Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ace the interview!

The job interview is the natural culmination of the various tools put into place. The product of effective networking, resume, cover letter, communication, and so on should result in the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with your prospective employer.

Whereas the previous tools and methods are part of what can be referred to as the job seeker/career builder's marketing, the interview is the point of the sale.

This chapter offers tips on what to expect and how to deal with difficult questions and have the most successful interview possible.

Officially, the interview is not part of your toolkit. It is a product of the effective use of your toolkit. However, the skills that you use during an interview are definitely tools. In fact, your ability to interview effectively is critical.

You might have the perfect résumé, an excellent cover letter, and skills that are well honed by experience and ongoing education, but if you cannot interview effectively, you will be limited in your career potential.

The interview is your moment to shine. It is also the moment when the employer determines whether you are someone to take a chance on. You must understand that this is the employer's perspective. Unless you are interviewing within your current company, where you are well-known, the employer is always taking a chance in hiring you.

Your responsibility is to convey a message that says, "Relax, I'm a sure thing. Be comfortable."

Comfort. It's your job to make your prospective employer feel comfortable that you can perform the work needed and that you will mesh well with the environment or culture of the company.

Some key points to remember about the interview are as follows:

    * If you are nervous, let the employer know — This technique can work wonders to alleviate the pressure within an interview. If you are feeling nervous, tell the interviewer. First, it helps the interviewer understand that you are putting some weight behind this interview—that you feel it's important. Second, it helps you relax.When you admit to nervousness, it often greatly reduces your apprehension. In effect, announcing your nervousness removes pressure and makes you less nervous. Also, the interviewer often gives you permission not to be nervous.
    * Ask questions about the job and the company — Although officially you are the one being questioned and interviewed, feel free to interject some questions of your own. This has two effects.

      First, it gives you valuable information about the climate and culture of the company. This is critical. You want to know as much as possible, without digging, about the work environment. You want to know whether the environment is dynamic, exciting, and fun or whether it is a sweatshop. You certainly want to know, if possible, what other opportunities exist—either for training or advancement.

      Asking about the environment also conveys the message that you are interested in the company. It lets the employer know that you have a vested interest in your career and are interested in knowing more than where your desk will be, how much you'll be paid, and what the vacation policy is. Companies are interested in employees that are interested in them.
    * Be loose, but not too loose — The best interviews are somewhat conversational. Being conversational conveys the message that you are confident and effective at communicating. You need to be relaxed enough to have some control of the conversation. A conversational style requires you to open up and let a little of your nonprofessional life into the room.You can convey personal interest if you can tie these interests into the interview somehow. However, take care not to take the interview too far off task. You do not want your interviewer(s) to leave thinking, "Nice person—I could see going to lunch with him but not hiring him. He's too distracted." Conversational, yet professional is the rule.
    * Be yourself — I cannot emphasize this point enough. An interview is where a mutual understanding of both parties must be ascertained in a short period of time. Don't act in a way that is inconsistent with how you would act on the job. Misrepresenting yourself and your personality can be extremely damaging later.

      The interviewer will remember how you presented yourself and wonder what happened. He might even feel he was "sold" a bill of goods. If your personality and style do not mesh well with your potential employer, it is better to find that out in the interview, not two months down the road. Both you and the employer will be disappointed.

      However, if your personality is abrasive and difficult, you would do well to work on it. This is not a positive personality trait. Don't protect bad behavior with a "This is just the way I am" attitude. That is, of course, unless you don't mind being limited in your professional growth.

Read the interview style— This is critical. The ability to read an individual's style is critical not only to the interview but throughout your professional career. You need to effectively mold your style to fit the style of the interviewer. However, do this only to a point.

Go back and reread the previous "Be yourself" bullet.

Some interview styles you might encounter include the following:

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    * The bottom-liner— This person is a "just the facts" type of personality. He wants neither fluff nor personality. He is highly production-oriented. When interviewing with someone like this, brief explanations that get right to the point will serve you well.
    * The conversationalist— This person wants to know about you, your job, and the people you worked with. It is likely that this person runs a highly communicative type of department. This interviewer is concerned with effective human interaction.
    * The silent type— This person might provide little feedback or input into the interview. You might answer a question and be met with an uncomfortable silence. You might even have to ask the question, "Did I answer your question adequately, or do you need additional information?" Sometimes this might indicate a lack of preparation on the interviewer's part.
    * The friend— This person might be highly communicative but will steer the interview away from the job and tasks at hand, favoring instead personal anecdotes and insight into your life away from work. At times, such diversion might indicate an interview that is going well and personal rapport. Make sure that you direct conversation back toward the job and the requirements, though.

      The committee— This isn't really an interview style. Sometimes you will be interviewed by a committee of some type. Having to answer questions, read the style, and reply accordingly to three or more individuals can be nerve-wracking. You might feel like you are facing a tribunal or that you're under a lot of scrutiny—and you might be right.

      The key to surviving the committee interview is to relax. Take time to address the person who has asked the question, but work on making eye contact with all of them.

      When I went through my first interview with Blue Cross, I faced this type of interview. I actually expressed that I felt I was facing a court-martial hearing. All three interviewers laughed, and the interview progressed well from that point.

      Of course, that is my personal style. You have to use what works for you to diffuse anxiety and nervousness.

Regardless of the type of interviewer you face, the key skills taught in this chapter can help you make the best of it. Adapt your style slightly depending on the interviewer, but make sure, regardless of interview style, that you are yourself. Also, direct conversation back to the job at hand, the needs of the company, and your questions about the organization.

Practice Your Interview Skills

An interview is, in effect, a performance of sorts. Your composure and poise when answering difficult questions go a long way in setting you apart from others who are being interviewed. Some people interview better than others. Unfortunately, if you have difficulty interviewing—for whatever reason—you are going to be handicapped in your job search.

Note, however, that you can go places to get experience without having to botch interviews. These might stretch you well beyond your comfort zone, but they are worth the time and effort:

This chapter offers tips on what to expect and how to deal with difficult questions and have the most successful interview possible.

    * Toastmasters— I also mention Toastmasters in Chapter 7, "Communications Skills.". Toastmasters is an organization that is dedicated to improving an individual's ability to give presentations. It is not directly geared toward interview skills. However, the organization has drills on how to give an impromptu presentation in front of a group. The practice of quickly thinking on your feet is one that is critical to effective interview skills.Typically, Toastmasters groups meet at predetermined times (once a week or once or twice a month). You can find out more about Toastmasters and find local chapters by visiting the Toastmasters website at .
    * Local colleges—Most local colleges offer courses in speech communications or presentation skills. Once again, these are not synonymous with interviews. However, just as with Toastmasters, you might be able to refine aspects of on-the-fly verbal communications.
 Be Prepared to Answer Difficult Questions

I am often amazed at the surprise of many interviewees when faced with a pointed question. Typically, employers throw one or two into the mix. They want to see the interviewee's reaction, to test the ability of the applicant to think on his feet.

In my consulting business, I often interviewed technologists. My first question often threw them on their heels. I would simply ask, "Are you smart, or are you stupid?"

My small consulting company placed technologists in a variety of environments on a daily basis. I needed people who were technically savvy but also highly adaptable. I could not have someone who was easily flustered when presented with a difficult situation. That question gave me an idea as to how someone might react in such a situation.

I do not expect that you will ever be faced with such a blunt question. However, I do expect that you might be faced with one or more of the questions described in the sections that follow, in addition to a few that aren't mentioned.

Prepare yourself to answer the following questions. More importantly, prepare yourself for questions that force you to think on your feet. Poise and confidence go a long way toward helping you answer effectively.
What Professional Accomplishment Are You Most Proud Of?

If possible, use the same piece of information that you supplied in your cover letter. It gives you a starting-off point, and if the interviewer has reviewed your cover letter, it lends itself to a cohesive message.
What Do You Feel Is Your Greatest Strength? Greatest Weakness?

I pose the two together because if you are asked one, it is likely the other will follow. My advice: Be honest. The employer will find out both if you're hired anyway.

If you have trouble with these questions, refer back to Chapter 5, "Self-Assessment."

When it comes to your weakness, however, frame it in a way that demonstrates an understanding of how you deal with it. For example, if you have trouble keeping track of various tasks, explain how you utilize and keep an accurate and up-to-date day planner.


Several great planners are on the market. I strongly recommend that you get one and learn how to use it. Time management is of particular importance to me. I use Microsoft Outlook to track everything. If I don't do that, I forget things. I keep a notepad and inexpensive Palm handheld with me when I'm away from my computer. As soon as I'm back in the office, I transfer the notes from the pad directly into Outlook.

Don't use a pseudo-weakness to make yourself look good. For example, I have heard interviewees, when asked about their greatest weakness, say, "I work too hard. Often, I take too much work home or stay too late."

The statement sounds trite and arrogant. It won't go over well. The interviewer wants to see if you have a strong sense of your abilities. It is the person who understands his limitations and has plans on how to remedy or work within them that brings value.

 Why Are You Leaving Your Last Job?

Honesty is your best policy here. For some, the idea of conveying that you did not like the company or a boss is a difficult one. However, I believe this is more a question of how you frame it. Saying "My boss was a jerk" is probably not going to get you points during the interview.

However, claiming that you felt it was time to move on to a company whose direction better matched your career objectives should be acceptable.

When asked why you are leaving one company for another, it is important that you frame your answer so that you don't disparage your prior employer. Try to present uncomfortable situations in the most flattering light. Table 14-1 provides some ideas on how you can portray key situations that might be causing you to leave a prior employer.
Table 14-1. Diplomacy for Explaining Departure from Your Previous Job

Reason for Leaving

How You Might Explain It

I was fired!

Ouch! This is a tough one. Of course, a company and individual part ways for various reasons. You might say this:

"The company was moving in a professional direction that was incompatible with my professional goals."

Bad management

It is almost never a good idea to speak poorly of bad management, even if your current interviewer seems empathetic or disparages the other company himself. Maintain strict professionalism in this case. You might say this:

"I am looking for a management team that is better focused on company objectives and who helps its staff achieve them. I have heard good things about your company, and I feel I would make a good addition to the team."

Lack of training opportunities at the old company

This is a great reason to leave a company. If training is not part of a company's plan or budget, consider moving on. A company's commitment to its employees can be assessed not only by pay and insurance. Particularly in IT, training is a huge factor, one that impacts overall career growth and satisfaction. You might say this:

"I am looking for a company that works with its employees to ensure that skills match the required tasks and one that places importance on training and future skills."

Moral/ethical issues

If your previous company was involved in unethical practices—consider the case of Arthur Andersen and Enron in 2002, for example—you have to assess your interviewer's awareness of this fact. If your prior company's problems were highly publicized, you might need to address them head-on—acknowledging them openly in the interview. You might say this:

"I need to find a company that is more ethical in its business practices. I need a management team that places a high priority on integrity and honesty."

In all cases, instead of using the question as an opportunity to speak poorly about your past employer or indicate bitterness or complaint, frame the answers positively. The easiest way to do this is to reiterate what you are looking for in the new opportunity instead of focusing on the problems that existed at your prior company.

Although a myriad of reasons exist for leaving a company, the sampling in Table 14-1 is meant as a guideline. As you can see, I am attempting to frame each situation in light of positives with the new company. Although you are implying subtlety that the prior opportunity did not meet your expectations in this area, framing it positively for the new opportunity allows your interviewer to justify and explain how its company meets your requirements. In effect, the interviewer can begin to see how you are looking for a company just like that one.

There is nothing wrong with looking for personal advancement and financial/professional gain. If the reason for your leaving a company is to find a better opportunity and make more money, let the employer know.
Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

"On a white sandy beach in the Caribbean."

That's a good answer, but it's probably not what the interviewer is looking for. Once again, honesty is the best policy. Let the interviewer know your professional aspirations. Motivated employees generally produce better and are more valuable. Contrary to popular misconception, most managers are not threatened by good employees. A manager advances to the degree that he develops others. Good managers will seek out employees who want to get ahead and be rewarded.

If you are unfortunate enough to run across a manager who is threatened by your ambition and talent, it is better to know this during the interview rather than two years into a miserable job experience.


If you do not have career aspirations, get some! I talk about this earlier in the book, but to reiterate, careers do not generally happen by accident. They require planning. That doesn't mean you can't change direction and change your plan, but have some idea of where you want to go.

When you are starting out, your goal might be exposure to various aspects of technology-related careers. Your current career goal might be to form a long-term career goal. That is perfectly sensible.

After the Interview

Here are a few ideas and techniques to put in place after an interview. These are not hard-fast rules, but you should consider them.

    * Ask how you did— Don't be afraid to ask your interviewer how you did. It is a good way to convey the message that your "performance" was important to you. Normally, the flow of the interview will give you an idea as to how you did, but still ask the question.
    * Ask about the rest of the process and time frames—It is appropriate to ask how the process works. Are there several layers of interviews? What happens next? How long until a decision is made?All of these are appropriate questions. In addition, express an interest in following up with the company. Let the employer know that you will follow up.
    * Write or call to thank them—Within a day or so of your interview, drop a note or e-mail to your interviewer thanking him for the opportunity. This is true even if you have already been notified that another candidate was selected. The employer did, in fact, give you his time and provide you with an opportunity.Also, doing so can open many doors down the road. A professional and courteous attitude is a rare commodity. You will separate yourself from others who were interviewed. And who knows—down the road, you might find a new opportunity at the same company.

      If you are not selected—In addition to the thank you note, I would recommend the following course of action when another candidate was selected over you.

            Call to ask for a critical assessment—Try to set up a time to speak to your interviewer and ask for a critical assessment of all aspects of the process. Ask the interviewer what areas you can work on for future interviews. How can you better frame and structure your résumé? What skills or attitudes did you lack—if any?

            You might find that the interviewer thought you did great. It might simply be that the employer made an assessment between two equally good candidates, and intangibles or personality made the difference.

            Whatever the interviewer's response, thank him again for his time. Process what he has said, and determine what areas you can work on to improve your chances the next time.

            Create a professional contact— You have met one or more individuals at a particular company. If you are not selected for a position, you have, at minimum, grown your network of professional contacts. As with the job search, ask the interviewer(s) the two magic questions: Can I follow up with you from time to time? Do you know of anyone else who might be looking for someone with my skill set?

            It is likely that this same company will be hiring another technologist in the future. If you network correctly, your name will be at the top of the company's list.


The interview is the culmination of the job search process. However, just as with individual jobs, no interview makes or breaks a career. If an interview goes poorly, chalk it up to experience and move on. Interviews are mini-performances that require practice.
Actions & Ideas

   1. If you can find an interview workshop, take it. Often, your local chamber of commerce knows of such a resource.
   2. Get a sheet of paper (or open a new document) and make a list of some of your past interviews. Which ones went well and why? Which ones went poorly and why?
   3. At your next interview, employ some of the techniques described in this chapter. Take particular note of post interview questions so that you understand the process and planned time frames. This understanding reduces your overall anxiety as you wait for feedback.

1 comment:

Top Interview Tips said...

The only advice on interview skills I can tell you is just study what questions will most likely be asked. If you study those over and over along with answers it might help a little. I also get very nervous durring and interview. Dont say "umm" a lot. Thats one of my problems.
Interview Tips