How to Impress an Interviewer

The two traits that speak most to future potential

By Julie Zhuo

There was a story floating around the grapevine a few years back that Google, with their Lvl. 99 data prowess, once used those skills on their interview and performance review process to try and answer the question: what traits seen in an interview best predict future success at the company?
For early career PMs, the answer turned out to be likability. (Googlers, if this is inaccurate or if there’s more color to add to this story, please feel free to jump in.)
I don’t know whether Google looked at other interview roles in this exercise, but having hired and worked with many early-career people over the years, I know what my answer is. It’s also quite simple.

Are you self-aware, and are you proactive?

Oh, sure, a strong body of work sings. A conversation flowing with thoughtful commentary leaves an impression. But if you’re just starting out, it’s expected that your skills are still developing. If you’re early in your design career, your execution may not have reached a certain level of refinement yet. Or maybe you’ve never thought about product-market fit before. That’s okay. The far more important question is: how promising is your capacity to learn?

Some of the best designers I work with today weren’t the most skilled when they interviewed. But they had potential. They asked questions, they put themselves in situations that stretched them, and they made it their goal to get better.

Self-awareness and proactivity are two sides of the same coin. If you’re self-aware, you know what you are and aren’t good at. If you’re proactive, you’re going to do something about it.

How do you become more self-aware and proactive?

There’s a library of answers out there, from meditating in the woods to journaling, from embracing lists to exercising those rotator muscle and raising your hand more often.

Instead of going broad, I’m going to share a step-by-step set of instructions, called my Do-This-When-You-Need-A-Plan plan. It’s helped me in the past, and I hope it will help you.

  1. Open up a new composition window. (Or, if you’re old-school, a pen and Moleskine.)
  2. Jot down 3–5 things that you kick ass at. Then, jot down 3–5 things that you’re not so great at but want to improve.
  3. Make sure your list is accurate. Ask a manager, teacher, mentor, or friend what they think your top strengths and areas for improvement are. If their list is totally different from yours, resist feeling dismayed. Simply ask another person that you trust, and another, and another, until the items on the list begin to converge.
  4. Look at your strengths. Nod and do a mental fistpump as you read each one. These are your super powers. Yep, yours, to use as you see fit. Think back to some of the great things you’ve done with them. Like that thing you made that everyone said was awesome? Or the way you can rally a group of people to agree to something? What are 3 things you can do in the next month that you can use your strengths for? They don’t have to be big — just concrete, so you can check them off a list — and make you happy because they are things you can do well. Stick your list of strengths somewhere prominent, like on your mirror, where you’ll see them everyday, because they’re awesome, and you’re awesome.
  5. Now turn to your list of improvements. For each item on the list, picture where you’d like for yourself to be in three years. Close your eyes and really imagine it, like it’s a video streaming a future version of you. Is there someone who you admire with this skill and who you’d like to emulate? How would you approach your work, and what would you do differently three years from now? How would future-you feel? The more clearly you can see this, the easier it will be to get there.
  6. Brainstorm 3 concrete things that you can do in the next month to get you one step closer to that vision. Again, the plan here doesn’t have to be crazy ambitious. It just has to be a step in the direction of your vision. Maybe it’s asking your teammate to sit down with you once a week and help you get better at X. Maybe it’s practicing Y for 20 minutes every day. If you get stuck on creating a plan, consider asking somebody you trust to sit down with you and help you work through it. In my experience, people are usually more than willing to help.
  7. Commit to your plan. Just do them. It’s 6 small things, in a month. It’s not that big of a deal. Make a checklist and revel in the satisfaction of crossing them off.
  8. Repeat as needed.

If you follow the above, you’re going to make progress. It’s as simple as that.

If you’re interviewing for a job somewhere, speak to your strengths. Paint a picture of the types of problems your strengths are going to help you solve. Talk about your areas for improvement as well if it’s something the interviewer is clearly going to notice. For example, if you’re sharing a past project, don’t try and hide that fact that you’re not proud of a certain aspect of it. Say what you’re not satisfied with, and what you’d do differently next time.

Candidates who know what they can bring to a team and who understand what they want to get better at are the kinds of people I want to work with.

It matters less whether you have those skills today, as long as you’re clearly someone who will have those skills tomorrow.

Figure out what you are and aren’t good at. And then do something about it.

Did this post help you make a list and a plan? If so, feel free to share it with me at jouleethezoo at gmail dot com.