Week 4: Interview Techniques

All of you will be interviewed in some way during your career. No-one employs based on your portfolio alone. You may be applying through a job advertisement or an employer or potential collaborator may approach you. They will want to know about you, your skills, but also how you work. They do this in a number of ways. But the first step is contacting them, and getting noticed. We will talk about self-marketing more (and we have spoken about portfolios), but let’s take a quick look at some of the different ways you can find work.

For myself personally, the first major industry job I was hired for happened in an unusual way. This was way back in the early 1990s and I was just out of my degree. For some reason, the first place I went to was Centrelink! At the time, they had jobs on boards. I was keen to work in the animation industry and had some experience working at a local public television channel. But I had no animation skills. I was keen to get into the industry though. So I went to Centrelink, and looked on the boards. It just so happened there was a job listed for an assistant at a fully-digital production studio. That was it! Exactly what I was after!

So I went up to the desk and said this is the job I want to apply for. The attendant looked up the job and apologised. The job had actually already been filled and they had forgotten to take the posting down. I was so down that I was that close and missed it. I told the attendant how much I was keen to get into the industry and the job seemed perfect. Then something interesting happened…

The attendant said there was nothing he could do because the job had been filled, but he was going out the back for a moment. He walked away. That seemed weird. But then I noticed that he had left the computer screen facing me, and had left the details of the company on the screen. So I quickly wrote down the name of the company. He came back and said he was sorry he couldn’t help (with a wink), and I thanked him.

I called up the company and said I was applying for the job. The owner said that was weird because the job had been filled. I then told him what had happened and how I got the details of the company. Can you guess what happened?

He was so impressed by my passion to get the job he invited me to come in and meet them all. Of course I did. The day I turned up for the meeting they were knee-deep in production to meet a deadline. So they invited me to sit with an animator while they work on other tasks. I ended spending the day with the animator talking about the project and what they do.

They ended up being so impressed with the way I casually fitted in to their studio environment they decided to hire me. Within a couple of weeks, the main producer of the company left to do their own work. They offered me the job.

So that is how I got my first professional job. They got to know me and the positive traits they were after through the way I applied and spent time with them. I’m not the only way who has done such things. This post by Ina Herlihy talks about how she “hustled” to get the perfect job. At the beginning of this video, a music industry creative talks about how he entered the music industry by being brave too…


So there are ingenious ways you can be noticed and work around the system. An important way you get work is through networking. Do you go to networking events in your industry? There are meetups for all industries in every city. So make sure you are getting out there and meeting people. People are more likely to hire people they know than strangers. A recent post by a sound designer/composer who went to GDC, outlines the successful and simple single technique he used to get work. The following is also guide to “Effective Networking in the Games Industry” is a great post about ways to approach networking for all industries:

So what happens when you actually apply for a job? Or even when someone approaches you to work with them. An important first step (especially with big companies) is the phone call.

The Phone Call

The assessment of you begins with a phone call. For big companies, the first phone call is usually a recruiter (so if recruiters add you in LinkedIn or other networks, they are looking at you as a potential employee for a client). The first phone call could also be the first conversation you have with your potential employer (like my example above).

Some of the questions asked at this stage include your career history, and they can ask you to just tell them about yourself. They try to make it as informal as possible so you relax and present yourself naturally.

One thing you may be aware that happens in interviews is that the employer asks if you have any questions. They will do this during a phone interview. Why? Why do you think they ask this?

One of the reasons is that if you are an in-demand employee, then you will be weighing up where you want to work. So by asking questions about the company, you are showing that you are deciding if you want to work with them as well. A part of this is researching them to show you’re interested and so you have relevant questions for them. As Nick and James from Creare talk about in this video, research preparation, your appearance, and the interview process is crucial. They are referring to interviews in Web Design, but they are relevant to all industries:

Interview Questions

If you make it to the interview stage, then another round of screening happens. This is where they may ask you questions specific to your work. Following are questions that may be asked:


Example Questions for a Graphic Designer:

1. In your opinion, what are the qualities of a good graphic designer?
2. What kind of design projects are you interested in?
3. Tell me about a time that you had to work under pressure?
4. Which software do you prefer to work with and why?
5. What is your design process?
6. Can I see your portfolio?

Example Questions for a Sound Engineer:

1. Tell me how you organize, plan, and prioritize your work.
2. Share an experience in which you successfully synchronized and/or equalized pre-recorded dialogue, music, and sound effects with visual action.
3. Share an experience you had in dealing with a difficult person and how you handled the situation.
4. What type of recording equipment are you most familiar with?
5. What is the state of your logs of recordings? Name one thing you would like to improve.
6. Provide an effective method you have used to ensure that equipment is properly maintained.
7. Provide a time when you dealt calmly and effectively with a high-stress situation.

Example Questions for a Programmer:

1. Introduction — casual conversation
2. Question about recent project candidate worked on (includes your student work)
3. Easy Programming Question
4. Pointer/Recursion Question
5. Are you satisfied?
6. Do you have any questions?

But as Adam Glogower of Microsoft explains in this short video, don’t just explain what they already know about the tasks you do…

Passion is a big part of what employers look for. Here, Joel Spolsky talks about how interviewers should use open-ended questions and what to look for in the answers:

One: Look for passion. Smart people are passionate about the projects they work on. They get very excited talking about the subject. They talk quickly, and get animated. Being passionately negative can be just as good a sign. “My last boss wanted to do everything on VAX computers because it was all he understood. What a dope!” There are far too many people around that can work on something and not really care one way or the other. It’s hard to get people like this motivated about anything.
Bad candidates just don’t care and will not get enthusiastic at all during the interview. A really good sign that a candidate is passionate about something is that when they are talking about it, they will forget for a moment that they are in an interview. Sometimes a candidate comes in who is very nervous about being in an interview situation — this is normal, of course, and I always ignore it. But then when you get them talking about Computational Monochromatic Art they will get extremely excited and lose all signs of nervousness. Good. I like passionate people who really care. (To see an example of Computational Monochromatic Art try unplugging your monitor.) You can challenge them on something (try it — wait for them to say something that’s probably true and say “that couldn’t be true”) and they will defend themselves, even if they were sweating five minutes ago, because they care so much they forget that you are going to be making Major Decisions About Their Life soon.
Two: Good candidates are careful to explain things well, at whatever level. I have rejected candidates because when they talked about their previous project, they couldn’t explain it in terms that a normal person could understand. Often CS majors will just assume that everyone knows what Bates Theorem is or what O(log n) means. If they start doing this, stop them for a minute and say, “could you do me a favor, just for the sake of the exercise, could you please explain this in terms my grandmother could understand.” At this point many people willstill continue to use jargon and will completely fail to make themselves understood. Gong! You don’t want to hire them, basically, because they are not smart enough to comprehend what it takes to make other people understand their ideas.
Three: If the project was a team project, look for signs that they took a leadership role. A candidate might say, “We were working on X, but the boss said Y and the client said Z.” I’ll ask, “So what did you do?” A good answer to this might be “I got together with the other members of the team and wrote a proposal…” A bad answer might be, “Well, there was nothing I could do. It was an impossible situation.” Remember, Smart and Gets Things Done. The only way you’re going to be able to tell if somebody Gets Things Done is to see if historically they have tended to get things done in the past. In fact, you can even ask them directly to give you an example from their recent past when they took a leadership role and got something done — overcoming some institutional inertia, for example.

But there are other ways employers find out whether they want to employ you…

The Sneaky Questions

“Interviews with the CEO, Shainiel Deo, and team leaders highlighted the autonomy afforded to each team and the organisation and management of the projects on which they work. Deo and team leaders emphasised the collaboration and communication skills they require in the developers that they employ, and that these characteristics were considered just as significant in hiring decisions as technical skills.”

Innovation & Workplace Culture in the Australian Interactive
Entertainment Industry: The Halfbrick Story

John Banks, Stuart Cunningham, Darryl Woodford

One thing to be aware of is that companies try and find out how you think and work with others through questions that get you to reveal (somewhat unconsciously) the way you operate. So rather than asking a direct question such as ‘how do you work in teams?’, they give you a scenario to discover that. The following are questions that companies such as Google, Pixar, Dreamworks & Microsoft use. Let’s go through what some of these questions are, and see what they reveal. But also note that you can use these questions to find out more about potential collaborators. So it isn’t just about how you will perform in an interview, but also how you could use these to find the right people to work with. As photographer Tim King explains, there are four types of questions interviews ask:

If you were a part in a car, which part would you be and why?

Take a moment to answer this question. Each of you will have different parts that you will highlight, and different reasons.

Now, what do you think they’re finding out from your answer? What they’re finding out is your personality. So there is no right or wrong answer, just an insight into what you are like. Similar personality questions are:

“What kind of animal/tree/food/star-wars-character would you be?”
“Describe yourself in 3 words.”
“What’s the most important part of a sandwich?”
“What makes you angry?”
“If a front-page newspaper headline were to be about you, what would it be titled?”
“When you die, what words do you think would be written on your tombstone?”
“If you could trade places for a week with someone living/dead, fictional/real, who would it be?
“If you could build an edible house, what would it be made out of?”

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?

Once again, take a moment to answer this question.

What do you think this question is revealing about you? It is revealing your personality, habits, and lifestyle. So for instance, if you answer that you have left-over pizza, then that gives them an indication of your state of health and how you take care of yourself (also possibly your time management). Other personality, habits and lifestyle questions include:

“what is your favourite drink?”
“what was the last book you read?”
“what magazines do you subscribe to?”
“what car do you drive?”
“what’s your favorite song?”

Who do you like better: your mum or your dad?

Think about what you would say in response to this question.

This kind of question leads you to reveal something negative (potentially), but you don’t need to reveal personal family issues. Instead, you can talk about what you have learned from each of them. Similar questions in this unusual category include:

If I assembled 3 of your past employers in a room and asked them about you — what would they tell me “you” would say is not true?
Do you think the average employee steals more from the company than the employer steals from him/her in a given week?
How do you think I rate as an interviewer?
If you could get rid of any one of the 50 United States, or one of Australia’s states, which one would you get rid of, and why?

If you were at a business lunch and you ordered a rare steak and they brought it to you well done, what would you do?

Take a moment to answer this question.

What is your guess on what this question reveals about you? Interestingly, this kind of question is not about what you’re like at the dinner table. Instead, this kind of question reveals how you handle tough situations on the job. Specifically, it reveals how you handle unacceptable work. How do you communicate to your team that what is delivered isn’t working? Other questions in this category include:

“How would you feel about working for someone who knows less than you?”
“How do you feel about taking no for an answer?”
“What are the first three things you’d do on your first day at work here?

Why is there fuzz on a tennis ball?

Think about your answer to this question. Don’t search Google. Articulate your thought process instead.

This sort of question is about revealing how you handle problems that you don’t know the answer to immediately (that is if you don’t already know!). It is about how you approach problems: the reasoning behind your decisions and how you creatively attack issues. Other questions that do a similar thing:

“How many times do a clock’s hands overlap in a day?”
“How would you weigh a plane without scales?”
“With your eyes closed, tell me step-by-step how to tie my shoes.”
“Why is a manhole cover round?”
“What is the temperature when it’s twice as cold as zero degrees?”
“How would you design a spice rack for a blind person?”
“Can you describe an atom?”
“How would you explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year-old nephew?”
“Describe a lemon without using the words sour, fruit, or yellow.”
“What are 10 ways to use a pencil other than writing?”

This last question relates to tests you can be given. Let’s have a look at the design tests Microsoft have issued:

Microsoft Design Tests

Designers of any kind, or indeed team members working in creative fields, can be asked to deal with a design problem. One of the ideas behind these kinds of tests is to give you something you’re not familiar with to see how you respond.

• Design a mobile for a blind person.

• Design a music system for a car. What are the features? Draw a picture.

• Design a GPS navigation unit for a hiker

• Design a communication device for park rangers.

• Design a remote control for an automatic window-blind system.

• Design a TV Remote Control with Two Buttons.

• Design a coffee maker that will be used by astronauts.

• Design an alarm clock.

• Design a parachute.

• Design an alarm clock for a blind person.

• Design a search function

• Design a website for a library

• Design an ATM for children

Questions you can ask?

Employers will always ask you if you have any questions. This article shares a great collection of questions that will not only show your interest in the company, but give you the information you need to consider saying yes:

There are ways you can research further in preparation for interview processes too. Many companies use similar methods developed by Microsoft, Google, Dreamworks, and Pixar. So, for instance, you can read these books to find out more:

In the end, these interview techniques enable you to avoid ending up being employed with or hiring the following people…