Wednesday, 22 February 2012

How To Survive Your Next Interview

[From a posting of mine to the cam.misc newsgroup]

Forget how-to-be-interviewed books. No, really - forget them. They're a waste of your money and time. I can probably condense the most useful advice into a single blog posting, so here goes.

RESEARCH YOUR TARGET

Know what the organisation has done, what they will be doing (the Press Releases section of the website is a gold mine!), and about the part of the business you're targeting yourself towards. Find out the names of the people in charge of that part of the company, and whether they've been in the news recently.

Research the company itself in the online news sources.

If you understand finance, pull their financial records for the past few years. You can often do this through Yahoo! Finance or similar for free, or Companies House's "WebCHeck" [sic] for smaller UK companies - it only costs a few pounds. Find out where they are in their growth cycle, and whether they're on the up or the down generally. A good number to look at is "cash in hand" - compare with turnover. Do they have the reserves to keep them going if things go pear-shaped? Remember a few quotable numbers for the interview.

RESEARCH YOURSELF

Seriously! I've lost count of the number of candidates who can't remember their own CV at interview, and have to be prompted (by a stranger) about what they've done in their own life! Make sure you know the companies, the dates of employment, and what you did there.

For each organisation, go over in your mind what you did, what skills you used, what you did wrong, what you did right, what responsibilities you had, how the job assisted your career growth and path, and what lessons you learnt.

RESEARCH YOUR INTERVIEWERS

Find out who's interviewing you, and all you can about them - what they did in previous jobs, what they're doing now, their blog posts, tweets and so on. LinkedIn is handy - and if you're researching me for your next interview, my LinkedIn profile is here!

You're probably not going to mention much if any of that stuff during the interview, but it will give you a real insight into the people you're hoping will be your future colleagues. That said, if you can remember one or two facts about what each interviewer is doing at the company right now, or has said at recent conference talks, that might be worth dropping in casually. People like to be remembered and respected.

UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WANT

Read the job spec forwards and backwards: commit it to memory. Remember the points where you fit it. Remember the points where you don't, and be prepared to say what you plan to do about it.

Also look at the company's website Careers section and find out what else they're looking for - after all, if you're not a perfect fit for one job, it doesn't hurt to say: "OK, I can see I'm not going to be ideal for you for this job - but I see you're also looking for a [...]. Would it be helpful to discuss that with you, or with your colleagues that are dealing with it, whilst I'm still in the building today?"

BE HONEST - BUT POSITIVE

Don't, for pity's sake, in response to those horrible "What are your weakest points?" questions, come up with something corny like "I'm just too modest/perfectionist/...". Trust me, interviewers will cringe inside when they hear them.

Instead:

* Understand your shortcomings - and how you plan to overcome them in the future.

* Understand your strengths - and what you plan to do with them.

* Understand your future intents - what you expect to be doing years hence. It's absolutely acceptable, by the way, to say, "I'm following the fun, doing the stuff that I enjoy most. What that will be may change a lot in five years time, so I'm open to where life will take me." You might think it sounds wishy-washy and indecisive, but you're showing adaptability and enthusiasm. And if it they don't like that, and want someone with a fixed career trajectory, did you really want to work for them anyway?

Be prepared to say, "I don't know - but I'm very willing to learn, and [if your CV supports it] I've an excellent track record of picking up and using new skills on the job."

BE PREPARED

1. Bring several copies of your own CV with you. Sometimes rogue agencies have been known to - shall we say? - polish CVs...vigorously. If you turn up at interview, and you're not what they were expecting, it reflects badly on you first! Being able to put your original CV in front of your interviewers ought to help out, if they're asking questions about skills you don't have, or don't have to the level they were given to expect. It's pulled me out of an agent-inspired crisis more than once - and yes, I do still get interviewed, although it's as a consultant these days.

If you do do that, make it clear that you're not doing an end-run around the agency, just trying to put the best information to the interviewers, "from the horse's mouth", as the saying goes.

2. Go to Staples or Office World and buy a set of narrow-point whiteboard markers. If there's a risk you'll have to write on a whiteboard - and it happens often - doing it with great big chisel-tipped markers never allows you quite enough space. Narrow-point markers give plenty of room for additions, corrections and notes. Just remember to write large enough for them to read...and bask in the admiration when they see how well prepared you are.

3. Consider buying a pico-projector you can plug into your laptop - and bring the laptop, loaded with whatever tools you will be likely to need. MS Office or LibreOffice software suites are a must-have; for electronics engineers, bring suitable capture+design tools; software developers should have a suitable development environment installed and tested; accounts people will need a credible commercial package. Just make sure you've practised connecting and setting up the kit quickly beforehand, and that you're completely familiar with e software!

Why? Even better than scribbling stuff on a whiteboard is projecting from your laptop. You're not going to be paid to write full-time with a whiteboard marker, so why start now if you're more comfortable with a keyboard? Plus, you're working in your normal and natural environment. Very handy if you get a bit nervous standing in front of inquisitors' stares - they're looking at the whiteboard, not your fingers. (It's a bit like a PowerPoint presentation, but far more interesting.)

AND ABOVE ALL

Be honest, and be relaxed. Think of it as a chat, not a starch-stiff interview; be yourself, be honest, and you'll come across as genuine and friendly.

UNDERSTAND WHAT EVERY INTERVIEWER WANTS

Someone who's honest (even at their own expense), who's bright, diligent, informed, interested, interesting and adaptable.

Half the time, the skills they'll need will have changed by the time your legs are under the desk, so don't be deluded that the job spec is the be-all and end-all. Your interviewers want to check your technical credentials, sure, but they're looking at you as a potential future colleague, and it's up to you to be that person.

Good luck.

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