Things were going well, until he asked, “What was your biggest failure?” I was ready for a “weakness” question, which I could talk about all day. But not failures. I stumbled, but then my Toastmasters training kicked in. I replied alright, but of something odd and inconclusive. The interviewer, a polite and affable Vice President, allowed me to finish and then moved on to the next question. If he had liked my answer, he would have engaged in dialog and explored the details. Instead, he moved on. I failed.
This was my fourth phone interview. The first three went swimmingly well — I breezed through conversations with the recruiter, hiring manager, and future co-worker. Only one more interview to go, with the Vice President. It should have been a snap, but, instead, I was drowning.
After I hung up the phone, I replayed the conversation in my head. And winced. Oh, no, no. What have I done? At one point, he asked what I thought about the Agile development methodology. I gave a blunt answer as if I were speaking to an engineer in the break room, not to an executive during an interview. I belittled Agile because I’d seen such wide variations in practice that I wasn’t sure what it really meant any more. I’d also seen it frequently hijacked by executives with emergency requests. He then revealed that he was part of the original movement and a huge proponent of Agile. Fail! If I had properly prepared for this interview and understood my audience, I could have relayed the same thoughts in composed, inoffensive language appropriate for deep conversations with industry experts. But I didn’t.
In a last-ditch effort to regain my footing, I attempted to recite a line from the Agile Manifesto. After all, I had studied it in a graduate-level software engineering course, albeit 10 years prior. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read the document since, and I made a gross error. He didn’t call me out on the error, instead, he quickly moved on to the next portion of the interview. His mind was made up, and I was completely, totally sunk.
He went on to describe the job for which I was interviewing and what he was looking for in a candidate. His language was smooth and fluid, that of a wired-in executive in a fast-moving technology company. I spoke like a Midwestern hack whose primary quality was luck.
I know this language; I understand this form of communication. Something I picked up during my MBA studies. It was the language of business and leadership, spoken by those with an audience that is actually listening. And I wasn’t using it. Lately I’d been immersed in the low-level trenches, surrounded by gruff programmers and deep-in-the-weeds subject matter experts. Not highly polished executives at board room tables. At that moment, I was out of my depth.
Convention dictates that I should have sent a follow-up letter, but I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know where to begin. So many mistakes! Anything I attempted to write would have only made things worse. The job was an amazing one, too. It would have been life-changing promotion. A very, very painful loss.
I can’t help but reflect on the irony of the “failure” question. I failed at one of the most basic rules of communication: know your audience. I’ve been in the industry for over twenty years, and I’ve had many successful interviews, yet I am still capable of making such a fundamental mistake. One that was completely avoidable, had I not succumbed to over-confidence and insufficient preparation. Know your audience, prepare for that audience, and speak to that audience. I failed to interview at my full potential, and it cost me. I don’t intend make the same mistake again.