A job interview is like a first date. You dress up, pretend to be someone else, and spend the time wondering if you're going to get screwed.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few months interviewing candidates at my day job for a number of positions. Like so many other companies in the tech arena, it is increasingly hard to find qualified people without personality quirks so onerous you wonder how the candidate is able to survive in the real world. If you are reasonably competent in your field and can form a coherent sentence, there are plenty of jobs that can be yours.
Be fiercely individual and continue to enjoy the unemployment line.
In today’s rant I am going to talk a bit about why I declined to hire some recent candidates and along the way try to help applicants read between the lines when they don’t get the job. First on my list is an obvious target in the tech world – the geek with mad skills that do not extend to the closet.
Most days I wear jeans and a nice shirt to the office. Comfortable, clean and business casual. I can attend a meeting with a vice president or crawl under a desk to connect cables, whatever the job requires that day. I know that the days where a candidate arrives in a suit and tie are pretty much long gone, but I expect that he or she will dress in at least the same style as I do. When an interviewee arrives in flip flops, shorts, a t-shirt and all of them dirty, my initial thought is “did you read the name on the front of the building?” And that is immediately followed by “if this is the interview outfit, is he going to think pants are optional if he gets the job?”
This one is pretty easy. Dress slightly better than you think the job requires. If you don’t know what that is, try business attire – shirt and tie for men, business casual for women. Your outfit won’t make a huge impression unless it is too far in the extreme, and when that happens your chance to land the job is already gone.
Then there is the guy who literally knows everything. He or she is not looking to impress – there is no need to, the work and their obvious skills should speak for themselves. These people will tell me in great detail during the interview what is wrong with the questions I am asking, how what we as a company are doing badly and just how easy it will be for the “wunderkind” in front of me to fix our problems. He asks no questions and begins most answers with “I would have done it this way” or “I solved that problem by…”. The end result of this is that I think you are either arrogant or you are overselling yourself. Either way, you are a pass in my book.
Along similar lines, there is the “flash in the pan” candidate. Magicians perform most of their tricks through the fine art of misdirection, and this candidate tries to cover up his inexperience by asking too many questions in an attempt to get me to answer for him or to avoid having to answer at all. When put on the spot to provide an answer, he often resorts to playing “buzzword bingo” where I am supposed to be dazzled by his command of marketing terms. When all is said and done, you appear weak technically and not at all like you possess a keen analytical mind – which is what you were going for, right?
Sometimes I just can’t connect on some level with the candidate. He or she refuses to make eye contact, uses inappropriate language (generally speaking, I am not sure there is ever a good time to drop an F bomb in your average interview) or makes no attempt to connect with me as a person. When the interview is over, I can’t see myself working next to you, and that’s a problem. We don’t have to be soul mates, but I do need to feel like you are a real person. I don’t want to spend my days wishing we were in a relationship so I could dump you.
Preparation is also a problem. I can’t begin to tell you how many candidates arrive at the interview with virtually no idea what the company does. It gets worse when I turn the table on the candidate and allow him/her to ask me questions about the company and I am met with confused silence. A few minutes time prior to the interview to familiarize yourself with the company, to prep some questions specific to the job (and not benefits or salary related questions, because you are not at that point in the process yet) will go a long way towards making me feel like you are concerned about the work.
There are times, however, when no matter how well you dress and how spot-on your skills seem to be that you still won’t get the job. You might be passed over on the “soft sciences” like not being an accurate match for what most workplaces describe as their “culture”. The team may be laid-back and you might have displayed too much energy in the interview. As attractive a find as you might be, maybe there is one person in the company who is crucial to the job, and you have the kind of personality which will turn that person homicidal. It isn’t you, it’s that guy. These are things that in a perfect world would not matter, but actually do because you will be working with real human beings, warts and all.
And sometimes the company has unrealistic expectations about what your worth in the marketplace is. You will be called in to an interview where the company is hoping to entice you to join the team knowing that you are already making more than it is willing to pay. Many times the decision to bring you in – which you perceive as a waste of your time – happens outside the scope of the people who are interviewing you. Most likely I have no idea whatsoever that this is the case, and when you want to turn the conversation towards salary all I can do is suggest that you take it up with the people who scheduled the interview.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of candidates I have to pass on for some of the reasons above. Because we live in a litigious society and human ego being what it is, spelling out the true reason for the rejection rarely happens. Instead we tend to rely on euphemisms that placate you while protecting us. We tell you that you are overqualified for the job, which means that we either underestimated your skill set or you currently make too much money for our job. When you hear that you are not a good match for the corporate culture, it generally means that your choice of message t-shirt worn to the interview was not a good one or that treating the interviewer like something you found stuck on the bottom of your shoe was not the best strategy. And “we’ve decided to go in a different direction” is code for we want someone who isn’t going to fight us on every decision or who we do not have to educate before they become productive.
Going into an interview, I have no agenda shy of finding someone qualified to do the job and that I can work with. I don’t know you and have no bias against you, so I have no reason NOT to want to work with you. A little prep on your side combined with the right appearance and attitude will take you 90% of the way. Spend some time up front to learn about the company, show up on time and appropriately dressed, let me know what you have accomplished without bragging, and be prepared to ask me a question or two about something germane to the job. It’s the difference between being “employable” and “un”. And for the most part, the choice is yours.