The Art of Skype

There’s millions of articles about interview techniques, usally written by people whose linkedin profiles reveal them to have had no more than two or three jobs, gained after apparantly hundreds of hours of failed interviews. As seasoned IT contractors, we at the skankworks.net can count our past jobs by the dozen, and regard anything less than an 80% offer-rate from interviews to be a failure. For contractors, that is. In our experience the most common contract offer comes after a thirty-minute phone interview. If the interview is in the morning, we get the offer the same afternoon and they usually want us to start on Monday. If the interview is after lunch, the offer usually comes in first thing the next morning.

We’ve gotten to be quite good at selling ourselves over the telephone, such that it is our preferred method. So we always try to engineer a phone interview (to save time, money, whatever), and get the interviewer(s) into our own territory, so to speak. When an agency tells us they can arrange an interview our first thoughts are not going to be, “what do I say if they ask me where I want to be in five years“, but “how fast do they want to move on this?“. Our thinking is that the quicker we can get the job offer, the fewer candidates will be competing against us. As such the rapidly-arranged telephone-conference is the ideal platform, and we’ve done interviews from beach-side hotels between contracts, from a jihadist-ridden shitehole in Southern Russia, while sitting in a car in a Warsaw traffic jam, from a Scottish Island, and of course from airport departure lounges. The background noise of an airport is near pefection when it comes to conveying a business-like setting, suggesting themes of moving quickly and closing deals. Most often though, we get to do the phone interview from our home-offices, where we are at our professionally most comfortable, and have a wealth of supporting material to hand.

Which brings us to skype. Very different to a telephone call. Over the telephone people can only listen to your words, and thus are forced to concentrate on what you are saying. But when there’s video involved people are prone to influence by appearance, which unless one is naturally photogenic will not correspond on the 2D screen to how one might comport one’s self in the flesh. Being generally opposed to social media and specifically to video conferencing (it doesn’t work unless you already know and like the people you’re viewing) we do not use skype at all. Nevertheless there is a growing trend amongst employers to avoid even the telephone charges involved in a phone interview and freeload off the public Internet instead. As such, we’ve recently acquired some experience in this area ourselves, using our wives’ skype accounts to take the calls. We are not impressed. The quality of the sykpe interviews we’ve been involved in have to be amongst the worst we have ever experienced. One such experience is here related by our writer InsideJobber.

InsideJobber’s Sykpe Experience

Not having a sykpe account, on hearing from the agency that they want to arrange an interview via skype my first thought was not, “what do I say if he asks me to tell him about a problem I once solved“, but rather, “do they really expect me to get a bloody skype account and allow microsoft et al to put me under surrveilance in my own home, just so my prospective ’employer’ can freeload off the fees I pay to my ISPs?

So I figured they can call me on the wife’s account on a one-time use understanding and only by pre-arrangement. The next thought was how to set up an isolated and secure host to temporarily install skype which I could wipe once the interview was over. As an IT professional I might need to use my wife’s skype account but that doesn’t mean I also have to deprive her of her laptop as well. Besides, having just one access to skype available would be poor planning for an important business call, so I would need a spare to fall back on if anything went wrong during the call. If it was to be a telehone call, I’d have given him a back-up landline number in addition to the mobile. With skype I’d need two installations. I already operate a resiliant SOHO network with dual active-active uplinks and no single point of failure, and I’ve plenty of spare laptops hanging around. So I stage one of those to use for the call, and the wife’s laptop doubles-up as failover. Thus I was reasonably satisified that I would have a secure and stable connection available for the interview and I agreed, albeit reluctantly, and the call was duly arranged. I had three days to prepare.

My preparations used all the time available. After ensuring connectivity, I got to work on what acid-heads call ‘set and setting’. In general, people look awful on video unless some care is taken to arrange a suitable backdrop and lighting. I chose my bookcase for the background but the shelf with my collection of history books on the rise and fall of the Third Reich and it’s charismatic if somewhat demented leader was in view. It looked a little out of place. Not the kind of thing you take to an interview for an IT support job, at any rate: “If a user calls and says she cannot connect to the database, what would Hitler have done?” Have the DBA taken out and shot, most likely, but they’re not going to ask me that. So I obscured the books with, what else, a row of unsold copies of my own book. There was still a bare patch behind the stage-right side of my head, and I was able to fill this nicely by shifting my sprouting Adonidia indoor palm into shot.

For lighting I would have preferred a proper three-point system to ensure that my face would be properly highlighted and stand out against what was, after all, a rather busy, albeit business-like, home-office background. I improvised the lighting. With eight monitors around me I set half of them to display a white screen providing a nice diffuse filling light. Daylight coming in from the window on my right provided the backlight, and the single spot I had available gave the key light, after being turned to reflect off the white wall to take the edge off. A quick fiddle with the camera’s colour and light settings and I was good to go. I chose to wear a plain sky-blue shirt which contrasted nicely with the green and browns of the background.

The call didn’t come in

Not only did the call not come in, I didn’t find out why until the next day. After I had sent an email asking why I never got the call. It would have been terrible if after all the work I put in preparing the stage I had ballsed-up on the connectivity and he couldn’t get through. Turned out he never even tried, no reason given for the no-show. They re-arranged the interview for another day. Nice of them to let me know.

I considered using that extra time to set up a second camera and improvise a foot-switch to change camera angles for a more active on-screen presence, but what I would really have liked would have been a lush blue curtain in the background – to really show the interviewer how much attention I pay to how one comes over in audio-visual communication. But that has to wait for another day, the day after I’ve turfed my wife’s collection of cardboard boxes containing myriad out-of-fashion bags and shoes from the spare room and refactored it as a secure comms studio. Instead, for the reamining two days I concentrated on rehearsals, going over my usual interview spiel and the stock answers to stock questions, should they arise.

The call comes in

It came in an hour and ten minutes late. Although this time, when the call failed to arrive at the scheduled hour, their HR rep called my mobile within five minutes and told me it was delayed for an hour. Well, you know, it’s already 18:00 and it might be courteous to ask if I am prepared to work on into the evening for their convenience when maybe I might have other plans, such as eating dinner or what have you. Nevertheless one must show willing, so I readily agreed to stay online for another hour (then went to the kitchen to turn the oven down).

Finally the call arrives. My camera is functioning and the feed is looking professional. The interviewer had his camera turned off. Like, wtf? I said that I couldn’t see his video, then he turned it on. It was difficult to tell he had turned it on since he appeared to be sitting in total darkness. He shifted his postion, and his laptop, revealing himself better and showing a totally blank wall with a door ajar behind him. There appeared to be a light directly above him casting shadows across his face sufficient to render it featureless. There was a bright patch on the right side of his nose that wiggled accross the screen indicating animation.

The sparisty of furnishing suggested he must be in an office meeting room. So not much chance for him to get a decent set-up for a video conference. Not his fault, I thought. I got that wrong, since ten minutes into the call a teenager that could only have been the guy’s son, walked in through the ajar door, playing only a minor walk-on part in the show as he disappeared stage-left immediately after.

My prospective future boss clearly realised how unprofessional it must look to have his kid walk in while he’s supposed to be conducting a job interview, so he shifted his chair and moved the laptop again so that the door was no longer in view. This put him into better light and it was the first time I actually saw his face, which I recognised immediatley as being an older version of the boyish one that had just floated past. As he moved the camera what came into view stage right was the only visible object in the room – the family television set. Presumably the object sought after by the teenager.

The call gets cut-off

After forty minutes the call was cut. Blaming myself I hastily checked all my network connectivity, but everything was fine my end. He was showing up as offline, and I was left wondering why I even bothered doing any preparation for what was rapidly descending into a farce. All I need to say to these guys is, “yeah I can do that“, drop in a few buzzwords about passion, thought-matrices, and living the goddamn dream, and I’d be hired – for a job that is clearly going to stink.

As he was offline from the Internet I fully expected him to failover to voice and call my mobile. I waited for it to ring. In vain, it didn’t. Fifteen minutes or so later matey is back on skype, buzzing my wife’s account without pre-arrangement, explaining that his remote-connection to the office had gone down and it took IT fifteen minutes to get him back on line. During that fifteen minutes it never occured to him to pick up the telephone as a failover. He then went on for another 45 minutes, telling me how impressed with my experience and interviewing he was, and thus causing our scheduled 40-minute call to overrun by two hours and ten minutes from the pre-arranged end time by which my dinner was ruined.

What does this company offer to it’s clients? IT support. Given the manner with which they support themselves, I don’t think they will have the budget to hire someone who actually knows what he or she is doing. Do you? — InsideJobber

Closing Remarks from skankworks.net
From this, and other similar experiences, it is clear to us that many office workers do not know how to use AV communications effectively. They can wire them up, get themselves connected, but they are communicating ineffectively. Sometimes literally putting themselves in a bad light, and sometimes sending out unintended negative signals.

For our next project we are going to build the skankworks.net comms studio, and pre-record a series of “answers to regular interview questions” as 90-second video clips. These we will intercut with panning shots of supporting material such as our certifications, stock publicty shots of the places and products we’ve worked with before, program code and publications we’ve written. Then, whenever we’re asked certain kinds of questions in skype interviews, we can say we’ve already prepared a video about that and cut to a micro-documentary about a problem we once solved at work. While that’s playing we can have a smoke-break off-camera, just like they do on TV.

One could even produce an entire range of “Where I want to be in five years” videos as an investment for the future. They’d have to be scripted so that the younger face is only seen when speaking about generic goals, such that suitably chosen specific and acheived goals can be edited-in later without arousing suspicion. An Untergang-style “didn’t get the job rant” might be useful to have to hand as well.

In closing, we hope you find our tips on preparing for a skype interview to be of value, and we hope you get interviewed by a better organised outfit than depicted above. Our man was offered the job, as it happens. But turned it down, lobbing in a well-earned bollocking for HR for good measure.