The Interview

The interview is the most famous part of any job application process. Some senior jobs require you to go through two or more interviews but nearly all roles require you to sit down face to face with two or more people and answer questions. Even in these socially distance times when interviews are being conducted remotely it’s still an important skill to master.

The internet is full of interview advice (some of it good) so I’m going to try to approach this slightly differently and describe it from a hiring manager’s point of view.

Knowing what the interviewer is looking for goes a long way in an interview. Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

I’ve run through CVs and I’ve selected a short list of candidates I want to speak with. I may have had a few phone conversations along the way. Personally I only have two or three people on my interview list at any one time, different people may have different styles here but if I find someone I want to make an offer to I don’t want to have to wait while I interview ten other people before making that offer. I’d rather have a pipeline of candidates coming through the process knowing I can stop and offer whenever the right person comes along.

There’s a lot of time and effort invested from both sides for an interview (usually a good half a day for even a one hour interview) and you may be asking the candidate to travel and take time away from courses or work so I don’t invite someone in on a whim, I only invite people I believe could fulfil the job’s requirements.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff. Don’t be late. I don’t care if that means you have to sit in a carpark for an hour. Don’t be late and don’t get lost. Scout out your route to the interview location beforehand if that helps, if you’re making a more substantial trip then make sure you leave enough time for Murphy. If you are unavoidably delayed then call ahead and get a message to me. Trains break down on everyone, a professional will get in touch and let me know rather than leaving me sitting in an empty meeting room by myself. Believe me, that’s not a good way to make a great impression!

What to wear? I’m far from a fashion guru so I don’t want to give bad advice here. However, over the last few years I’ve been a bit less formal with my dress when I’m being interviewed (in other words I’ve lost the tie). However, I still wear a suit. The best advice I can give is dress how you would if you were representing the prospective company to a client. You want to be smarter than regular office wear but you’re not going to a black tie event. Personally I’d never wear jeans.

Try to dress how you would if you were representing the company at a visit to one of their clients. Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

You’ll most likely be interviewed by two people. This is for a couple of reasons but the most important is to get two different points of view. Don’t try and work out who the decision maker is, if they’re worth working for they’ll take their colleague’s view very seriously. Address anwers to the person who asked them and (I’m sure this is obvious) be polite and repectful to everyone you meet.

In terms of the interview itself I usually try to start simple. I want the candidate to relax and lose a few of the inevitable nerves. I usually ask something about what you’re currently studying or what you’re working on. Remember that I’ve read your CV. Don’t go overboard here, don’t bore me but tell me the interesting bits. Try not to turn a five minute question into a twenty five minute one because of nerves!

At some point early in the interview I’ll most likely describe the company and the role. Again, I’m expecting you already know most of this so the point of this is to give you a chance to ask any questions and to engage in a little light conversation before we move onto some of the more technical stuff.

There will inevitably be some questions coming. These usually fall into one of two camps, either they’re competency questions or they’re skills question.

Skills questions are designed to assess your knowledge in a particular technology. For example, one of my favourites for a C# role is to ask someone the difference between an array of strings, a list of strings, and an IEnumerable of type string. This isn’t an easy question, I like it because a junior will give me one answer and a much more senior will give me another – but they could both be correct. However, the real question here is what to do when you’re faced with a skills question you don’t know?

What can you do in an interview when someone asks you a question you don’t know the anser to? Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

That’s easy. You should simply say you don’t know. Or (assuming it’s true) tell me that you are having a mind blank and can’t remember. We’re engineers, we’re not search engines. We look things up and use intellisense. You may know more about garbage collection than I do, I may know more about IoC than you. The point of the skills questions are to get an idea of your technical strengths and weakesses. I don’t want to hire someone who will simply doesn’t possess the skills I require of them. For entry and junior roles I’m assuming you won’t know everything, it’s ok not to now!

I’m sure it goes without saying, but please don’t try to bluff me. Not only will it not work (I’ve hired a lot of engineers) but it won’t help, all that will happen is you’ll find yourself in a role which won’t suit you.

The second type of question you’re likely to encounter is the Competency Question. A competency is something like Problem Solving, or Personal Development. You can often work out which of these you’re going to be faced with by looking at the job advert. If the job description says that I’m looking for someone with A Proven Ability to Learn, Problem Solving Skills, and Resilience then there is a fair chance I’m going to have a question for each of those asking you how you’ve demonstrated them in the past.

For example, if I may ask you to describe a problem you had no idea how to solve and how you overcame it. Or I could ask how you’ve recovered from a severe setback. These are not easy questions to answer but with a little up front planning you can think of the answers you’re going to need through well before the interview. The best answers give a good example and don’t waffle. For example if I was asked about a problem I didn’t know how to overcome I could describe who I sought advice from, or how I wrote down fifty ideas and selected the best five, or I could talk about the time I needed help with my disseration and I asked my professor for advice.

It’s important to note, especially with junior roles that I’m not expecting you to be able to walk in and do the job. What I want you to persuade me is that if I made you an offer you’d be able to grow into the role. That’s why these questions are really important. Fail to prepare at your peril!

Most interviews for junior positions will last around an hour although some may last longer, especially if they involve technical tests (which I’ll cover in a future post) or form part of a larger assesment centre (again, hopefully a future post).

Towards the end of the interview I will usually offer the chance for the candidate to ask me any questions (although there’s no reason they can’t raise them before then). Honestly, I’ve heard them all. My suggestion is that you focus on questions about the role and the company and show interest in the opportunity. For example “Can you describe what the team are working on now?” is a better question than “How many days holiday do I get?”

One final point, despite what you see on TV it’s very rare to be offered the role in the interview. Don’t lose faith if it takes a few days.

I hope this has been of some help. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions. What are your best suggestions for good interviews? Remember to subscribe and follow me on twitter so you don’t miss out!

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