How to Interview

It’s not like my life goal was to become an expert on interviewing. I’d much rather be an expert on work than on finding work. Like a corporate version of Frodo, in the midst of a grueling interview cycle I’d often lament that, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” And then Business Gandalf would show up in my head to tell me, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Ugh.

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But I did what I had to do. I got good at interviewing. Now, I don’t plan to go anywhere anytime soon, so I have a chance to take a breath and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work when I was trying to change jobs. Here I’ll share some of the experience I picked up while interviewing for a variety of jobs as I moved across the world—twice—in a relatively short time.

Of course, this whole thing comes with an obvious disclaimer: This is what worked for me. It might not work for you, so proceed with caution. With that out of the way, let’s split the discussion up into two sections: how to get an interview, and how to get through it.

How to get an interview#section2

One of the most common pieces of advice people give when they know you’re looking for a job is that you should never apply through a company’s website or respond to a general job ad. I’ve found this to be true—clicking the “Apply” button and pasting a text-only version of your résumé is a very effective way to get ignored. But what works, then? This is the process I used very effectively to get that all-important first email back:

  1. Find a job you’re interested in. That’s not really what this article is about, so I won’t go into too much detail except to list some of the usual suspects: use LinkedIn, go to the websites of companies you like and click on “Careers,” sign up for industry-specific job boards like BayCHI, etc.
  2. Find the two or three most likely hiring managers. This step is crucial. For example, if you’re applying for a design role, use LinkedIn or the company’s “About” page to find the VP of Product, or the Design Manager, or the Chief Product Officer, or any number of fairly senior roles that the job likely reports into.
  3. Use Rapportive to guess their email addresses. It’s usually not hard to figure out people’s corporate email addresses. the first thing to try is “firstname.lastname@”. There is only a finite number of combinations it could be. But the way to be sure is to install the Rapportive plugin, compose a new email in Gmail, and try a bunch of addresses (without sending the email) until Rapportive finds the person’s LinkedIn profile.
  4. Send an extremely short introduction email. Send separate, personal emails to each of the likely hiring managers you found. Make it really, really short. Don’t go on about how awesome you are—you’ll get a chance to do that later. Tell them you like their company, you like the role, you’re interested in talking. Link to stuff you’ve done: your LinkedIn profile, your portfolio, articles/books you’ve written, etc. Then ask them if they’d be willing to have a call, or forward your information on to the right person. The point is to not burden people. If they see a long email, the chances are high that they will delete it. But if they see a short email that’s respectful of their time and gives them the information they need to make a quick decision—that’s a different story.

You won’t get an email back every time, but of all the different ways I’ve tried, this method has had the most success. Your goal at this point isn’t to get the job, it’s to get that first email back. Once you get the email and the first call is set up, you move on to your next objective…

How to have a successful interview#section3

Note that I didn’t title this section “How to get the job.” Remember that you might not want the job. Or, you might want the job but you shouldn’t take it because it’s all wrong for you. That’s what the interview process is all about. It’s not about looking good enough so someone will hire you. It’s about finding out if there’s a good fit between you and the company you’re interviewing with.

Your first call will usually be with a recruiter. The recruiter call is mostly a formality. As long as you’re able to condense your (obviously) illustrious career into a five-minute history lesson of past experiences, you should be fine. Recruiters get in trouble when they waste hiring managers’ time, so they’re just trying to avoid that. Your objective at this point is still not to get the job—it’s to get to talk to the hiring manager. And you do that by not sounding like an idiot when you talk to the recruiter.

The call with the hiring manager is a different story. I’ve approached this a bunch of different ways, but here’s the general approach that works best for me.

First, it’s important to look at the interview through the right lens. Don’t go into it with the primary goal of impressing the hiring manager. That is a waste of their time, and it makes you sound desperate. Instead, seek to have a mutually beneficial conversation with a fellow industry leader. You want to learn something from the conversation, and you want them to learn something as well. Your best outcome is if, at some point, the hiring manager says, “Huh, I’m going to read up on that a bit more when we’re done here.”

So how do you do this? You usually start with that five-minute history of your career. But then take the next step, and ask the first question… How do you do product development at your company? How do you prioritize roadmaps? What’s your design process like? By guiding the discussion and asking questions about how things work, you not only demonstrate what’s important to you, you also open a door to talk about the areas you’re most knowledgeable and passionate about.

Sure, you’re still going to get the odd, “Tell me about a time you’ve failed and how you dealt with that” question, but that will be few and far between. Most of the time what you’ll do instead is go over your allotted time and have a spirited conversation about the best ways to design and develop software. And that’s exactly what you want. You want to be seen as a peer right away—someone who would fit in.

That, to me, is a good interview. It’s not a venue for one person to test another person. Sometimes you can’t get away from that—you get bombarded with questions the minute the call starts. But that’s probably a good indication that it’s not a good place to work anyway. If the interviewer doesn’t bite, or insists on following a script that doesn’t really allow for conversation—it’s the first sign that you should probably walk away. If you can’t have a conversation as equals, you’ll never be treated as a valuable member of the team—you’ll always be a resource. And you don’t want that.

Which is to say…#section4

If I could convince people of one thing that will make them more successful in interviews, it would be to change their framing of what an interview process actually is. Many of us grew up thinking an interview is a test that you need to pass. However, if you instead look at the interview process as a meeting of equals to understand if a good fit exists, you’ll not only be more confident and relaxed in the process, you’re also more likely to impress the company. And who knows, maybe they’ll even become better interviewers themselves.

8 Reader Comments

  1. Best article on interviewing I’ve read in a long time. Refreshingly deviating from the usual discussion of “best interview questions to ask and how to answer them”.

  2. Very insightful! So many times when submitting resume via internet I felt I was sending my resume down the rabbit hole never to be heard from again. Good to read not only an alternative approach to reaching the right people but a fresh view of interviews.

  3. Very insightful! So many times when submitting resume via internet I felt I was sending my resume down the rabbit hole never to be heard from again. Good to read not only an alternative approach to reaching the right people but a fresh view of interviews.

  4. “If the interviewer doesn’t bite, or insists on following a script that doesn’t really allow for conversation—it’s the first sign that you should probably walk away.”

    A structured interview is legally defensible, because it eliminates the chance for personal biases to influence hiring decisions.

    That isn’t to say that you still cannot have an engaging, off-script conversation during the interview, but a good company will have a good process for interviewing, and the interviewer will want to ensure they follow that process to its completion.

    So if you get a hiring manager that is trying to stick to a script, don’t assume it is a stogy company that isn’t worth working for. Could be quite the opposite.

  5. This post made me happy, as it reflects my attitude to hiring as a hiring manager. I often start the interview by explicitly stating that the interview is a conversation for all parties to get to know each other and establish fit.

    That said, I still use a formal interview guide as well. I work for a large corporate where litigation is a very real risk. Being consistent with all candidates, and documenting the outcomes, is important.

    However, I pride myself on the fact that the interview guide I use for my team roles is short and punchy, and has been through a few rounds of user-centred design to make it as useful and painless as possible to use – for both sides of the table. It also lets you weave questions in and out of the conversation as you need to. You don’t have to sound or be scripted, even when you have corporate due dilligence to fulfill.

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