I interview well (I recently wrote an article on how to prepare for an interview). When people who know me are looking for a job, they often come to me for advice on how to prepare for the interview. Recently I had someone call me after an interview: “Call me as soon as you can, I’m freaking out, I was awful!” After talking this person through an hour-long post-interview retrospective, we discovered that they had actually done really well — and ended up getting a job offer within four hours.
Not every interview goes well, and often times we walk away or hang up the phone mentally kicking ourselves for some flub or fumble. We fixate on these moments and can have trouble letting go of them. I’m going to take you through some questions I ask myself and steps I take after each interview to determine what went well and what really, really didn’t.
I write the answers to these on the resume or job posting I have marked up for this particular job (as detailed in The Phone Screen section of the previous article), so if I get called back for a second interview I know what I need to focus on.
1. At any point did I feel stupid?
If the answer to this is YES, I stop and assess.
If I felt stupid because of something I said or did, I proceed with the list; the purpose of the list is to reduce these feelings and become a better interviewer.
If I felt stupid because of something the interviewer said or did, I throw the brakes on and have the following conversation with myself:
Woah! Wait a minute; this is an interview — the company should be putting its best foot forward to try and entice me to work for them. If their chosen representative feels comfortable saying something to demoralize or shame me in an interview, what is it going to be like to work there? Is this really a company I want to work for? Could I work with this person every day? This is just a job, but it will impact my happiness and thus my life. Do I want to pursue this position?
Sometimes, the answer to that question is no — and I stop. I send the recruiter or interviewer a polite thank you, indicate that I am not the right fit for the position, and wish them the best in finding that person.
Unfortunately, in the technology industries, about half the phone screens I do result in me stopping at this point. If my interviewer is a bully, an elitist, or makes derisive comments about my experience or knowledge, I decline to continue the process. Bullies will continue to bully me once I am employed; elitists will not be pleased with any of my work and constantly demand more/better/faster. As for the critical comments, someone making comments like this has already made their mind up about me and it is not worth my time or emotional energy to try and change it; I may be perfectly qualified for the job, but if my interviewer insists that three years of professional Java experience is not enough for a job which, on paper, states 2–5 years, then I’m done. Odds are, even if I get offered a position, the pay will be less than I’m worth. I’ll move on to somewhere I will be appreciated, not undervalued, coming in the door.
2. What questions could I not answer?
This is one of the most humiliating things in an interview for me — not being able to answer a question, especially if I previous knew the answer but somehow froze.
While I cannot go back and change time, I can ensure that I have an answer for this the next time it comes up — especially if that is in a subsequent interview. I write the question(s) down, as precisely as I can remember, and (after the retrospective is complete) I look up the answer(s).
Once, when I was first interviewing after my burnout, I had someone ask me about a particular technology I had used on a project. That technology, and that project, were the source of my burnout, and I had spent several years blocking those nightmarish memories from my mind. I drew a complete blank. I knew some facts — this is what I did, this is how long it took, I used technology X, technology X was so new it had no books or meaningful documentation. Anything else was a complete blank. I was horrified at myself: how could I not remember? I knew that it seemed like I was lying to the interviewer. I remember stammering for what seemed like several minutes, and him making disapproving noises into the receiver. After the interview, I paced for almost two hours, wracking my brain, frantically trying to recover the fragments and shreds of memory. In the end, I just removed that technology from my resume — I couldn’t remember enough about it, and I had no desire to ever relive that interview experience.
3. What answers were incomplete?
Sometimes I can answer a question but only at a high level, or I only remember half of the solution I implemented for a particular problem. I write these down as well; later I think back, go through any notes I have, or do some research to complete the picture. I will then practice answering the question, ensuring that I hit all the necessary points, so that next time I have a mental pathway ready for that question.
4. What answers were incorrect?
It’s really embarrassing when I realize after an interview has ended that I said something entirely incorrect. It doesn’t happen often — usually, for me, it happens with specific dates/timelines of employment; I have a gap in my employment history from my burnout and I often forget what those time ranges are if I’m not looking at my resume in the moment. If I ever misstate anything, I make a note of it. If it was a mistake pertinent to my ability to perform my job or a showing of my technical aptitude, I will follow up immediately with my interviewer, usually by email (see step 11), something like:
I realized once we hung up/once I left that I misspoke about ____; I said this _____, but that was incorrect and I sincerely apologize. What I intended to say was _______, but I had a momentary mental disconnect. If you have any concerns about this, I’m very happy to talk about it more detail, now that my brain has untangled itself.
5. Did I say something awkward, get tongue-tied, or stutter/stumble?
These are all indications that I need to practice answers or find a story. The person whom I recently talked through these steps stumbled over some behavioral questions, as many of us in technology industries do.
Have you ever had to work with difficult people and what did you do?
Especially if your stumble is on a behavioral question, this is a great opportunity to create a story. Even with some technical questions, turning an explanation into a story instead of a recitation of facts makes it a) easier to remember, b) more interesting to talk about, and c) more interesting for your interviewer to hear.
When I talk about stories, I don’t mean fabrications, but narratives. An interviewer is trying to get to know you, to determine if you can do what you say you can and if you’re the right person for their job, all in the span of 30 minutes to a few hours. You make their job easier if you can relate your experiences and knowledge in a concise, conversational, and personal way. The interviewer doesn’t just want to know the facts, they want to know about you. By only delivering facts, you are not giving them enough; by telling them a story about how you solved the problem, you are giving them a wealth of information.
It probably goes without saying but — write these incidents down so you don’t forget to practice your answers/stories.
6. Did I say something that could be misconstrued as offensive or otherwise not aligned with my philosophy?
Sometimes we don’t hear what we’ve said until after the fact. The few times I have said something and later thought it might be misconstrued, I include that in my thank you e-mail. I apologize and make sure I inform them that it was not my intent to cause offense. I want them to know that I am not that kind of person; if they hire me, they can expect me to be respectful to my colleagues.
7. What areas was I most confident in? What did I say that I should remember next time?
This seems obvious, but it’s critical. I need to remember those times when I knocked it out of the park, so I can do it again. If we only focus on the negative things in the interview, we can never know if we did well. It’s important to record what and how you answered questions where you impressed yourself.
Also, take this time to look back at the questions you answered sufficiently, but maybe didn’t knock their socks off. Is there something else you could do? A different story you could use, or a supplement to your existing story to make your answer have more impact? You only have a short amount of time with your interviewer, so each question is an opportunity to impress them; if your answers aren’t pulling double duty, to inform and impress, there’s room for improvement.
8. What things did I not talk about?
This step is vital for me. In your interview preparation, you hopefully make a list of MTAIs (Must-Talk-About Items). If you were not able to cover some of those, write them down — your next interview or contact with the company is an opportunity to fit some in.
9. What technologies/methodologies/*ologies did they talk about?
Interviewers give vital clues during an interview. The way they phrase a question, the specific instances they bring up, tell you what they’re looking for. Did they talk about a technology you haven’t used? Write it down! Did they throw out an acronym you haven’t heard? Write it down! Before your next interview, throw in ten to twenty minutes to research each of these things — just that small amount of time will make a huge difference. You will be able to understand more of what they’re saying and probably impress them with your initiative when you can speak more to the topic than the last time.
10. What questions do I have for the next interview?
As the interviews progress, your questions should become more and more detailed and on-point. In the first round, you’ve asked simple questions, like, “When do you expect to fill this position?” and “Can you walk me through what a typical day in this position looks like?” After your first interview, you have more context — your interviewers have said things that have piqued your interest, or concerned you; they’ve mentioned the responsibilities of the job and some of the expectations they have. What new questions do you have going forward?
Your questions should reflect something that is important to you. If you don’t care if the company is profitable, don’t ask that just to ask it. If you ask about growth rate, it should be because the answer to that question impacts your decision whether or not you wish to work for the company. Don’t be afraid to ask tough, open-ended questions, like “What’s your managerial style as a company?” Interviewers love to ask us these no-right-answer kind of questions, and we are absolutely allowed to ask them right back. One question I always ask is, “How do you measure and recognize success?” I’m not looking for a specific answer, but I expect them to have one and I expect it show that they have, as a company, put thought and effort into it.
And interview is a two-way street. You’re not just trying to land a job — you’re trying to figure out if this is a company you want to work for, where you can be successful.
11. Send a thank you e-mail to the interviewer or recruiter
This isn’t just polite, it’s your opportunity to emphasize your interview in their mind. Was there some way that you and your interviewer bonded or a shared interested expressed? Did you both laugh about something? You want to stand out in their mind, but they are interviewing tens of candidates and that shared interest may slip away. Use the thank you as an opportunity to — briefly! — immortalize the connection you developed and express your interest in moving forward.
Dear Tim, I appreciate your time in interviewing me today. I know you are very busy, managing the X team, and I appreciate what you said about putting your team first. I remembered the name of that book I was telling you about — it’s _____ (link); if you get a chance, I’m interested to know what you think! Like I said on the phone, it’s …. Thank you again, and I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, Me
Call a Friend
Sometimes it’s hard to go through this list on your own, to determine if you answered something well or it flopped. It can help to talk to other people about it, run the question and answer by them, and see what they think. You may not agree with their assessment, but it will help get you thinking.
Once you’ve done your retrospective, give yourself a break! You interviewed, you survived. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve accomplished something. Go have a beer, play a video game, ski down a mountain — whatever you do to unwind. Interviews are stressful!
Whether it went as well as you hoped is incidental. You now have a list of things to do to help make your next interview go more smoothly. If you do this after each interview, you’ll find it takes less and less time, and you have fewer and fewer gut-twisting moments in and after the interview.