While a lot of people seek my career advice on valid technology issues, many of them overlook the most fundamental skill necessary to advance in their chosen field: knowing how to ace the job interview. As hard as it is to believe, I see people with advanced degrees and years of professional experience who don't know such interview basics as how to dress and what to say. I've also had candidates who impress everyone in the company, and blow the final interview with senior management with one off-color remark.
To help you avoid the most common mistakes, I asked the Pencom recruiting team to put together a list of pointers for a successful interview. Their ideas were so comprehensive, we need two columns to cover it all. This month we focus on how to prepare for and what to ask during the interview. Next month we cover the interview follow-up process and common interviewing mistakes.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Preparation is the key to a successful interview. There are at least six things you can do to prepare for the interview. The amount of effort you put into these areas could significantly affect how well you do in the interview.
Research the company. Take the time to learn something about the company and its products or services before you walk in. If it's a public company, research the organization in the local library; look up an annual report or 10-K filing, which details all the officers, locations, and key strategic directions. If it's a privately owned company, simply call and ask for their marketing brochures. A good recruiter will be able to provide you with some background information, as well.
Know the contact. Who will you be meeting during the interview: personnel, technical staff members, two people, three people? This will help you gauge how much time to set aside for the interview, and give you an idea of the personalities to expect.
Identify the type of interview. I always tell applicants there are two kinds of interviews, and you have to figure out very quickly which type it is and act accordingly. In the first type of interview, the hiring manager will do most of the talking and ask you to respond to a few questions. In the second type, the hiring manager will ask a simple question and expect you to build upon it. If you know which type of interview you will face in advance, you can better prepare.
Find out the length of the vacancy. It's essential to find out how long the position was open prior to your interview and if the hiring manager or recruiter is having trouble placing people into that position. Don't be afraid to ask your recruiter why other candidates have turned down the job. This may give you an idea of the job's pitfalls.
Know what will be asked. If you are working with a recruiter, make sure you also find out the basic questions the interviewer is going to ask. A recruiter who has a good relationship with the hiring company should know the format of the questioning. For example, on what technologies does the interviewer focus? How specific are the questions? Does the interviewer pose any hypothetical problems? Are there any trick questions of which to be aware?
Review your technical skills. If you know a certain area of technology is going to be important for the position, and you haven't worked with it recently, make sure you brush up on it. You'll feel more confident and relaxed during the interview.
What to take
Many hiring managers will ask you for an original version of your resume, so be prepared. This sounds basic, but it's important that your resume is crisp and clean, and neatly stored in a briefcase or binder. We pride ourselves on thoroughly briefing our candidates, but once in awhile a candidate will still reach for their pocket and pull out a coffee-stained resume folded up like a gum wrapper during (what could be) the most important interview of their career! I also recommend you take multiple copies in case anyone else in the company joins you for the interview. Hold off on job references at this stage -- they rarely come up on the first round of interviews.
What to wear
The rule of thumb is play it safe. Even if it's a casual, jeans environment, it is always wise to wear a suit and a tie; for women, that means a two-piece suit or other type of professional business attire. I have noticed a definite trend in the industry toward a more informal look. Ten years ago, long hair was totally unacceptable in such industries as banking and brokerage. Now that's slowly changing. With Unix emerging in these companies, the open systems jobs attracted the Unix gurus from university settings with their long hair and jeans. This influence has resulted in a more casual attitude about day-to-day attire in many open systems-based organizations. But again, play it safe during the interview process. I've had hiring managers complain about a candidate's appearance.
Regardless of how casual the environment, you need to look well groomed. Now, I don't agree with all the suggestions in the "dress for success" books, but they do make a valid point: People form a lasting impression of you within the first five minutes, and it's doubtful that your brilliant code will ever reverse the memories of dandruff, greasy hair, or Easy Rider ripped jeans.
Surprisingly, I have seen cases where the candidate actually looked worse trying to dress up. That's because they dug out their old 1960's Confirmation dress or their dust-covered bar mitzvah jacket. I'm not kidding, these are true stories! Remember, if there's any doubt, don't hesitate to ask the recruiter what is most appropriate to wear.
What to say
At some point during the interview, the hiring manager will probably ask "Do you have any questions?" Tony Carr, Pencom's Director of Recruiter Training, has become well versed on the subject and advises applicants never to ask a question just for the sake of asking a question, or play "stump the interviewer." Rather, seize the opportunity to do some real probing and ask intelligent questions that have not yet been raised. Legitimate questions include:
Questions like these will help you get a feel for the way the company and the department are managed, as well as red-flag the problem areas. By this point in the interviewing process, you should have a good impression of the organization and a sense of whether the position holds any interest for you.
Here's the most important point: Always tell the truth in an interview. Don't fudge dates on your resume or application. Don't overstate your role. Don't try to hide a layoff. It always comes out in the wash. If you don't know the answer to an interview question, don't try to fake your way through it. The best answer is "quite honestly, I haven't been exposed to that, but given the opportunity, I could get up to speed on it quickly."
Also, don't ask salary or health benefit questions during the first round of interviews. This is a common novice mistake. It will appear you are only motivated by money and perks, and it's highly inappropriate to put the cart before the horse. It is okay to discuss the subject if the hiring manager brings it up first, but I would still tread lightly. Make sure they understand you're more interested in the opportunity as a career path than in the compensation. Landing a job that improves your marketability through a hot new technology is always preferable to getting a higher-paying job in a dead-end field.
One more thing: Never accept a job offer on the spot! Always ask for some time to think it over and honestly determine if the company is right for you. If there is a true fit, then use your recruiter to your best advantage to negotiate the best compensation package.
Stayed tuned for part two of our discussion of how to excel in the job interview. I will offer tips on follow-up practices and how to get feedback from your interview, as well as how to handle those unusual interview situations. You'll also read some interviewing horror stories that hopefully won't happen to you. In the meantime, tell me about your interview experiences by sending e-mail to email@example.com.
About the author
Edgar Saadi is senior vice president for Pencom Systems, Inc., the largest opens systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. Saadi specializes inguiding advanced systems careers and helping employers explore all their staffing alternatives including retained search, contract programming, on-site recruiting, contingency search, and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via fax at 415-267-1732.
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Last updated: 1 March 1995.