The Problem-Benefit Approach to Job Interviews
A very focused take on interviewing well
There are thousands of articles, books and courses on this subject. They discuss pre-interview research and preparation, body language, speaking techniques and even how to dress. While these are all important, I’d like to focus on a point that in my mind is at the heart of the matter.
The reason companies hire people is simple: The role of the employee is to solve problems for the organization. While this may seem narrow it is in fact what employees are for. Engineers solve the problem of how to build systems for the company and its customers. Marketing people solve the problem of fitting the product or service to the intended audience and getting it to stand out in the market. Finance people solve the problem of controlling the flow of funds and resources, and so on. If we frame the role of people in organizations in this manner many issues become clearer.
In a job interview the task of the interviewer is to find the person who can solve problems for the company. It is the task of the interviewee to convince the interviewer that he/she is that person.
The best way to convince the interviewer that you are the right person for the job is to show them that you are skilled in solving problems of the sort their company has. The best way to do that is to explain how you solved similar issues in the past. You can follow this simple template: Problem, how I solved it, how the organization benefited.
Since humans do not have a small display on the back of their heads showing their proficiency levels in various tasks (yet?) The best way to illustrate your proficiencies and capabilities is to tell a story. You can think of these stories like small case-studies about yourself. They need to be prepared ahead of time. They need to be concise and memorable and they need to be true.
Self case studies
An interview is in a way a performance, a show (in a good way) and you can’t do a show without doing rehearsals. You need to have your self-case-studies (SCSs) ready and prepared. It’s best to sit down and think of the most interesting and challenging problems you had to face in previous positions, focus on the ones where you (or your team) were able to come up with good solutions, and write them down. I suggest 2–3 such SCSs.
You need to, and this is important, hear yourself telling them. You can do this with an audio recorder, in front of a mirror or, preferably, with someone whose opinion you value. I guarantee that when you hear yourself recount your SCSs you will remember new details, find better ways to explain what happened and be able to hone your story. You should rehearse until you can recount the SCS fluently, almost by heart. You also need to practice replies to the questions that will follow the SCS. Think of the most plausible questions that expand on the story you just told: How did that work? How long did that take? Were there other alternatives you considered? Etc.
Here are some examples of SCSs. It is important to stick to the problem — solution — benefit template and not wander off with irrelevant details. The SCS should be concise and clear.
Example: We had just begun work for a new startup and needed to design a system that collects mobile user data and analyzes it. The problem was to design a system that is efficient and can scale to millions of users and that had high level security for user information. We therefore sat down to put together the initial architecture and I suggested we use a distributed client-server model with encrypted end-to-end communications. The system was built and the company never suffered an outage or data breach.
Example: The new product was ready and we needed to find the right go-to-market strategy. My team was tasked with planning the digital media strategy. The problem was that we did not have a good breakdown of the market and target audience. What I decided to do was to run a quick online poll and get better customer data. When we started the campaign it was very effective and the company benefited from good initial sales.
In some cases interviewers may not have a lot of experience and may not be focused on the right questions. The right questions, from your point of view, are ones that let you transfer information about your capabilities. It is then your task to steer the conversation towards demonstrable problem-solving abilities and SCSs. This should be done gently and with care. It is a skill is sometimes called “bridging”.
Example question: Could you tell me about what you did in your previous position. Bridge: We developed a network monitoring system and one of the basic challenges was…
Example question: What did you enjoy most about your previous role? Bridge: Well, there were a lot of interesting business challenges I think especially interesting was when we had to change our entire supply chain because of a problem with cost variations. What we did was…
A last note
I really hate it when people say “be yourself”. I really don’t know what that means. Can you be anyone else? Some people naturally interview well. Some are introverts, get stressed or are simply shy. That’s ok. The comforting thought is that this is all besides the point as long as you can demonstrate that you have the ability to solve problems that benefit the organization. Good luck.