Thursday, July 29, 2010

Awkward Interview Moments


Last week, I had a terrible interview. It was so bad that I’ve been debating for a week if I should write about it at all.

It was not an in person interview but a phone screen for a position that would have significantly less responsibility, better hours, and more money than my last job.  It would also be much less interesting. A recruiter friend suggested I apply although it may not be the right fit.

My first job out of college was as an office manager and administrative assistant of a small architectural firm. The job I was applying for was essentially the same role with some light project management on top of that. The carrot of a normal workday and a good salary had me thinking I should apply and if I was offered the job I could ask myself if it was really the right job for me at that time.

Over a decade after leaving that first post-college job to help with the installation of a multi-million dollar public art project, I find myself answering my cell phone on a blanket in Central Park, agreeing to an unscheduled phone screen.

The man on the other end of the line doesn’t have questions for me. He has concerns. The first concern was innocuous enough. He was concerned that the office environment would be different from my last job. I had no trouble making him feel better.

That’s when he said with all seriousness, "We're concerned you've never directly managed a contractor. Since that would be a large part of this job, it’s a serious concern.”

It took a lot of strength for me not to say "Would you mind taking 10 seconds to glance at a resume before calling someone you are looking to work with five days a week?"

Instead, I swallowed my pride and told him about the jobs where I've directly supervised contractors, starting with an office move as an intern at a museum in 1996.  He could probably detect that I was offended by the question so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get a call to schedule an in-person interview.

That question echoed in my head for days. How could anyone who has taken a passing glance at my resume ask me something like that? This is the part of the job search process that I was unprepared.  In the past, by the time someone is talking to me about a job, they are excited to meet me or at least optimistic that I have something to offer.

This reminded me of the end of an interview I had in May. The person who would be my boss told me he was concerned about that my computer skills were not advanced enough to handle the position.

I said “I’m confused. Are you asking about my computer experience?”

“What do you mean?”

“The computer based aspects of the work sound straightforward.  Since we haven’t discussed my computer skill, maybe we should.”

“Well, this program we use is pretty complicated.”

“I learned a dozen programs created by the internet company I worked at for the past few years and helped them redesign a program similar to the one you use here. Before that, I taught myself Photoshop, HTML, and basic AutoCAD. I got my first computer in 1984.”

Clearly, these are not the right jobs for me. I’ve had several incredibly positive meetings this week so my mood has improved.

On Tuesday, a recruiter I didn’t know called about the exact same job where the man in the phone screen told me they were concerned that I had never supervised a contractor.

“That’s crazy. It’s all over your resume! You’re a perfect candidate. I was so excited when I saw your qualifications. Sometimes people don’t know what they’re looking at and they miss out. I’m sorry that happened to you this time but I’ll keep you in mind for other positions. With a resume like this, you’ll find something great soon.“

Spending two minutes of the phone with her, having a stranger give me a pep talk saying all the right things, made me feel so much better. I know I’ll end up in the right place but getting there certainly has it’s awkward moments.

Job applications: 1

Networking events: 2

New contacts: 1

Monday, July 19, 2010


In the spring of 2000, I moved to an area now called Prospect Heights. At the time, it was called Crown Heights. There was no laundry in the building. The apartment was huge, inexpensive, and recently renovated. It had a back yard that I spent hundreds of hours turning into a garden.

The back yard was so derelict when I moved in, that any urbanite could help by digging out anything solid: be it a rock, old pipes, a car battery, or tricycle. That first spring, I made paths, beds, planted a few shrubs, and wildflowers. I came home one day to find that my landlord mowed over everything. He expressed concern about rodents with all that stuff growing back there. He talked about making a large concrete patio with an awning.

I should have suspected as much when, at the end of that first long move-in day, the woman who lived there before me stopped by to pick her things up.

"Sorry to bother you but I forgot something."

"Really? I didn't see anything unusual when I moved in."

"I forgot my toilet seat."

"Your what?"

"The toilet seat."

"What did you do with the old one?"

"Oh-- the apartment didn't come with one. I needed to go out and buy it. None of [our landlord]'s apartments have them so I'm taking it to my new place."

Ring. Ring. Phoning the real estate broker who-- a few days earlier-- accepted a check for her fee: a month and half rent. I really wish I remembered the details of her half of the conversation because she actually defended the guy for several minutes. How do you justify not including a toilet seat with an apartment?

Using a between-you-and-me tone, I said "You can't be serious. I've just signed a 2 year lease, paid you four figures, and the apartment doesn't come with a $15 toilet seat?"

Someone paid and it wasn't me.

Another situation that I had not anticipated was driving miles away to do laundry over the next two years. You see, it wasn't safe for me to go to the laundromat closest to the apartment. I couldn't help myself from interfering with certain aspects of the local after-school-special child-raising customs. So in order to keep myself from doing something stupid, I needed to do my laundry in the gentrified part of Brooklyn.

When I moved to my current apartment in The Odd Couple part of Manhattan 2 years later, I didn't have laundry in the building. There were a few options: drop things off around the corner (30 seconds), a place 4 blocks away that was open 24 hours without a place to sit (6 minutes plus wait time) or a place 2 blocks away with wash-and-fold (people who do the laundry for you) and self service (3 minutes plus wait time).

The place 4 blocks away appealed to me because there isn't room to hang out. To better understand why this appealed to me, see above. About two years ago, the place 4 blocks away closed.

I tried the place 2 blocks away but since the last wash needed to be in before 6pm on weeknights, it didn't work out because I never got home on time. I don't like doing laundry on the weekend so I started to drop my clothing off around the corner.

At first, I would just drop off anything that could withstand high heat like my sheets and towels. I could spare a half hour doing one load myself during the weekend and drying these dedicates at home. It quickly degenerated into dropping off everything, at the peril of a few nice items (may they rest in peace).

Although I did my own laundry in New York for over a decade, the past few years I've fallen into the habit of paying $30 each week for someone else to do it for us.

In June, I decided to start doing laundry again. It's an easy way to save a few dollars. The day before I went to Montana, I did all the laundry. Then I changed the sheets.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got home, checked the household account, and saw a $52 charge to the laundry guys. In order to have the house sparkle for my homecoming, all sorts of things were washed while I was away: the bedspread, shower curtain, bathrobes, towels-- pretty much anything heavy.

Next time I have a money saving plan, I'll be sure to mention it to the rest of my household.

Job applications: 1
Networking events: 2
New contacts: 2

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Buh Bye

Flying to and from Montana involved 4 flights, 3 of which were blissfully uneventful. The flight from St Paul MN to Newark yesterday took 7 hours instead of 2.5 hours. The part that was most interesting, was how the people on the flight were treated during our 4.5 hour delay.

Doing a search for "airlines" "3 hours" (referring the new law that you cannot leave a plane on the tarmac for over 3 hours without a huge fine) results in 4.5M hits on Google. Looks to me like this might be a big issue. In this article, however, it seems only 5 planes were officially delayed on the tarmac for over 3 hours in May. This is what happened to my flight yesterday. I'm sure they followed the letter of the new rules but the spirt was certainly not about the customers.

Part of my sensitivity to any delay might be tied in part to my role of sherpa on this trip. You see, my sister's husband did not come but my 2 year old niece did. As a result, my job was to pack light and carry everything so my sister could focus on her daughter.

It s only in retrospect that I know the plane was delayed for the duration of "Gone with the Wind." The plane boarded a few minutes late. The head flight attendant reminded me of mall security: little power, lots of anger at the world.

This was our 4th flight together so this was my 4th time putting my sister's luggage, engineered by the Swiss with watch-like precision to maximize overhead bin capacity, into a bin. There was another suitcase and a backpack I assume was waiting to be filled with I <3 NY t-shirts for the return trip.

"That bag isn't going to fit in there. We need room for the back pack."

"May I try?"

She glared at me and said "I'll protect it. You'll see."

My sister's bag slipped into the bin. A hand into a kid glove. She shoved the backpack in and there was space on either side. Another glare.

We sat. We pushed off. We waited. There was an announcement about weather and traffic in Newark. It was confusing was Newark and there is always traffic. So we waited.

My niece enjoys anything that involves opening and closing. Buttons, zippers, bags, and levers like the one on the tray table. She would take it down, put a few toys on it, put the toys in the barf bag, put the tray up, put the tray down, toys out of the bag. She was enjoying herself a lot more than the rest of us.

The fun police stopped by and said "Trays need to be up for take off."

"Oh? Did you find out when we're taking off?"

"It is dangerous to need to push the tray table up if we need to leave the plane quickly."

"Ok." We put the tray table up for the flight attendant's benefit. After she left, my precocious niece understood she could put it down again. No one told her. She just did it.

The flight attendants ran out of water. They turned a few people away. When a father came for water for his toddler, they found an 8 ounce bottle in first class for him.

An hour later, it was announced that Corporate was trying to figure out what to do with our plane. What exactly were the options? Cancel the flight? Reroute us? Put us on another flight? Let us out in the airport and let us know when they had a new take off time? Hold us hostage with peanut packets, water with a napkin, blue water toilets, and air you could see?

A few minutes after that, they let us out to the terminal. My niece was being quite the trooper and the break made her so happy. We found a sandwich shop and bought some lunch. It took a few minutes for my sister's tuna sandwich to be ready and we couldn't hear any flight status information over the smooth jazz.

I walked into the main hallway and heard a last call to get back on our flight. It couldn't have been 10 minutes that we were off the plane. We all ran back on board and proceeded to wait for another half hour before additional information was shared.

During that time, mechanics in reflective vest with walkie-talkies boarded the plane. Apparently something was wrong with the air conditioning.

We would be taking off in 30 minutes, the voice said, after the yellow vests deplaned. I don't remember if they were right about this estimate since the entire time I would half hear what was said and wonder to myself if expectations could get any lower. As long as I didn't spend money for a hotel room in St Paul for the privilege of getting on the next available flight Thursday morning, it was going to work out just fine.

Instead of making it home around 6:00pm, I arrived at 10:30pm. Thankfully, I didn't need to be anywhere this morning.

Job applications: 0
Networking events: 0
New contacts:0

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Montana Travel Tales: Day 1

I am in Montana on vacation with my family this week. Yes, this has little to do with finding a job or life in New York City but since I'm here, the blog is here too. To set the tone, here are a few photos from  Missoula Farmers' Market.

One is of a paper mache river insect. I learned that it lives in its nymph state for about 2 years but the fun really starts when it busts out of its exoskeleton. For 24 hours, it lives with wings, mates, lays eggs, and kicks the bucket. Since it only has 24 hours to party like a rock star, nature doesn't give it a mouth so no time is wasted eating. Since I am a huge fan of snacks, my face was horror stricken upon hearing this fun fact.

These candy sweet heirloom tomatoes cost $3. Let me be clear: instead of costing $3 each they were $3 all together.  I am not in New York City.

When I checked into our hotel yesterday, the front desk did not have a reservation for our 3 rooms. We came to town this weekend so I could participate in the half marathon tomorrow. Since there are a lot of other people in town for the run, hotels are booked up.

This was a problem but I could make it less of a problem by remaining calm.

"Well, for now, it sounds like this will all work out since you have a room and I'm the only one here so far. When the rest of my family arrives, they will be expecting to check in since we made the reservation several months ago. You have awhile since their flight is arriving late tonight. Can you figure something out?"

He promised to try. I promptly feel asleep for 14 hours.

A different problem that was helpful for the hotel room problem is that my family (rooms #2 and #3) missed their connection and spent the night in Denver. This meant the hotel had more time to find 3 rooms for Saturday.

When I was done imitating Rip Van Winkle, a new person at the front desk informed that my dad called the hotel and two rooms were found. As it turned out, the hotel made a mistake in the dates to be in June and not July. It sounded like them finding another room was highly unlikely. 

Before managing facilities for a company that places customer service above preventative maintenance,  I probably would have gotten no-wire-hangers upset.

Months ago! You messed up! Fix it! (old brain)

Now that I've been on the other side of such an outburst, I didn't even go there.

Everyone make mistakes. I'm sure it will work out. Let me know if I can help. (new brain)

I noticed that the woman at the front desk is from the same three-digit population town as my sister-in-law. We played the name game for a few minutes and thanked her for trying to get us a third room.

When everyone returned from the airport, my front desk friend told me that I could keep my room, my dad and step-mom had an upgrade for their troubles, and my brothers had a room on the other side of the hotel. 

Job applications: 0
Networking events: 0
New contacts: 0

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chatting at the Customer Service Counter

Yesterday, I exchanged something at a store. The woman helping me knew someone with my unusual last name, by marriage. Although the person she was talking about isn't my relative,  we worked together through a vendor during my last job. I got to know five people from that office and she worked with four of them.

I'm always impressed when connecting with strangers.  She asked where I used to work and she even knew some of the people from my team. She decided to work at this store in addition to her full time job when her daughter  went to college. She said she felt unproductive with all the extra time on her hands, it was her favorite store, and it seemed like the perfect fit.

This chat reminded me of how expansive my network is, how many great people I've been lucky enough to work with, and how New York doesn't feel big anymore. Although I rarely feel bored during my time off when I'm working a full time job, there is a piece of my brain that is not getting regular exercise. It must get rusty, right?

A few days ago, I designed my own volunteer program at a non profit. I offered to work one day a week to help quantify the impact of a new technology on whatever it is they care about. Word is still out if they can accept my help and what it would look like if they can. A friend asked me how this could line me up for a job. It may sound funny but my motivation is to do something I enjoy and feel useful in the process.  I have been giving the same amount of time to other places but working on a specific project is what I'm good at.

I'm finding more jobs that fit my criteria. In most cases, it is because someone else is telling me about an opening and not because good positions are listed on job sites. I just talked to a friend who suggested following up by mailing my resume and cover letter to the recruiter. It is such a simple way of getting someone to look at my resume but if she hadn't suggested it,  I wouldn't do it. 

I keep hearing that hiring is picking up. I also hear nothing gets done this time of year. When it comes to potential employment I thought it would just be a matter of having my experience resonate with a recruiter and the details would work themselves out. I'm not sure what the reasons are but I'm not hearing back about jobs that make me think "I can do that in my sleep and my resume proves it." When did hiring managers become even more picky then I am?  

Job applications: 1
Networking events: 0
New contacts:0

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Craig's List Lifestyle

These days, I spend about 4 hours each weekday on work, 8 sleeping, and the other 12 on my version of fun. Making high impact / low cost improvements to my apartment is getting fun time every day.

Design Within Reach had a big red SALE sign out front and lots of air conditioning so obviously I needed to go inside and look at the beds. We've been talking about getting a new bed frame for a few months, ideally one with storage underneath. So when I saw the $4,500 bed frame pictured above, I started having a rather impassioned argument with my responsible self and my impulsive self. This primary emotion was despair. Here is the perfect bed frame but spending that kind of money on anything except taxes is just not me. I have spent much more on a piece of furniture for a client but when it comes to my personal money, I'm all about Yankee ingenuity.

Enter Craig's List. Does it save money? Yes! Is it worth it? Always, if you have the time and enjoy adventure.

Several hours were spent casually looking through bed frame listings. Looking at a photos of a disassembled bed with 4 large drawers but no price, I could see that it would look similar to my dream bed frame when put together. A few emails later, the owner offered it to me for free if I would pick it up but I offered him some money anyway.

The long weekend seemed the perfect time to get it from Brooklyn but I couldn't book a pick-up since Zip car was out of trucks. I reserved a truck for Tuesday after work and a friend offered to help me out. Everything was perfect. I was going to accomplish something awesome before the middle of the week!

About half an hour before meeting up, it turned out that my Zipcard wasn't where I remembered or in any of the other likely places.  Being extremely organized, the idea of loosing the card took a few minutes to finally accept. Next was a call to the garage to see if I could get into the truck. They gave me the number for Zipcar. The person at the other end said if he heard from me an hour earlier that I could have picked up a new card from the main office but since it was after 5pm nothing could be worked out until morning. Oh-- except that he could cancel my reservation and "as a courtesy" wave charges related to canceling within an hour of my reservation.

After more thwarted efforts to find a pick-up truck, my friend made a great suggestion: CC Rentals.  They are open 24/7 and rent cargo vans for under $100/day.  Hurray for smart friends! About 45 minutes later than expected, we pulled up onto too-hip-to-shower Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Most of the places I lived and worked from 1997 - 2000 were within a 10 block radius of this apartment.  Actually, my friend Marni used to live on the 2nd floor of the building. Although the neighborhood is more chic and presumably safer, the building was just as frightening as it was a decade ago.

This photo gives you a general sense of the style of the apartment.  I felt a bit better knowing that the bed frame had been in the building for a short period of time since it was a gift from a loft-living friend of the guy in a Grateful Dead tie dye who opened the door.  This was my guy.

He opened the door after we pressed the one good buzzer next to several wires sticking out of holes where, presumably, other buzzers once lived in peace and harmony. After a rather startled hello he looked beyond us to a woman on the stoop. I imagined her to be a Dutch Cyndi Lauper impersonator (in her She's So Unusual period).

"Are you staying tonight?" He asked her.
"We need to talk about that"
He turned his attentions back to us and then to the floor of the hallway. "There was a paint bucket here." 
The door has no closer so it needs to be propped open from the base. In spite of all the garbage in the hallway, there is no wooden shim. This isn't the kind of place where people would spend money on a plastic door opener. I reach for a folding table.
"That won't hold it." Our host seems extremely put out.

Once inside the apartment, there is a guy on a computer and another guy on a couch texting. I say hi and no one says hi back. It felt like greeting people when entering a public bus.

"Are you ready? My friend rearranged my living room while I was out of town this weekend so the bed is under here" He took off a heavy grandma curtain from a pile of items against a back wall. We needed to move a chair that looked like an orange Muppet in bad need of a shampoo. I could see a few of the drawers. The big pieces were behind a folded Stairmaster and under the game Mousetrap. 

"Do you like the living room better now?"
"I hate it. I don't know what possessed him to do it. Why would that be a good idea?"

"I need to give you a lot of money right now." A short woman of Indian decent told our host. I didn't even see her come in the room.

Our host explained "She's going to the airport so I need to take care of this." It didn't really explain anything.

A man with zero body fat wearing only a towel exited what must have been the bathroom and disappeared through another door. The passionate texter made a sandwich of cheese and wonderbread. He watched us move the pieces of the bed frame out of the apartment. 

Once money changed hands and the short woman was on her way to the airport, it was Cyndi's turn.

"Were you on top or bottom?"
"That's $35 a night."

We think he was operating an underground youth hostel. $35 for a bunk bed? Is it more for the top bunk? This was something I'd heard about but never seen before.

Getting the bed frame into the apartment was blissfully uneventful. Including a the van rental, thank you pizza, and hardware for one of the drawers the bed frame cost less than 5% of the one I saw a few weeks ago. Thank you, Craig's List!

Job applications: 2
Networking events: 0
New contacts: 0

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pianos in the Parks

People don't move to New York for the scenery. People move to New York for the other people. Anywhere else in the country, my household income of upper middle class would afford me more than a one bedroom 4th floor walk-up. In Manhattan, I aspire to a place where I can blow-dry my hair without turning off the air conditioner and a dishwasher that doesn't need to be asked nicely.  I can't even dream of a laundry that doesn't require quarters. No, you move to New York City to be around the most interesting people per square foot.

This town is set up to encourage a devotion to your creative side by taunting us with neighbors who have given up the day job, the artist brass ring. This passion is being seen outdoors all summer with 60 pianos around the city.  One evening, I was walking through Central Park after dark and heard a swelling concerto. The experience of stumbling upon music in the city is common place but in the right moment it feels like unwrapping a present. 

Thursday, one of my friends invited me to an evening of show tunes in Lincoln Center. I don't think or myself as a huge fan of show tunes but it sounded like an unexpected way to spend an evening that my new found free time allows. This summer is full of yes.

My not being a fan of show tunes? Apparently that is a lie I told myself.  I not only knew most of the songs but also the lyrics. When I got home, I put on a cassette of Chess-- second only to Annie as musical soundtrack of my troubled youth--- that drove my dishwasher into the bedroom with mumbles about bleeding ears.

There were challenges with playing outside that I hadn't thought of before hand. The wind would pick up, making my role of page turning into page holding down.  We had a great time and drew a crowd ranging from preschool through retirement.

Someone asked play a short piece on the piano we were show tuning on so of course we turned it over. It turned out to be Eric Clark, an accomplished young pianist. Eric is trying out many of the pianos when he comes to the city from New Jersey a few times a week. He told us a bit about his findings, from pianos missing peddles to tilting heavily. The public has drastically different responses to his music. Some people, impatient for their toddlers to climb up to the bench and feel the keys, have nearly started fist fights while others have taken him out for dinner. This city expands  to fit all of us.

Job applications: 0
Networking events: 1
New contacts: 0

Friday, July 2, 2010

Venn Diagram

Everyone has some overlap-- venn diagram style-- inside with one circle being how a person sees himself and the other being the work that they do. If you take away the work, you also take away the overlap. New York City is full of people with a lot of overlap. As a result, answering the question "What do you do?" when you are looking for a new job can be extremely tricky. If you say the wrong thing, your new friend may be watching a film in her head of what it would look like if her worst work-related fears came to pass.

But having people know makes everything easier. I keep telling myself this piece because it is surprisingly difficult.  There are so many advantages to having friends "on the inside." Having more information means you worry less. Already, I've learned that two jobs (referenced here and here) have internal candidates, making it unlikely that I will be seriously considered. Not positive news but news that I got quickly.

There is this exciting that I mentioned Wednesday. I started writing a cover letter on Tuesday, looked at it again on Wednesday, but did not touch on Thursday or today. My focus should be on applying for jobs that look interesting and worry about the rest of it afterward, right?

I'm sure this procrastination is common but logically just shouldn't be the case. Yes, putting my best foot forward with a well written introduction for that exact job is part of the process but I also need to ask for help getting my application in front of the right person. People ask me for little favors all the time and I don't think twice about following up. Knowing all of this, hard asking for help should be easy but it isn't at all.

Job applications: 0
Networking events: 1
New contacts: 3

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Scalable Relevant Data

Last night, I went to a fascinating event to help nonprofits think about potential uses for Foursquare. This link to a post by Farra Trompeter, one of the organizers, does an excellent idea of summarizing the content of the talk. I enjoy how dynamic the FourSquare experience is.

When I went to San Francisco, there were tips and check-ins from my friends. This made it easier to go to places that I would not have found otherwise. The Met Museum is tapping into this feature with tips about pieces of art. My favorite example is a footprint on one of Pollack's paintings in the permanent collection. Since the Brooklyn Museum is both a meeting place for Brooklyn residents and  a stay-cation destination for residents of other boroughs, more of the staff tips relate to the neighborhood around the museum.

What is great about FourSquare is that people already are using it. The trick is finding ways to make the data useful-- be it for you as an individual or as an institution people are checking in to. From the talk last night, it sounds like only select data is available. The information that would be most powerful (Are repeat visitors also museum members? Who is here because of something they read on the site?) is not being tracked. If you could find reliable ways of gathering that data, you can use it to improve the user experience.

This all taps into my last job, managing support services for a data driven internet company. It has me thinking differently about what my next job could look like. My success at finding easy ways to collect the relevant data points in facilities, space planning, events, mail, and reception is a cross-disciplinary skill. There are places like museums that still don't have the useful data that they easily could. in part because of clunky interdepartmental communication. Is there a job where you talk with lot of people in a company to figure out what data they need?  The larger a place gets, the more necessary an internal interpreter can be.

Job applications: 1
Networking events: 1
New contacts: 3