How To Sell Yourself In An Interview Without Embellishing & Other Interview Advice
Scott Jarr, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, of VoltDB–an open-source DBMS that scales well beyond traditional databases, without sacrificing SQL or ACID for transactional data integrity —was kind enough to appear on Inside the Interview to share his interview tips and advice with potential job seekers. You may not be a candidate for a position within VoltDB specifically, but if you’re starting to consider other opportunities, and seriously want to distinguish yourself from other job applicants and candidates, listen carefully to Scott’s interview advice. His insight will help you regardless of where you might be interviewing next. In addition to how to sell yourself with honesty and integrity, pay close attention to how he goes about evaluating candidates during the interview process, and which 3 core competencies he must see in every candidate before deciding to move them to the next round of interviews, or make them an offer. Enjoy the audio. Please comment, as we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Unfortunately, only the audio is available this time because of some technical difficulties. Nonetheless, the content is still just as useful, you just can’t see out beautiful faces. (Transcript below as well!)
Jay Webb: I’m Jay Webb, the founder of the J. David Group. The J. David Group is a sales recruiting company that helps emerging technology and professional services companies throughout North America find the best salespeople.
Welcome to” Inside the Interview”, a place where I turn the tables on decision-makers at some of the world’s most innovative companies, and speak with them a little bit about their experience.
Then, more importantly, how they go about evaluating candidates during the interview process, and then more specifically, which three core competencies must they see in a candidate to decide to not necessarily make the candidate an offer, but at least to say, “You know what? I’d like to move this person to the next round of interviews.”
Today, I’m happy to have on Scott Jarr. Scott Jarr is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of VoltDB. VoltDB is an in-memory relational database that combines high-velocity data ingestion, real- time data analytics, and decision-making.
Scott, welcome to” Inside the Interview”.
Scott Jarr: Thanks Jay, good to talk with you.
Jay: Absolutely. Let’s just start there. Tell me about your role at VoltDB and then also a little bit about VoltDB, and then the role you play in the interview process.
Scott: Sure. VoltDB is about a three-year-old company. We’re the classic early-stage, venture back, technology company. When we started, it was the proverbial two guys and a dog and a garage, just about. We had some very innovative technology.
We went through the process of really trying to understand the markets that it fits in and build out the team, very importantly, that would help us bring that product to market and start to sell that product.
We’ve kind of gotten to the point where we have a fairly mature product and market, we’re selling, we have quite a few customers, and we just launched version three of the product, so things continue to move along really well.
I was one of the founders of Volt, as I said, three years ago, very much on the business side with my technical co-founder, Mike Stonebraker. My role has changed somewhat, and it has changed not at all in many other ways in the course of the last three years, but really, I am dominantly, it’s sort of the chief cook and bottle washer, in many ways.
The guy that makes the coffee, and the guy that cleans up after people, [that’s my ring], and up until recently, I’ve been involved in, effectively, every single hire that we’ve had. Not that there’s been a tremendous amount of them, but every single one of them.
Culture is so important in a company of this size, and that’s one of the things that we look for as we really assess candidates, is not just their competencies and what they’re good at, but what is the cultural fit within the organization?
Jay: Can you define that? And I know that’s always hard to define, but as you look at your culture now and your organization, if somebody were to walk through the door and you were to begin to assess them culturally, what would that look like?
Scott: Yes, it’s funny, I had that conversation yesterday with somebody, how do you define culture? No, I can’t define that, is the easy answer.
The harder answer is I guess take a beat around the bush about it a little bit. We have sets of things that we view as critical to somebody being a good fit in the organization; honesty, integrity, intelligence, hard work, dedication, those types of things.
Also, things that are less tangible, not that those are highly tangible items, but things like wanting to have fun, wanting to do something that really matters and make a difference. Companies at our stage are not 9 to 5, come get a paycheck.
They are really about taking a vision that’s somewhat evangelical in nature, but somewhat missionary nature, and really feeling like you can take on the world with it, and going and making that happen. All of those strange characteristics all rolled into one is sort of the culture within Volt.
One other thing that we’ve worked really hard at, and in the interview process somewhat strikes people as unusual or almost not believable, is the level of transparency within the organization, and we don’t do that for some strange amorphous reasons, we do that because we think that’s the best way to build a business, so that strikes people.
Not anybody wants that level of transparency within the company, they almost want to come do their thing and move on, and it’s just not the nature of Volt.
Jay: Let’s just back up for a moment and say, obviously there are a lot of people out there that are still looking for opportunities and folks might be listening to this interview and really want a shot at getting in there and getting an interview with you or other folks on your team.
If I were a candidate and I wanted to send my resume for an application or for a particular position with your organization, do you have any advice for candidates as far as breaking through the clutter, and/or what do you look for specifically on a resume that sort of gets you on the edge of your seat and says we need to speak to this person?
Scott: Well, this might sound trite, and I know in some ways it is, but we’re a small company, we’re a fast-moving company, we fill positions that we have allocated, so first and foremost is it is next to impossible for a non- spect position to be filled.
Somebody that’s just dropping in a resume that might be a really great candidate for a position that we just don’t have open right now, is going to have a really hard time getting through the process.
However, we’re also nimble in the fact that when we post a position as being open, even something as simple as applying for it online on the website, they all get looked at. The idea that people are inundated with so many resumes that they just can’t even see them, can’t look at them, it’s not the case that I’ve experienced.
I’ve run into that prior to our relationship, Jay, with other firms that I’ve worked with, where it just dumps resumes at you. That’s, I think when somebody finds a company online and they say, “That company is doing some interesting things, I really want to work there.”
Then they go and they apply via that website, and we’re not Cisco, we don’t have that kind of volume of people coming to us, but we are a company that’s pretty well-known within this community, and we are looked at as a cool place to work, so we do get them in there, but quite honestly, we find them as they find us and mention it to us.
Jay: Is there anything that they can say, either in a cover letter or introductory e-mail, or perhaps somewhere in their objective, that once you’ve decided to open up and take a look at it, that would compel you to take action and reply to them or schedule a time for them to speak with you?
Scott: Yes. I think that one of them is very tactical and clearly I can articulate it, and that is the relevance. We all do like to have some level of relevance in terms of if I’m hiring an inside sales guy, I would like to know and see candidates that have some level of experience there.
If you don’t, tell me why you don’t and why you still think you’re appropriate, that’s fine. I don’t mind that at all. Another is harder to say what to put, but it really comes down to is the person filling out a form because they’re looking to maybe change.
They’re not sure what they want to do or this is the 1700th website they’ve hit this week, just filling in the buttons and clicking the forms, “the excitement. I want to work there because you guys are doing neat things. I’ve been in organizations that look like this and I loved it.” I get how hard that is to come across in a short e-mail intro, it’s hard.
On the other hand, as human nature, we all look for that. We want people to be excited about what we’re doing, and people that work at Volt are excited about what they’re doing, and we’re attracted to other people that are excited about it as well.
Jay: This made me think of something else when you said short e-mail intro, is that, are candidates likely to get a response with a shorter e-mail with less information or a longer e-mail with more information?
Scott: Different people do different things. I will answer for myself, not for some of the other folks on my team. Shorter intro. Let me, and I also spend a good bit of time now looking at people at LinkedIn.
If I get an e-mail from somebody that has a five, ten [inaudible 09:08] [two] short paragraphs that says, “I saw Volt, I think it looks like a great company because this and this, I have relevant experience in these categories. My resume’s attached, here’s my LinkedIn connection, or here’s some sample work.” That’s sort of the ideal profile for me on an initial workout.
Jay: Okay, so let’s just say we get past that initial reach-out. You’ve connected with the person and either you invite them in to speak with you because there’s a position that obviously you’re hiring for, what can they expect from you when the first sit down with you? What are you first looking for? What are you trying to get out of them that they should be aware of?
Scott: Is this where I give away my interviewing secrets?
Jay: Or not, you can tell me as much as you want or as little as you want.
Scott: I think, and one thing I haven’t mentioned sort of here is part of the interviewing characteristics that I like to look for is, I think in companies of this stage, and I can only speak from experience of companies that are early stage, because that’s what I’ve done for my entire career, are that companies this stage.
You need to be naturally inquisitive, you need to want to understand. Your thirst for knowledge is what’s going to make you successful in a place like this. That comes across when you talk to people by the questions they ask.
I don’t particularly like an interview style, I don’t use an interview style where I sit down and say, “Oh, I have your resume here, Jay, and let’s go through, backwards to forwards, all your experience,” because that’s not telling me who you are. What I want to know is what do you think of the business? Why is it exciting to you? What can I answer for you?
Sometimes, I’ve interviewed early stage individual contributor inside sales guys, and you know questions I love? “Tell me about how did you get this business funded? What’s the strategic direction of the business?” Not to ask a canned question, but somebody who’s truly interested in those questions.
To me that says they’re looking at the big picture, they know how they fit into that big picture, and they’re not trying to take over the big picture, but they know that that’s an important part and that they’re going to be a piece of driving that forward.
Those are sort of, you know, without giving away the secrets, that’s really what I’m trying to assess in the beginning is, is your level of intelligence sort of to your core competencies. The level of intelligence, and this is not an IQ test, it’s a conversation between a couple people.
How intelligent, how naturally inquisitive are you, how much do you want to know about the business from the highest level strategy all the way down into the individual tactics, and then the integrity piece. I can’t look at the top three characteristics and not have honesty, trust, integrity as one of those pieces.
Jay: Let’s just take integrity. How can you, as you’re assessing the candidate and talking to the candidate, and perhaps obviously you’re sitting down with them for the first time. How do you assess that? What are you looking for in their past or in the way that they’re answering the questions for you that tells you one way or another that this person has a lack of integrity or is full of integrity?
Scott: I want somebody to tell me honestly what they’ve done and what they do. It’s surprisingly obvious when people start to stretch too far, and they make claims that you don’t have to dig deep and ask very many questions to realize that this is not, they’re portraying something that’s not necessarily honest.
I think that comes across very quickly. The other area where it becomes obvious is when referencing checking, and I am a big believer in the blind reference check. Not necessarily, if you can’t tell me three people that are going to say good things about you, that’s a problem.
I imagine you have a mother and you have a best friend, and you can probably find somebody from college days, so everybody has those three canned references, and they’re good to talk to, you can get stuff out of them.
The blind reference is also one that really does provide a whole lot of contacts, and in an industry like ours, you and I know, we’ve talked many times about all the people that we both know, it’s a small industry, and you can’t get away with that for long.
Jay: You know there’s a white elephant in the room that will be unmentioned during this interview. Do you remember that?
Scott: Yes, I do now, that’s right, I forgot about that. I wasn’t thinking of that.
Jay: Oh, okay. Well when you said you and I both know, that’s why I thought you were. Leave that off of, we won’t get into that for purposes of this interview, but.
Jay: Yes, yes, yes. I am curious, and the reason I’m curious is that, I try to advise candidates of having a foundation when they first walk in an interview and really having the courage of their conviction, and when I’m talking to Scott Jarr or whomever.
If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, you start sort of going down this path, it really makes it sound like you’re starting to make stuff up, or you’re starting to stretch or whatever, it just doesn’t come off well at all.
Whether or not they do it on purpose or maybe they’re trying to sell too hard, but they’re, any number of different reasons why that happens, but if you can’t give an example, then that’s okay, I know it’s probably hard.
Is there an example of someone, or not even at VoltDB specifically, but just generally speaking, give me an example of a question that you’ll ask someone where you really feel as though the pressing and the embellishing, and the sort of just trying to tell you something that they didn’t necessarily even experience it themselves?
Scott: The context that that comes off and I’ve seen, and by the way, you had said something in the way you phrase that question, I want to agree totally with, I don’t think people are going in saying, “I’m going to lie.” That’s not typically what we see.
Typically, I think people are accustomed to saying, “I have to represent myself in a certain way,” and we do it on resumes where, responsible for driving $100 million of revenue. Well how did you do that, were you the guy that owned that revenue, or were you a team member in that? That’s sort of the context that I see people pushing at.
I understand that resumes are a vehicle where we do do stuff like that, where we do talk in those terms, and that’s okay. When you start to say, “Yes, I was responsible for $100 million of revenue.” Don’t tell me that, tell me, what did you do? “I was an inside sales rep that was on a team that contributed to that $100 million of revenue”, that’s a more accurate portrayal of what those activities were.
Honestly, I think one of the other things that people often try to do, is they try to fit the role exactly as it’s written, and the reality is that we all write roles as, this is the, if somebody had every one of these, it would be a freak of nature. There’s nobody that can have this.
I can imagine writing the thing that says I want somebody who is over 7 feet tall and who is under 5 feet tall because they can reach over things and they can walk under things, you just can’t have them all, right? Yet, you sometimes get a candidate that will come in and say, “I got all those things.”
We’re okay, and I say this as Volt, but we probably as an industry as well, we’re okay with people aren’t going to know everything in the role that they’re going into, often you don’t want that.
Often, you want somebody to be able to say, “Look, I know 60% or 70% or 80% of what you need there, but that 20%, I want to learn that, that’s how I’m going to grow, that’s what I want out of this job. I want to be successful, I want to make money, I want stock options in the case of a company like us.
I also want to grow as an individual, and to do that, I’m not going to do the same job I’ve always done, but I’m going to utilize the strength that I have and then I’m going to add a little layer on top of that. How are you going to help me learn that new piece?”
Jay: Let me ask you this, what about failures? What if, let’s say you’ve crossed with somebody, maybe director a level, vice-president level, and they’ve had something that just didn’t work out recently, and perhaps it was born from a decision that they made that for one reason or another, things just didn’t go in the right direction.
How do you expect them to articulate that, and what is your thought process around that in terms of whether or not that somebody it’s a non-starter once they’ve, sort of tell me about that.
Scott: You’re asking an early-stage founder about whether failure’s okay or not.
Jay: As a matter of fact, I am.
Scott: That’s great, we love it. I don’t want to go overboard here, but lack of failure often in my mind is an indication you don’t take risks. Again, if you’re at Cisco or you’re at a, and I use them just as a representative large company, Microsoft, Clorox, GM, it doesn’t matter.
Many of the jobs in those locations are not designed around risk. You’re managing and you’re about limiting risk and mitigating risk in every way that you can. Companies like ours are not that way. We’re not designed to mitigate risk. Start-ups can’t mitigate risk, we’re all about risk, it’s a high risk environment, so you take chances.
Part of that is they’re not all going to work out. Again, I know this sounds trite because it’s a consistent answer, but it’s true. We learn from our failures. What I want to hear when somebody says, “Hey, you know, I was the VP of sales at Company ‘XYZ’ and it failed.”
What I don’t want to hear is, “It failed because of everybody else, I was doing the right thing.” What I do want to hear is, “It failed. We learned this. Maybe I made this bad decision here or there, but we learned this. I’ve learned how to not only take that one failure and use it again, but to extrapolate and understand more about that.”
We think failures are real opportunities for people to say, “Look, I’m willing to grow, I’m capable of growing, and I’m comfortable in my own skin, I know I could admit to my failure. I’ve had them, I think we all have them,” and also that, in early businesses, late businesses too, probably, is it’s very important to have a sense of reality.
You can’t come to the table every day and say, “Everything’s rosy,” or, “Everything’s going to be great.” Really have to say, “This part of the business is suffering, or this part of the business is exceeding.
Let’s figure that out, let’s figure out why,” because it’s not going to be one person that does it, it’s going to be a team, and a team works by people being realistic and honest about what the situation is.
Jay You just said ‘realistic’ and ‘honest’, and one of the questions that I always mention, or one of the things I always like to hit at the top of the interview, and make sure that we cover it, which is the three core competencies that you look for in every candidate to decide to not necessarily make an offer, but at least to say, move them forward.
You mentioned earlier, intelligence, showing a natural inquisitive nature if you will, and then obviously honesty and integrity, I guess, go obviously hand in hand. Are those three core competencies that you look for or are there others as well that you’d like to talk about?
Scott: Yes, I guess they are. The other one that I would add to that, but I sort of [munge] it in there, is desire. Again another characteristic of an early-stage company in all roles, but I believe in every size company in the sales role for sure, you want somebody who wants to win.
They’re driven to, and they just desire that ability for either, just to know they did it, for self-recognition, to make, whatever it is. We’re not usually here just to collect a paycheck in a company like Volt.
We’re here to do something great, and that could be to advance world peace, or it doesn’t matter, but something that you’re really driven by that, a driven desire to do something great, and that’s, if I look back, and I always think of, in five years, somebody who had been working with me for five years, what are the characteristics I really like about that person?
Then project that back into the interviewing process, well why don’t we interview for that? And those characteristics are the same across those. Those people that, you look back five years, of course they’re competent, we all know that their competency is a level of requirement within the interviewing process, but they also have a tremendous desire.
They also are highly honest and a great sense of integrity, but there’s that drive that exists that’s really hard to not be attracted to. You want to be with people that are driven that way, in good ways, not in silly ways.
Jay: Let me ask you this. How can a candidate properly convey their desire aside from, “Scott, I really want this job. I really, really want it, I think I’d do a really great job.” How do they convey it during the interview to just show you how strongly they want to succeed, either on their own or just at VoltDB or whatever?
Scott: I don’t know.
Jay: It’s a tough question.
Scott: It’s one of those things I think I just read, I feel it. There are people that we all know that are just gregarious and you like them, and you can’t really identify why, and I think that’s true about somebody that really wants a position.
It’s not a sense of desperation, it’s not a sense of entitlement, it’s not a sense of, “Oh well, I was told I needed to apply for this,” or, “I was told this should be the next step in my career,” but somebody who really sees that there’s something really interesting, really neat going on there and they just want to do it.
Jay: Makes sense, makes perfect sense, and I agree. That’s the thing, I think it goes back to the culture things as well, right? It’s one of those things where it’s really hard to put your finger on, and it is certainly more of you know it when you see it. I mean, right? That’s really it, for sure, for sure.
Just two more questions and we’ll get you out of here, and again, I appreciate your time today for sure. How should a candidate effectively close an interview with you or just generally speaking, what are some of the best practices?
Scott: I don’t think I have any good relevant comments there other than the stuff that you obviously know far better than I do. I always like to hear about them being engaged in the next steps, understanding where the timeline is.
In many ways, it’s a sales process. They’re going through a process of selling their talents to a company, so if it’s a sales process, engage it as a sales process, figure out the next steps, how do you move along it.
If the company is not going to be interested in a candidate, the candidate wants to get that company off their list, they’ve got more things that they have to worry about, so if it’s not a good fit, and find out if it’s a good fit, by the way.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people that I really like the person, I think they’d be great in a different role, but the fit is the issue. I think that’s true when we end up parting ways with people, it’s usually not that the person is bad or incompetent.
It’s very typically that it’s just the role’s not right anymore, or the role’s not right when somebody’s being interviewed.
I would try and assess that very quickly after that first interview. “Jay, I thought it was a great meeting, I don’t know about you, tell me, are my skills are what you’re looking for, the right thing for what I have? Are we a match here or not? No offense taken, I just want to know so that I know how to engage with you, and then figure out the next steps.”
Jay: That’s one of the things I always advise candidates, as well, is that you want to know at the end of the interview process where you stand, not necessarily because it’s just a formality, but you want to know for your own edification, you don’t want to wait for me to wait for my client to get in touch with me by the end of the day.
Then I’m following up with you 24 hours later, when you can find out before you leave the office, so that’s a good point. So the last question I have for you is just simply, are you hiring, and for which positions are you hiring for, and if you are hiring, how should folks go about applying?
Scott: Yes, definitely. We have several positions that are open. We’re looking for some sales engineering resources out in our California office, which I’m speaking to you from. We are hiring a West Coast sales executive, outside sales type person.
We are hiring engineering people, we’re always looking for good engineering talent in the database space. Those are really the most relevant roles that we’re looking for right now, but over the course of the next year we’re going to be increasing head count pretty significantly, so there will be more, websites are always a great place to look for those things.
Jay: Fantastic. Do you have a Twitter account at all that people can start following you on?
Jay Fantastic, @VoltDB. Scott Jarr, thank you very much. I’ll call you a good old friend from a few years ago, it’s good to reconnect for sure, and thank you very much for doing this. Scott Jarr, CSO and co-founder of VoltDB. Thank you.
Scott: Thank you Jay. Good talking.
Jay: Absolutely, thank you very much man.