Following on from my recent article on how to write a good CV I had some requests to continue on with my thoughts on how to do well at interview. Again, I’ve worked with my partner who is a former recruiter, however this time I have also consulted some other friends and colleagues to gather their views and experiences from both sides of the interview table. So here are our collective thoughts and tips for you; I hope that you find them useful and that they can help you to land that role you’re chasing.
- Be yourself
- Interviews are a two-way conversation where communication is key
- Interview them as much as they interview you
- The right preparation sets you up to be calm and confident
- Be familiar with the STAR technique
- Rejections are part of the process, don’t take them personally, they don’t mean you’re not good enough
What is an interview?
There’s lots of opinions on what an interview is and how you should approach one. It’s easy to get hung up on thinking that you need to “sell” yourself or that you need to be perfect. The reality is that an interview is a conversation between you and a potential employer. It’s a chance for you to demonstrate your skills, experience and personality to a potential employer. It’s also a chance for the employer to understand if you are the right fit for the role and the company. It’s important to remember that the interview is a two-way process and that you should be assessing the company and role as much as they are assessing you.
I’ve genuinely rejected opportunities and offers because I didn’t get the right feel or vibe from the interview process, either they were heavy of skills I didn’t feel I had or wanted to develop or (for me) more importantly the cultural fit wasn’t right. You need to try and determine through the process if these are people that you want to work with and that you can grow alongside. If you don’t feel that you can work with the people you’re interviewing with then it’s unlikely that you’ll be happy in the role.
Some companies will have a fixed and rigid approach to interviews, others will be more flexible and will adapt to the individual. However they will all go through some kind of a process and you should be prepared for that.
Some of my best interviews haven’t even felt like interviews but have felt more like peer conversations. Equally I’ve had some where I’ve come out feeling like I’ve been grilled and interrogated. The result of the interview doesn’t always match to the experience, i.e. I’ve had some ones that felt good but gone no further and others where after being grilled and feeling like I failed I’ve actually been progressed through. The key is to be yourself and to be honest. If you’re not a good fit for the role or the company then you’re not a good fit and that’s ok. You’ll find a better fit somewhere else.
Different Types of Interview
Before we get too deep into tips, strategies and preparation we should acknowledge that there are different types of interview, with different members of the hiring company and that they are likely looking for different things. It’s vital to understand the context of a given interview so that you can tailor your responses and approach accordingly. Every company is different, but in general some of the common types of interview you might encounter are:
|Interview Type||Description||Who is involved?||What are they looking for?||Typical Format|
||Recruiter, Talent Acquisition or HR
||15 - 30 minute phone call (occasionally video call)
||Hiring Manager, Technical or Discipline Lead or another technical person
||45 - 60 video call or in-person interview
|Management or Behavioural Interview
||Hiring Manager, peer Manager, or another member of the team
||45 - 60 video call or in-person interview
||Hiring Manager, Technical or Discipline Lead or another technical person||
||May be video call, in-person, or a take-away exercise|
||Manager, Director, or other key stakeholders||
||45 - 60 video call or in-person interview|
Depending on the company and role you may have more than one of each of these types of interview and they may be more, or less, targeted on specific aspects of your skills, experience or personality.
As with everything in life it’s important to be prepared for an interview. That said, I often see people, influencers, over-hyping this and leading people to believe that they need to be perfect and have all the answers. This is not the case. You should be prepared to a point where you are confident in your abilities and can demonstrate how your skills and experience would benefit the company. Understanding how these can relate to the hiring company and it’s challenges can help you to stand out from the crowd. You should also be prepared to be asked questions that you don’t know the answer to, or that you don’t have a lot of experience with. This will show how you can approach and tackle a new issue and that you can remain calm under pressure.
Prepare for the stage of interview you are at
It’s important to understand the stage of the interview process that you are at and to prepare accordingly. If you’re at the initial screening stage then you should be prepared to talk about your background and experience. If you’re at the technical interview stage then you should be prepared to talk about your technical skills and experience. If you’re at the management or behavioural interview stage then you should be prepared to talk about your communication style, experience and approach to problem solving.
You can also balance the research that you do in line with the stage of the interview process. If you’re at the initial screening stage then you should be prepared to talk about your background and experience. During a technical interview being familiar the the job specification will guide you to understand the problems you will need to solve and you can tune your skills to match those challenges. During a management or behavioural interview you should be familiar with the company’s culture, markets and challenges so that you can talk about how you can contribute to the team and company.
While I say it’s important to not get hung up on preparation and being perfect you absolutely should do some research on the company and the role. This will help you to understand the what the company is working on, where you may fit in and what the challenges are. Most companies will publish a job spec or description, this is the bare minimum that you should be familiar with. It’s also a good idea to look over the company website to understand the products and services they offer and the markets that they serve.
If you can find out who you will be interviewing with then it’s a good idea to look at their LinkedIn profile to understand their background and experience. This will help you to understand the context of the interview and the questions that you might be asked.
You do not need to know every case study and product document that the company has published.
My top tip here is to have read enough about the company to ideally do two things:
- Be able to talk about how my skills and experience would benefit the company
- Ask intelligent questions about the company and the role
I’ll give a quick example from when I first interviewed with Vocera. After looking over the marketing material on their UK website I noticed that it only made reference to WEP encrypted wireless. This was back in 2014, and even then WEP was known to be insecure and had been superseded by first WPA and then again by WPA2. During the interview process I was able to ask them why they were still using WEP and how that might expose their customers. This was a great question for two reasons; first it showed I had done my research and knew my technology, and second it highlighted that the website was out of date as they had indeed moved on to support WPA and WPA2. So I had the opportunity to show myself in a good light and they got to see that while also finding a problem with their customer facing material.
So once you have completed sufficient research to hit these two points and have a small number of good questions you are good to go. Stop with the research and move on to other preparation points, see below…
Know your CV
Hopefully this one goes without saying as you wrote it (and didn’t get ChatGPT to write it for, right?), but be deeply familiar with your CV. You should be able to talk about every point on your CV and be able to provide examples of how you have used those skills and experience in the past. You should be comfortable assessing those skills and experiences both in terms of how deep they go and also how any examples went. Be prepared to critique yourself and projects you worked on; what went well, what could have gone better, what you would do differently next time?
You don’t want to get caught out because you claimed to have experience with a particular technology or skill and then not be able to provide an example of how you have or would use it.
If you landed here first and need to brush up your CV then check out my tips for How To Write A Good CV.
Know the job description
You’ll be surprised how many candidates I’ve interviewed who read the job title and assumed that they knew what we were looking for. Some job descriptions are just a bland job list, or dream list, of skills; but often they do have clues as to what the company is looking for. For example if most of the job description talks about Linux administration skills but is branded as a DevOps engineer you might want to question them on what they are actually looking for or if they are looking for someone to bring more DevOPs skills to the team. Similarly you might see skills on the nice to have list which you might have but maybe were also down the list on your own CV, don’t miss the chance to tell them about this.
If you’ve read the job description then you can tailor you responses, examples and how you try to contribute to the discussion to match you skills, experiences and knowledge to their challenges and requirements.
The most common way interviewers tend to explore your skills, personality and mindset is through open ended questions such as “tell me about a time when…” or “describe a challenging situation you were faced with”. These questions let the interviewer see you in action, how you communicate, your thoughts processes, how you approach a problem, and much more. So, it’s key to have some examples of situations you’ve been in that you can talk about. It’s also vital to be able to explain what you did in that situation and how you contributed to the outcome. I would also recommend thinking critically about the situation and how you could have done things differently, what you would do differently next time, and what you learned from the situation.
When faced with these questions you should look to use the STAR technique to structure your answer.
Lastly for this, don’t worry if you don’t have an example which exactly fits the question, after all it’s impossible to have experienced every situation. If you are struggling for an example then you can always say that you haven’t experienced that exact situation but you have experienced something similar and then talk about that instead. Just make sure that you explain to the interviewer why you are talking about a different situation and ideally how it might relate back to their scenario that they originally asked about.
Knowing how to communicate is a key skill for any interview. You should be able to communicate your skills and experience in a clear and concise manner. You should also be able to listen and understand the questions that you are being asked. This is a two-way conversation and you should be able to ask questions to understand the context of the question and the role.
Be aware of your communication style(s) and those of the interviewer
It’s important to be aware of your communication style and how you come across to others. This is especially important when you are interviewing with someone who has a different communication style to you. You should be able to adapt your communication style to suit the interviewer and the situation. As an example if an interviewer is very direct, to the point and is willing to cut in to move to the next questions then you may wish to adapt to provide shorter, more bullet point type answers. If the interviewer is more open and willing to discuss the question in more detail then you may wish to provide more detail and examples.
What is important here is that it’s for you to find a way to best get your message across. You’re here to sell yourself after all. Obviously take note if there’s a real clash or disconnect, it may indicate that this isn’t a good fit, but you won’t come across well if you are not able to communicate well with the interviewer.
Presentation and body language
For anything other than phone calls body language and how you present yourself can be a significant factor in an interview. These days, particular for many tech roles, it may be that the traditional suit and tie is no longer the most appropriate attire, however you should look to gauge the type of interview that you are approaching and balance your presentation accordingly. For example, in an technical interview with a fellow developer a hoodie and jeans might be acceptable for a video interview or jeans and a smart jumper or jacket for in person, but if you’re meeting with a senior manager or director then you may wish to consider a shirt and smart trousers for example. As a failsafe, for in person interviews, if you’re not sure then, yes, a suit would be a solid and safe choice.
Obviously, I hope, in all cases make sure that your clothes are clean, tidy (no holes please), and generally well presented. Similarly, it’s a good decision to make sure that you’re clean, tidy, and well groomed yourself.
In terms of body language there are a few things to consider. The first is to make sure that you are sitting up straight and that you are not slouching. This will help you to come across as confident and professional. The second is to make sure that you are making eye contact with the interviewer. This will help you to come across as confident and professional. It’s also important to make sure that you are not staring at the interviewer, or the camera if you’re doing a video interview, but that you are looking at them. This will help you to come across as confident and professional. Next, be aware of any personal ticks, traits, or habits you may have. For example, if you have a habit of playing with your hair or fiddling with your clothes then you should be aware of this and try to avoid doing it during the interview. The aim is to keep the interviewer focused on you and what you say, not distracted by any personal habits you may have. If you do happen to have a tick or trait which is outside of your control then it may be a good idea to let them know ahead of time or excuse yourself when it happens, again so that they can account for it and return their focus to what you want them to be focusing on.
The reason for all of this is to make sure that you leave an impression that you are professional and that you take pride in your appearance, and to not be distracted by anything in your appearance or mannerisms that may detract from that.
I’ve genuinely been offered roles on the strength of bring me to an interview, stronger candidates technically have come and gone because they didn’t fit the team profile. So I strongly advocate for bringing your personality to an interview. Of course, we all know, we need to carry a level of professionalism but that doesn’t mean we can’t crack a joke about some technology, divert into a short aside about something like football if the interviewer makes a reference to it, or have an opinion on how things could or should be done. You’ll be a lot more memorable if you’re more than a bland question answering machine.
A really good tip from my partner that I seem to do instinctively, but isn’t natural to everyone; stay positive. Even when faced with a challenging question or situation staying positive can be your biggest asset. It shows that you can remain calm under pressure and that you can think on your feet. It also shows that you are able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Check out the other tips here as knowing how to handle an interview and stay calm can really help you to remain positive.
Be the STAR interviewee
STAR is a common technique for answering interview questions. It’s a good way to structure your answers and to ensure that you cover all the key points that you want to get across. It’s also a good way to ensure that you don’t ramble on and on about a single point.
STAR stands for:
- Situation - describe the situation that you were in
- Task - describe the task that you were given
- Action - describe the action that you took
- Result - describe the result of your actions
This approach works particularly well for those “tell me about a time when…” type questions. It’s also a good way to structure your answers to questions about your experience and skills.
This approach gives the interviewer the context of the scenario or situation, shows that you have assessed and thought about the task at hand, and gives room for follow up questions.
Check out https://uk.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/star-technique for more on this.
Just be aware of spending roughly equal amounts of time on each of the sections; and on that note…
Be aware of time
Make sure at least one of you is aware of the time in the interview. Be respectful of the interviewer’s time and make sure that you are to the point and answering the questions asked. Don’t waste their time, and yours, by going off on a tangent and not addressing the focus of the question. Similarly, if the interview is spending a long time on a specific talking point and you feel like you’re missing the opportunity to talk about another skill you had hoped to discuss then you can ask if it’s possible to move on to another topic.
Yes, you absolutely can and should ask questions in an interview. Any interviewer that doesn’t give time and space for questions should be a red flag in my opinion. At the end of the day you need to be sure that you’re making the right choice if you accept an offer just as much as a hiring manager needs to feel confident that they’re hiring the right individual.
Use your questions to explore parts of the role that aren’t clear on the job description or to explore the company and the role in more detail. You should also use your questions to explore the company culture and the team that you would be working with. Aim to try and leave an interview and be able to explain to a friend or family member what the role is, what the company does, what the culture is and how you would fit in. If you can’t do this then you have unanswered questions and you should look to try and answer them before you accept an offer.
Don’t just wait until the end
I’ve said several times that an interview is really a conversation between you and the hiring company. Conversations are not one way interrogations, they are an exchange of ideas and information. To that end you can help steer the conversation towards areas that you want to talk about, or to discover things that you want to know about the role by asking questions throughout the conversation. Occasionally you may have an interviewer who wants to stay on track, or on script, and they may defer questions to the end or look to push on with their agenda, but most interviews in my experience the interviewer has wanted to explore the conversation and the questions that I have asked.
What if I don’t understand a question I’m asked?
Another place to use questions is where you do not understand the detail or context of a question asked of you. Sometimes, particularly in technical interviews it’s possible for the interviewer to assume context or knowledge when asking a question. Trust your instincts here, if you feel like something is missing, ask the question. It shows that you’re thinking about the problem and are trying to solve it. It also shows that you’re not afraid to ask questions and that you’re not afraid to admit that you don’t know something. This is a good thing.
Asking questions in this context is not a bad thing, it’s usually more indicative of a problem with the interviewer than the interviewee, or at least the hiring process if someone not equipped for the discussion is being interviewed. Either way, ask the questions you need to and if the interviewer isn’t happy with that then it’s not the role for you anyway.
It’s important to stay calm during an interview. This is easier said than done, but there are a few things that you can do to help you to stay calm.
- Make sure that you are well prepared for the interview - this will help you to feel more confident and in control
- Be familiar with your own CV and feel comfortable talking about your skills and experience - again this will help you build a sense of confidence and control in the things you can control
- Keep a drink with you - this will help you to stay hydrated, and avoid that horrible dry mouth feeling. It will also to have something to do with your hands and allow a moment to pause and collect your thoughts if you need one
- Remember that not every interview is “the one” and as much as you feel derailed if an interview seems to not be going well but that says as much about the interviewer and the role as it does about you. If you feel like you’re not getting the opportunity to show your skills and experience then it’s not the right role for you anyway
This one that not a lot of people talk about or focus on; so let’s talk about rejections. The first, and most obvious, thing to say is that rejection is a normal part of the job hunting process; at the end of the day unless you’re the only candidate for a role there will need to be a choice between candidates no matter how good they are. What fewer people think about is that rejection goes both ways, let’s explore both now…
We’ll start with the obvious one first. There are many reasons why a potential employer might choose to not make an offer or progress you to a later round. While it’s easy to take it as a personal rejection, it’s important to remember that in almost all cases it’s not that at all. There are many reasons why a company might choose to not make an offer; here’s a few to consider:
- The company only has budget for one role and there were two or more exceptional candidates
- You were a great candidate but the role that you applied for was either to junior, or senior, for you
- Companies often don’t want to put a candidate into a role below their level as the candidate will likely become bored or unsatisfied and want to move on quickly
- Similarly, often a role with expectations significantly above the candidate’s level will lead to the candidate feeling overwhelmed and unhappy
- Due to internal changes the role is put on hold or cancelled, even if the hiring team/manager would like to make an offer
Contrary to many opinions, the majority of companies don’t want to put an employee into the wrong role. This tends to lead to a loss of morale in the employee which can spread to other members of the team, even if the employee is a good fit for the company. Putting someone in the wrong role typically leads to them moving on either externally or internally and the hiring team then needing to spend the time and money going back through the hiring process again.
Similarly, I’ve been in the position where as a team we really wanted/needed to hire a new team member and had found some good candidates but due to changes within the company, such as a down turn in the wider business (see 2023 IT Industry Layoffs as an example), we were blocked from doing so by senior management.
Rejecting an offer
Often people don’t think so much about rejecting a role. This might be because you applied for roles that you really want, or need, and therefore it’s never come up to consider rejecting an offer. If that’s the case that’s totally fine.
However it absolutely should be an option that you leave yourself open to; there are many reasons why you might want to reject an offer. Here’s a few to consider:
- During the interview process you realise that the role isn’t quite what you thought it was
- From your interview experiences you notice that the team fit or company culture isn’t quite right for you
- The offer made to you doesn’t meet your expectations
- This could be in terms of salary, benefits, or other perks
- It could also be in terms of the role itself, for example the role is more junior than you expected
- You were in process for multiple roles and another offer was made to you that you prefer
Whatever the reason it’s important to realise that just because an offer was made you do not need to accept it. Maybe you need to reject a first offer because you want to negotiate a better one, or maybe you’ve decided it just is not the right fit for you. Either way, it’s important to be professional and polite in your rejection, see Maintain a good relationship after a rejection for why this is important.
My advice here is to follow your instincts; there are many reasons we’re all looking for a new role, and it’s important to remember what those reasons are. If you are looking to improve your financial situation that’s absolutely fine and you may be able to accept challenges with team fit. However, if you’re like me, then team fit is a big part of why you’re looking for a new role and so any concerns or red flags in that area should be taken seriously. If things don’t feel right then it’s ok to say no.
Maintain a good relationship after a rejection
A top tip from me would be to look to try and leave the process following a rejection on either side on good terms. It doesn’t cost a lot and it may be that another opportunity can come from it. For example, imagine you were the 2nd of two exceptional candidates for a role and for some reason the other candidate doesn’t work out. If you accepted the rejection professionally and on good terms it’s very possible for the company to look to circle back to you as a known good candidate and make an offer to you without going back through the whole process again. I’ve seen this happen, I mentioned above that we were previously blocked by management due to a hiring freeze, we had maintained an ongoing conversation with our preferred candidate where we had explained the issue and they had accepted it in good grace. When the freeze was lifted we were able to go back to the candidate and make an offer directly and fill the role quickly.
I’ve also been in the situation where as a candidate the offer on the table just didn’t make sense. The role was interesting but financially things just didn’t align. I explain this in detail to the recruiter along with my thinking; they tried to improve the offer but couldn’t get close enough so I had to say no. However by working through the process and my thoughts with them they were able to see in even more detail what I might bring to the team were another opportunity arise. We left on good terms and the recruiter still occasionally checks in to see if there might be an opportunity that would work for me. So, I’ve left the door open for a future opportunity should I need one. This extends further too; if the hiring manager, or recruiter, move on to another role themselves they take their opinions and network with them, and so while that role and company may not have been able to match your needs, their next company may be able to.
As with all skills interviewing is not something that comes natural to many, and that’s OK. The way to handle that is to practice the skills we’ve discussed here today. Some ideas for practice:
Prepare for an interview with companies you’d like to work for or are interested in even before you have an opportunity to actually interview
- This will help you develop those research skills and help you to understand the company and the role
- This will also mean that you’re already more prepared should an opportunity arise
- Practice your communication skills as often as you can
- Practice talking about your skills and experience with friends and colleagues
- Try to take an active role in meetings you are a part of experiment with trying to steer a conversation to particular topic that maybe that meeting isn’t addressing
- Keep track of time in meetings that you are a part of and if meetings are running over or are not addressing key points inside the time try to take steps to direct the discussion
- See what works and what doesn’t and how people react
- With friends and family, or if you can find yourself a mentor, and practice interviewing with them
- If you can have them help you by varying practices to meet the different types of interview that you may encounter
I don’t know it all and others have great tips on interviews too. Here are some other resources that I’ve found useful:
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