employment

 

Interviewing

 

Types of Interviews

Screening Interview

Telephone Interview

Face-to-Face Interview

Prepare
Plan
Practice
Perform

Conclusion

References

OK, you've done your networking, you've gotten your perfectly worded resume into the proper hands, and you got a call for an interview. Now what?

The following essay is based on my experience as an interviewer in a number of roles both as someone assisting the hiring manager and as the hiring manager myself. Believe me, if you do it right, it's tougher being on this side of the desk. I need to emphasize that this is just one of many possible scenarios for interviewing - different companies do things differently, and even I have interviewed differently while working for different employers. What I present here is "typical" for me and probably a lot of other people as well.

The "tips" presented here are mostly oriented towards applicants who are seeking jobs in a high technology area, but some of them are universal enough in nature to be useful to anyone applying for a job. If you've been around the industry at all, or if you've been though a couple of interviews, you can take these suggestions more lightly, you've probably developed your own style. Eventually, you will get to the point where you can interview at a moment's notice. However, that first time can be terrifying for anyone, and for some people, almost anytime is uncomfortable.

The first piece of advice I am going to offer is never turn down an opportunity to interview. The job might not seem like it's exciting or meaningful. However, I have heard several stories of people interviewing for one job, and being offered a better one. One of those stories is mine. At the very least, it's practice.

Types of interviews:

The three types of interviews I use are screening, telephone, and in-person.

Screening Interview

The screening interview is used when there is a large number of applicants for a position. It's purpose is to find the best candidates to present to the hiring manager and staff. The interview is generally conducted by an HR person and may come with little or no notice.

You may pick up the phone and hear, "This is so-and-so from XYZ company and I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about your application for such-and-such position. Do you have time to talk?" If you feel confident and are in a position to speak, jump right in. Otherwise if you feel that you need to collect your thoughts, set a time with them to call them back. But make that time soon - within the hour if possible!

The HR person's role in the screening interview is to confirm some general information, clarify things stated in the resume and cover letter, and to get a general feel for the candidate's fit for the position. It shouldn't be too technical in nature and generally speaking, shouldn't be too challenging. You will probably be asked to confirm dates of employment, amount of experience with such and such technology or skill, perhaps even why you left certain jobs. You might even be asked salary requirements.You will probably not get deep probing questions on how you solved certain problems, what library call to use in a given programming situation, or theoretical type questions. Screening interviews typically take about 15 minutes.

Telephone Interview

I like to use telephone interviews to do an initial probe of the candidate's technical skills and experience. The way I conduct the interview is to talk with the candidate on speakerphone with some of my staff present. I usually have the same team assembled that I plan to use to conduct the face-to-face interview. In my version you can expect to be asked very technical questions to verify that you actually know what you say you know on your resume. However, even here we don't drill down too deep. Typically this type of interview lasts about 45 minutes, and we "hold court" at the end - I put the candidate on hold and poll my staff to see if they want to hear more. I take the candidate off hold and give our decision. If we decide to call the candidate in, I'll set up the interview right then, and backfill HR.

Face-to-Face Interview

Face-to-face interviews are the interviews that seem to get the most attention. Some companies jump right to this step. There are a lot of variables here. Some companies will have you talk with one or two people; some will have you talk with many people; some will have you talk to a whole group of people at once. In some companies and for some jobs, the interview might last an hour. In other cases it will last all day, or you may even be called back over the course of several days.

Since this is the type of interview that intimidates most people, I will concentrate on it here.

Being an applicant in the job hunting process is not unlike being a mail order bride. First you research the market, meet people (network), advertise (the resume), and then you go into a whirlwind courtship (the interview).

Prepare

The first piece of advice for attending an interview is PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. You have successfully cleared the first hurdle (getting a call based on your resume). Now it is time to follow through.

While you have the company on the telephone during this initial contact, keep them on the telephone, and attempt to find out as much about the job and the company as possible. If you are returning their call, so much the better. You have time to study. Review the job posting. You should have already logged onto their web site when you prepared the cover letter and resume, but a refresher course wouldn't hurt.

If they ask you to come in, there are some things you should ask if you don't have the information before you hang up:

  • Who will I talk to?
  • How long can I expect to be there?
  • Who can I call if there is a problem and I need to cancel?
  • Confirm the interview date and time and location (how to get there).

Spend the time between the phone call and the interview finding out as much about that type of work as you can. I recently applied for a job as a project manager and had short notice for an interview with Weyerhauser. I pulled out all my reference materials on project management and scanned through it so I started talking the language automatically again. I got on the web and took a crash course in Forestry - I was at least able to get familiar with the terminology.

Once you have gathered this information, you may consider re-hashing another copy of your resume, and make it one more tailored to the job. Take 5 copies of your best resume for this job with you. Let the interviewers know that you have an "updated" version available, and give it to them. There have been cases where company emergencies have caused an interviewer to "no show" and a last-minute substitute had to interview the candidate. This person may need a fresh copy of your resume.

The first version of the resume was to hook them into calling you. The second edition of the resume can be lengthier and may give you and the interviewer a better outline from which to work. However, it is most likely that the interview will go with your original resume. The second resume is sort of a contingency maneuver.

If you have done "informational interviewing" with people in the company, then you will have a good idea of the culture and how they get work done there. If you are going in "cold" then one of your objectives in the interview process is to find out what it would be like working there.

There are two types of questions interviewers will use: closed and open-ended.

Closed questions are ones that can be answered true/false or multiple choice.

  • Do you have experience with MS-Word?
  • How many years experience do you have with MS-Word?
  • Can you work weekends if required?

Closed questions are designed to probe for specific information. They don't allow you much room for maneuvering, but they should be relatively easy to answer. An inexperienced interviewer may use too many closed questions, and the session will seem like an interrogation rather than an interview. That's their problem not yours. Answer the questions and get on with it.

Open-ended questions are ones that make you tell a story.

  • How did you find out about the job / company?
  • Why are you leaving your current position?
  • What did you like most about your last job? What did you like the least?
  • Who was the best/worst manager you ever worked for? Why do you feel this way?
  • Tell me about your work with project X?
  • Give me an example of how you used (such and such a tool)?
  • What do you consider to be your best strength?
  • What do you consider to be your greatest weakness? How do you plan to improve?
  • How do you manage priorities? What do you do when your boss gives you more than your can do?
  • What are your career plans? What do you see yourself doing here in 5 years?

Trying to answer these questions on the spot can be difficult, so have them answered before you get to the interview. Develop a "script" for your interview. Anticipate the questions you will be asked, and have a story or anecdote that illustrates the point.

Martin Yate has an excellent book containing questions asked at interviews.

About half of the questions you will get will be technical. The other half should be designed to see what kind of person you are, and if you will fit the corporate culture and be a team player. Smart companies hire people who will be happy working there.

Think about what you would like to say to the interviewer in response to questions and think about the questions you'd like to ask. Some questions that might be appropriate are:

  • If you offer me this job and I accept, what will be my biggest challenge? (Be prepared to answer the comeback question, "This is what you'll face, how are you going to solve it?").
  • Why is this position open? (Hopefully the answer is because of an internal promotion or exanded growth and not turnover. Few companies will confess to the later).
  • What kind of training can/will I get to help me do this job? (This is appropriate if there is some aspect of the job you are not expected to know as a newcomer such as proprietary information).
  • Typically, how much overtime can be expected to get this job done? (You may want to continue with "I realize most 40-hour jobs require a lot more than that. I want to know what I'm getting into.")
  • What is my opportunity for growth in this position? (Assuming you are interested in moving up.)
  • You may want to ask relevant technical questions such as, "What kind of configuration management system do you use?" "What email system do you use?" or anything else that you might think you need to know to be able to do the job.
  • Before leaving the interview: "What are the next steps in the process?" "When can I expect to hear back from you?"

Questions not to ask until you have an offer or one is imminent:

  • "How much does the job pay?"
  • "What are the benefits?"

You can always schedule you own interview with HR when you get to this point to get this information. Chances are, most bosses don't know what the company benefits are, and will give you the wrong answers anyway.

Run your strengths and weaknesses checklist one more time. Be thinking about what you can say about each area as it applies to the job. Don't try to hide weaknesses. Be prepared to let the interviewer know exactly how far your limitations go. I asked one interviewee to tell me what she meant when she said she had a "familiarity with C". She told me she did mathematical algorithms in the main program only. She didn't know functions, and didn't know pointers. That told me that she at least knew more than just how to spell "C". She at least knew what she didn't know. (She was applying for a non-programming position in which a familiarity with the C programming language was desired -- She got the job).

Plan

If you are not familiar with the geographic location of the interview, you need to plan for your arrival. Arriving at the interview late because you got lost is not a good way to start. There is a chance that your tardiness may annoy the interviewer, but the worst damage will probably be done to your confidence. In some cases, interviews are scheduled in shifts, and the interviewers have to keep you on schedule. Don't get "short changed" on time.

If you are coming in from out of town, plan your trip carefully. Don't arrive on the "red-eye" 2 hours beforehand and expect to make a good showing. Arrive the day before, and get a good night's sleep. If it is a company sponsored trip, call them and confirm the arrangements. Let them know you got your ticket, reconfirm dates and time, etc. Allow plenty of time to get to the interview. Check the route from the hotel to the interview site the night before. Use the extra time upon your arrival to do some reconnaissance on the area.

Pick up some brochures on apartments or housing prices. Study a town map. Is the only place you can afford to live (and want to live) a two-hour commute away? You can use the interent to study road maps and cost of living comparisons when you get back (or before you go), but seeing some things in person will give you a better feel for if you want to live there.

Also plan your departure to allow plenty of time to get to the airport without rushing the interview. Normally this is taken care of for you on company-sponsored trips

I once made an arrangement with a company. I told them that if they could arrange a Monday morning interview, I would fly out on Friday, (staying over the weekend and saving them airfare), and stay with a friend (no rental car or hotel fare), all they had to do is get me back to the airport after the interview. They saved money, and I had a chance to visit my friend and check out the town thoroughly. Not every trip works out this well, but stay alert for opportunities.

Dress for success. There has been a lot of talk about dress and grooming at an interview (beards, long hair, etc). Some companies don't care how you look at the interview; others look very closely. Dress codes vary according to section of the country, company, and job for which the application is made. If the job is in Boston or New York, and in a financial institution, for a job in a salaried position, dealing with the public; then a custom made, 3-piece suit is probably appropriate. For less formal atmospheres, you may "get away with" less. Some "progressive" companies might be impressed by the cut-offs, shower clogs and obscene T-shirt you wear, but when in doubt, err towards the conservative side.

Business dress has gotten a lot more casual over the last 10 years. A suit used to be mandatory for interviews. Now, a good pair of slacks, a jacket and tie (and the counterpart for women - alas, being male, I am not qualified to give advice in this are) work most of the time.

I've advised candidates that I interview to show up "business casual" attire if that suits them, but unless your interviewer advises doing this, dress up.

If you are concerned about working for a company which will not allow you to express yourself through the way you dress, look around as you move around the office or ask about dress codes at the interview. Even very liberal companies will require you to "dress up" on occasion. Prove to them that you can.

Practice

Next, practice. Sit down with a friend, and go over a "dry run" several times. Have your friend role play the part of the interviewer using a prepared script if necessary. Making your mouth actually say the words in practice will make them come out easier later. You may even consider inviting yourself to a couple of "job fairs" to get some real world practice. This practice will build confidence.

Perform

OK, now you've prepared for the interview. Now it's show time!

Do your last minute preparation. Memorize the names of any contacts you've made, remember you have those customized resumes, and take care of any last minute details. Most interviewers are courteous enough to offer you a cup of coffee. Most don't think about offering you the opportunity to get rid of one.

Get yourself to the interview on time. Arrive about 15 minutes early, if possible. In some companies, a manager sets up the interview based on the availability of the technical staff. What managers tend to forget are the multiple forms needed to satisfy Human Resources. Showing up early will allow you to complete the paperwork, and still get started "on time".

Having arrived on time, in a presentable fashion, you are now ready to engage in the first of several interpersonal contacts.

The first person you are most likely to see is the personnel director. Take advantage of this meeting to "warm up" your social skills. The personnel director probably won't grill you technically, but don't feel that you are not "on the spot" yet. Some companies are smart enough to include this person in the decision making process. (Teamwork starts as you walk in the door. The HR person, or even the receptionist might be asked, "How do you think the applicant will fit in?"). You are "on stage" from the time you drive onto the company's property until the time you leave.

Your first contact may be as cold as "Fill out this paperwork, have a seat over there, or the personnel director may interactively get "vital statistics" from you while providing a brief orientation.

After personnel, you can expect to talk to 3 or 4 people. You may talk to a technical supervisor, a program manager, and a technical expert somewhere in your travels. Generally I try to set up my interviews to have the people talk to me (the hiring manager), a co-manager from another department, and a couple of my senior "people." This gives my staff a chance to participate in the decision making process and gives me a broader view of the candidate.

Not all companies follow this script. For one job, I was interviewed first by my boss, and then by other members of the company (including those who wound up working for me -- I liked that idea). I met with nearly a dozen people on several different dates over the course of a month. For a previous job, I talked to only three people, and was hired at the interview. On another job, we met for lunch, and I had an offer before dessert! (There was a lot of informal interaction before the interview took place.)

A good interviewer should give you a "heads up" as to what was impressive about your resume and what he or she would like to talk about. Take your direction from that.

The pressure of interviewing can be intense. Don't go into an interview believing that your life depends upon your every word. Do whatever it is you can do to make yourself feel confident and good about yourself. Take a hot bath, jog, read an inspirational book, yodel do whatever puts you at your best.

If you feel that you have done badly in a particular portion of the interview, or have done badly with a particular interviewer, forget about it temporarily. It may impair your performance later when your concentration should be elsewhere.

Most companies rely on several interviewers for this very reason. It's easy for one person to "read" another the wrong way. Your perspective may be different from the interviewer's. It is just as likely that what may seem to you as a glaring blunder on your part might not have even been noticed by the interviewer. A considerate interviewer should realize that you are under pressure, and that mistakes will happen. Relive any problem areas after the interview is over, and mark it up to experience.

Be aware of the power of silence. This is not Jeopardy. A buzzer is not going to sound if you don't ring in on time. I am from New York; I talk fast. People get tired just listening to me. I once delivered a speech at an agonizing (to me) half-the-speed-I-can-talk pace. Looking at the video of the speech, it was delivered at the perfect pace. So, what feels like a thunderous 20 minutes of silence on your part is probably only 20 seconds. An inexperienced interviewer may want to jump into this silent period and ask another question. There's not much you can do about this except say, "Wait, I'd like to go back to the previous question. I need time to give you an answer."

If you feel that you need to take notes, ask! I can't imagine anyone turning down the request. Don't be distracted if the interviewer refers to paperwork or takes notes. Human memory is very fallible, and this practice is necessary. Even I have a "script" of sorts when I interview - I prepare, and I don't do it off-the-cuff.

Some companies give competence quizzes. The best ones are simple. They shouldn't have "trick questions", and the only right answer should be one that works. A good quiz should be so straightforward that the solution is obvious to anyone that knows the technology. Although technical competence is important, I've never made a hiring decision based on it alone.

Tell it like it is. Be enthusiastic, but don't be too eager to please. Don't tell the interviewers what you think they want to hear, if you don't mean to say it. Let the interviewer know what your preferences are. Somehow you have to balance this with the ability to come across as a "team player". Rate the interviewers, the job, and the company as you go along. Remember, you are going to have to work with / for these people, and live with the job and corporate policies. It's far better for the both of you to decide that you really don't want / aren't suited for the job at the interview rather than after the job is accepted.

If the subject of salary, benefits, etc. comes up, fine. Otherwise, forget it. There's plenty of time to talk later if there's mutual interest. The most important thing to do as an interviewee is to find out about the job and the work environment.

Leaving the interview can be just as important as arriving. Last impressions can make a difference. Try to resolve any unknown questions you have concerning the job. If you were not told, then ask when you can expect to hear from the potential employer. A good interviewer should let you know when you should hear from them one way or the other.

Show some patience. Important out-of-town meetings happen, managers don't always hold sway over the Human Resources Department, other candidates are not always available, and "red tape" can keep a speedy response from happening. The amount of waiting time depends upon a number of factors. It's doesn't necessarily mean that the company can't make up its mind. Average waiting time seems to be approximately two weeks although the standard deviation on that figure is very wide.

Follow through. Send a letter to the interview staff thanking them for their consideration. Restate your understanding of the job, and re-iterate your intention to accept employment (assuming this is still the case).

If you don't hear from a company by a "reasonable" time, call them. Ask for a decision date, and let it go until that date. (In other words, remind them of their schedule, but don't bug them). If your status changes (like getting another job offer), let them know.

Finally, learn to live with rejection. Jobs are like marriages; everyone is looking for the perfect "match". You can be rejected for any number of reasons, and still be a very talented and desirable individual who will work out fine elsewhere. Don't let a rejection diminish your self-esteem, or affect your confidence for the next interview. On the other hand, you may decide to reject the offer!

If you liked the company, and still have an interest in working there, tell them! Write a "consolation letter" thanking them for taking the time to talk with you, and to keep you in mind for future openings. Send this letter directly to the hiring manager. I've been called back by companies that once rejected me. Second chances do happen.

Interviewers are people too. I've seen situations where the people conducting the interviews had less experience than the people attending them. The reason you may have a bad interview is because the interviewer is not up to speed on interviewing. We all have to learn sometime.

Conclusion:

Having said all of this, there are many variations in the interviewing process. The company to which you apply might not do it this way. However, all companies will use at least some of the elements presented above.


References:

Knock 'em Dead (2000), Martin Yate, ISBN 1580621716. Among other good tips on job seeking, this book contains over 200 of the more challenging questions you might be asked at an interview with tips on how to answer them.

Maps on us: http://MapsOnUsLogin.switchboard.com - This site will let you locate most addresess in the United States, and tell you how to get there. It's probably not as good a source as the directions you'll get from the person setting up the interview on how to get to the interview, but it will give you a decent "lay of the land" for a city to which you may consider relocating.

Salary Calculator: http://www.homefair.com:80/homefair/cmr/salcalc.html - You are making $57K a year in Greensboro, NC. You are considering a position in San Jose, CA. What do you need to make to maintain your buying power? (Hint: if it isn't at least six-figures, you may want to reconsider).

Virtual Relocation: http://www.virtualrelocation.com -- This site will give you some good statistics on quality of life in various locations. It also contains a salary calculator.