2013/04/24

Surviving Midnight

This post is about an interview experience I had recently. I have interviewed many people for SQL jobs, but this time I was the interviewee. That’s a nerve-wracking experience at any time, but was especially memorable this last time because it involved one of the Midnight DBAs. In case you haven’t heard of the Midnight DBAs, I’ll give you some background.

There are many well-known authors, presenters and bloggers within the Microsoft SQL Server community, including various user groups, conferences, forums and online communities. Two of the stars of this SQL universe are the husband/wife duo known as the Midnight DBAs: Sean and Jen McCown. I first heard about Sean one day at work when my coworkers were discussing how Sean liked to interview people for database jobs and then blog about the (sometimes disastrous) results. If the interview didn't go well, he would rip apart the candidate for his or her lack of basic SQL knowledge (examples here, here, here, and here). You have to bear in mind that Sean holds a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification in SQL Server – among the highest certifications available. It’s not a certification you can acquire by just reading books. You really have to know your subject very well. There are only about a hundred SQL MCMs in the world, a very exclusive group. In summary, this person knows a lot about SQL Server and a lot about interviews. And he’s not lenient when it comes to the amount of knowledge he believes a candidate should possess.

Coming back to my story, I had been approached by a company looking for people with SQL skills. After an initial phone screen their HR person sent me an invitation for an in-person technical interview with their database director and senior DBA. So far, so good. As I read the names of the people who would be there though, my heart stopped. The senior DBA was Sean McCown. There was no way I would get past this guy. I half expected to fail the interview but decided to do it anyway, reasoning that one of two things would happen. Possibility one was that I would pass the interview, which would be an accomplishment knowing who it was with. Possibility two was that I would fail the interview, which would be painful but I would have had a chance to interact with a mind like that and evaluate where I stood. I figured I’d learn so much from the experience, it would still be a win for me.

When I arrived for the interview, the first relevant thing Sean said was, “I have 30 minutes to find out if you are worth a damn." To say my heart was racing wouldn't be much of an exaggeration. Despite the veins in my head pulsing (I don't think I'd ever felt them before), I maintained a cool facade and said “Fair enough. Let's go.” I was able to correctly answer most of the technical questions he fired at me. When he asked something I wasn't familiar with, I simply admitted that I didn't know. And guess what? He was actually very friendly and nice! He took the time to explain the answer to me on these questions. I was pleasantly surprised. I actually enjoyed the conversation, and got offered the job!

My takeaway, and my advice to you if you’re going to be in a technically grueling session: be yourself. Know your stuff. Don’t bluff no matter what. Saying, “I don't know” is okay. Be calm and confident in what you do know. There's almost no point in trying to cram for an interview the day before – if you don't know your subject, you won’t learn it in one day.

As a very young child, I remember reading books about witches and ghosts that scared me and led me to believe that midnight was the witching hour when all kinds of scary things came out of the woodwork. Turns out midnight is not so bad after all.

Good luck.