I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair across the conference table from the two people interviewing me. They smiled pleasantly, but the interviewers were all business. With the introductions and initial pleasantries out of the way, we jumped into the tough questions. I was trying hard to remain calm and relaxed, but I was beginning to sweat. Lucky for me, I'd spent 60 hours preparing for this 60 minute interview.
Interviewing for a new job is almost always an uncomfortable experience. By definition, you are being judged by others who don't know you. Some interviewers take it to an extreme and seem to enjoy their temporary leverage over you in an almost sadistic way. Others might be more collaborative, or empathetic, and seek to ease your discomfort.
No matter the temperament of the interviewer, I think most of us can agree that interviewing for a new job is generally unpleasant. So let's discuss how to make your next job interview less miserable.
In April of 2017 I started a new job within my existing company (which is the primary reason my blogging frequency has been embarrassingly low ever since). Landing that job required me to go through a grueling two month interview process, with a mixture of online (video call) and multiple country in person interviews during that time. The entire process was difficult and uncertain, but I learned valuable information about myself during the process.
In today's post, I will walk through the preparation phase and what you need to accomplish before walking into the interviewing room. The following article will detail concepts to think about during the actual interview process. During both posts I'll share my suggestions for improving your odds of landing that next job, and keep you from losing your mind in the process.
Preparation is Key
Congratulations! You just gave yourself a new temporary job - you need to prepare for the upcoming interviews like you're studying for a major exam.
Even if you've been successful in the past, resist the urge to "wing" the interviews with a combination of fast talking and charm. This approach simply will not work for senior roles. In general, your interviewers want to see an authentic leader, that shows confidence, and can articulate their answers with details and examples. Preparation beforehand is an absolute must.
Dwight Eisenhower got it right when he said, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.".
So build yourself a plan.
1. Develop the Right Mindset
Your goal is to be more prepared than the person interviewing you. I personally have interviewed thousands of people during my career, and I can honestly tell you, the interview is a lower priority for me than a lot of other projects and issues I'm working on at the moment. As an interviewee, use that distraction to your advantage. Be better prepared for the interview than the person sitting across the table asking you questions.
2. Know Your Key Takeaways
You cannot predict all the questions you will be asked, but you can prepare your talking points.
Talking points are information or details that support the "Key Takeaways" you want your interviewer to leave the interview remembering about you.
For example, when interviewing for my current role, I wanted the interviewers to remember that I am:
- a high energy person, and developing a high performing culture is a priority for me
- passionate about R&D and SW development
- experienced and capable of taking on the challenge
It's simply not enough to say your Key Takeaways; that isn't believable enough (or at least it shouldn't be). You need to have several anecdotes and examples ready that will help you prove their truth.
3. Get Yourself into the Habit of Answering Difficult Questions
Let's face it, there is no way to fully avoid being surprised during an interview. The potential list of questions is simply too vast for anyone to write them all down, let alone create high quality answers to memorize. Don't even try; it's a waste of your time.
No matter the job role, most questions are designed to answer the following five questions about you as a potential employee:
- Do you have the experience or skills needed to do the job well? (i.e. Can you solve the problem the company has?)
- Can you communicate clearly?
- Are you a cultural fit with the organization?
- How do you handle conflicts?
- Can you work with others? (i.e. Would the interviewer actually want to work with you?)
Different jobs typically have different types of interview questions. To see examples of specific questions for your job role, consult your favorite search engine. Search for "GENERIC_JOB_TITLE interview questions" (replace GENERIC_JOB_TITLE with the job you are interviewing for, such as "Product Manager interview questions"). You will be amazed at the quantity of possible questions you'll find.
Look through the list of questions and pick out several (for example, during this phase, I chose 53 potential interview questions to work on). Ensure you're selecting questions that cover all five base questions above.
Open up a text editor, word processor, or even an old-fashioned piece of paper and pen, and begin to answer each question.
4. Don't Get Derailed by Curveball Questions
Some interviewers like to get a little creative, just to see how you will react (in fact Google used to be famous for asking extremely difficult questions of this type). There are two general categories of these questions:
- "Something strange but you can reasonably estimate it with a logical approach"
- Example: How many golf balls fit in a 747 airplane?
- Strategy: Stay calm and remember the question is supposed to be difficult or impossible. Don't blurt out an initial guess. Be methodical and explain your thought process. If there is a whiteboard in the interview room, use it and collaborate with your interviewer on coming up with your best estimate. And don't forget to state each assumption you make as you go.
- "Something strange that is supposed to explain some deeper meaning about your personality"
- Example: If you could be any type of candy bar, which one would you be and why?
- Strategy: Don't stress over this one. If it's a playful question, give a playful response. Think for a moment and then go with your best answer. And don't forget to explain why. You will (almost) never be penalized for your answer. 
5. Refine and Polish Your Answers
After you've chosen your interview questions and have a basic answer drafted for each one, review your answers and start to refine them. You can never be sure what aspects the interviewer will be looking for, but it's safe to assume answers that sound:
- natural and not rehearsed
- confident in your abilities, but still humble
- competent about your particular job domain
- concrete, with detailed examples
will present the interviewer with a solid impression of you.
Remember that your answers should contain elements that support your Key Takeaways. Constantly reinforce them with examples.
Study your answers. Know them forwards and backwards. You will use bits and pieces of these answers during your interviews.
6. Nail Your Introduction
As said previously, it's hard to predict which questions you'll be asked, but most likely each interviewer will start with a basic question about your background, such as Tell me a little about yourself.
This is mainly for three reasons:
- It's a nice "warm up" question. It allows you to talk about an easy topic (yourself) and to calm your nerves.
- It helps the interviewer in case they didn't read your CV/resume well (or at all).
- It showcases your ability to summarize something substantial and complex (your entire life) into the most relevant points for the interviewer. Doing this is not easy and is an excellent skill to showcase.
Because the likelihood of receiving this question is so high, you should spend more time refining your introduction than anything else. Keep is short, and pepper it full of interesting and relevant topics. It's entirely up to you if you want to include personal details (such as your age, hobbies or family status) or keep it purely professional.
Don't script your introduction because you don't want to sound like a robot, but really know what talking points you would like to hit. Knowing how you're going to start the interview helps generate some momentum and confidence at the beginning, which can carry you through the rest of the session.
I know this sounds like a lot of work, but it's absolutely worth it. Being well prepared will boost your confidence and help you through those difficult interviews.
That's it for the pre-work. In the next post, we'll discuss tips and strategies to help with the actual interviews.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.
: I say almost because the one thing you don't want to do is to give an answer that makes you appear unbalanced. Remember, there is a difference between playful and crazy. What's an example of an answer that makes you sound crazy? How about:
- Question: If you could be any type of candy bar, which one would you be and why?
- Crazy Answer: Blood flavored, because I drink blood on the weekends and I find it tasty!