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Nailing the Interview


Being interviewed for a job can be a nerve-wracking exercise in scraping your ego across a cheese grater. It doesn't have to be. Approached the right way, it can even be fun!


I do a lot of interviewing for my day job. I do behavioral interviewing and train other people to do it. I've seen bad interviews - and from both parties, the interviewer and candidate. There are a number of pitfalls to avoid. This article talks about the perspective of you, the candidate.

First Things First: Mindset

Your mindset is key. If you go in to the interview expecting to fail, you will. Look hard enough for something and you're sure to find it. Don't set yourself up for failure by assuming you suck at interviewing. It's just a conversation. That's it. That's all it is. Two people talking. Well, sometimes it's more if you're interviewing with a panel of people, but I don't have experience with that. This article is dealing with the types of interviews where it's you and one other person. The point is, an interview is usually just a conversation. We have conversations all the time. Nothing scary about it.

Frame the interview as a conversation you want to have. Imagine that you're talking to someone you like. Think of them as an old friend you've run into in an airport, and you're catching up while walking to a connecting flight. You don't have a ton of time, so you're not telling some big long story. You're giving highlights, answering questions, and asking some of your own. You're happy to see them and you show it in your body language.

Yes, someone is going to be asking you questions. Yes, some of them might be hard and you'll have to think about it. It's still just a conversation. Relax. Open your shoulders. Smile.

An Interview has Two Purposes

Interviewers ask a bunch of questions. They all boil down to one of two things:

  1. Can the candidate do the job?

  2. Do we like them?

If they don't get a good answer for #2, it doesn't matter about #1. Actually, if they don't ask any questions that might answer #2, you don't want to work for them. It means they hire people they don't like. You don't want to work there, because you'll be working with the jerks they hire.


Be honest about #1. Be honest in general, but definitely be honest with both the company and yourself as to whether you have enough of the skills they're looking for to do the job. I've worked with people who talked their way into a role, where the company didn't have good hiring practices and let someone in who couldn't actually execute. It sucks. It sucks for the team, and it sucks for the candidate. It sucks for the company. Nobody's happy with that outcome. Don't waste anybody's time interviewing for a role you can't actually do.


If you figure out in the middle of the interview cycle that you can't do the job, save everybody's time and end it. Thank them for their time and attention, and withdraw your application. Be confident in your own skills, but also be confident in what you don't know. Don't bullshit your way into a role when you're not a good fit.


Also, #2 is also for the candidate. An interview goes both ways. As a candidate, you should be interviewing the company. Is it a good place to work? Will you work on something interesting? Do you like the people you've met there so far? Is it stable? Does it make sense for your career? These are questions you should answer, and an interview is a great place to do it. You're likely talking to people inside the firm who aren't marketers. Dig for answers.


When Do We Get to the Good Stuff?

You might be thinking, "When is he going to start talking about how I nail an interview?" I have already. Mindset and role compatibility are critical. If you think you're going to have a good interview, and you apply for a job you can actually do, you're already setting yourself up for success.


If you fail either of these first two things, it doesn't matter what I say next.


Do's and Don'ts

You can have a great mindset and be a great fit for the role and still shoot yourself in the foot in an interview. Here are a bunch of things to do, and some to avoid.

Do

  • Do smile. Humans subconsciously judge each other within one tenth of a second. You can't control this at all, but a smile goes a long way. Practice having a light smile that touches your eyes. Smiles that don't touch your eyes make you look fake (or like a psychopath). Avoid that.

  • Do ask questions. Good questions:

  • Why do you like working here?

  • Why do you stay?

  • What behaviors should I avoid if I want to be successful here?

  • Tell me about the team. Why do you like it?

  • When was the last time you disagreed with somebody about something? How did that go and how did you get to a resolution?

  • Do ask for a break if you need one. You're not going to be relaxed if you have to pee.

  • Do tell the truth. I can't stress this one enough. Ignore the temptation to embellish.

  • Do avoid the royal 'we'. You're the one getting interviewed, not your last team. It's fine to say that a project was a team effort, and be sure to include credit where credit is due, but please explain how you specifically had an impact.

  • Find out how often you'll get feedback as an employee. Weekly would be amazing. Avoid places where the answer is "annually" or "nobody asks me how I'm doing."

  • There are plenty of articles about how to do a remote interview well, so I'm not going to wax eloquent about that - but if you're on a remote call and your bandwidth allows it, please turn on your camera.

Do Not:

  • Don't come without questions. You should have more questions than time allows - but be cognizant of the interviewer's time. They likely have a busy schedule and they'll remember if you made it easy for them or not.

  • Don't say things that put down your current team, or try to make yourself look good at their expense. If you have to say a negative about them, frame it as an environment where you feel you can't do your best.

  • Don't lie. Don't ever do it. It's not worth it. Lost trust is gone forever. When choosing to work with someone, look for integrity, energy, and intelligence. If they don't have the first one, the other two don't matter.

  • Don't ask about how often the company hands out raises.

Nailing a Practical

Some companies have a practical exercise as part of the interview process to test your skills. For technology companies, where I work, it's a coding problem and they come in many forms. There are plenty of articles about how to do those effectively.


My advice: don't cram the night before. You either know it or you don't. If given a problem you don't understand, ask questions to find out if it might be something you've seen before. If not, be up front about it. Ask if it's okay to blunder along anyway, but set some expectations first. If you say you know how to do something, and then it becomes clear in the interview that you do not, I'll think you're a liar or trying to blow smoke up my ass, and that's an instant elimination.


Nailing It and Still Failing to Get the Job

Wait, what? This is an article about nailing an interview! How can it also be about failing to get the job? Isn't that what nailing it means?


Nope!


Nailing an interview means you did everything you could to increase the odds in your favor. But you can't control everything. You actually can't control anything except how you think about something, but that's for another time. The point is, you can do everything right, make the right calls, and dress the part, and still fail. Sometimes luck goes the other way.


People don't remember what you said and they don't remember what you did. They remember how you made them feel. If you were relaxed, made them feel good while speaking with you, and didn't trip all over yourself trying to make yourself look more competent than you actually are, you're already ahead of a major percentage of your competition.


In my experience, the best candidates are the ones who come prepared, ask a lot of insightful questions, and are up front when they don't know something. Most importantly, they smile and it's real.


Don't forget to smile.

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