How To Do Well in Your Next Job Interview

Recently I read an editorial about job interviews. It was breezy and funny, but not very helpful. Given that millions are out there looking for work, I want to help by giving my perspective on how to “win” the interview.

I do a lot of interviewing, from both sides of the desk. As a consultant I am interviewed by clients. As one of many technical and behavioral interviewers for my employer, I talk with candidates about their skills, goals, and fit with our business.

Of course, winning the interview may not get you the job. An interview is just one part of a many step process. Getting a job involves showing you have the skills, establishing mutual fit, coming to terms on salary, and standing out versus the competition. This post is only about how to do well in the interview.

Assuming you’re qualified for the job, you can set up a good interview experience by applying the right mental model, preparing well, and interacting effectively during the conversation.

Step 1: It’s a Business Relationship

The way you think about that new job possibility is the foundation for your questions and responses, and you’ll want the strongest foundation possible.

The article that inspired this post used a “first date” metaphor. While I understand the parallels, to me (besides being a little weird if you think about it) it tilts the balance toward comfort and relationships at the expense of career, benefits, and salary.

For better or worse, most jobs are to some extent paternalistic but the interview situation is not. However desperately you need the job, the interview is your chance to act as an independent agent by asking probing questions. You’ll impress the interviewer if you explore all aspects of your potential future in the new position. For example, I was impressed when a candidate asked me the one thing I’d want to change about the company.

Step 2: Research the Position, Organization, and Interviewer

While you do want to ask questions about the organization and the open position, it isn’t good if the answers are posted on the hiring organization’s website. In addition to background and skills needed for the job, the interviewer will expect that your questions build from publicly available information. For example, for my employer it isn’t great to ask “What does your company do?” A better question would be “I’m interested in the Financial Services industry, can you tell me about some of your current projects in that area?”

If you know who you’ll be talking to, look them up online. Just as the hiring company will research your online presence, you can do the same for your interviewer and other key personnel. What are their professional interests? Are they published, and if so what are their views? Don’t be shy about discussing one of their blog posts, especially if you can detail experience that confirms or contradicts the article. Most interviewers appreciate feedback and the opportunity to discuss their work. If they don’t, then that’s an interesting negative data point for you about the new position.

Step 3: Have a Focused Conversation

There are lots of guides available with a quick web search on successful interviewing, most providing similar useful advice: don’t talk too much; research, be well groomed, and be yourself; and so on. For my part, I agree that appropriate brevity is a key to success, and the other thing I look for is well-founded opinions, whether I agree with them or not.

I often do time-constrained phone or Skype technical interviews. With most candidates, I can get what I need based on about five pivotal questions, a couple of them requiring “essay” answers, and, importantly, give them sufficient time to ask me questions. Rarely, I can’t get through what I need in the time allotted. This is a ding against the candidate, because it means they didn’t tailor their responses to help meet our shared goal: for me to understand their capabilities in a limited time period.

Besides reasonable brevity, I look for thoughtful technical opinions rather than ask fact questions. Anyone with more than a year’s experience with a tool or technique should have opinions about what works and what doesn’t. People who dig their career field like to share their opinions, the experiences that created them, and the underpinning technical facts behind them.

If your technical interviewer doesn’t ask your opinions, volunteer them. You’ll give the interviewer deeper insight into your expertise, show your interest in the field, and get some insight via a substantive conversation into what it’s like to work at the organization.

So I think these are the keys to a successful interview: go in with the right mental model; research the organization, the position, and the interviewer, and in the interview be concise and express grounded opinions. Hey, if I talk with you in an interview setting sometime, let’s discuss this post!

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