want to eavesdrop the interview! I guess that should be at the end, rather than the beginning.

But Why? said...

Rob C,
I may do so after his next interview. He has apparently put in an appearance in the office this past week whilst my back was turned, busy with clients in London. The good news is that he has sufficiently impressed to be invited back to attempt to impress the directors. So there's a very real possibility that he'll eventually become a colleague and we'll all have to stop referring to him as "Mr. Spunk Man" and get into the habit of using his name instead.

Still, that doesn't happen for a couple more weeks(!)