Always take the interview
Jul 12, 2021
Many years ago, I think it was probably around 2012 or 2013, I was living in San Francisco and it seemed like "Walmart Labs" was suddenly appearing everywhere. I was already familiar with them to some extent, they were one of our largest customers at the startup I was working at, but now their name was appearing out in the wild.
Keep in mind, this isn't "Walmart". The was a team within Walmart! They had no product to sell you. No store for you to visit. I assume in response to how dominant Amazon was becoming they had decided to invest in their digital presence, and that meant trying to play catch up. In the way only companies like Walmart can: by spending lots of money to suddenly seem ubiquitous. Or ubiquitous within the bubble that is the Bay Area at least. When I went to the local street food park for lunch there were people wearing Walmart Labs swag, handing out small flyers or business cards. Billboards started appearing advertising them. Before long there were cars driving around SoMa with those billboard trailers. Seemlingly everywhere, San Franscisco was fading into the familiar colors of Pantone 285C & 1235C.
Remember, Walmart Labs had no stores. No product. This was entirely in service of a hiring blitz! They wanted people to come work for them and this is how they were getting on everyone's radar.
And then I got the phone call. Someone from Walmart Labs reached out with a fairly vague, "hey would you be up for a chat?". A very naive me from a decade ago didn't bother to look them up and thought little of it, they were after all one of our largest customers, and so of course I was available for a chat. I sent through my number and shortly after we're talking. It turns out it's someone from their recruitment team and they wanted to know if I was potentially looking for a new job, "No, I'm quite happy where I am so apologies for wasting your...", "No, it's not a waste of my time. Could I ask for 5 minutes of yours so you can hear me out first?"... "Ummm... yeah, ok I guess". What followed was actually a pretty compelling pitch. Those 5 minutes shifted me from "absolutely no way, I already have the best job" to "huh, they're actually more interesting than I gave them credit for. Probably still a no... but... maybe?". Much of the enjoyment of working at a startup is the feeling of connection you have to the work you're doing, and the more direct impact it has on the company. When you're working for a large company it's easy to feel like a tiny insiginifcant cog. To their credit, the Walmart recruitment team clearly knew the audiences they were pitching to. Imagine working for a startup inside one of the world's largest companies! You get the agency and autonomy you want from a startup, but with the knowledge that only a 1% improvement to anything for a company the size of Walmart is enormous. Potentially more impactful than most startups could dream of. It gave me a lot to think about.
The next morning I raised it with the CEO of the company I was working at (who was also my boss at the time). I didn't think I was special enough that I'd have been unique in terms of outreach, they were probably reaching out to lots of our employees. My resolve to stay was strong, I wondered about others. Should we be concerned? Did he have thoughts about what we should do about it? I know it was just business, but it still felt kinda gross to think they might be intentionally targetting our team given they were also an important customer. Should we talk to them directly about it? He only had one question for me, "how much was the offer?". I didn't know. My 5 minutes with the recruiter definitely went longer than 5 minutes, and we spoke about the kinds of things they'd work on, culture, outcomes they were looking for, team/org structures, but at the end of it all I'd still ultimately said I was happy where I was and I'd reach back out if anything changed. He then gave me what I consider to be some of the best career advice I've ever received:
Always take the interview!
He seemed almost disappointed in me! Annoyed that I'd let this potentially golden opportunity slip through my fingers. It was the exact opposite of what I was expecting. Surely my loyalty was meant to be rewarded! Why am I getting chastised for not pursuing a process that might ultimately lead to me handing this guy my resignation letter?!
His point was that all too often people approach the job market, and their own career development, in a suboptimal way. From a pure outcome maximisation perspective the best time to take the next big step is when you're at the absolute top of your game. When you're feeling great, when things are going well, when you feel confident, when you don't need to change jobs. The compounding impact of all of those things puts you both in an incredible position to present yourself in the best light possible but also the strongest negotiating position. Is the offer from the other prospective employer not enough to entice you and/or compensate for the risk of jumping into the unknown? Great! You're already happy where you are and weren't looking for a change anyway! The worst-case scenario here is you get to recalibrate your market value which is a valuable data point if/when you ever have salary negotiations with your current employer. The best-case is you accidentally stumble upon a new job that you find even more exciting than your current one!
The other point he made was around practice and building a muscle for interviewing. Something I didn't appreciate until years later when I actually started meaningfully interviewing and looking for a job ago. I'd spent years interviewing people as a hiring manager. I know how they work. I know how they're structured. I know the types of questions I'm likely to get asked. I know. I know. I know. Knowing and doing are two very different things. I was embarrassed at how badly I fumbled my first interview as a candidate after such a long break. Struggling to think of relevant examples when put on the spot. Talking about the same thing wwaaaayyyy too much. Actually, is what I'm saying even answering the question I got asked? OMG, what even was the question!? You'd have come away from that not only wondering if I'd ever had a real job, but if I'd even spoken to a person before. It was an utter trainwreck.
And that was my manager's other point. Don't let the skill atrophy. Keep exercising it. If an opportunity presents, even if you don't want a job, take the interview just for the exercise. Keep exercising that muscle of being able to speak articulately about yourself without feeling embarrassed. Tweak and refine it, while you're confident, while things are going well. Then when you need to actually use it hopefully the muscle memory kicks in and you so well conditioned the interviews seem easy. The mistake most people make, the mistake I made, is to wait. Wait until circumstances change and you need a job. Maybe the current one has become stale. Maybe you're burnt out. Maybe you've been moved into a new team working on things that aren't exciting. Maybe you lots you're job and now you absolute have to find something ASAP. Whatever the reason, it's almost always the worst time to be trying to rebuild this muscle.
If you're ever fortunate enough to have someone reach out wanting to talk to you about a role, always take the interview.