Plays Well With Others – Acing the Interview

In the past few columns, we’ve talked about how to conduct an interview and, dreadfully, how to dismiss a member of your team.  I this post I would like to discuss the whole process from the candidate’s point of view.  For the job candidate, an interview is your opportunity to showcase your talents and the strengths that you bring to an organization.  It’s also your opportunity to demonstrate the unique talents you, as a potential team member, offer.  Never forget that interviews are a form of competition, so each and every advantageous characteristic you can demonstrate to your potential employer is one more point on your scorecard.

In my mind, acing an interviewing is about preparation.  Like an actor in a play, you’ll do best when you avoid common mistakes and show some passion and eloquence.  In the preparation category, always remember to:

  • Dress for the part.  In this day and age of business casual, it’s still important to dress like the CEO for the interview.  Only dress in business casual if the CEO is publicly and often seen in business casual themselves.  Good grooming is also very important.  And avoid chewing gum, smoking, or keeping your blue tooth plugged into your ear.  Nothing says “I’ve got something better to do” than keeping your Bluetooth headset on or keeping your cell phone handy.  Don’t play into the common stereotype that IT people are slobs or can only dress like a 14-year old boy.
  • Know the company. It’s simply inexcusable for a candidate to know little or nothing about a publicly traded company when they come in for an interview.  With a small company, ask friends or relatives about it.  Heck, even call the receptionist for a chat.  But do not come in cold and do not ask questions about the company whose answers are prominently displayed on their website.  I knew of one job candidate who was asked to demo the company’s software as part of his interview.  Imagine if he’d never spent much time getting to know the company?
  • Know your history.  For heaven’s sake, do not lie or misrepresent yourself on your resume!  You’ll get a barrage of interview questions about your past.  Even so, it is still important to review your resume.  At every point in your career, be prepared to highlight why you were great at what you did in that job.  You’re competing against other candidates and a little self-promotion is likely to be all the separates you from the rest of the pack.  Also, be prepared for the broad and often challenging questions I told you about in the PWWO column about Behavioral Interviewing.   Always be able to answer the question “Why should we hire you?”  Still, it’s important not to bring too much ego to the table.  Don’t give answers like “Because I’m the BEST, baby!”  Instead, focus on the value and talents you brought with answers like “I perform really well under stress and deadlines.  And, combined with my technical  and communication skills, have been an anchor on the other teams I’ve served on.”  Be prepared to give examples.
  • Be curious.  Prepare a number of questions about what it will be like to work for this company and on this team.  What’s a typical work week like?  What’s the pace of work like here?  What are the boss and co-workers like?  Is the job given a lot of autonomy or is it strongly team-oriented?  Remember that this is also your opportunity to interview them, to see whether you’d really enjoy working there.
  • Be courteous and communicative.  Be early for the interview and, during the interview, bring as much enthusiasm to process as you can muster.  Use positive body language to show your interest.  Turn your body towards the person you’re speaking too, no slouching, and make eye contact.  Nod to convey that you understand the question and, when you don’t understand the question, paraphrase it back the interviewer to make sure you’re on the same page as them.  These, among other displays, convey a sense of energy and vitality. Always thank the interviewers and follow-up with a thank-you email.  If you really want the job, immediately follow up with a card.  You’ll be amazed how much that personal touch can add, especially since so few people actually go to that step.  However, in our digital age, you have to act fast.  They’ve probably interviewed a couple other candidates within the same week, if not the same day, so don’t dally.  Finally, avoid slang since it makes you seem pedestrian.  Also remember that accents can make you seem provincial (I’m from Alabama after all), so try your best to enunciate clearly and sound like a newscaster. 
  • Remember Technology’s Proper Place.  As IT professionals, we often get enamored with the technology.  It’s absolutely appropriate to show your excitement over some cool new gadget or technological feature.  (“I love extended events in SQL Server 2008!”)  But remember that technology is only half our job.  The truly exceptional IT professionals are those that can communicate effectively, can manage interpersonal relationships well, and understand the business.  Look for opportunities to demonstrate your good experiences using these soft skills in your interview and you’ll truly separate yourself from the herd of other candidates seeking the same job.
  • Conquer stage fright.  It’s natural to get nervous.  And there are a few steps you can take to keep your nervousness in check.  First, practice with a friend, relative, or business pal.  Rehearse the interview in your mind.  A little Zen goes a long way towards serenity in these situations.  Also, if you really are nervous, when an interviewer shakes your hand and asks “How are you?” simply admit that you’re nervous.  You’ll be surprised how much getting that off your chest can help relieve the stress.  And if the interviewer(s) has any sensitivity, they’ll also reassure you.  “Ah, don’t worry.  We’re just regular folks here” is a common refrain.

The good news is that interviewing skills are not something that some are born with and others aren’t.  It is a learned set of skills and, with a little practice, you can truly shine.  Are those with the gift of gab in better position?  Yes.  I think that those who communicate easily have a small advantage.  However, even the shy and reserved can demonstrate that they’re the right person for the job by avoiding the big mistakes and approaching the interview with foresight and practice.

Other thoughts and ideas about how to do well in an interview? 

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