Thursday, October 28, 2010

First Dates (a.k.a Interviews)

Please refer to my last entry for the contextual explanation of recruitment and the dating game.

My first taste of the recruitment dating game came all too soon a few days ago.

Last Thursday night, I found myself rushing through my Economics final exam. The four-hour online exam opened at 5pm and I had a 6am flight from Washington Dulles to Chicago. That meant two hours of studying/cramming from 5-7pm, exam time from 7-11pm, rushed packing from 11pm-12mn (why does it take 20mins to iron one button-down corporate top?! I miss you Mom!), and onto the 2.5-hour drive to Dulles international airport.

A couple of us international students were on our journey to our first-ever off-grounds job fair. The National Society of Hispanic MBA's (NSHMBA) was hosting the annual conference and career expo at Chicago for three days. There were over 60 recruiting companies from across different industries, with internship and full-time job opportunities for MBA students from all over the US.

I stood there at the fair's entrance, taking in the huge rectangular expanse filled with colorful company booths, stern and smiling recruiters reading resumes, and nervous MBA students milling about. I breathed in the air of hope for an internship job, the fear from hundreds of competition walking around in the same suit as I was, almost indistinguishable from each other. Suffice it to say, it was like opening that not-too-thick but not-too-thin envelope from a college you applied to. You kind of think it's not a rejection letter because there seems to be more than one thank-you-for-your-interest sheet there but it's not thick enough to include your dormitory options. So you open it and hope for the best.

I had already plotted my route across the labyrinth of company booths. I prioritized the companies whom I know was open to hiring and sponsoring international students (sadly, the slow economic growth is still unkind to us who need work visa sponsorship). Picture this: a big circular booth decorated with the company's colors, logo, mission statement, etc., 4-5 small tables spread out, manned by 1-2 company reps, segmented by corporate function. I fall in line under finance and wait to have my chance to speak to the rep and pray that he will find me and my resume worthy of an interview. I finally get my turn, introduce myself as a first year Darden student interested in finance internship opportunities. I talk a little about why I'm interested in the company and the position while holding my resume in front of me, ready to run it through him if he asks me to. Sometimes they do and at the times that they don't, I volunteer to walk them through it anyway. I only have my voice and effort to lose. It takes me about one minute to give the highlights of my resume and achievements, choosing those that are relevant to the company and the position, while they listen intently and ask a question or two. After which, they pause and appear to be taking it all in (while I pray harder). They scribble some notes in my resume and tell me they'll call me within the day if they want to schedule an interview with me within the two-day conference. I do this full spiel for about five companies. My half spiels (meaning I did not even get to my resume part) were delivered to the many other companies that unfortunately did not hire internationals or those that did not have corporate finance vacancies.

At 2:45pm, I received my first interview invite call from a top high-tech company. They wanted to interview me at 3:00pm. I couldn't have been more thrilled and nervous at the same time. I had 5 mins. to check myself in the mirror and tame my bladder, 5 mins. to use my iPhone for a half-baked company research and 5 mins. to run across the big hall, down the long flight of stairs, and to the interview hall.

Friday, 3:00pm (Interview with High-tech company)
I find myself sitting inside a 5x10 ft. closed booth for my interview. My interviewer is a finance representative with a very pleasant smile and demeanor that immediately put me at ease. She asks me about myself, what achievements I'm most proud of, which ones were most challenging, etc. Most questions were behavioral and situational questions. There were few technical questions which I think I managed to address reasonably. I try my best to relate my experiences to their internship program. She also went on to tell me about the company culture, their big emphasis on corporate social responsibility (which I'm very happy and excited to hear about) and what to expect from the internship. Turns out they were piloting an international rotational MBA internship program. I am thrilled at this possibility. What better way to learn than from a top high-tech firm's global environment?

At the conclusion of the interview she tells me that I have a strong resume and a good fit to their program. She said that she was endorsing me to the next process which was the internship interview. I didn't expect to get immediate feedback but hey, I'm not complaining.

Happy but dead tired, I trudge back to our hotel at approximately 5pm and exhaustion from the difficult exam, jet lag, and the arduous job hunting experience almost put me into a coma. I make sure my phone's ringer is on just in case I get lucky and get other interview invites. The stars were with me as I get three more interview invites from a US bank, a US airline company and a US retail company. All three were top of my list of companies to work for. I offer a thank you prayer as I start reading up on the companies.

Saturday, 11:30am (interview with Airline company)

Before I bore you with the details of my interview with the airline company, let me backtrack a little to my first impromptu interview with the same airline company.

The day before my scheduled interview, I had gone to their booth to chat with the finance representatives. The rep takes a look at my resume and tells me that she had actually seen my resume already (from the NSHMBA resume book) and that she had wanted to call me for a screening interview but since I submitted late, they didn't have enough time. I asked if she had time now and if they had open interview slots for the next two days. She endorses me to another guy who takes my resume and reads up. I volunteer to walk him through it highlighting my relevant experiences and achievements. He catches me by surprise by asking how I could convert my experiences in the consumer goods industry into the challenges that the airline industry was facing. He asks me technical questions on promotional and advertising schemes, its impact to the P&L and how this will translate to the airline business. What kind of promotions would I recommend? What will be the financial impact to the business? I try my best to wake my dead brain up and scavenge through my five years of corporate experience to pick those that were relevant to the airline business. I mean how different can shampoos and airplanes get, right? He also shared how corporate finance worked in the airline business and the challenges they faced. This was my first peek on what it was like working in finance for an airline business. And it's pretty damn interesting. At the back of my head, I curse myself for not researching more. I certainly didn't want to spoil my chance at this great opportunity. Too late now. This pseudo interview goes on for about 20 minutes. From my peripheral vision, I could see the queue behind me getting longer and longer while the other MBA students listened intently to our discussion. I realize how embarrassing this was for me. I was probably not making any sense at all. The rep finally concludes our discussion, scribbles some notes at the back of my resume (what I would have given to see that) and tell me that they'll review my credentials and they'll give me a call. I get the sad feeling that they won't.

Fast forward to Saturday, 11:30am (actual interview with airline company)
It's that small interview booth again. If I wasn't so nervous, the claustrophobic in me would have made a dash to the door. Instead, I sit poised and smiling. I expected the regular first questions of 'tell me about yourself' or 'walk me through your resume,' or even 'tell me about a time when you...' Instead, she asked me a number of technical questions including the formula for working capital, different depreciation methods, etc. She then presented me with four mini cases. She came up with fictional business scenarios involving new markets, geographic expansions, new line introductions, pricing simulations, competitive movements, etc. She then asked me to assess the situation and provide my recommendations. I was totally unprepared for this. I have never done case interview preparations because I was naive enough to think these case interviews were only for the Consulting industry. Boy, oh boy. Note to self: sign up for the case interview workshop. I try my best to bat the curve balls. But I'm pretty sure I made quite a lot of strike outs.

Saturday, 2:15pm (interview with Bank)
At this point, I was feeling sad and forlorn. I felt very de-motivated by my last interview. I prayed hard this one wouldn't be as bad. And I think it wasn't. This was perhaps my most relaxed and conversational interview. The VP who interviewed me had such a kind and welcoming demeanor. It was more like a conversation than an interview. I told him about myself, my interest in the banking business, and my experiences while he told me about the internship program, the bank's culture, the people, and the highlights of his experiences. Before I knew it, 30 mins. was up and I went away feeling relieved that I didn't appear to bomb the interview but confused as well because I didn't know how to assess it.

Saturday, 3:00pm (interview with Retail company part 1)

I only had about 10 mins. to collect and ready myself for the next interview. I was particularly excited about this one after hearing about the good reputation of their leadership program. My first interviewer was a young woman who was from the leadership program herself. She informed me that I will be having a back-to-back interview with another manager after she interviewed me. She also told me that the second interview will be the final interview. They will be making their decision based on my two interviews today. Whoa. Talk about unnerving. I didn't see that one coming. I felt my heartbeat race a lot faster. She probably heard the thump thump. Not good.

For the whole of 30 mins., she probably asked me all combinations of situational and behavioral questions--situation when I took a risk and failed, time when I dealt with conflict, time when I had a big argument, etc. I had to poke my brain hard to remember relevant experiences. She scribbled a lot in her interview questionnaire form which was about 4 pages long. This got me even more nervous. At the end of the interview, I had major brain drain. One down, one more to go.

Saturday, 3:30pm (interview with Retail company part 2)

I didn't imagine I could get more unnerved than I already was. After one bad interview, a confusing one and a mentally draining one, I was ready to wipe my brain to a clean state. Tabula rasa. But there I was, sitting in front of a stern-looking interviewer, sharing more situational and behavioral experiences and he didn't seem to have any reaction whatsoever to anything that I said. I tried very hard to connect with him to no avail. So yes, the last and final stretch (for the day at least) was unnerving at best.

A long 30 minutes later, I take a deep breath, exhale slowly and let my mind go blank for a precious moment. There was so much emotion inside me--exhaustion, sadness, relief, happiness, excitement, anxiety... I couldn't even pick the first one to prioritize. I settled on savoring the day's conclusion. That day was probably one of the longest days in my career. I realize I never had that many interviews for company recruitment. I stayed with only one company in my five years of work experience after all.

With all the job hunting and interview frenzy, I couldn't even pause to admire and take in the beauty of the city. So, I end the day with a nice dinner, good white wine, and a lazy, chilly walk at Chicago's Navy Pier. I think I deserved that.

Sitting in my room back in Charlottesville now, I re-live my first interviews by writing this blog entry. I smile, cringe, and wince at those crazy moments I had. All those emotions I had during and after the interviews are pretty much pacified now. All but one--anxiety. For when the interviews end, the waiting game begins.

I will probably hear more bad news than I am willing to bear now. But I still feel grateful to have been given the chance to interview. Perhaps I can take those first interviews as practice, as a warm-up to what will hopefully be many more along my way.

I remember a big mistake that I made in my job, only three months after I joined the company. It cost my company a few hundred thousands. I remember that feeling of stupidity, fear, and just utmost contempt at myself. My first boss, looked at the fear and regret in my eyes, smiled at me and said, "Just charge it to experience."

I never made the same mistake again. It was a small price to pay for what is more valuable--experience. But when you are an international MBA student who has invested a whole lot of money in your education, toiled long and hard on the unbelievably demanding school work, and fought your way for that rare spot of an interview at a company that actually hired non-US citizens, when someone says "just charge it to experience," you know that that experience is actually a very steep price to pay.


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  2. Nicely put Yumiko..Chanced upon your blog through Jerry (Astrid's) facebook page. Your writing reflects an amazing personality! Wishing you the best with your job-hunt.