The interview that nearly wasn’t

The new job is going fine. Setting up a new office is hassle; planning a foreign trip for next week is hassle. But in a good way.

However, this week another possibility matured somewhat. I had fired in a rather speculative application to a large international organisation back in September, and the interview process took place in three legs, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

On Tuesday, it was a straight-forward writing assignment: one hour to write half a page on this, a page on that, and half a page in French on the other. It also gave me a chance to look at the other candidates since we were all put in a single examination room in the organisation's headquarters. Mostly, I thought, rather dry military types.

On Wednesday, I was supposed to turn up at 7.45 am for the second leg. But we had a lousy night with U on Tuesday night (like many autistic children, she does not really believe in regular sleeping patterns), and at about 4 am I struggled downstairs to the computer to send them an email saying that due to a domestic crisis involving my children's health I would not be able to attend. That, I thought, was that – but when I eventually surfaced a few hours later there was an email waiting for me inviting me to come at the much more civilised hour of 1545 anyway.

So I did, and sat a pretty simple computer-moderated French test – 80 multiple choice questions on grammar (which of these sentences is grammatically correct, which is the right answer to this question, etc) and then 60 on comprehension, where they played a sentence or a dialogue at you through headphones and you had to choose the answer which best summarised what you had just hear. I was gratified that I found the comprehension bit a lot easier – I don't think of myself as using French very much, and the last time I had a work conversation in it was with a Balkan foreign minister last March.

The last leg of the interview was yesterday morning. It looked fairly straightforward in the information I'd been sent – 45 minutes to prepare a 15-minute briefing on the subject provided, and present it to your interview panel who will be pretending to be members of the Dutch parliament. I was looking forward to boiling down complex sets of information about some topic and making it digestible. Then I turned over the paper and found that the assignment consisted of the one line, "Describe what [potential employer] is doing in [Blefuscu]".

I don't know very much about [Blefuscu], apart from what I picked up from former colleagues (my last employers did quite a lot of work there) and what I have read in the news. I certainly didn't feel I knew enough to spoof my way through a grilling by politicians, or even people pretending to be politicians. I told the personnel people that I just couldn't do it, and would have to leave.

They persuaded me to stay at least for the 45 minutes preparation time, and see how I felt at the point that the interview was due to start; "See how well you can wing it," I thinnk were the exact words used. So I sat and thought about the history of [Blefuscu], its importance to the rest of the world, thought of an anecdote I could tell about each of the neighbouring countries, and by the time I'd done that I had two pages of material.

So I did the briefing, in broad-brush political terms with no pernickety details; and I suspect this may actually have been what they wanted, not a regurgitation of the key numbers of people deployed in [Blefuscu] but someone who is able to take a lead in a more general political debate. (I also, of course, included a few words of Dutch in my introductory remarks; as I suspected, none of the interview panel were in fact themselves Dutch.)

Well, we'll see. I hadn't seriously prepared for the interview process, because I'm pretty content in the new job I have just started. But I'm very encouraged that it seemed to have gone pretty well all the same, despite my actually missing one part of it and nearly walking out of another. And if they do make me an offer, it will confirm to me that I was right in my assessment of the other candidates…

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