Over the past 42 years I’ve worked for 12 different companies, two of them twice and two of them through contracting firms before going permanent. The numbers are thus a bit fuzzy, but no matter how you count them, that’s a fair number of positions, each one landed through the interview process. I’ve also had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table as an interviewer. With any luck, through all this I’ve learned a few things about landing a job. I’d like to share that knowledge with you.
In spite of what you might have read online, most formulaic approaches to resume writing and interviewing are, well, rather fake. Interviewers can see right through that, because they interact with people desperately applying those tricks all the time. They don’t want to get to know some formula. They want to get to know you.
Let me give you one small example: I never state goals on my resume. My goal should be blatantly obvious: I want a job. Duh. If the interviewer actually cares about my long-term goals (the ubiquitous “Where do you see yourself in 5/10/100 years?”), she can ask. And if she doesn’t ask, then she obviously doesn’t care, so why should I clutter up my resume with it?
The most important thing to remember is this: an interview is a two-way street. It’s a process by which employers try to find the candidates best suited to their company’s needs, but also by which job seekers try to find the companies best suited to their needs. Every employer/candidate combination is different. As a result, canned approaches usually don’t cut it.
So if you can’t follow a neat, paint by numbers formula, what do you do?
You’re understandably nervous when you sit down to an interview. You want to make a good impression. You want to say the right things. You hope the interviewer won’t ask what you can’t answer. You’ve crammed as for a college exam. You’ve studied the company’s website, learned the basics of their business, their customers, the names of the people occupying their C-suite. You’ve brushed up on necessary and peripheral technical material. But will you remember it all?
Being on edge is understandable. Employers won’t fault you for it, either, because they know what it’s like to be in the hot seat. A little adrenaline might even keep you on your toes. Too much, though, can paralyze you, make you forget things, and render the whole experience a torture session. So don’t go there. In fact, ease up on the cramming, too. You won’t need to know every detail about the company. Honest, you won’t.
One cure for nervousness is repeated interviewing. The more experience you have with the process, the less stressful it becomes. Until then, try a relaxation technique ahead of time, be it meditation, prayer, visualization, or just taking a few deep breaths. It may not seem obvious at the time, but your future does not depend upon any single interview. Don’t mentally turn an opportunity into a crisis before you even step through the door. Relax.
Except in one respect. An interview is a business meeting, so present yourself accordingly. Wear formal business attire. Yes, gentlemen, that means a tie and if possible a suit coat. Overdressing never hurts, so unless you are specifically told business casual attire is acceptable, assume formal. And if casual is allowed, that’s business casual. Don’t show up in jeans and a t-shirt.
Your prospective employer wants to know who you are. You have to show them. Well . . . within reason. Obviously they don’t care about every last detail of your life. They care about your talents, skills, and general character, and usually not much else.
In answering questions, stay on point. Rambling is usually not appreciated, but neither are canned replies. If the interviewer asks where you see yourself in five years, she’s really asking whether you have a vision or goals for your life, probably because she’s looking for someone with vision who knows how to set goals. Thus, she wants your answer, not some stock reply you found online.
Be yourself, too, in asking questions, if you actually have any. Don’t make up questions, or parrot stock questions, just to have something to ask. Incidentally, this is why you didn’t need to cram so hard for the interview. Knowing a little about the company ahead of time is often a good thing, but you can also ask questions about it.
“Be yourself” may sound obvious, but what does it entail? Just this: to be yourself in an interview, you must know yourself. Examine your personal history. Think about your strengths and weaknesses. You’ve heard, no doubt, that you must “sell yourself” to an interviewer. This doesn’t mean lie or spin the truth to make yourself look like Superman. It means focus on your selling points — your strengths — and be aware of your weaknesses so you can address them if necessary. And that leads us to the next point.
The last thing you want to do is lie about yourself. If you don’t actually have the skills or experience required to do a job, don’t claim that you do. If you land a job on false pretenses, you’ll be fired once the boss realizes you aren’t what you claimed.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to admit it. This might seem counter-intuitive, yet it’s true. Long lists of job requirements typically represent an employer’s ideal world wish list. They seldom find a candidate who hits 100% of their targets. Moreover, sometimes those lists are, to put it mildly, ridiculous. It’s all too common for employers to throw in every imaginable utensil, including corkscrews and pastry brushes, when all they really need is a fork and a spoon. Not knowing what a pastry brush is might disqualify you if you’re interviewing for a position as a pastry chef, but in the overwhelming majority of cases it won’t. And even a pastry chef might occasionally get away with such ignorance; keep reading for an example from my own experience!
A tactic I’ve often used in dealing with my own ignorance is this: “I’ve heard of that but never had an opportunity to use it. However, I can certainly learn it.” This plays to one of my key selling points: my ability to learn quickly. From the get-go, my career has been a record of learning on the job. If you give me the opportunity to use a new language or tool, I’ll pick it up about as quickly as anyone. Indeed (this is the pastry brush story), I once landed a Java developer position without having ever written a line of Java code! Admittedly, there were extenuating circumstances. The company couldn’t find anyone willing to work in their location for the low pay they were offering, and I was out of work and desperate enough to take a low-ball salary. But learn I did, and within a few months they admitted to surprise that I had worked out so well.
Although you never want to lie or even spin the truth, you want to be positive in your presentation. Focus on your strengths, and don’t volunteer your weaknesses. If your weaknesses should come up, address them honestly with reference to your strengths. “I don’t know that, but I’d be interesting in learning about it.” “That was a tough challenge, but I worked with other team members and eventually we resolved the issue.” Or even “That didn’t work out, but I learned something from it.”
Naturally if you say such things, they should be true. Don’t suggest you’re interested in learning something for which you know you have no aptitude. I would never tell an interviewer that I’d love to learn to give injections. I have a long history of light-headedness in the presence of needles. It just wouldn’t end well!
Rather, use any discussion of your weaknesses to hit on your selling points. How did you bring your strengths to bear to overcome your weaknesses? Worst case, simply acknowledge your weaknesses and show that you have some kind of plan for addressing or compensating for them. Nobody is perfect. Employers understand that. What they care about is not perfection, but awareness and initiative.
Employers like to hear specific examples of your accomplishments and how you overcame challenges. Picking the right ones — or even remembering them — can be a challenge during an interview, so think about this ahead of time. If you’ve been interviewing in your field for some time, you’ll likely know what kind of questions will come up. In my field, a common question is, “What is the most challenging software project you’ve worked on?” I have a couple in mind that I can relate.
I once was thrown for a loop by a very generic question: “How do you move a mountain if it gets in your way?” I found the question so vague that I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Not surprisingly, the interviewer found my answer way too vague. In hindsight, he wanted me to relate a specific case where I faced a significant roadblock and tell him how I overcame it. But he never put the question that way, and I never gave him a satisfactory answer. Oh well. Live and learn.
Most such questions can be answered easily, though, if you just think about your personal history. We all face challenges. Identify a couple so you’ll have a reply should an interviewer ask.
You’re all set now. If you have questions or observations, feel free to leave a comment. Now go get that job!