How I Ace Every In-Person Interview

I have been offered a job after every in-person interview. It sounds impossible, right? You may be thinking I’m some smooth operator or have cartloads of experience and my stars are perfectly aligned. Actually, I’m a shy, overweight, relatively-junior, female software engineer. I live in a city where body image is everything, and my peers are all avid rock-climbers and outdoors-men. And yes, they are 95% male. I get embarrassed and flustered easily, and I often have trouble thinking under pressure; I have many-a brilliant idea 5 minutes after the meeting (or interview) has ended.

However, if I can overcome my nerves and genetics to give a successful interview, so can you. I will give you a bit of history about where I started in the interview process, my moment of realization, then share my process with you.

Interview Anxiety

The thought of interviewing used to terrify me. I remember coming out of college and being petrified of even the thought of interviewing. Especially panel interviews — a whole group of strangers staring at me, asking me questions with the intention of tripping me up, brr. I went through dozens of practice interviews with disinterested volunteers in college, to prepare myself for the “real thing.” It was awful. I would get tongue-tied, I would get confused, I would say things that were just not right and then try to correct myself — meanwhile keeping mental tally of all the points I’d lost.

I approached every interview as a test. I knew I was being graded and had to get top marks in order to pass and be offered the job. In short: I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself to be perfect. In my first interview for a “real job” (not an internship or menial job), I was tied up in knots for days beforehand. I remember not being able to sleep the night before, finally seeing 2:30am tick over, and having to get up at 6:30am to be on time for the 8am panel interview.

I ended up in front of this panel of 5 people, all seated across from me in an imposing meeting room with a glass table and glass walls — it was like a fishbowl and magnifying glass all at once, a stage set and ready to highlight my embarrassment for the whole company to see. These weren’t just software developers, they weren’t the people I would be working with, or even my boss — they were executive level. VPs, the CTO, “principle” engineers.

Fortunately, one was a woman; she recognized the terror on my face as they introduced themselves. She said, “You look a bit nervous.” I heaved a huge internal sigh of relief — although all the practice interviewers and texts had said to never indicate nervousness, when I was taking the practice interviews I had met with more success when I just blurted that out at the beginning.

I laughed a bit and said, “Oh yes! Do you think I could have some water?” — a classic stall for time. She got me some and the interview began. It was about an hour long, and heavily scripted. They each took turns asking me a question — about programming theory, tenants of object-oriented programming, design patterns. I stumbled my way through these — I knew them, sure, but I wasn’t very eloquent in my answers. Then about 30 minutes in, the questions changed to the behavioral side of the interview — tell me about a time when you went above and beyond, tell me about a time when you failed. These were the questions we all dreaded the most. It’s easy to talk about facts — they’re right or wrong. But these questions? How do you answer that? And even if you have a good answer, how do you convince them you’re being honest?

Tell me about a time you failed…I had been embroiled in a horrible school project. I was in a group with 3 other people, who had banded against me about a month into the semester. At the time I was sitting down with this group of tech management, I considered my time on the project (and myself) a complete failure. My grade was dependent on participation and my team was sabotaging that at every turn — not giving me the presentation slide deck until 4 hours before the presentations (which were each 25% of our grade), scheduling meetings and not inviting me until they were over then shouting at me for missing them, and much worse. As I unfolded the story to my interview panel, I saw them all transform. They put down their pens, they were making eye contact, they were in listening postures, they were giving me non-verbal feedback. When I finished, the CTO leaned in and, brow furrowed, said, “That sounds horrible. What did you do?”

“I quit,” I said. Their eyes all went wide, but they didn’t reach for the pens or scribble on their paper, or cut sidelong glances at each other. They were just stunned. And I had — a few days before, I had gone to my professor and told him I was done. “I tried everything I could think of, and I solicited advice from every resource I could find” — which they knew, because I had included those bits in my story — “but ultimately, I realized that I couldn’t change them, and I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I knew that in quitting the team, I would fail the class, lose my honors, and delay my graduation by two semesters; so I stuck it out as long as I could, and it was a hard decision to make, but I did it.” There were nods and sympathetic looks, but I thought for sure it was the sympathy of doom. Poor kid, in over her head, and she gave up, I imagined them thinking.

I berated myself for three days, wondering how I could have been so stupid as to tell the whole and real story, not a censored, politically correct version of it. When they called, I just knew it was to say, Sorry, you’re not what we’re looking for right now. Instead, I had a job offer.

It was my turn to be stunned. I had aired my dirty laundry and they offered me the job anyway? What was that about?

I reflected for a long time on the interview and in retrospect I realized that the minute I started answering the tell me about a time you failed question, the group dynamic had completed changed. Instead of being a test with right and wrong answers and point deductions, the whole group had shifted into having a discussion. They engaged with my story, they engaged with me. They asked me questions and talked to me like a person, not another nameless kid in a suit with no experience vying for a position.

I also realized that I had not been nervous during that part. I had just talked to them like they were people — VPs! It felt crazy and reckless, and in true scientific spirit, I wanted to try it again. So the next several interviews I went on, I threw away my memorized script for the tell me about a time questions and just told the stories. Grammatically incorrect, sometimes rambling, sometimes getting tongue tied and having to rephrase silly things I’d said. And yet, invariably they were better received than my technology quiz answers.

The Secret to Interviewing

I had stumbled on the secret to interviewing: Treat an interview as a conversation, not a test. There are three goals in every interview:

  1. You must assess whether the company and position is the right fit for you.
  2. The company must asses whether you are the right fit for them and the position.
  3. You must convince the company that they can trust you and you are someone they want to work with long term.

These are all nearly impossible to determine in an hour long interview. After an hour, how well can you really know someone? How can you stake your career or your company on the knowledge gained in such a short meeting? I’ve found that by treating an interview as a conversation, I can accomplish goals 1 and 3 more easily.

In a job interview, the interviewer has all the power. In a conversation, the interviewer and I are equals. This means I am allowed to ask questions that I may not feel comfortable asking when I am a mere job candidate. I can engage the interviewer as a person — if I don’t understand their question, I just ask for clarification, or ask them to rephrase it. Often times when I do this they get uncomfortable — like I’m trying to cheat and have them give away the answer. When this happens, I say, “How about this: I don’t understand what you’re asking specifically, so I’m just going to talk about the topic generally and you stop me if you want me to clarify or speak in more detail about anything,” and they relax and eventually do stop me (Ah, that’s what I was asking about!). In thinking of it as an interview (i.e. test) I wouldn’t be able to do that.

Think about the last time you sat down with someone for an hour and just talked — how much did you learn about them outside the topic of conversation? By treating my interviewer as a person and not a gateway, I demonstrate to him that I’m honest and forthright; unless you’re practiced at lying, it is difficult to deceive someone in an hour of conversation. Little things give you away, tiny facts that contradict each other, evasions, turns of phrase that stick out as practiced. I make it a point to answer every question — even if the answer is “I don’t know” or “I can’t speak positively about that at the moment, so I would prefer not to go into specifics at this time,” to reinforce the fact that I, too, am a person.

That’s all well and good, you may say, but that sounds like a silver bullet and doesn’t really help me. Just keep reading — I’ll walk you through what I do at each phase of the process.

The Resume

I won’t go into too many details on the resume, since I don’t get spectacular conversions on them. I’m still working on that.

One thing that I do that is, I think, unique is: I put short, teaser phrases on my resume about things I want to talk about in the interview. These are the things I feel distinguish me from other candidates and also things I want to be asked about. For instance, for me it’s my work ethic, my writing ability, my honesty. Most of the time, an interviewer has my resume in front of him when we’re talking and refers back to it to help guide the interview. I want him to look down and say, “Hmm, you have on your resume that you have a good work ethic. What does that mean to you?”

The Phone Screen

This is where I most often fail. A phone screen is typically 15–30 minutes, led by someone who probably isn’t technical or will ultimately have no interaction with you in your daily job. Since I am crunched for time, have no non-verbal feedback to rely on, and most of the questions are designed to be of the test-to-exclude format, this is where I usually get shunted into the reject pile.

If I make it to the end of the phone screen, when they ask for questions, I always ask the following:

  1. What are you looking for in a candidate?
  2. When can I expect to hear back from you? / How can I follow up with you?

Usually, because of the short amount of time, these are the only questions I have the opportunity to ask. I write down everything they say for the first question on either my resume or a printout of the job posting, and ask any clarifying questions I need to.

When I’m first jumping back into the interviewing pool, the phone screen is where I get my conversational practice in. I often say some pretty stupid things at first, but I try to shrug it off, because I know that I need these practice runs so I’m ready for the in-person interviews. This is the part where you know I don’t have a magic bullet — sometimes I leave these feeling demoralized or stupid or just as flustered and embarrassed as when I was in college. But my entire goal of the phone screen is to get to the in-person phase; I know that I can repair any damage there.

Preparing for the Interview

I spend several days preparing for the in-person interview. At the start of a job search, this preparation phase is 4–6 days, by the end it’s closer to 2 days.

First, I take the job posting and what they told me they were looking for in a candidate and write out all those qualities in a spreadsheet or on a sheet of paper. Then I select the top 10 most important of these, and reorganize my list so those are first.

Then, I make a list of 10 things I want to make sure they know about me. It might be the fact that I have experience in a technology that they could benefit from, it might be some of my soft skills, it might be that I spent a summer repairing payphones — things that aren’t necessarily on my resume but would show additional value I could bring to the company and position. I prioritize these as well, and take the top 5 and put them in with my top 10 of their requirements.

Now I have a list of 15 things I MUST talk about during the interview. This is where it gets fun.

Then I make a list of stories I want to tell in the interview. They can be 5 sentence stories or 5 minute stories. These stories are things I’m proud of, or things that define me. Achievements, overcoming obstacles, turning bad situations around. Anything where I fought hard and have a strong feeling about the outcome. Things I’ve invented, ways I’ve saved the company money or effort, group projects in or outside of work that had an impact. I brainstorm these and write a short description of them down in a list, in a column next to my list of 15 Must-Talk-About Items. This part can take several days. The upside is — if you save your story list, it’s less work for the next interview.

After the stories and Must-Talk-About Items (MTAIs) have seeped and rattled around in my brain for a few days, I sit down with my lists and match stories to MTAIs. Since I usually do this on paper, I do the old-fashioned column-matching where you draw a line between the pairs. For each story I spend some time thinking about it, then I draw a line to the MTAIs and Optional TAIs that it covers. The story about repairing payphones can indicate that I can work with hardware, that I’m willing to work outside my job description, and that I’m resourceful, for instance.

Once I have my web of TAI-to-story lines done, it’s a matter of picking the 4–5 stories that cover all my 15 MTAIs and maximize the Optional TAIs. Now I make a fresh list. I write down each story descriptor and under it include a bulleted list of each TAI it must cover.

Now the not-so-fun part, at least for me. I practice my stories. Just like practicing a speech, I have to practice my stories. I don’t do anything silly like practice in front of a mirror, but I do pace around my room with the door closed and talk to myself for a while. I’ve found this practice has the following benefits:

  1. It ensures I hit all the TAIs I need to every time I tell the story. I don’t script the story, because I want it to be organic in the conversation, so it’s important that each time I know how to say what’s important.
  2. It helps me to hear how it sounds, so I can reword things that are awkward, sound too wishy-washy, too arrogant, or too critical before the interviewer hears it.
  3. I tend to stumble over the words less in the interview after practicing. I don’t get as tongue-tied or flustered.
  4. It reduces the number of verbal tics when I’m sharing the story in the interview — fewer umms, you knows, reallys, and justs.
  5. It helps me determine where the cruft of the story is, so I can make sure I’m not rambling and losing my audience when the time comes.
  6. It shows me if I need to cut a story. If I can’t get the wording down, or I can’t stay positive about certain elements in the story, I may just need to replace it. It’s better to know that ahead of time, when I still have time to come up with an alternative.

The Night Before

The night before the interview, I prepare my interview kit. In a folder, I put 10 copies of my resume, my cheatsheet of story/TAIs, a printout of the job description and contact information, any notes from the phone screen and other initial interviews, and my list of questions.

they say you should research a company beforehand in order to generate a list of intelligent questions to ask. I’ve always found this quite difficult. Perhaps that is because I am not vastly experienced in the field and am still applying for mid-level jobs, perhaps it is because I am in a technical industry and those rules don’t quite apply the same way. Whatever the reasons, online research doesn’t do much for me most of the time. I do some high-level delving to find out where their offices are located, about how many employees they have, how long they’ve been in business, what types of customers they have, that sort of thing. If anything stands out, I will write it down as a special question to ask.

However, I have generated a list of questions that are company-agnostic that I expect to be answered in one way or another during the interview. Remember that I need to determine whether or not I want to work there as much as they need to determine whether or not they want me. Here are a few of the questions I use:

  1. Why are you hiring for this position now?
  2. What’s your expectation of growth over the next year?
  3. What is the ratio of senior to junior developers?
  4. Do you practice agile development? Is there a particular flavor of agile you use?
  5. What are your thoughts on testing? Do you subscribe to TDD?
  6. What are your thoughts on pairing? What does pairing look like here?
  7. What would a typical work-day look like for me? After six months, how will that have changed?
  8. What size is the team I would be working on?
  9. How do you measure and recognize success?
  10. How would you indicate to me if I were under-performing?
  11. What is your management style, as a company? Who would my manager be?
  12. What opportunities are there for growth? Do you have a mentor program?

Several of these should be answered during the interview conversation, but the latter ones rarely are. Each question tells me something important about the position and the company, so I can make an informed decision about whether or not this is the right place for me.

I make sure to pull out this list when I get to the Q&A part of the interview, and check off physically and verbally anything already covered. We don’t usually have time to cover all the questions, so I let them see me select the most important ones and ask them. Then I check them off.

I always ask when I can expect to hear from them.

Immediately Afterward

As soon as I get out of the office, I write down the answers to the list of questions and any other details I don’t want to forget. When interviewing, companies can run together. Which one was it that has the education assistance? Which one has the quarterly company barbecue? Which one thinks TDD is a waste of time?

If I had an exceptional interview, I will go out of my way to write a thank you email, but otherwise I generally don’t. I probably should be better about this, but I rarely know what to say…

That night, I generally review the interview in my mind and go over any parts that went well or poorly, with an eye to making the next one go a little better. Did I stumble over any of my stories? Did any of my stories come across a little off? Did I tell too many stories? Was I too me-centric, not asking enough questions? I make mental note of these things. The subsequent interviews are always better.

At the Follow-up Interval

On the day they said I should expect to hear back, I call or email the interviewer with a polite inquiry. I expect a delay of a few days, up to a few weeks. I just keep in contact, always asking when I should follow-up again, so I’m not pestering them too often. The longest it took was 8 months to get the offer — various funding issues, then a big release date hit, then they lost an investor, but they found one again — and I checked in every 6 weeks, with a simple note asking if there was any news, until I found another job (which I let them know about); but because I was in the habit of following-up, they contacted me 3 months into my new job and made me the offer — even though I declined, I have made an impression at that company for the next time I’m in the market.

Summary

Interviewing can be daunting, exhausting, and downright terrifying. Interviewers use their preconceptions to judge and categorize you in a short period of time in order to determine whether or not you are the “best” person for the job. Approaching an interview through the lens of passing an exam can cause paralysis, anxiety, and self-doubt; it makes us feel like we need to be perfect in order to get the job. Approaching it as a simple conversation, however, puts both parties more at ease and allows an honest exchange to occur.

An interview is essentially a long sales pitch — and who’s better at striking up conversations with strangers than sales people? I find thinking of an interview as a sales pitch adds stress, so I prefer to think about my interviewer as just another engineer that wants to talk to me about code. It’s worked for me for many years and I’ve seen a drastic change in the success rates of friends who adopt the conversational interview approach. You get out what you put in, so the more preparation you do, the more confident you will feel during the interview, and the easier it will go.

Just take a deep breath, smile, and tell a story. You can do it.