I retired from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO), in the fall of 1992. In 2000 I was asked if I would consider returning to the DO to help train new hires in clandestine tradecraft… because, as the rumor went, George Junior had come into the office of the US Presidency expecting a certain amount of intelligence like what he knew his Dad had received while in office, and found the CIA lacking. So when he asked Langley for a new emphasis on foreign humint intelligence collection, the CIA’s clandestine corps went out looking for old case officers to help rejuvenate the DO.
To get my Top Secret clearances re-instated the office of security had to do a full background investigation that included a couple of polygraphs, which took some time. So my first day back – as ironic as it may seem – was Tuesday September 11, 2001.
I was getting a security briefing in the basement of the CIA Hqs building at Langley, Virginia when the first jet hit the Twin Towers in NYC.
Two week later Fred B., another annuitant asked back, and I were sent over to the clandestine corps employment office to help interview job applicants. We had come into the CIA at the same time, Fred and I, 30 years before and had commuted down to the farm for our intelligence ops training together.
It was a time before the anthrax scare and applications to the CIA were mailed in, usually in manila envelopes. When we walked into the small bay area of the employment office, all around us were piles of manila enveloped applications on people’s desk, some two/three feet deep. Hundreds and hundreds of applications. More than the small staff could possibly manage. They were over-whelmed.
Beth was the deputy in the office and she met us near the door as we came in saying something to the effect that it had been a tsunami of applications since the 9/11 attacks, from Americans of every stripe who were volunteering to come to work CIA intelligence ops – from universities, Wall Street, Kansas farms, prisons, other gov’t agencies, commercial pilots, bankers, military, ex-military – WW II vets even. She pointed us towards two adjourning desks near her office and in short order Fred and I had stacks and stacks of envelopes in front of us that Beth asked us to review in an effort to identify people who had Agency potential.
I probably spent 20 minutes on the first application on the top of the nearest pile, reading the covering letter about how this person had been deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks and wanted to join efforts to fight the deadly terrorism menace to our great country. Wanted to go to the front lines, where ever they were, to protect America. And I then read every entry on that person’s application that included attached citations and awards he had received in his life.
For the next 6 years I worked off and on in the clandestine corps employment office, screening other applications, doing phone interviews, giving presentations on DO jobs and responsibilities, then personal interviews # 1 and in the latter years, the # 2 interview – the final step towards clandestine corps employment. I worked in Washington, DC, spending some of that time in the northeast, and then up and down the west coast.
Altogether I handled thousands of applications.
And I have these thoughts.
While I spent maybe 20 minutes on the first application I reviewed, after a while I could do the same thorough job in 20 seconds – 2 applications reviewed a minute on average. The the CIA clandestine corps employment office had redundancy built in the initial review process so that well qualified people didn’t just get overlooked by one person, still many of the applications were rejected up front.
The agency eventually went to a system of accepting application only through a portal on its cia.gov web site, which necessarily kept the fluff down in application packages, but still the couple of applications reviewed a minute probably still held for people doing the initial screening.
This is my advice for people applying for a job in a competitive market or to an organization that is very selective about the people it hires:
1) If you are recently out of school, never submit more than a one page resume. After a while things like captain of the debate team that took states honors or all conference offensive guard, looks like “I was Mickey Mouse in the Easter Parade” to the computer-weary HR screener.
2) Whatever you put down, make sure of your spelling and your grammar and your formatting. The first misspelled word and your application is trashed.
3) Keep your covering letter short. “Attached resume is for your consideration to fill…”
4) On the resume, put a tailored Mission Statement for each job application. Do not shotgun resumes into the job market; you have more of a chance to win the lottery. On pre-formatted applications there should be some place for you to explain your interest. Spend time on this.
a) In the book writing business, budding authors send “query letters” to publishing houses asking for an expression of interest in the author’s works. Often these query letters talk about the literary quality, or the amount of research, or that some librarian read the draft and had an orgasm or something, and this publishing house had better pounce on this thing before their competition. The acquisition editor throws these letters away by the tens of dozens. What he wants to read in query letters is how this book will sell – to who and why. ‘Cause if he gets behind many opuses that doesn’t sell, he’ll lose his job. Book acquisition editors acquire books that sell. Period.
b) By the same token good HR recruiters hire people who will make a contribution to the company. He hires a bunch of bums and he’ll lose his job and the company will tank.
c) In the mission statement, spell out in a few, well chosen words, how you can make the company better. Let your mission statement be about the job as much as about you. If the company sells hula hoops and dog biscuits, say in the mission statement that you can help expand the company’s share of the market for these items because hula hoops and dog biscuits are big in your life and you have long been dedicated to the company’s brand. If the job is in US intelligence, explain in 5 or 6 words why you think intelligence is important to our country’s security and then end with some comment about your interest/ability in contributing to that effort. Avoid the passive voice as much as possible.
d) Work and work and work – give it to someone to proof – on a boiler plate mission statement that you can tailor specifically to each job you apply to… don’t over-write. No hyperbole. Nothing breathless. Straight forward expression of interest in making the outfit you are applying to a better organization.
e) Let the mission statement be the showcase of your application, and you’ll get results. BECAUSE, what caught my eye every time in the 20 seconds I reviewed new applications was not the page or two of “I was Mickey Mouse in the Easter Parade” but a thoughtful sentence or two about why the person wanted this job in US intelligence. Then I would focus on the fact that this person was all conference in football and a champion debater.
Normally, letters convey bad news after someone has expressed an interest in a job. Telephone calls convey good news. Until you get that letter, be ready for the telephone call. Keep some notes on the companies you have applied to and what you said in your application, so that when the call comes through, speak with authority about your application.
If the first call is to set up a time for a telephone or Skype interview, pick a time when you can be alone and focused. Don’t hem and haw. And at the end thank the person for the call and the company’s interest.
If it is a phone interview, put a smile in your voice. It will come through the lines. Be concise. Pause before speaking, if you can remember, so as to avoid stepping on lingering comments by the interviewer. Get a dialogue going. Keep that smile in your voice.
If you are invited to a regional seminar for people who have passed initial hurdles for employment, dress professionally. Don’t bring a backpack, bring a brief case. Resist the temptation to ask questions during the presentation – even when the person in front asks if everything is clear. Use informal conversation with staff during breaks to proffer your questions… because most questions posed at presentations are of a personal, this is my situation, type that are best asked in one on ones.
If your interview comes shortly after the presentation, say the next day, get a good night’s sleep, and arrive early, dressed in the way you imagine people in the company would dress.
Actors have a thing about bringing up their energy level before going on stage. Play a game with yourself, when your name is called for the interview, tell yourself, “game-on,” – bring your energy level up – smile naturally and go attack with confidence. Another something to keep in mind is to tell yourself to square your shoulders. Don’t know why that works, but it does. It gives you good posture and the right attitude. Square your shoulders as you shake the hand of the interviewer. Look him or her in the eye.
Certainly make sure you remember the person’s name and take the first opportunity to ask if you can use the interviewer’s first name. Ask in a friendly way for the person’s calling card and when it is presented take the time – force yourself to take the time – to see if it has an email address on it. If it does not, ask the interviewer if an email address to him/her at their office is available… and expect the interviewer to ask why you want that… which will give you the opportunity to say you read something by this ex-CIA’s guy’ named Mule in which he said that it is always – always – appropriate to send a short email the same day of the interview, thanking the interviewer for his/her time and expressing hope in finding a job with the interviewer’s company/agency. So even though the person may not have an email address – I certainly did not when I was recruiting – you get out your thanks message, even before you start.
Watch your word count during the interview… certainly the interviewer will have things to say initially, so listen and wait your turn.
If the interviewer doesn’t describe the company’s culture, ask about it before the session is over. What’s it like to go to work there? What’s the turn over of new employees after 5 years? 10? What do employees say is the best thing about working there? The worst?
Remind yourself occasionally to keep your shoulders squared to the front and in as much as possible try to establish some friendly/professional bond with the person. Remember that you are applying to his/her company – so the interview should be about the company a lot… not benefits, or probation periods – but the core business of the outfit. You should constantly look for the opportunity to show how you and the company are a match. But once or twice of this is enough.
Do not lie or obfuscate any truth. However you want to sell yourself as right for the job, so don’t bring up trivial nonsense that goes with growing up. But be straight forward. I would think most employers would like to know if you have worked a regular job before. Don’t be ashamed of saying you worked for Burger King. It would be nice if you could say that you worked summers or part time to help with your college tuition, but do not lie. If it was just a part time job that lasted a month to get out of a hard course, don’t mention it.
If you are given any situation to comment on – something that might come up in the workplace, or some moral dilemma – give the proposition a moment’s thought and then discuss your reasoning out loud. I would often ask some philosophical question, not so much to get at a right or wrong answer (because there weren’t any) as much as to get a sense of how the person thought. What went into the way he or she made decisions and came to conclusions.
Never criticize any former employer or school administrator or parents or former spouses. Be positive. Keep a pleasant manner about you.
And, like I said, if you have the email address, write something short soon after the interview thanking the interviewer for his/her time.
Crisp answers and a nice demeanor make for good interviews.
Act confident. And if you’re not, fake it, it looks the same.
And go strong to the hoop.
In interviewing as many people as I did one-on-one, you’d think that after a while they would all blur in my mind as one big mass of humanity… but that’s not the case. Every single person who sat on the other side of the desk from me in those small little interview rooms for the two to three hours of the first interview and the one to two hours of the second interview were distinctively different. All had their strengths and all had weaknesses. Some clearly had more potential for work in the clandestine service than others, and for the most part I could easily make recommendations as their continuing in our employment process, or mostly not… work in the CIA’s humint intelligence collection division calls for a unique skill set.
A couple of the people I interviewed came up to me later in the CIA cafeteria… another stopped me in the halls… CIA employees now, each said they remembered our interview session fondly… and in each case I also clearly remembered them, and some of their comments.
Although the interviewee who came up with one of the most memorable lines, did not go far in the employment process. It was his first one on one interview and there seemed to be something he wanted to say, some question that lurked behind his sweating brow… when finally I asked if there was anything in particular he wanted to talk about, and he said there was. He wondered if the fact he had robbed a bank once would have any bearing on his application. He was never arrested and charged, he quickly added, as if that made it OK.
And I found out something about myself with all the interviews That my first impressions were often not right. That some of the strongest applicants had a none-imposing presence when we first met.
But all in all America’s in good hands with the people I met. Those who had some military – even it was only reserve duty – usually impressed with their organizational skills and their ability to listen. Their maturity. And I particularly liked people who had gone to community college out of high school, worked, made good grades and transferred into a large university for their last two years of college, who came away with little or no debt for their education.
‘course I also like applicants who tested off the charts for smarts, was perceptive, had fluency in a foreign language, a good sense of humor and communication skills.
But every one I interviewed was special. I liked them all. Everyone… good ‘mericans.