Tips for doing your job interview over Skype

I have been interviewing a lot of people for various types of university positions over the years. Most often these interviews are conducted using a video-conferencing system. Here I provide some tips to help people prepare for a video-based job interview:

  • We (and many others) typically use Skype for interviews, not because it is the best system out there (of commercial platforms I prefer Zoom), but because it is the most widespread solution. The most important thing to do when preparing for an interview, is to check that you have the latest version of Skype (or whatever other program is required) installed. You don’t want to get an upgrade button when you are starting up for your interview.
  • Ensure that you have a reliable Internet connection. If you can, use a cabled connection. It will most certainly be more stable than wireless.
  • Only use your mobile phone in an interview if you do not have any other options, or if your computer fails in the last minute. Even though you may be used to talking to people from phone to phone, remember that your image will most likely be projected on a big TV/screen, and your sound will be played over a speaker system. Then the “phone quality” will certainly be visible/audible. Also: if you do use your phone, remember to put it in landscape mode. Otherwise, the image will look weird when it only covers a small part of the projection.
  • Sit in a suitable place where you will not be disturbed and where there is no noise. Avoid public spaces in which people may walk in on you.
  • To obtain the best possible video image, think about your placement with respect to lighting. Do not sit in front of a window, since a bright light in the background will make it difficult to see your face. It is better to sit in front of a plain wall with light in your face. If you don’t have a plain wall at hand, consider whether the background is suitable for an interview situation. I have seen all sorts of weird images, messy rooms, etc. This does not give a professional impression.
  • Do not sit with your computer in your lap. Then it will move all the time, making the committee seasick.
  • When positioning yourself in relation to the camera, remember that most likely you will be shown on a large TV or projected on the wall. It is better to sit so that your entire upper body can be seen. Otherwise, your face will be big!
  • Use a headset with a microphone located close to your mouth. This will pick up the sound better than most built-in computer microphones. Using a headset will also prevent feedback during the conversation, and it will not pick up sound if you are typing on the keyboard.

If you experience any issues with your setup, stay calm. Remember that the committee will be positive towards you, otherwise you would not have made it to the interview. Committees are used to all sorts of issues in video-based interviews. Sometimes the error is also on our side. Seeing how you tackle the stress of an unforeseen situation may convince the committee about your personal qualities.

Good luck!

What tools do I use for writing?

Earlier today I was asked about what tools I use when writing. This is not something I have written about here on the blog before, although I do have very strong opinions on my own tools. I actually really enjoy reading about how other people work, so writing about it here may perhaps also be interesting to others.

Text editor: Atom

Most of my writing, whether it is e-mail drafts, meeting notes, or academic papers, is done in the form of plain text files. I use different text editors dependent on what computer/platform I am working on, and that is also one of the beauties of text files. They work everywhere. On my main laptop (running Ubuntu Studio), I primarily use Atom as my main text editor. This is mainly because it is cross-platform, has some plugins that are useful, and has excellent integration with Github.

Most of the time I write using markdown, which is just a structured way to write text files. The nice thing about markdown formatted text files, is that they can easily be converted to other formats using Pandoc. I often have to send off files as either PDFs or DOCX files, and this can easily be done with a terminal command such as:

pandoc file.txt -o file.pdf 

Yes, it is a nerdy way of writing things, but working in a text editor (as opposed to a word processor) is just so much quicker for many things. I use quite a lot of advanced query-replace functions, for example, and then regular expressions are useful. I also like to be able to do multiline editing.

Academic writing: Overleaf

I usually start my academic writing with notes in markdown, but as soon as I start to get into the proper writing mode, I convert into LaTeX. This is also a text-based format, but with a slightly more complex (and also more powerful) syntax than markdown.

Since most of my academic writing these days is collaborative, I almost only work in the web-based LaTeX editor Overleaf. This editor makes it possible for multiple users to work on the same document, and it also handles the compiling into PDFs very nicely. Being a web app, you don’t have to install LaTeX locally on your own computer. This makes it much easier for people to get started with LaTeX than it used to be only a few years ago.

Academic references: Zotero

Zotero is my current reference manager. It is not perfect, but I like that it is cross-platform (and by that I mean Windows, OSX, and Linux), it has a web interface, and it synchronizes between systems. There is a connection from Zotero to Overleaf, but I have found this to be somewhat shaky. So most of the time, I just export a BibTeX file of my complete library from Zotero, and import that .bib file in Overleaf.

Other collaborative writing: Google Docs

When I am writing non-academic texts with others, such as administrative documents, reports, and so on, I typically use Google Docs. I have been using it for several years now, and it really shines when it comes to collaborative writing and editing. I try Office 365 from time to time, but it just cannot compare to the trouble-free collaboration I experience in Google Docs.

Word processor: LibreOffice

When I have to use a normal word processor, it is usually LibreOffice. I never start writing in LibreOffice myself, so this only happens when someone sends me a .docx file that they want me to look at. Fortunately, LibreOffice handles .docx files well most of the time. So I am able to edit documents using “track changes” and send them back to people using MS Word.

In those few cases where LibreOffice does not manage to handle the .docx documents I receive, I connect to a remote desktop at the university and fire up MS Word. This is typically when there are some weird macro functions in the document, or some strange fonts. Fortunately, this happens only once in a while.

Summing up

All in all, I am quite happy with my current set of tools. Relying on text files has worked well for me for many years now. They are also the most future-proof solution I can think of. My software tools will continuously be replaced, but I am sure that plain text files will be around for a long time.

Installing Ubuntu on a HP Pavilion laptop

So I decided to install Ubuntu on my daughter’s new laptop, more specifically a HP Pavilion. The choice of this particular laptop was because it looked nice, and had good specs for the money. It was first after the purchase I read all the complaints people have about the weird UEFI implementation on HP laptops. So I started the install process with some worries.

Reading on various forums, people seemed to have been doing all sorts of strange things to be able to install Ubuntu on HP laptops, including modifying the UEFI setup, changing the BIOS, and so on. I recall that on my Lenovo laptop I had to work quite a bit to turn off all the fancy auto-Windows-stuff.

I am not sure if HP has changed something recently or not, but the final procedure was super-easy: I just hit the F9 button on startup and got a normal “old-school” boot selector. Here I chose the USB drive, and the Ubuntu installer fired up.

I have installed Linux (primarily various Ubuntu versions) on a number of laptops over the years, and it is very seldom that I get into problems with drivers. Also this time things went smoothly, everything worked perfectly right after the install. I think it is important to continue repeating this message, because I still hear people saying that it is tricky to get Ubuntu to play with different hardware. True, there used to be driver issues some years ago, but personally I haven’t experienced that in five years or so.

Which Linux version to choose for a 9-year old?

My 9-year old daughter is getting her first laptop. But which OS should she get started with?

I have been using various versions of Ubuntu as my main OS for around 5 years now, currently using Ubuntu Studio on my main laptop. This distro is based on XFCE, a very lightweight yet versatile OS. The reason for choosing Ubuntu Studio over the regular XUbuntu was to get a bunch of music apps by default. I haven’t been able to explore these as much as I wanted to, unfortunately, primarily due to everything happening at our new centre (RITMO) and master’s programme (MCT).

Even though I like Ubuntu Studio myself, it is not a distro I would install on my daughter’s machine. Buying a new computer with Windows 10 pre-installed, one could argue that it would be best to leave her with that. This may also help her to be more familiar with the computers they are using at school, which run Windows 7 at the moment. But the question in the store about whether I wanted to buy some antivirus-software with the new laptop, was enough to ensure me that a Linux distro would be a better choice.

I have heard that some people like distros such as Edubuntu for kids, but it does not seem to be maintained? After thinking about it for a little while, I have concluded that it is probably useful for a kid to learn to use a normal OS. If you compare how things were a decade or two ago, most modern-day OSes are comparably easy to use anyways.

Finally I decided to make it simple, and installed the regular Ubuntu distro based on GNOME. It looks “modern”, has large icons, and is fairly easy to navigate due to the streamlining of menus, and so on.

Creating circular thumbnails in the terminal

Circular pictures (like the one to the right) has become increasingly popular on the web. We have, for example, included circular pictures in RITMO’s annual report, and we therefore also wanted to use circular pictures in a presentation at our upcoming LARGO conference. The question, then, is how to create such circular pictures?

The circular pictures in the annual report are made through a CSS overlay. So if you try to right-click and save one of those, you will get the original rectangular version. It is, of course, possible to add circular thumbnails in the presentation software, using the circular crop function in PowerPoint or add mask function in Keynote. The challenge with these, however, is that you may get into trouble if you move your presentation from one program to another. I often prefer to make presentations in Google Presentation, and there is no such feature there.

The most bullot-proof solution is therefore to create new circular images. This can be done in photo editing programs, such as the circle image function in GIMP. But for a centre of the size of RITMO (50+ people), and with many people coming and leaving all the time, I would rather prefer an automatic solution. I therefore decided to figure out how to do this in the terminal.

It turns out that Imagemagick comes to the rescue once again. Here is a one-liner for creating a circular PNG image from a JPG file:

convert alexander.jpg \( +clone -threshold -1 -negate -fill white -draw "circle 100,100 100,0" \) -alpha off -compose copy_opacity -composite alexander_circle.png

This will take a regular image like this:

and make it into a circular image like this:

Since the original was a 200x200px image, I used the code “circle 100,100 100,0” in the script to ensure that the circle would be in the centre of the image.

The next step was to extend the script to read all the JPG files in a folder and convert them into circular images. This can be done like this (at least on Ubuntu):

#!/bin/bash

for i in *.jpg;
do
  name=`echo $i | cut -d'.' -f1`;
  convert "$i" \
  \( +clone -threshold -1 -negate -fill white -draw "circle 100,100 100,0" \) \
  -alpha off -compose copy_opacity -composite $name.png;
done

Save the script as circle_image.sh (or whatever else you prefer), make it runable (chmod u+x circle_image.sh), and run it (sh circle_image.sh), and you get a bunch of circular images that you can be used in any program around. Scripting is fun!