My Very First (And Craziest) Interview Experience As a student
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
2 Years ago while finishing my university master studies in Management Engineering at Politecnico di Milano we had the CEO of The Level Group (a 4 year old startup that generates more than 100mil/year) as a guest speaker coming to visit us and introduce his company as part of the curriculum of the Strategy & Design course that all students on the Entrepreneurship stream were taking.
The course had a practical aspect in a form of case study where we were blessed with the chance to get in touch with the head of this amazing startup, get insight into the details of his success and the possibility of attempting to use our brains as intellectual katanas to help cut the wheat, bush and challenges that TLG was facing in some of the unexplored market territories that they stepped into.
This was all about to happen with the goal of proposing innovative ideas and tactics for better market penetration and end-user engagement with TLG's brands and products.
But what surprised me the most weren't the amazing numbers, innovative market strategies or engaging products that they were having and achieving. It was the CEO himself.
On the outside there wasn't anything special about him - casual adidas sneakers, normal jeans and a black sweater complemented with a 3 day expired beard and some semi-mainstream football friendly haircut. But what radiated out of him was the really special part - and everyone could feel it. He had such a positive aura filled with humbleness, inspiring moral values and intellectual sharpness all spiced with a perfectly balanced dose of friendliness and assertiveness. His energy pulled us all in in a vortex of interest, inspiration, awe and excitement.
When he finished the presentation and after he mentioned that they are looking for new entry position candidates - in the moment of almost standing ovations I made a decision - I was going to get a job in his company for sure!
I knew the competition was going to be tough as many of my colleagues were talking about this opportunity as well so I knew I had to act fast.
I parted to Barcelona that evening for a 4 day trip with my soulmate Federica and on the fourth night, while she was sleeping on my lap the deadline was due and I needed to finalize my application by finishing my CV and sending it. This slightly rustic 2 page curriculum vitae was the result of my effort that finished around 3am:
As you may have noticed on my CV the hexagon was representing my professional and personal skills where my professional skills were highlighted in gray and my personal skills were displayed in red. I wanted to invent something innovative and creative at the same time which was in coherence with the type of company I was applying for. Please check it out as it will be important for the story later on.
And the second page:
But what I didn't know was that since I was working on 2 versions of my CV in parallel, one RGB and the other CMYK - I accidentally turned the photo upside down the CMYK version. I noticed this but I was anyway ahead with the RGB version, hence I decided to ignore the CMYK version with the flipped photo. Then, probably during the lack of dopamine at 2:30 in the morning and without being aware of it I sent the application with the CV that had the photo upside down! I was in for an interesting surprise...
A couple of days later they e-mailed us the date, time and location of the first round interview event. Once there, I found myself in a room with around 20 other candidates already filtered as most promising ones. Before the interview we had another, slightly more profound company presentation together with the Q&A session. Looking in retrospective I made two good moves back then: First, I clearly understood the company culture (startup) and average age (under 30) which made me take my super casual, somewhat skateboarder hipster-y clothing and attitude (I was kind of relaxed and laid back with them during interviews). Knowing the results of what happened later it was proved but even in that moment it was kind of obvious that none of the 6-7 guys in suits would get an offer. Lesson verbalized - "Similis simili gaudet" or in other words reciprocity matters.
Secondly, I was very proactive during the presentation, listening carefully and asking meaningful questions. More specifically, I showed critical thinking by noticing a discrepancy in the data that they were displaying and after hearing the long explanation I recapped what the CEO was trying to say in a more concise way - So the two data-sets are not perfectly comparable, right? (listening, understanding and eloquence) He said "Exactly" while expressing facial signals that he was satisfied with the interaction.
Then the interview process started. They divided us into 3 groups each of which was allocated to one of the following 3 persons: First the CEO, second a late twenties lady - his right hand CEO office deputy and lastly a late thirties techie guy - the chief digital officer. I got his right-hand, and was the first in line to be interviewed.
Not having done something like this ever before, I was kind of nervous but somehow I was able to mask this erratic mental energy with positive excitement and enthusiasm that I was also feeling. We sat down, introduced each other pretty casually and started small-talking about the city and all the fun things you could do around. I noticed she had a pure american accent so I was curious how she ended up in Milan. After talking a bit about her story the vibes between us kind of balanced out - it wasn't seeming like an interrogation to me anymore. She was very positive, kind, outgoing and relaxed all of which she transferred to me, so I felt very good as well.
She smiled, took a deep breath, turned my CV upside down and pointed towards my picture that was upside down and facing towards me instead of her.
"Well, this is an interesting way to get noticed" - She remarked
Later I thought it would have been better to spin the situation to my advantage by saying something "I know, right? You're talking to me and not somebody else now" (With a face like don't try this at home kids) but I was completely shocked and my bullshit generator wasn't working.
I somehow mingled out of it by saying the truth - that I was preparing the CV late at night while being on vacation and while rushing to meet the deadline.
She was relatively unsatisfied but was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.
We continued, first asking me if I wanted to apply for the Project Manager role or the Data Scientist/Project investigator. I answered Project Management after which she agreed that it was the best route based on my personality. We went through my resume where she asked me a lot of detailed questions first about my education and projects and then about my previous work experience - how I worked in London in a startup of a friend selling 3D software, in the museum of Nikola Tesla in Belgrade as a part of an intra-curricular internship and I helped my dad co-found his furniture startup Nok Nok. She asked what did I like/hate the most in each of these experiences. I was able to answer to all of the questions in a passionate and sharp way. She kept asking but the more we were going deeper the more I felt she was already convinced I was the right candidate - so after a while she was artificially trying to make up some questions up in order not to make the interview too brief. I was thinking, "Holy shit! I'm killing it" We said bye bye and although its an inadequate comparison it felt like after a date that went really, really well.
I was on a train going back to my lectures - while out of a sudden my phone was ringing.
It was her, calling me. She said: "Hey, we've finished interviewing all the candidates, would it be possible for you to come back while we are still here? The CEO really wants to meet you and we don't have much time"
Bewildered, I was able to mumble out - "Wwwell, yes, off offcourse - i'll be right back"
Feeling like young Simba the king of the jungle I went out of the train, crossed the railway and started to wait for the train in the opposite direction. Some anxiety was creeping in but it was overwhelmed with content and enthusiasm - I was imagining my upcoming successful interview. What I couldn't anticipate - was how hard the CEO was actually going to be on me.
I came in, said hello, sat down and started chit-chatting. After about a minute or two he slowed down, made a dramatic pause and deeply gazed into my eyes.
This was a high-pressure role where you needed to act as a mediator with strong leadership skills interacting with many departments as well as clients - so he was ready to test if I could handle it. The atmosphere that he was emitting wasn't at all of the positive and friendly panda we first met back at the Uni - he was more of a determined Grizly bear ready to tear me apart and eat any weakness he could find. He prepared his nut cracker and put my cohones directly inside.
First he showed my CV and next to the hexagon with a pen he circled around the gray word showcasing my professional skill "Presentation" saying "This is complete stupidity, 'Presentation' is not a professional skill. It's your ability to present related to your extraversion, your personality trait. Hence, it's a personal skill."
Overly relaxed from the previous interview, I wasn't expecting a turnaround like this one and my guard was completely down. A magnitude 8 Richter earthquake shook me, shackling my confidence, focus and my thought process. Hit taken.
Okay, I took a deep breath, refocused and replied: "I agree that your comment is very logical and although I understand that from your point of view it may seem like a personal skill - for me my Presentation skills were a result of 2 year-long daily practice during my work experience in the Nikola Tesla museum where I had more than 8 presentations a day and where it was developed and applied professionally, hence for me it's a professional skill" Fortunately, he was happy with the strength and resourcefulness of my reply.
Like in a tennis match he kept serving his critical observations at me, diminishing the value of my ideas and logic or pinpointing blatant mistakes like my flipped picture but I kept getting up and returning back everything he threw at me. Somewhere he aced me, but mostly I was able to recover. Overall it was a very challenging but very rewarding interview as well.
To make a long story short - I was able to show assertiveness, resilience and the ability to think on my feet while at the same time displaying creativity, resourcefulness and leadership.
Then I had a third one, a kind of relaxed general-oriented resume analysis mixed with analyzing the UX on their website and proposing ideas for improvement with the COO. I was able to base my ideas on the "Golden circle" of Simon Sinek which ultimately made him get the impression that I understand basic psychological principles which was important for generating good user engagement strategies.
I got the job. My first job application and interview experience ever - and it went perfectly! I remember thinking how excited, happy and proud I was. But at the end, unfortunately too proud. I received an offer to start as an intern although the initial application was for an entry level full time job.
My lack of knowledge and excess attitude started combining in an ego-driven cocktail of reactive & destructive thinking.. "After having graduating from the hardest Electrical Engineering back in my hometown, working for 2 years in the Museum of NT, having co-founded a startup, worked in London for a few months and finished the most prestigious master studies in Italy such as Polimi - they offered me an internship. Moreover, I am living with my girlfriend for a year now and I'm ready to get my shit together - planning to buy a house, get married and all those adult things that come with it, and those a**holes want to give me an internship?!?"
This was the kind of arrogant thinking with which I entered into the negotiation, not having any idea about how these things work, no sense of my own value in the market and having done very little market research on the height of starting salaries. (all my market research was being misinformed by a few friends from uni that the average starting salary is around 1.8k - for a foreigner, yeah right)
After expressing my dissatisfaction in a relatively calm and kind manner during the negotiation - which was completely fine but very ineffective since I didn't offer any argumentation on why I believe my worth is higher. It's when I waited for their response that impatience mixed with the presumptuousness started to escalate. I was worried about how I was going to balance my last semester together with working full time so I was rushing to get this thing done. I emailed them a long email explaining how my final decision is either to:
1. Work part time for 1000eu
2. Work 30/hours a week for 1500 eu
3. Work 40/hours a week for 2000 eu.
Big big big mistake.
Although I still remember how it all made sense to me - reading this now I'm like Wow, wow, wow slow down cowboy - you're still greener than the morning grass. You were a student that just made his first CV. You didn't speak the language, you had no corporate experience and it was the first interview you did in your life - and you're ungrateful with the top of the market (1000eu) internship opportunity you are given? For a job you would love doing? In an innovative startup that grows like a supernova?
This is the e-mail i received just half an hour later:
So there it its. An opportunity that started shining as a rising star suddenly got eaten by the black-hole of arrogance and ignorance.
The fire and shock of aggression started igniting inside of me. I was angry at myself. What did I do wrong? Where did I make a mistake? Are they crazy? Is it them or me? I didn't know what to think.
I decided to call my sister who is a senior marketing manager in Loreal with more than 10 years of experience. She explained to me how my approach was wrong on so many levels. The fire of agression soon started to get extinguished by the rain coming from the cloud of depression hovering above my head. It took a while before I could emotionally distance myself from the situation, think about it with a clear, objective mind and draw conclusion and lessons learnt. The result:
It took me 6 months to find an opportunity with at least comparable quality where I could start without the perfect knowledge of Italian. All because of a few hours of impatience, ignorance and arrogance.
What I didn't understand was that corporations are a slow and crippled behemoth, hence tackling them and working through the corporate realm takes time, patience and knowledge because things tend to go at their own pace and according to the rules they think are fair, not us. As you might assume this is not exactly the way in which we millennials are used to move and operate, and based on my (limited) startup experience, reality is sometimes 2-3 slower or worse than the "realistic" scenario you first imagined.
The most important lesson I learnt from this experience: Do you research well and balance being humble with silent and friendly confidence - you will probably be closer to the winning combination.
But hey, at the end a salary is just someone else's opinion on what you're worth so if you have big dreams that don't include working for someone else like myself, keep in mind: Optimism is great, just keep your feet firmly on the ground. For me this, was always a challenge. I'm still working on it and maybe I'll never anchor completely because deep in my heart there is a silent mantra echoing in eternity: "Don't change your dream, change the world!"
Until next time,