A checklist to prepare for (almost) any interview
A few rule of thumbs I personally use to prepare for interviews
This is a follow-up post to a piece a wrote on how to structure your hiring process as seen from the hiring manager's point of view. You can find it here.
I have something to confess, I love doing interviews. And I don’t mean the part in which I am the interviewer, although I don’t necessarily dislike that part of my job, but the part in which I am interviewed.
Why is that? You might ask.
An interview is a moment in which I get to talk about myself and the people on the other side have to listen to me
Being a hiring manager for many years, I don’t take interviews too seriously, I know they are extremely biased and that most companies don’t prepare their interviewers adequately and therefore are bad at picking the right hire
Nonetheless, I always prepare for an interview, especially the kind of interviews that are more suitable for story-telling (e.g. STAR or SOARA) because that is a performative interview and requires some level of preparation.
You can see the list that follows as some kind of checklist, some kind of pre-flight check, to make the best of your performance.
1. Ask your recruiter
Any decent company makes sure that recruiters make the time to prepare candidates and very often you don’t have to ask. But just in case, this is what I have seen available in the wild:
Most common, a 15-minute prep meeting with the recruiter in which they will go through the topics of the interview and give you some example questions. Sometimes they will go a bit deeper into the interviewers, their role, and what they expect to hear from you.
Print material, sometimes companies will prepare some kind of description of the job and the interview stages. If those are available try to rack up as much information as possible. Meta is famous for having amazing prep material
The objective here is to collect as much intelligence as possible so that you can use it in the next steps of this checklist.
2. Prepare to reverse interview the panel
You’d be surprised how many companies will mention in the hiring decision meetings “the candidate spent time researching the company”, it might sound silly to you (and in a way I agree) but this is used as a signal to understand if you are serious about your job search.
So spend some time going through the company website, and LinkedIn pages, and read about their mission, history, financials, and latest news.
So that you can prepare a barrage of questions for the panel aimed at understanding if you want to join this company and impressing on them the idea that you have been thoughtful about your research.
You cannot imagine how many times people ask irrelevant or dumb questions that they read on LinkedIn like “What doubts do you still have about me after this interview?”, as if an interviewer would tell you the truth at that moment.
Instead, think about what you learned about this company and what you are curious about, also take notes during the interview if you can, to go back to certain points that were raised by interviewers.
Some tips on what I do:
Often an interviewers ask a hypothetical question on a problem you might face in your job and you can feel that this is something that they are facing in reality. A good question to ask is “You asked me how I would solve X, is this a problem you are currently facing? How are you dealing with it?”. This has the benefit of showing that you are actively listening to them and also showing you what kind of mess you will have to clean if you get hired.
Check the most recent news on the company, especially financials and product-related, so that you can come up with something very relevant like “I read the latest earnings call, and the CEO said that you are working on project Superman to focus on AI. What do you think of that? I read the timeline and it seems very ambitious” or a simpler question like “Are you worried about competitor X growing faster than you in the Y market?”. Again this is two-sided, it shows that you have been doing your research but also shows you how engaged people are in that company: do they have a PR-approved answer? Do they have a genuinely excited answer or a genuinely not-excited answer?1
If you are interviewing for a startup or scaleup, ask very detailed questions on reporting lines and team structure. You can learn a lot about how they think about it. Do they have already 6 managerial titles in a startup of 100 people? Red flag. Do they say “titles are not important” but they have 3 VP of Engineering and 4 Principal Engineers? Red flag.
If you have been an interviewer before, use your experience to spot yellow/red flags in your conversations and dig deep into those topics. It’s already hard to join a decent company, try to find everything that you can in advance.
The bottom line is that those questions don’t have to be smart but relevant. For me interviewing with a company is a journey of discovery in which I decide only at the end if I would like to join if they make an offer, never at the beginning.
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3. Facts are nice but stories are better
“Never let facts get in the way of a good story” might be a bit too much in this case but it’s important to remind yourself that if you want to keep your audience on the edge of your seat you need to have a good story, not only good facts.
Hopefully, your CV will contain a bullet list of achievements that you are proud of:
Reduced loading times of the main landing page by 50%
Achieved business targets and increased revenues by 10% totaling 1M$
Those are your conversation starters, now you need to have a story around those numbers.
It’s understandable that, if you are not used to storytelling, you might be thinking at this point that this advice is completely useless for you. Don’t despair! I have some easy tricks to build your story:
Start writing down a bullet list of the main salient point of the story in reverse chronological order. Why reverse chronological order? Because you minimize the risk of writing down completely unrelated events.
Now get those bullet points and map them out on the best structure for storytelling that I know: Dan Harmon’s story circle. I can already hear the objections here, but trust me and try it out yourself.
Now you have a decent structure is time to tell the story, and there is only one way to learn how to tell the story. Practice telling this story, add emotions and details, no need to come up with something that isn’t true, this is real life, just make sure this is a nice consistent flow that is easy to follow and is not too long.
Make sure your story checks all the boxes of the STAR/SOARA interview style so that they find it satisfying from a formal perspective
Practice, practice, practice. You can take a few minutes to tell a story, but practice this with real people if possible, you can judge from their eyes if you are losing their attention or not.
4. Have decent answers for obvious questions (even the dumb ones)
Whatever the company there are always several questions that you can predict in advance, either because the recruiter told you already about it, or because of your role and experience.
Make sure to prepare decent answers (stories) for commonly asked questions like:
How do you spot talented people and help them grow? (Yes even as a senior individual contributor)
Can you tell me of a time in which you made a mistake? How did you solve it?
If we ask people that have worked with you in the past, what would they say about you?
If you look back at your career, what is the single achievement that you are most proud of? Why?
What motivates you to do your best work?
It’s tricky to come up with answers on the spot if you have not prepared in advance and/or you don’t have a lot of experience interviewing. So really try to think hard about what questions are kinda obvious. Even if you don’t get asked the same question you can find a way to weave these stories into the answer and bring the ball in your court.
Don’t forget to prepare answers to dumb questions! This is a big weakness of mine, when I think of being asked clichés like “Why do you want to join our company?” my skin crawls and my brain refuses to even think about an answer to that question. But I am a professional and I prepare for a question like that or “What are your biggest weaknesses”.
Always prepare some positive, but not too positive, answers that don’t expose you to follow-up questions. Something like “The reason why I am excited to join Evil Corp. is because I believe that this is a company in which I can learn a lot and at the same time I feel that some of the things I have learned in my past experiences could add value in the team”.
5. Story of your life
Every interview starts with an introduction, this is a great moment to highlight something about you that is a strength and that you want them to remember.
Again go back to using the story circle, but this time think more carefully about where to start, depending on your age, your graduation might not be that compelling even if you graduated at Harvard. Instead, find a moment that you think is a watershed moment of your career, and start a bit before that.
For example, I always start my intro from the moment I moved to the Netherlands, then move forward to the present and then briefly talk about what I did before moving to the Netherlands.
Your story needs to be tailored to the company you are talking to, I had multiple roles across my career and, while I could just skim over those equally, I always spend a bit more time on roles that I think are relevant while I skim over to others that I don’t think are that important.
Practice and practice again, the story should be short, enjoyable, and crisp.
Also, listen to your interviewers’ introduction to find something you can relate to, try to weave that into your story, and point out commonalities to make them feel closer to you.
6. Stay in character
I cannot count how many times people have told me that “we are lucky” in Technology because we don’t have a dress code. Every time I have the same reaction, take a deep breath and start “Actually…”
Because we do have a dress code, just that everyone is so used to it that they don’t notice. An example to prove my point, look at Mark Zuckerberg in a suit and tell me if that looks natural or if you feel that something is wrong.
This is sometimes used as a marketing tool, for example, in a famous coffeeshop in Amsterdam where everybody is dressed elegantly and the security has a bowler hat), but unless you have a very specific plan, stick to the dress code and expectations.
I always dress for an interview with either a hoody or a sci-fi/movie-themed t-shirt and jeans (unless I’d interview for a bank I guess). So that the interviewers get what they expect, they expect a tech guy and I am giving them the tech guy.
What if you normally dress differently from your professional dress code?
No judgment from my side, just keep in mind that you are now potentially surprising them and it’s better to not avoid the topic but rather try to make a joke on it.
You have prepared the way you dress, now you have to prepare the way you come across.
I wish I could say that it didn’t matter if you are an introvert or extrovert, if you are having a good day or a bad day, but it does. Especially in a remote setting, I cannot count the number of times I heard “The candidate wasn’t energetic/engaged” and this will affect you negatively.
This is a performance! So you need to practice the ability to channel your energy and start smiling and be sociable the minute the call starts. I know is hard, it’s very energy-consuming for me as well.
I have learned the technique by doing comedy improvisation and it’s probably the hardest tip I am giving here: practice at home alone the ability to go from calm and relaxed, to jumping and screaming, and then back to calm and relaxed (you can see why I am advising to be home alone). When you are comfortable with increasing and decreasing your energy at will, you just need to channel that energy for the interview and keep it up.
Let’s close this up
I cannot stress enough how much an interview outcome is driven by your expectations and feelings, it is hard to care about something and at the same time not worry about the outcome and there is no “sure” strategy to get a job.
I have three final pieces of advice for you:
Find a friend or an ex-colleague to practice mock interviews. It’s so crucial to prepare in advance and it’s not something you have to do for every company, once you have your story straight it gets easier
Embrace the messiness of the process and remember that most companies suck at this
Go through the interviews thinking that you are the one deciding whether you want to join this company or not
Once I spoke with a director at Meta and after asking a question along those lines I got this terrible feeling in my stomach that Meta was in a terrible place (and layoffs came just right after)