Monday, August 2, 2010

How to answer (sometimes dumb) questions in an interview

Seems pretty straightforward and simple, but there is art here. Ask any successful salesperson. I’ve quoted Richard Bolles (What Color is Your Parachute) as saying there are only five questions that count, yet somehow interviewers seem to ask a lot more than that! Why?
Most interviewers haven’t articulated in nearly as concise a way what’s important. For example: In technology, we can get totally focused on knowledge around some particular tool and forget about everything else. That doesn’t mean the other information is less useful or important, just that we’ve failed to develop questions that appropriately address everything that matters.

The five questions are:

1. Why are you here? (Why are you applying for this job rather than somewhere else.)
2. What can you do for us? (Will you be able to solve this problem?)
3. What kind of person are you? (Will you fit with us?)
4. What makes you special? (What distinguishes you from the other xxxx people lined up to apply for this job?)
5. Can I afford you? (just what it says)

Mapping those to questions that are commonly asked is not especially straightforward. The only one you are likely to be asked in a clear way is, “Can I afford you?” And even that one can get murky in practice. At some point, though, there will be a discussion of salary and that will answer their question.

Seems like a dumb question, but it has hidden value

So the answers they are looking for are often hidden in seeming innocuous (sometimes called dumb) questions such as, “Tell me about yourself?” I’ve asked that question and here is why.

• Partly I was stalling for time (I just wanted to hear the candidate talk and to get some emotional reaction to them).
• Partly I wanted them to focus on themselves and not on the job description.
• Partly I wanted to see if they understood the job description and if they could translate that into language describing their experience.

In terms of the five questions, it was a starting attempt to answer questions 2, 3 and 4. If I asked, “What is your greatest strength?” then I probably wanted the candidate to tell me how his/her strengths might solve my problem (question 2). If I asked about weaknesses (“What is your greatest weakness?”), then I wanted to know whether the weakness would impact the rest of the team or the project (question 3).

The important take away from this is that I wasn’t especially interested in you “the person”. I wanted to know how you would help me. If you think that is unfair to ask you how you might fit without telling you what you need to fit into, I agree. But for that to happen, you need to ask me about the position/company. As a hiring manager, I actively created questions that didn’t include sufficient information for some definitive answer to be provided because I wanted you to ask.

My point here is that the questions you bring to the interview are just as important as the questions the potential employer brings. In fact if you have done a good job with yours, then translating these into a focused, productive interview is much easier.

Have your stories well practiced

Equally important in your prep is identifying and practicing stories that address the specifics of common questions and illustrate how you can help a company. Stories give you a much better shot in the interview. It is very possible that when you get to the interview, none of the stories apply, yet simply having them ready reminds you of the stories you might use.

I’ll use myself as an example again. If I am interviewing for a job as an IT Director, there are many stories I can tell. If I know their problem is high turnover, I provide one set of stories. If their problem is unstable infrastructure, it’s a different set.

If they ask me what my greatest strength is, then pretty much the worst answer I can think of is “Ideation”. It is my greatest strength but in every interview context I can think of, it would be a show stopper. Telling a story about how my penchant for understanding the underlying theory of network design allowed me to design a new network using tools I had not previously worked with, and how that design was economical and extensible, yada yada, now that’s a good story.

Key to choosing an applicable story is asking enough questions so I know what matters to my audience. One way to do this is simply asking more questions. If you are asked, “What is your greatest strength?” Rather than blurting out the first story that comes to mind (which I have done in the past), pause and ask specifically what kinds of problems they are working on. Something like, “I can provide a variety of stories that illustrate my strengths, perhaps if I understood more about what you are working on, I could choose an appropriate one. So what is it that you expect this new person to do? What is a key problem that you hope to solve?”

The point of all of this:
  • Preparation is key.
  • Use stories (well practiced stories) to illustrate your answer, rather than just blurting out an answer.
  • Ask questions throughout the interview.
  • Cliche questions are our friends because they allow us to prepare.

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