Miscellany:Informational interviews

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In 2007, Nathan Larson conducted informational interviews with a software engineer, a forensic accountant, a software quality assurance manager, a CIA anti-bioterrorism budget officer, an Assistant Professor of Physiology in Psychiatry, and a business valuation expert.


Software engineer[edit]

Larson: Describe your major work activities during a typical week.
Engineer: Programming, coding, testing, debugging. Most of the rest of the time, design work. More time is spent coding, though. Around here, pretty much everyone does design work. At bigger companies, there's more delineation of responsibility. At a bigger company, some people just design. And they might have people who just test. Here, we do our own testing.

Larson: Do you spend more time debugging than coding?
Engineer: It's about 50-50.

Larson: What skills, attributes, and personal qualities do you find most important in your work?
Engineer: Common sense. An ability to judge what things are important and what things are not important. Some people have a tendency to be a perfectionist; you have to restrain that. You have to know when to pull back and say, "This is good enough." You need some logical thinking in order to solve a problem. And you need the opposite of laziness.

Larson: Do you have to do a lot of research? I know that a lot of code is in libraries these days.
Engineer: If you know you have a problem you're trying to solve, you do want to consider, Are there already building blocks out there.

Larson: What academic major would you recommend as preparation for your field? What experiences would you recommend?
Engineer: Any degree will work. Computer science, electrical engineering, math. Even an accounting degree might work, if you have programming experience. As far as experiences, that could include work experience or studying on your own. To work here, you need Java and web apps. You can get that through your background, coursework, or practical experience. You might take a Java programming course.

Larson: Is C++ used much outside of school?
Engineer: It's fading. You need Java more now.

Larson: What do you like most about your job?
Engineer: The sense of control over the computer. You can't control people, but you can control a machine. I enjoy the teamwork to accomplish a common goal. The money is good and the job security is good. Those two are pretty unbeatable. Programmers are in high demand.

Larson: What are some disadvantages of working in your type of job?
Engineer: At a small company, every person is important; you can't get away with a 40-hour week. At a big company, you can hide. It's not always the most fun programming. But at any job, if you're willing to do the dirty work, you'll be respected for it.

Larson: How has your job affected your lifestyle?
Engineer: As I said, the money is good. I was able to buy a house.

Larson: Do programmers have to do any traveling?
Engineer: When I was in defense contracting, I traveled to sites to install products.

Larson: What are some other tradeoffs between working at a small company and working at a big company?
Engineer: At a small company, one person does a lot of different things. You might do tech support, for instance. By the way, if you wanted to do tech support, we'd probably hire you tomorrow. If you have CISCO certifications, you can get in using that. Tech support is not a lot of fun sometimes. The clients can be demanding. Junior-level people are sheltered from customers, though. On a small team, you might have to be on call, but on a bigger team, you might work just a regular 8-hour day.

Larson: Does anyone have flexible hours?
Engineer: We have flextime in general. It's important to keep regular hours. It's not as important what those hours might be.

Larson: What are entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level salary ranges in this field?
Engineer: I don't know. I make $90K. I'm at the senior level. When I started out, 20 years ago, I was making $25K. The entry-level salaries must be in the 40s by now.

Larson: How well does my resume work for this field? How could I improve it?
Engineer: The first thing that catches my eye is that it's one page. Some people bring these ten-page resumes where they list every project they ever did. They'll list two projects where they did the exact same thing. Anything more than two years ago, I don't even care about.

Larson: How important is having a CS degree?
Engineer: The data structures are important. It's good to know recursion, lists, and so on. Then you have that in your back pocket so you understand what I'm talking about. So, get either some training or the degree. If you can swing the degree, that's the way to go. It gets you a lot of credibility.

Larson: Do you belong to any professional associations?
Engineer: No.

Larson: What advice do you have for applying at this organization or similar ones? Some people were saying it's good to bring your code from your undergraduate classes to the interview.
Engineer: Just bring your brain. We'll quiz you. You need to be able to back up any claims. If you say you know Java, we might have you write some Java code. Some places make you take a test.

Larson: What has been your greatest achievement?
Engineer: Achieving seniority. But that's just from experience. I was on a team where I was the smartest person there and everyone depended on me. That was a confidence-booster.

Larson: Are there any other tradeoffs between small companies and big companies?
Engineer: I worked at TRW, which is now part of Northrup Grumman. Big companies are a little more selective. They want people with higher GPAs. I like small companies better. At big companies, there's cliquishness. If you don't know the right person, you might get overlooked for raises. You can get pigeonholed. You might end up doing some work you really hate. For instance, you could get stuck in database administration, and be telling yourself, "I hate database administration!" but then you end up being the person with the most experience in database administration, and they don't want to spend money training you on something else.

Larson: Thank you very much for your time.

Forensic accountant[edit]

Larson: What skills, abilities and personal qualities do you find most important in your work?
Accountant: Nathan, it all comes down to communication skills.

Larson: You mean oral communication skills?
Accountant: Written communication, too. There's a guy I'm working with right now who can't write worth anything. But you mostly need to be able to generate rapport. People ask me, how is it that you talked with a truck driver at 10:00 AM today, interviewed a CEO over lunch, and spoke with a housewife at 3:00 PM today, and were able to get information from all these people? The answer is, I know how to build rapport with anyone. Some people are harder to work with than others. There's a former NFL player who was telling me, "You have no business getting into my books," until I said, "The judge ordered that I look into your books." I talked to his bookkeeper and she said, "I've been keeping track this whole time and put everything related to the fraud in this folder. I was just waiting for someone to come in and ask about it." That saved me a whole lot of time. But you have to build rapport in order to get her to give you that folder.

Larson: Is that something that can be taught?
Accountant: It's a gift. There are some people who can't do it at all. One guy I work with couldn't build rapport with his grandmother. And there's another guy I work with who's exactly the opposite.

Larson: So, does it basically involve having a lot of confidence?
Accountant: That's some of it. But I would describe it more as warmth. You develop a connection or cause them to feel a connection to you.

Larson: How do you do that?
Accountant: There's a whole school of interviewing. The local chapter of Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has a big session on interviewing that focuses on rapport-building. I don't know if you have time for it, but it's two days in May. Join the Metro DC chapter of ACFE.

Larson: What other skills are useful?
Accountant: Interviewing is the most useful. You also have to be able to audit. Sometimes I'll just tick-and-tie, tick-and-tie, tick-and-tie. Then I'll step back and say, "What does it mean?" You have to see the big picture and see if it makes sense. It helps to get audit experience before you go into forensic accounting because otherwise, people will blow smoke and you won't know it. Tax compliance experience helps too. Not everyone prepares a financial statement, but everyone has a tax return. If you don't know what you're looking at, it's pretty hard to decipher. You need to know how to research. This guy I work with googled the name of a company and made the connection between the guy who owns the company and the suspect (I should call him the "subject" since we're not the police) and found out that he was funneling money through this company.

Larson: Who are most of your clients? Are they mostly divorce cases?
Accountant: My biggest source of stress is divorce cases. [The reference she makes to divorce cases are cases in which one spouse suspects the other is hiding money. There are close ties between the fields of business valuation and fraud examination, since people will often fraudulently mis-value their small businesses (e.g. to avoid alimony).] There are also commercial cases and lost profits cases. Forensic accounting is like unwinding a clock. You ask, What happened and how did we get here? I guess you're too young to have seen Quincy. It was a TV show about a medical detective. When people think forensic science, they think of dead bodies. Here, the mystery we're trying to solve is, Who killed the money? Where did it go?

Larson: How does the money get stolen? Is some of it stolen through accounts payable?
Accountant: Sometimes. People create fictitious companies.

Larson: Hasn't that been pretty much solved by the internal controls that segregate duties between the employee who enters a new vendor and the employee who enters an invoice?
Accountant: Ah, but there can be a check made out to Nathan Larson that's cashed by Sam Lane. People may use invisible ink, or more commonly, white-out and same-type font. Or there will be a duplicate signature stamp made. The boss asks for a stamp so that he's not breaking his hand signing all those checks. And the employee orders two stamps. The boss gets one, and the employee keeps the other. And every once in awhile, he makes out a check to that fictitious company.

Larson: What do you like most about your job?
Accountant: I like finding stuff. The lady who works with me just had her first "Aha!" moment. She was talking with a CFO and said to him, "That's all well and good, but you told me this and that and the other last week. And I have the notes right here of what you said. So which is it?" And you could see the blood drain out of his face.

Larson: What are some other advantages to this job?
Accountant: It's high-profile and sexy, which is why some people prefer it to compliance work. Others prefer compliance work because it's less challenging. I may spend three weeks doing analysis and then find out that my analysis was no good and it was a waste of time.

Larson: How would I get started in this field?
Accountant: Well, let's see. What school did you go to?

Larson: George Mason University.
Accountant: Oh yes, don't they have a hockey team or something?

Larson: I'm not sure about a hockey team, but they have a basketball team that was in a Final Four.
Accountant: I know, I was being facetious. You could talk to some recent grads in forensic accounting. I can give you the phone number for our recruiter if you want. We're not hiring right now, but we will be soon.

Larson: What computer skills are needed?
Accountant: Excel and Word. Data mining is also very helpful. Basically, that involves taking a bunch of stuff that electronic and giving me something useful. There's software called IDEA that does that. It does modeling and finds common links in one fell swoop as opposed to setting up something from scratch in Excel.

Larson: What are some disadvantages to this job?
Accountant: I don't think of them as disadvantages but as challenges. And my biggest challenge is time. You don't control your schedule; the attorneys you work with control your schedule. There were days I was rolling into the office at 9 and pulling out at 4, and now I'm rolling in at 7 and pulling out at 5. My boss doesn't go home. I think he used to, because I've been to his house and his kids remember having met him before, but other than that, I've never seen him not here. So, it is what you make of it.

Larson: Is this a growing field?
Accountant: Yes. But then again, so is business valuation. With any growing field like that, I have to wonder, how long before it becomes a commodity? It used to be that tax returns, for instance, were a quality service. You would sit down with someone and they would tell you how to set up your finances to minimize your taxes. Now, you drop an envelope in a bin and don't meet with anyone. And you pick it up a week later.

Larson: Pretty soon, there's going to be Turbo-Business-Valuation.
Accountant: It's already going in that direction. There are people who do business valuations and never interview anyone.

Larson: What qualifications are needed to get started in this field? Are there some certifications that are better than others?
Accountant: I'm partial to the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts. Some college accounting classes are stressing fraud examination, but you can't really teach forensic accounting. To be successful, you have to always question why; don't let go of something until it makes sense; and be able to build rapport. You need experience. And corporate experience trumps public accounting, because at the end of the day, who does money get stolen from?

Quality assurance manager[edit]

Larson: What are your major work activities?
Q.A. Manager: I coded a lot in the beginning, but now I am in the Quality Assurance group, which has more to do with management. I am the only female in my department, by the way. I asked my boss, when are you going to hire another woman?

Larson: What's the difference between the Master's in Computer Science and the one in Software Engineering?
Q.A. Manager: Software Engineering is broader and can cover things like security. When I started out, everyone else was either a PhD or a Master's. So, I decided to get a Master's. We had training in DICOM, which is Digital Image Communication and Medicine.

Larson: What does your quality assurance work involve?
Q.A. Manager: Planning; how the project is going; timeframe; quality; testing; coding standard.

Larson: What are some advantages of your job?
Q.A. Manager: Working with computers is fun. All day, we would try to solve a problem. And in the middle of the night, I wouldn't sleep deeply, but would suddenly wake up and think, "Maybe that's the one!" and jump up and put it into the computer.

Larson: What about the electrical engineering degree?
Q.A. Manager: It's better than a CS degree. By the way, it seems unusual that after you already have your CPA, you're leaving accounting to get into computer science. Most CS students end up doing the opposite - they start out in IT and then get into business more.

Larson: What are some career paths?
Q.A. Manager: You can be a network developer. Database is the easiest.

Larson: I've been told that an advantage of this kind of job is that you're always working on something new; it never gets old.
Q.A. Manager: Any job gets old. Once you've already written a quality plan or a master validation plan, the others are pretty much the same. You have different projects, but in the big picture, the structure is similar. You have projects that last 1, 2, or 3 years.

Larson: What do you like most about your job?
Q.A. Manager: There's not a lot of stress. It's an understanding, caring and friendly environment. Your co-workers are your friends.

Larson: What are some disadvantages?
Q.A. Manager: There's a lot of thinking. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes not. I miss social activities because I both work and study.

Larson: What about in Computer Science in general?
Q.A. Manager: There are no disadvantages at all to computer science as a field. I was originally interested in artificial intelligence, forensic accounting-

Larson: I had an interview today with someone who works in forensic accounting.
Q.A. Manager: In my country, we have a different view about money — for instance, there is never a stolen inheritance because we are so poor. If someone dies, we automatically divide it equally.

Larson: What skills does it take to be a software engineer?
Q.A. Manager: Written communication. You have to explain to other people about what's going on. You have to write requirement documents. In order to cover a lot of topics, you have to have been a developer before.

Larson: A developer is a programmer, right?
Q.A. Manager: Yes. Although the titles depend on the company.

Larson: How do I get started out as a programmer?
Q.A. Manager: If you have coding projects to show, it helps you get a job. Save your code from your undergraduate classes. Remember, your starting point is coding.

Larson: What is the starting pay?
Q.A. Manager: It depends on the company. At the entry-level, maybe $50K. At the mid-level, it depends on your performance review, benefits, bonuses, training, 401K match, tuition reimbursement, etc. Companies want to minimize pay so they hire fresh-out grads.

Larson: What characteristics are needed to succeed at this job?
Q.A. Manager: You need determination and discipline. Computer science is hard, not easy. If a project comes out and you say, "I will get it done," you need determination to follow your own word. You can't procrastinate. If the project is due at the end of March, I will complete it by mid-March. That way, if something goes wrong, there is time to fix it. You have to be open-minded. You have to be reliable when you make a promise to yourself. There is a saying, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Larson: What can I do to become qualified for a job as a programmer?
Q.A. Manager: Learn Access. Get a Master's degree. If you don't like math, by the way, don't get into computer science. Remember that it takes a lot of sacrifice — I had to give up my social activities. Just take some classes and see how it goes.

CIA anti-bioterrorism budget officer[edit]

Larson: Describe a typical week in your job.
CIA Officer: Well, there are three major functional components. The operational side is the National Clandestine Service, or "spies" as they're sometimes called. The analysts are in the Directorate of Intelligence, which is where all source analysis is done. Then there is the Science and Technology Directorate, which develops tools for analysis and collection. A mini-camera, for instance, would be a tool for collection.

Here is how the technology cycle works. Our customers are the President, the Cabinet, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and in some cases, even the Congress. It starts with a requirement to know something about something. A question comes in, such as, "Does Iran have nuclear weapons?" Analysts determine how to answer the question and develop collection requirements. This could include using open literature, such as newspapers, and other sources. The analyst writes a report and it goes back to the customer. The intelligence community never makes policy; that is, we don't make recommendations such as "Go to war." But we're often asked for an opinion. In writing a report, it's very important to distinguish what I'm sure about, what I'm fuzzy about, and what I just don't know.

When Al Gore was in office, we did a lot of reports on environmental issues. Now that he is no longer an elected official, we don't focus as much on environmental issues. Basically, if you can't find a customer, you can't do it. If your interests were in the habits of insects, for instance, you couldn't spend tax dollars researching it because there's not a customer asking for that information.

Larson: What are some advantages of working here?
CIA Officer: It's an intellectually stimulating environment. It's a big agency, so if you get tired of what you're doing, you can move laterally. There's job flexibility. You work on very difficult problems. You'll always be weighing in on some level.

Larson: What qualifications do you need?
CIA Officer: It varies depending on where you want to work. An analyst needs an advanced degree. You have to have a Master's degree. You need credentials in your field, unless you have other really interesting characteristics, such as overseas experience or a rare foreign language such as Farsi. A commonly-known language such as Spanish wouldn't be as valuable. In the Science and Technology Directorate, you definitely need a Master's degree unless you're an engineer. In the Clandestine Service, you need overseas experience and/or an unusual language. There are a lot more applicants than there are positions to fill.

Larson: How has this job affected your lifestyle?
CIA Officer: It's very demanding in terms of time. There are some days that I come home mentally wiped. You work long hours. But there's a very low dropout rate because of the stimulation of working on hard problems. It can be stressful. A customer may say, "I want it yesterday." You may have a situation where there's an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle about to fire on a van and you're asked, "Is that the right target?" In other words, are we about to kill the bad guy, or is it a family on their way to a wedding?

You have to have patriotism. You don't have to always believe that your country is right, but it's still your country, and you have to want to advance the interests of your country. I support American ideals such as the freedom and the rule of law, but I don't support everything this country does. There are some people here who think the war in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. But as an agency, we're apolitical.

You have to be willing to speak truth to power. That's the ability to tell truth that people don't want to hear. Sometimes, the President will get angry at an analyst, because in giving him our research, it seems like we're not behind the war effort. But our job is to call it as we see it. Usually a junior analyst won't be asked to present a report to the President, but it's possible, if he's the expert on a particular subject.

Larson: Do you have flextime?
CIA Officer: Yes, in theory. I can take every other Friday off. But I usually don't take it.

Larson: What advice do you have for applying at this organization?
CIA Officer: You could try the financial arena. I don't know what I'd do without my contracts people. Having a CPA is good. Computer skills are good. Send me your resume electronically. Also, write on your resume that you're planning to get your Master's degree. That's not usually seen on resumes, but I think it would be appropriate here. It lets them know what your plans are.

Larson: What skills, abilities, and personal qualities do you find most important in your work? Also, are there any disadvantages to working here?
CIA Officer: You have to be willing to work your tail off. We're usually understaffed. There's a limit on how many people you can hire. The federal government isn't growing that much. It's not like a private company that can say, "Okay, we're growing; let's add more staff." Since it's a government agency, you also won't get rich working here.

Larson: What is your job, exactly?
CIA Officer: There is a budget for bioterrorism research, and I decide who gets what.

Larson: Describe the company culture.
CIA Officer: Secretive. You may not be able to tell the person in the next cubicle about the work you're doing, but they understand and they're fine with that. It's similar to any large organization, in that you have to deal with politics. There are some people who just want to advance their own interests, and their attitude is, to heck with the organization. Other people are extremely devoted to the mission; and they clash. In any workplace, a lot comes down to the people around you. Some people may be hard to work with. So you need people skills. I've been working here 20 years, and I'm just getting the hang of it. As with many other organizations, it's also a good old boy network. You'll start out as the new kid on the block. But hopefully your managers will be good old boys.

Assistant Professor of Physiology in Psychiatry[edit]

Larson: Describe your major work activities during a typical week.
Professor: There is no typical week. At a university, there are two kinds of jobs as a professor. In liberal arts, the teaching load is heavier. In medical school, there are more research aspects. I do no teaching in the fall, but I do in the spring. There are a few people who work in the lab. I supervise experiments. There is a lot of reading and some writing of papers and grants. You may spend a month writing a grant.

Larson: What are some advantages of your job?
Professor: You're always doing something different. There's nobody telling you what to do. On the other hand, you have to be successful at some level.

Larson: It's the grant writers who determine whether you're successful, right?
Professor: In a typical biology department, all salary is paid by the state. You get paid for nine months salary, and can take three months off if you want. The state pays a certain amount and the grant adds more. Foundations such as the National Institutes of Health give grants. The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports basic research, but their budget is 5% of NIH's. Private foundations give a small amount of money in comparison.

Larson: What are some other advantages?
Professor: Freedom. And you're always doing something no one else is doing. On the other hand, to be successful, you have to work really hard. I work 10 hours a day and some weekends. As a student, you work all waking hours. Eight years after your degree, you're into it all the time.

Larson: How much math does your work involve?
Professor: In biology and psychology, you don't need much math.

Larson: What are the main career paths?
Professor: There are four main paths. The first path is the academic path (being a professor). The second path is the drug company path, in which you research in a different way than in academic research, in that you have bosses telling you what to do. The third path is that you can become a teacher, at the high school, junior high, or college level. The fourth path is government jobs in the bureaucracy, evaluating grants, etc. If you don't want to get a PhD, you can still work for companies that are doing research. There are also science experts who work in consulting. If you work in chemistry, you might do some more practical work for a chemical company, developing formulations for motor oil, plastic, etc.

Larson: What do you see as some of your greatest accomplishments?
Professor: My research showed that there's a memory mechanism in the brain of animals. This has very great theoretical interest. The practical benefit was that it gave a way of studying the biological process. There are two main kinds of memory — conscious and unconscious. The unconscious form would be learning to drive, ride a bike, etc. without really knowing how you're doing it. A rat in maze uses procedural memory. That's like motor skills (e.g. throwing a baseball). The difficulty of working with animals is that we can't ask them what they know.

Larson: How has this job affected your lifestyle?
Professor: There's a fair amount of travel. There are two annual meetings of the Neuroscience Society, with 20,000-30,000 people. It's a big convention. Then there's a smaller meeting. There are other little meetings that are of interest. There's not much traveling other than those meetings. When you're looking for jobs, there's traveling. I had 20 job interviews.

Larson: What are entry-level, mid-level, and senior-level salary ranges in this field?
Professor: It depends on what your education is. Post-doctorates will make between $30-40K. An assistant professor makes between $50-70K. The highest make between $100-200K. In industry, the pay is better as a rule. You can work 9-5, unless it's a small start-up company. In a start-up, though, the potential benefits are much higher.

Larson: Where can you find jobs as a scientist?
Professor: All over the place. The DC area has plenty of bioscience. The NIH is in Bethesda. There are technician jobs if you don't want to get a PhD, but the high end is not high.

Larson: What skills, personal abilities, and personal qualities do you find most important in your work?
Professor: You have to be self-motivated. You have to get up in the morning and be prepared to work hard and not have someone looking over your shoulder. You can't do everything yourself but you have to be able to do some things yourself. You have to be able to critically evaluate what you read. You have to be creative in coming up with new experiments to do. It takes physical skills to do brain surgery, sutures, etc. You have to be good with your hands unless it's a theoretical science. [He also said that there are a lot of things that can go wrong in the laboratory, and you have to be able to figure out how to fix them.)

Larson: Do you do a lot of work alone?
Professor: Scientists for the most part are working alone. You may do the entire study yourself. Other studies are more collaborative in nature. Each person will have a piece of it. The end result is synthesis of what the group does. You hire people to help out, and each person is assigned to a role. You have group meetings from time to time. But it's set up so you can be pretty much independent.

Larson: What do you think the job prospects are for the future?
Professor: Well, there's a glut of scientists right now. The NIH budget doubled, but the number of scientists quadrupled. A lot of the NIH budget went to bioterrorism research and other war-related research. But if you were to start your degree program now, by the time you graduated, the situation might be different.

Business valuation expert[edit]

The business valuation expert I talked to said that an entry-level person might start out in the 40-50K range, then after five years be in the 70-80K range, and then after 10 years be in the 100K+ range. He was saying that BV is a growing niche. If I were going into accounting, that definitely would be an area I'd try to get into (in addition to auditing). He does about a dozen business valuations a year, and they constitute about 5% of his firm's revenue, but some firms have a larger BV department. About five years ago, the AICPA came up with a new certification, the Accredited Business Valuation credential. You have to take a bunch of courses and get some experience under your belt to get it, but I think there is another certification that doesn't require experience. BV also has a strong connection to forensic accounting, because in a lot of cases, someone is trying to hide money and/or undervalue their business when they get involved in litigation ( e.g. a divorce case).

For BV CPAs, the salary is not that different from other CPAs in a 30+ person firm:

  • Entry level: 45K (CPA) or a little higher, to 50K
  • 5-6 years experience: 60s-70s
  • 10 years: $100K or more if you're good.