How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Interviews…

If you or someone you know is going to be interviewing for a bridge engineer position, this post is dedicated to you.  In the last edition of TheBridgeGuy, we looked at the education needed to become a bridge engineer and how that translates into the real world.  Fast forward to graduation.  Congratulations!  What a relief, no more term papers, no more homework, no more finals!  In this edition, we’ll examine what it takes to land that job as a bridge engineer.

The Questions

Recruitment for many firms is a time consuming, often tedious process.  There is a lot of paperwork involved and it isn’t as simple as posting a job announcement.  The interview panel must write the interview questions, get those questions approved, schedule interview times with the candidates, reserve a room, and then sit through the same answers to the same questions multiple times.  And do all of that while keeping up with their regular work.  Keep this is mind when coming in for an interview.

I won’t go through all of the typical interview conventions and etiquette – there are many resources online to help with that.  My main focus here is what to expect on an engineering interview.

Private firms tend to ask questions to see if you’re a good fit for the firm.  These interviews tend to be less formal and more of a discussion.  The key here is to be upbeat and personable.  The panel is interested to know how you work on a team, deal with conflict, your interests and your goals.  If you applied for a bridge position, but you’re goal is to work in permitting – you’re not a good fit. 

Government agencies tend to ask more questions of a technical nature, but are equally interested to find out how you might work on a team or deal with conflict.  These panels are interested in making sure they are hiring competent people who can do the job.  For a bridge interview, expect to have to explain classic beam theory, Whitney stress block, the forces acting on a retaining wall or develop a bending moment diagram.  Another common question involves being presented with a truss and being asked to mark each member as tension, compression or zero force based the applied loading.

A free body diagram (remember those?) of a gravity retaining wall. Can you name the three global stability checks needed to design a retaining wall?

How would you handle a hypothetical situation?  Perhaps a difficult co-worker, a disagreement over the application of the code or the phone call at 2am about one of your projects.  Expect to encounter at least a couple such questions.  My advice here is to come up with some canned answers, memorized and easy to adapt.  Remember that the panel wants to know how you would handle these situations.  Saying you would refer a disagreement with a co-worker to your supervisor shows you lack confidence, the ability to deal effectively with conflict and possibly even a lack of situational awareness or effective communication skills.  No one wants a person like that on their team.

We’ve all been there…

Another category of question is the soft question, such as questions dealing with diversity and inclusion.  Many human resources departments are now requiring hiring managers to ask questions like this – such is the world we live in.  This is another type of question where a memorized, easy to recite answer is helpful.  For possible answers, take a look at some answers online.

If this is an entry level job interview, many hiring managers are forgiving when it comes to the answers to technical questions.  Technical expertise can be taught.  Dealing with other human beings typically cannot.  If you have a high school diploma or a college degree, you have worked on teams to complete projects and assignments.  With teamwork inevitably comes conflict.  If you truly never have, that is fine.  Then it is time to channel your inner Tolstoy and make something up that represents how you would deal with the issue.  Simply saying you have no examples of interpersonal conflict to share is not going to win you the job.

Time Management

Time management is an essential skill in any workplace.  We all have to work to meet deadlines.  You had to meet deadlines in college and the workplace is no different.  Most interviews will be time limited and you should manage your time so that you finish within the allotted time.  You may be asked questions about managing multiple projects, but one of the most effective ways to see how a candidate manages their time is in the interview itself.  Going long in an interview shows the panel you don’t respect their time and it also tends to sew some concerns that you may not be capable of meeting deadlines.  Being concise and to the point in your answers will demonstrate this to the panel.

Practice, practice, practice

Consider asking a friend, colleague, parent or teacher to help you prep for your interview.  Have the person come up with some typical questions (try Google).  Make it as realistic as possible.  You can even do this on your own.  Practice giving concise but complete answers to the questions.  Practice good time management.  Make notes on points you want to cover.

From the panel’s perspective, the goal is not to stump you with a particular question.  They want to hear what you know, what you think, how you would behave in the workplace.  You’re likely going to be competing against many other candidates for a limited number of positions, and the panel must write their questions so as to draw a spectrum, separating the top candidates from the rest of the field.  Your goal is to answer all of the questions as best you can, so that you are the top candidate. 

Avoid not giving an answer at all.  Always attempt to answer each question as best you can.  If you have no idea how to answer a question, it will usually be obvious to the panel.  But attempting to give a concise answer, even a short one, shows the panel that you at least put effort into answering.  That said, rambling answers that hunt for an answer are not effective and can actually work against you.

We all embellish our accomplishments, skills and abilities in order to put our best foot forward, so don’t be afraid of doing this.  You may be asked to summarize your education and experience.  As with the other advice listed above, be concise.  Concentrate on the high points that you want to emphasize rather than every aspect of your background.  If a question contains the word ‘briefly,’ they likely want you to be brief.

The Virtual Interview

Some engineering interviews will have a written component to them.  With virtual interviews becoming more common compared to in person interviews, written questions have gone by the wayside.  The way these used to work is you would answer the oral questions first, then you would be given some amount of time to complete the written questions.  A hybrid of oral and written questions in a virtual setting requires the candidate to work the question then explain the answer to the panel via video.  Sometimes the panel can take a snapshot of the answer or the candidate can snap a picture with their phone and send it that way.

That’s about it…

It is always a good idea to have a quiet place to conduct your interview.  This should be somewhere that you can focus and engage with the panel.  Having a high speed connection will improve the overall experience, reduce stress on you and show you in the best light possible.  Many panels won’t let technical challenges get in the way of a good candidate, so expect to reconnect via phone if the connection is lost.  Interviewing at your local Starbucks is not advisable.

Every panel conducts interviews a little differently.  Panelists for an engineering interview will likely be senior engineers who manage teams.  They may introduce themselves and describe what they do.  They may explain the position, how the interview will proceed and next steps in the process.  The written questions may be provided ahead of time for you to review, or they may not.  Be prepared for both.

At some point during the interview you will likely be asked if you have any questions for the panel.  Always ask questions.  This shows you are engaged.  And always ask something beyond the obvious – when will I hear back?  A job interview is also a chance for you to interview the agency or firm you want to join.  What is the workplace like?  If I were to start today, what would I be working on?

You may also be asked if there is anything else you want to share with the panel.  Avoid using this part as a summary or rehashing what you’ve already said.  Think creatively.  Make yourself standout.  Every candidate is a quick learner and a hard worker.  Instead think about topics that you want to highlight that haven’t been mentioned before.  Mention your passion for the work.  Did you do research on a topic that could benefit the firm?  Is there a type of experience you’re looking for?  Where do you see yourself in 5 years with this firm?

And that wraps up my thoughts on engineering interviews.  Interviewing well is a skill everyone needs to develop.  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the position you interviewed for.  You are not alone.  Use every contact, every opportunity as a learning experience.  If you don’t get the job, review your performance.  Was there something you could have answered better?  Would more prep with a friend help?  Do I need to brush up on the basic technical skills?  Did I totally blow my allotted time limit?  Many times the hiring manager will offer some valuable feedback on your interview.  Use this feedback to improve your interviewing skills and you’ll soon land that dream job!    

And leave the jokes at home…

In the next edition of TheBridgeGuy, we’ll wrap up our discussion of securing that bridge engineering job with a discussion about what employers are looking for beyond the basic technical skills you learned in college.  What does it really mean to engineer something?  As it turns out, engineering is so much more than simply computing demands and checking them against capacity.

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About the author

Nick Rodda

I am an aspiring blogger with an interest in all things bridge related. This blog is dedicated to informing readers about the latest developments in bridge engineering. Look for new posts periodically!

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