Photo by Caro Wallis
I've talked about interviews from one perspective or another on several occasions—you might even say it is a pet subject of mine. It's fascinating because most people are no good at interviews. Of course, the other side of the equation is not pristine here, because the interviewer can be just as much to blame for a terrible interview, either through lack of training, empathy, preparation, or a host of other reasons (that's a whole separate discussion). So, why are we so bad at interviews? You can probably think of quite a few reasons straight away:
- it is a high pressure situation, you were nervous
- you just didn't "click" with the interviewer
- you were asked all the "wrong" questions
- sometimes you just have a bad day
In fact, you can often work yourself into a self-righteous frenzy after a bad interview, thinking how every circumstance seemed to conspire against you, it was beyond your control, there was nothing you could do—hell, you didn't even want to work for that stupid company anyway! But, deep down, we all know that those excuses are just so much bullshit. The truth is there were many things we could have done, but by the time the interview started it was much too late. I'll use a story to demonstrate.
The least stressful exam I've ever had was a computing theory exam in the second year of my computer science degree. I never really got "into it" during the semester, but a few weeks before exam time – for some inexplicable reason – I suddenly found the subject fascinating. Long story short, when exam time rolled around I knew the material backwards – I groked it. There was some anxiety (you can't eliminate it fully), but I went into the exam reasonably confident I'd blitz it (which I did). Practice and preparation made all the difference. Of course, this is hardly a revelation, everyone knows that if you study and practice you'll do well (your parents wouldn't shut up about it for years :)). Interviews are no different from any other skill/subject in this respect, preparation and practice are key.
Can You Wing It?
The one difference with interviews is that they are an occasional skill, almost meaningless most of the time, but of paramount importance once in a long while. It just doesn't seem like it's worth the effort to get good at them, especially if you happen to already have a job at the time (who knows, you may not need those skills for years). There are plenty of other subjects clamouring for your attention, and every interview is different; you can never predict what's going to happen, so it would be stupid to waste your time trying.
Good communication skills will see you through, right? Unfortunately they don't. Sure, you might be able to stave off total disaster, but without preparation and practice, you're mostly relying on luck. Things "click"; you get asked the "right" questions and are able to think of decent answers just in time. This is how most people get hired. As soon as the process gets a little more rigorous/scientific, so many candidates get weeded out that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. find themselves trying to steal people from each other since they know that those that have passed the rigorous interview processes of their competitors must be alright. The interesting thing is that the rejected candidates are not necessarily worse; they are often simply a lot less prepared and a little less lucky.
Over the last few years, presentation skills have seen quite a lot of press. Many a blog post and much literature addresses how to give better presentations (e.g. Presentation Zen and Confessions of a Public Speaker are both great books). Many people have decent knowledge of their subject area and have good communication skills, they think they are excellent presenters, but they are wrong. They put together some slides in a few hours and think their innate abilities will carry them through, but inevitably their presentations end up disjointed, mistargeted, boring or amateurish.
Sometimes they sail through on luck, circumstances conspire and the presentation works, but these situations are not common. Malcolm Gladwell is a master presenter and is one of the most highly sought after and highly paid speakers in the world (and has written a bunch of awesome books to boot), and this isn't by chance. Without doubt he knows his stuff and has better communication skills than the majority of speakers out there, and yet all his talks are rigorously prepared for and practiced. To my mind, the situation with interviews is similar to that of presentations, except the deluge of literature about interviews goes almost unnoticed since they are old-hat. The digital world hasn't changed the interview process too significantly (unlike the public speaking process), except the internet age brings all the old advice together in one place for us and all of that advice is still surprisingly relevant.
The Old-School Advice
Everyone (and I mean everyone) always says that you should research the company you'll be interviewing with beforehand. You would think people would have this one down by now (especially developers, cause we're smart, right?). No such luck. Just about everyone who rocks up for an interview knows next to nothing about the company they are trying to get a job at, unless the company is famous, in which case people are just full of hearsay. But hearsay is no substitute for a bit of research, and it is so easy.
There's still plenty to say (I haven't even begun to talk about attitude), but this is already a tl;dr candidate, so I'll leave that discussion for another time. Let's sum up: If you feel that you suck at interviews, it's because you didn't prepare well enough and haven't had enough practice. It's that simple.
As an interviewer, it's most disheartening to see an unprepared candidate. On the other hand, a person who is clearly on the ball is just awesome. And I am well aware that practicing interviews is hard (there is no Toastmasters equivalent for that particular skill), but thorough preparation can significantly mitigate that issue. Even a few minutes of preparation will put you head and shoulders above most other people since the vast majority don't bother at all. So, take the time to practice/prepare if you have an interview on the horizon, be smart about it, and your preparation is bound to pay off.
Read the full post, with more focus on software development, at skorks.com
Alan Skorkin is a software developer from Melbourne, Australia. He shares his thoughts about software development, people, and teamwork on his blog skorks.com.