iPads and Interviews: Why the Two Don't Mix

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

June 20, 2012

Search consultants in higher education are big users of technology. In fact, my firm prides itself on taking a "green" route to hiring. When we work with search committees, we encourage them to do all of their reading and preparation for the hire online, and they often come to meetings with their computers and iPads—as do we.

However, I may have witnessed a "we've gone too far" moment. I recently watched as a candidate tapped away on an iPad and a keyboard throughout a preliminary interview for a senior-level position. And I have to say, it just did not work.

I think I knew trouble lay ahead right when I greeted the candidate at the door of the interview room. I asked if I could help with the candidate's things, since it's easier to circulate around a room meeting people if your hands are not loaded down with stuff. The candidate promptly handed me the following items: iPad, iPad case, keyboard, paper notebook, and even a warm cup of Starbucks coffee. We encourage candidates to appear before search committees much like the president of the United States does for an interview with the press—with nothing in hand. (Watch President Obama sometime and notice how all of his stuff is carried by other people.) But the candidate who stood before me looked a successful shopper after a big office-supply sale.

After handing off all of those props, our candidate shook hands with the committee members and then sat in the "hot seat," took out the iPad (with stand) and keyboard, turned it on, and proceeded to take notes through the entire interview. The candidate also scrolled up and down the screen as various topics came up. Fifteen minutes into the interview, and I knew this person had lost the entire committee.

So what's wrong with a candidate using new technologies and gadgets while answering questions during a preliminary interview with a search committee?

First, if you're busily typing on a keyboard, you are unable to make meaningful eye contact with the committee members. Most of our candidate's focus—and thus, the committee's—was on the machinery, not on the candidate. A personal connection was never made. Next, with your face in your iPad, you look more like a college sophomore, not like someone who could run an organization. The need to "take notes" completely disguised our candidate's mastery of various topics. Finally, the candidate's whole setup was cumbersome, and even noisy. It took up four square feet at the end of the table; I even watched the chair of the search committee readjust his own interview notebook and glass of water to give the candidate more space.

The typing on the keyboard, the fiddling with the equipment, proved so distracting that most of the committee was not listening to the candidate's very thoughtful remarks but was completely lost in the sideshow going on in front of them.

All of which raises an obvious question for candidates: If an iPad is verboten, how are you supposed to keep track of questions from the search committee and remember what you learned during the interview?

This is one instance where the old-fashioned way is best. As search consultants, we always place a pad of paper and pen in front of candidates. But bring paper and pen with you, just in case. When you enter the interview room, interact with committee members, warmly shaking hands with each person and getting a visual of where people are sitting. If there is no paper and pen waiting for you at the interview table, once you've finished greeting people, quickly grab a small notepad and pen from your briefcase. Take notes here and there as the interview progresses. When it's over, and you are making your exit, take the notepad you've been provided (or brought) with you.

Afterward if you have questions about something that was said, you can easily gain access to the e-mail addresses of search-committee members and follow up with them. Better yet, work through the search consultant to recover the information you may need. The best way to take notes is immediately after the interview—on your way to catch a plane or train. Write down what you learned and what questions you might have if you are asked to move to the next step.

Remember, the most important part of the interview is not what details you retain from it, but rather the impression you leave with the search committee.

Did you show you knew something about each of them, particularly the students, if any served on the committee? Did you answer the committee members' questions succinctly and directly? Did you admit what you did not know? Did you dress the part, showing that you already think of yourself as a leader of the organization? Did you do extensive homework, showing that you have a network and that you cared enough about the committee's time to read everything you could find about the organization? Did you show that you have a sense of humor?

The purpose of the interview is to help the committee get of sense of you as an individual in a short period of time—to see if there is a fit between you and the organization. You won't be quizzed and tested at the end of it, I promise.

So iPads are great. I recently watched a group of conference presenters use them, and they were terrific tools which might be invaluable if a candidate is actually asked to make a presentation to a search committee for a second or final interview. As consultants, we use them all the time for site visits, since we are gathering so much data, and many of us (old-school types, who were given typing lessons in high school, thank goodness) actually type faster than we write. But if you are the candidate at the end of the interview table, doing a preliminary interview with a search committee that has not met you before, my advice is: Dazzle them with your preparation, intellect, presence, knowledge of the field, vision for the future of the organization, clarity of expression, interpersonal skills, and sense of humor. Leave the iPad in your briefcase.

Shelly Weiss Storbeck is a managing partner of Storbeck/Pimentel and Associates, a search firm specializing in higher education.