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underselling oneself

I've been told that I tend to undersell myself on interviews. I don't
think that's true. For example, while I was still working at AV, I
had a phone interview with someone at Y! who was looking for someone
with experience in algorithms, C++, and multicast. He asked me to
rate myself in algorithms on a scale of 1 to 10. I gave myself an 8.
He seemed to be displeased with that response, and asked me what I had
been doing for AV. When I explained that I was processing the web
server logs for the business operations group, he said that I would
probably be better off looking for a position in the media services
group. (FWIW, I had several extensive conversations with them, but
they didn't hire me either.)

I don't think it was wrong to rate myself as an 8 in algorithms. In
fact, I think I was being somewhat generous, particularly since I
haven't done anything really algorithm-heavy in about nine years.
This is (part of) how I generally rate people in algorithms:

10 - someone who has written an authoritative text on the subject or
has done seminal work in the field. People such as Knuth and
Thomas Cormen are good examples. For those who were in AV, I
would give a 10 to Andrei Broder and David Cossock.

9 - someone who either has a PhD in the subject or has many many
years of experience, and has done recognized (published) work in
the field.

8 - someone who's completed some graduate work in the field or has
many many years of experience, and can answer most of the
questions in a textbook (including some of the starred exercises)
written by someone who ranks as a 10.

On a related note, at a friend's bbq on Sunday, I was discussing my
unemployment situation with a friend. She asked me if I had applied
to any of the open positions at Cisco. I told her that I don't
currently qualify for most, if not all of those positions, because
they assume a background in things like VoIP that I have either never
done, or haven't done in a long time (and the technology was
different, e.g. there was no such thing as gigabit Ethernet). I
actually checked back and applied for one position that I think I am
marginally qualified for (but only because the req states "knowledge
or ability to learn").

I don't think there is anything wrong with being honest about one's
qualifications. I don't want to get in a situation where there's an
expectation that I'll be able to do something fairly quickly, but I'm
not able to do it because I either don't remember how or can't learn
it quickly. I would rather do something where I feel fairly
comfortable that I can come up to speed quickly and be an asset and
resource to the company overall.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 3rd, 2004 01:58 am (UTC)
don't sell yourself short
two things:

1) you have to realize that everyone overrates themselves in interviews in order to look good. So if you're the only one rating yourself appropriately, people are going to think you're not that great. I bet most people would indeed qualify you as "10" for algorithms. I know it's dumb that people inflate themselves, but when employers are used to that scale, you have to use it, not a less inflated more accurate one. Seriously.

2) you also might randomly be underestimating your skills. When I applied for my current job, I used my own advice from #1 and put that I had programming experience and coursework. While that was true, I personally felt extremely shaky about my computer science skills after having taken the courses I took. I thought I was an imposter for being hired largely due to these supposed skills. Well, I was wrong. I am indeed a lot better than I thought and the best programmer in my office. Once you get back into the swing of things you might actually be able to do things at lightning speed -- seriously!
Jun. 3rd, 2004 02:42 am (UTC)
I hate the inflation game too and strive to be honest.

One way to mitigate damage from this sort of question is to qualify your answer. Instead of saying "I'm an 8", say "Well, assuming that Donald Knuth is 10, I'm about an 8". That way if they are using "10" to mean "qualified", as opposed to "stellar", they'll get a hint that you're calibrated differently.
Jun. 3rd, 2004 08:40 pm (UTC)
OK, that makes sense. I may not have said that during the interview, but I was definitely thinking it.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )