15 Steps to Crush Your Next Job Interview
The good, the bad, and the ugly mistakes candidates make - Issue #28
I interviewed a bit during my 26-year career to land the jobs that I had. However, not as much as you might think, thanks to warm intros and having good champions inside the companies who helped me break into the hidden job market.
However, I did interview enough to gain insights into what makes for a successful interview. I received a job offer from every single full-time job interview during my career in Silicon Valley Tech. I’m not saying that to brag. I’m just saying that I know how the interview game works.
More importantly, I sat on the other side of the hiring table. I’ve screened and interviewed hundreds of candidates over the years. Some were for my team, and many were for other organizations. I’ve even interviewed candidates for my clients. When you deal with this many candidates, you witness the full spectrum of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Some candidates were terrific, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their careers continue to flourish over the past couple of decades. Some flamed out spectacularly in the group interview. A few didn’t even make it to the initial phone screen.
I’ll start with some real-world stories of the winners and losers, and why they were either made an offer or shown the door. After that, I share my 15 tips for crushing your next job interview.
I’ve interviewed and hired so many great people over the years that I can’t list them all. They had rock-solid interviews, were smart, friendly and collaborative, and knew how to handle themselves during their presentations and 1-on-1 sessions.
They were smart and able to have an intelligent, informed discussion about the profession, the domain, and our products and services.
They were able to think on their feet, improvise, and adapt to last-minute changes.
They had the necessary skills, of course. More importantly, they were able to learn and grow to get even better.
They were good people. They were friendly, collaborative, respectful, and enjoyable to be around.
However, they weren’t pushovers either. They could stand their ground, push back, had a strong point of view, and could argue intelligently. The key was that they knew how to do this as a professional adult.
They had strong initiative. They didn’t always ask for permission to do great work, fix problems, or move ahead to stay on track. But, they did keep their leadership team informed.
They were reliable and dependable. When they were given something to get done, they took full ownership and made it happen.
A few examples:
I remember one presentation where the candidate was amazingly calm, confident, and well-rehearsed. She used a laser pointer (something I don’t recommend), but it never wavered an inch. Usually, a laser pointer betrays someone’s nervousness. It jitters and shakes, bouncing back and forth all over the screen. Not in her case. Rock-solid. In the follow-up interviews, she was smart, knew her domain inside and out, was aware of how much she was in demand, and exuded calm confidence. Of course, we made her an offer.
Another top candidate also had this fantastic level of calm self-confidence. He came from a background that wasn’t directly related to our company but had more in-depth domain knowledge that applied to the industry more broadly. His presentation materials were impeccable and elegantly designed, and this carried over into his portfolio work. He was a talented designer, and it quickly emerged that he was also brilliant. One thing that I remember is that he was able to push back and argue professionally on points where he didn’t agree with what the interviewer was proposing. He held his own but did it positively. This is a critical skill to have when working with a team. We made him an offer before he left the building.
One candidate was transitioning from a very different product domain into my team’s area. At first, there was some pushback that she didn’t have enough relevant experience. However, she blew everyone away in her interviews, and her references were stellar. Everyone loved working with her. It wasn’t because she was “nice,” although she was. It was because she knew how to get things done. She was an operational machine. No matter what her product was, she wholly owned it, managed every relationship professionally, and was on top of the schedule like no one I had worked with before. She was able to demonstrate strong initiative and had a history for proactively dealing with problems before they got out of hand. I made her an offer that day. She is now a CEO.
Even though some of these other candidates had the degrees and credentials to back up their professional reputation, I had one candidate that was completely self-taught. He had no degree and no proof of formal education in his profession. But, again, he was clearly smart and able to think on his feet. He was also able to walk me through some of his past and current projects to show me his skills. We worked through a challenge together so that I could see how he thought. He created solutions on the fly (and overnight) and amazed me with his talent and speed of execution. The lack of a degree and minimal experience didn’t matter. He could do the work amazingly well and proved it on the spot. He was an immediate hire.
Finally, I had one candidate who had experience in a domain that was utterly unrelated to what our company did. She didn’t even really have any professional work experience. However, she was articulate, confident, presented very well, remained calm the entire time, and demonstrated an abundance of creativity. Her personal project work was so innovative that we knew she could learn quickly and bring that to bear in her work with us. We hired her the next day.
Now, time for some of the bad. When I say “bad,” I don’t mean that these were bad people. Sometimes they just weren’t a fit for the role or the organization. Sometimes mistakes happen, or things fall through. However, it did impact the perception of the candidate and hiring is competitive.
A few examples:
I had a phone screen scheduled with a candidate, called the number, and got his voicemail. I left a message reminding him that we were supposed to talk, sent him an email, and tried to message him. Nothing. He finally responded later that day that he had forgotten the interview. Ooops. He didn’t make it to the next stage. We didn’t spend our limited budget to fly a candidate out for an on-campus interview if they couldn’t be reliable enough to show up for the phone screen.
We had one nervous candidate show up just in time for his interview presentation. We rushed him into the conference room to set up. Nothing would work, and he had no backup plan. The laptop wouldn’t connect to the projector. He rebooted, fiddled with settings, disconnected and reconnected cables, and the whole thing went on for several minutes while the people in the room waited uncomfortably. We finally asked him to stand up and talk with us. He had no other materials and couldn’t even muster a basic speaking presentation. I felt sorry for the guy, but we couldn’t move forward with him given what the role would have required.
Another candidate tried to be clever. Too clever. He had created a full website to be his presentation but had made some big mistakes with the CSS, image source URLs, links, etc. It had all worked well on his home network but was broken once he was inside our walls and trying to use our network. It was painful to watch. He kept trying to repair it, editing the URLs in the browser to navigate between pages, etc. He had no backup plan, and he just kept saying, “This should be working.” The Demo Gods were not smiling that day. The interview fell apart.
Finally, one candidate lost her chance to move ahead because she couldn’t stop cursing during her group presentation. I know some people think that it reflects your edgy and authentic personal brand when you drop F-bombs left and right. First, how edgy is it when everyone thinks they’re oh-so-raw by continually cursing? You’re just another person trying too hard. Second, there are most definitely times in a professional setting when you need to clean up your act. You can’t be cursing in front of customers or partners, for example. The hiring exec turned to me at the end and said, “She’s a no hire. If she can’t control her cursing in an interview situation when she’s trying to be on her best behavior, how is she going to act every day at work? Can’t have that in front of our customers.”
The “ugly” is fortunately rare. However, there were a few candidates who were memorable for all of the wrong reasons. You’d think that people would be on their best behavior during an interview, but some surprise you. I guess it’s a pretty good sign that they are a definite “No Hire.” If someone can’t control his behavior in an interview situation, then it’s going to be even worse in a work environment.
A few examples:
At one company, we simulated a typical project activity. The candidate was given a set of requirements for a project, a desired outcome, and had an hour to work on it. It was a way for us to see how someone thinks, the process they follow, and how they describe and defend their work. We added a slight twist. About 20 minutes into the exercise, we went into the room and said that some of the requirements had changed. If you’ve worked in Tech, you know that this is a fact of life. Projects change constantly! Resources come and go, requirements change, deadlines shift, etc. Well, this guy lost his temper and shouted at us with a burning red face, “You can’t do that!!! You can’t change things in the middle!” Ummm, yeah. No hire.
Another candidate was presenting portfolio work to us. It began to look familiar. We had seen this work before from a previous candidate. At first, she claimed that she was the primary on the project and that the work was hers. As we probed further and questioned things, she started to backpedal and become vaguer, making excuses and explanations. It became clear that this was not really her work, and she wasn’t giving credit to the other contributors. No hire.
One candidate did pretty well during his group presentation and the early 1-on-1 interviews. He seemed like he was on track, and things were going to go well enough for an offer. We took him out for a small group lunch, and he was very relaxed. Too relaxed. I think he knew that things were going well and thought he had it in the bag. He started making jokes, sexist statements, and inappropriate comments. The atmosphere immediately chilled and he realized the mistake he had made. Too late. No hire.
Finally, another candidate thought he was more important than other people. When he arrived for his interview, he was rude with the receptionist. We also found out that he had a similarly lousy attitude with our recruiter and admin. Interestingly enough, he was friendly to the point of being obsequious with the hiring team. Funny how that works. We asked him about his behavior with the others and his face flushed. He stammered some excuses, which I don’t remember. Didn’t matter. No hire.
15 Steps to a Great Interview
This is a short list of 15 steps that apply to almost any interview for any job. The examples above demonstrate how things can go amazingly well when you are thoroughly prepared. They can also go off the rails in a minute when you don’t have a backup plan or you let your mouth get ahead of your brain.
Do your homework. Extensively research the company, its latest news, the Board, the investors, the senior leadership team, your future boss, your potential coworkers, the company’s competitors, and the industry. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Do you want the job?
Use the company’s product or service. I’ve purchased expensive products and signed up for paid services to perform my due diligence. It’s a small investment for a great job. If it’s a product or service you can’t reasonably buy or try (e.g., a bulldozer), search for customers who have experience with it and find out how they feel about that product.
Find an inside champion who can get you a warm intro to the hiring manager and other decision-makers. The standard process was created to keep you out. Don’t try to walk through the “front door.” Have your champion bring you past the velvet rope. I always did this.
Be responsive, polite, flexible, and respectful of people’s time. The minute you flake on a call or an interview, you’re done. If you’re rude to the admin or scheduler, you’re done.
Do not ghost at any point! It’s not professional, and people don’t forget. I’ve passed on candidates who ghosted on me years ago at a previous company. The industry is smaller than you think.
Prepare for your interview ahead of time. Spend time practicing your public speaking, presentation skills, and how you ask and answer questions. Record a video of yourself to tune your body language and eliminate bad habits. You want to practice so much that you are able to improv during your presentation and Q&A with ease. You can also hire me to help you with interview preparation and practice.
Find out who is on your interview team and do some background research on who they are, what they care about, and any additional information you can gather from your network about them. This enables you to have targeted and intelligent icebreaker conversations with people. Handle this with finesse. If you’re clumsy with it, you’ll come across as a stalker (e.g., “I saw a photo of your son at soccer practice. I like soccer too.” 😧)
Get plenty of sleep the night before. It’s better to be well-rested and clear-minded than to stay up late trying to cram more information into your head. You need to be able to think on your feet. I always present better when I’ve slept well vs. missing sleep because I wanted to practice more.
Be prepared with your primary material (e.g., your presentation on your laptop), but have lots of backups just in case (e.g., files on a flash drive or on Dropbox, extra cables, physical printouts of your resume and presentation, etc.). I’ve watched too many candidates flame out when a presentation was corrupted, a laptop crashed, or the projector wouldn’t connect (approximately 75,000 times during my career). Smoothly start your presentation while seamlessly shifting into Plan B. You did practice so much that you can improvise from memory, right?
Show up a little early for your interview, but not so early that you’re hanging out in the lobby for an hour. I like to find a nearby coffee shop, restaurant, or park where I can run through my material one last time and get my “game face” on. Be polite and friendly with every single person you meet, even if they aren’t friendly with you. Big smile!
Be as confident and relaxed as possible. I know that this isn’t easy, but it makes a big difference in how people perceive you. Read my advice on public speaking for some tips that help you boost your confidence, smooth your voice, and calm your nerves.
Ask focused questions in your early interviews to get helpful answers that fuel your questions and answers in your later interviews. You learn a great deal about the company, the team, the product/service, and their strategy, which impresses people who interview you later in the day. You’ll be surprised by how much some people are comfortable sharing with you. Be prepared with your answers to anticipated interview questions too. Practice responding so that you sound natural vs. sounding like you memorized the words.
End strongly with a positive attitude that assumes you will be taking the job (if you know that you want it). Be excited and enthusiastic yet humble. Ask questions that imply that you know that you will get the job, and you now want to know how to be successful in the first 90 days. At this point, you’re trying to close the deal in person. It’s much harder to close after people cool down and you’re trying to communicate via email or phone.
Follow up with everyone that evening to thank them for their time, confirm that you are interested in the job, and ask about the timing for the next steps and their decision. Don’t wait for them to contact you. Some people even like to send a physical “Thank You” note. It is pretty cool to receive one because it’s rare. Don’t go over the top and send a gift though. I’ve received one, and it felt like a bribe.
No matter how it all turns out, maintain a positive relationship with the hiring manager and team. Sometimes you may not get the offer now, but they will reach out to you again for another role that opens up later. Never burn a bridge. Thank them again for their time and let them know how much you appreciate that they considered you for the role. Restate your interest in the company and leave the door open.
Best of luck with your next big interview! I hope these examples and tips help you bring your A-game to the room. If you have any other good examples of interview do’s and don’ts, please share them in the comments. Thanks!
What I’ve been doing, reading, and writing
We just had our first real-world meet-up for the Invincible Career group last night! It was fun to meet people for the first time in person. We met in Palo Alto, California. I’d love to do more of these around the world. So, stay tuned and vote on locations when I poll the community. Obviously, I set up meet-ups where there will be the most attendance.
I gave a career talk at the Yahoo/Verizon Media Global Design Summit a couple of days ago in Sunnyvale, CA. The theme was around using your professional day-job skills to help design your career and plan your long-term goals. It was great to be back on that campus after almost 10 years!
In Leak of Microsoft Salaries Shows Fight for Higher Compensation, it is clear that one promotion strategy is to leave a company and return later at a higher level and salary. “Employees have also told OneZero that a fairly common tactic is to leave Microsoft to work at another Seattle company like Amazon, or even a startup, to then jump to a higher level when returning to Microsoft.” I often recommend this when your career stalls at a company. There is no sense in sticking around and waiting for years if another great company is willing to promote you and boost your total compensation. Life is too short!