Preparing for an Interview: 8 Points of Advice From Behind the Desk

I’ve recently been involved in a fair number of interviews. At Automic in the US, we normally interview external candidates using input from the hiring manager (obviously) and some other departments. My task is normally to evaluate a potential culture fit and any other insight I can give.

Interviewing people isn’t my job, but I enjoy meeting people and trying to make snap judgements and comparisons. Most recently, I’ve been involved in interviews for SDR (Sales Development Representatives) but have also spent hours in interviews for Software Engineers, Instructional Designers, Support Engineers (Technical Account Managers), Interns (Graphic Design, Sales, Support, Research, and Instructional Design), Youth Pastors, Pastors, and even church music leaders.

Since this has been on my mind recently, I thought I’d pass along some tips and ideas from my experience that may help you present yourself in the best way possible.

1. If the hiring manager asks you to do something, you should do it.

One of the managers I’ve worked with specifically asks interviewees to make certain resume changes and ask particular questions to each interviewer. This seems like a “slam dunk” to me. Your potential boss has asked you to complete a task. For entry-level positions (as these have been) this is extremely reasonable.

You are being asked, in a very practical manner, “How well do you follow directions?”

Beyond candidates who refuse to do so, some come in and say, “The manager is telling me to do this,” and make the entire conversation uncomfortable. It is like telling a potential client, “I apologize, but my boss tells me I need to see if you might be willing to sign the contract…?”

Some people forget, I get it. Interviews can be stressful. But, if you refuse to do it, maybe you should just decline the interview.

2. Relax — you are here for a reason

Interviews are a selection process, and you want to make a good impression. If you are fresh out of college, maybe this is the first “real job” interview you’ve ever had.

We (as do almost all companies) phone screen our candidates. You have a chance to chat with our HR department to make sure you fit the basic qualifications. Most jobs have a ton of resumes come in, so if you are talking to us, we already like you. If you come in for an interview, this is even doubly true.

A small number of people are generally selected for the final step of a face-to-face discussion, so there is obviously something about you that we are interested in. So, relax!

We aren’t trying to trip you up or trick you. While some companies might be, it will be obvious and you should run away quickly. The rest of us are just looking to see if you have the right combination of skills and qualities to fit our team. No amount of preparation, experience or schooling will get you the job. Just be honest and show us who you are!

3. Canned answers are fine, but they are fairly obvious

If you are a top-notch student, you are aware that preparation can be the difference between success and failure. To prepare for this interview, you have gone online and searched out potential questions you might be asked, based upon a role. For example, if SQL is listed as a “requirement,” you should come prepared to write a couple of statements. If you haven’t used any SQL statements recently, do a little refreshing.

You should be aware, however, that your prepared statements on why you want to work for this company all sound pretty much the same.

I’m not sure why we even ask stuff like that anymore, except to see if you have done the minimum amount of research. I like getting past all of those rehearsed answers, to see what you are like when you think on your feet or are throw off balance.

4. Don’t put anything on your resume that you aren’t able to defend/talk about

Resumes suck. You have to try and present yourself on paper — fitting in your experience, personality and awareness of the position within a couple of pages. You want to be thorough without bragging; you want to be relevant without making your story too short.

Please don’t stretch the truth beyond what you can defend.

Technical experience is the worst because you are attempting to put your programming languages, server/networking knowledge and Cloud experience on the page. And there are a ton of options. But, be aware: everything you put on that resume I have the option to ask you about.

I interviewed a candidate for a technical role in 2012. His resume included headings like “Expert In” and then listed many software vendors and technologies including Window ’95 Administration. How is this relevant to the year 2012? I asked him, “How do you create a user in Windows ’95?” While I don’t expect anyone to memorize all of the specific steps, I do expect him to try and guide me with general steps, “Click the Start menu, go to the Control Panel…look for something like “users”…etc”

Another Sales candidate wrote that she read a book per month on business and sales topics. She then listed some books. I went to the internet and found excerpts or chapters and read a bit about a couple of them. I then asked about the main ideas of two of the seven books listed. She had no idea and didn’t remember. Her bet was that she would come off as “smart” but ended up looking foolish.

5. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose behind this question?”

When I work with a hiring team, I like to ask them, “What qualities and skills does the ideal candidate have?” After those have been listed, I ask them to make sure their questions all relate to finding out if the candidate has those qualities and skills. Seems simple, right? It should be.

Conversely, the candidate should also be asking herself, “What is the purpose of this question?” This will help you phrase your answer to target the correct response.

For example, we were hiring a research position recently. I attempted to set up my questions by helping the candidates understand my target:

a.) Explain to me what this position is/does (research)
b.) If you were hiring for it, what would you be looking for (someone who naturally researches well)
c.) What did you do to prepare for this interview (I did research like X, Y & Z)
d.) What do you know about the person who interviewed you on the phone last week? (I looked them up on LinkedIn and they went to X college, etc)

The parentheses above indicate an ideal candidate. The responses I received began varying at question B, because the candidates didn’t see the flow or logic of the line of questions. They thought I was looking for someone who had integrity, someone who was adaptable, or someone who had leadership experience. By the time we hit question D, I was receiving information about the personality traits of the phone screener (who also was in the in-person interview). Those responses are generally valid — everyone wants someone with integrity, adaptability, leadership capability, etc. A simple pause to ask themselves, “why?” might have helped focus the answers a bit.

If you are interviewing for a research job, expect questions to see if you can do research. If you are looking for a management job, expect questions related to how you relate to people and your management style. Etc. You can assume those are the questions, even if they aren’t phrased obviously.

6. Keep examples short

Let’s say you get asked a common question form in today’s market. The interviewer says to you, “Tell me of a time when you have conflict with a manager and how you resolved it.” First, determine the potential reason. Perhaps they have a manager who can come off abrasively. Perhaps the position requires good conflict resolution skills. Maybe they want to see that you seek out improved relationships. Second, think of an anecdote. Third, summarize it briefly.

There is no need to tell the story like you might to your friends.

Don’t embellish it and don’t dwell on portions of it. We understand that these conflicts occur, so you don’t need to defend yourself. Just tell us something like, “W happened. This manager was upset because X. I then did Y. The result was Z.”

Too much time talking makes you come across as nervous and limits the amount of other information that you can share during your interview.

7. You can push back

When you enter a company’s work space, the employer and interviewer has the home-field advantage. The power rests in their hands. They feel comfortable in their conference room. They are asking the questions and evaluating you. You can turn the tables a bit to determine if this is a place you will be able to work.

An interview goes two ways — the first is obvious. We are trying to decide if you would be a good fit for us.

The second often gets lost because sometimes you can just feel like you just want any job. You need to begin to evaluate whether this company is a good fit for your personality and skills.

I once interview a young man who was fairly stiff and formal. His speaking was deliberate and considered. So, I asked an off-the-cuff question about the local sports team, of which he was a fan. He answered the question and we had a brief discussion.

After his response, he asked me, “Why did you ask that?” I told him that I was attempting to see if his mannerisms were because he was nervous, if he didn’t know the answers, or if that was just who he was. He then asked, “And what did you find out?” I replied that when he knew the topic and was obviously passionate about it, his mannerisms were the same: this was who he was, and there is nothing wrong with that.

His questions impressed me more than any of his other answers. He was interviewing for a sales position, which tends to attract talkative, loud, blustery people. This response showed me that he is a listener and will do well in sales because he is aware of the person across the table and is considering all the information available. I believe he would be able to talk to a client, find out their problems, and then adjust his discussions based upon how he can solve those problems. I recommended him to be hired.

If my response to his questions was, “None of your business,” or “I’m not sure,” I believe that he would have had the awareness to reconsider the position. He would not have wanted to work for a company that wasted his time. He would also have not wanted a company that just did things for no apparent reason. My responses (hopefully) showed him that we are thoughtful and insightful in who we hire and our evaluation process.

8. Sometimes, interviewers are just jerks

Most interviewers are looking for the right candidate to do a job in a particular context. They are good people with a tough job. But, everyone has a bad day and perhaps your interview caught them at the wrong moment. A very few like to interview candidates because it gives them a sense of power and authority. I like to be gracious to people whenever possible.

But, if you ever feel uncomfortable or feel that you are being made to feel small based upon your resume, achievements, or answers feel free to walk out and don’t look back.

If you are obviously the wrong candidate, great companies will continue with the interview politely, or perhaps end it a bit short, but with a smile. If you are not the right fit, there is no reason to treat you poorly — a great engineer is not a great marketer and vice versa. It is better to find that out sooner, rather than later. You have inherent value and will have an opportunity for a position at a company that will fit you well. There is absolutely no reason for me to make you feel small or worthless, and if I do I should be called out. Walking out of an interview loses you nothing, since you wouldn’t want to work at a place that treats people poorly anyway.

Good luck in your search! May all of your interviews be easy, relaxing conversations where respect is paramount.