Photo by -bast-
The year was 1998, and we were at the peak of the tech boom. I was about to graduate from Virginia Tech with a master’s degree in computer science, and I had a 4.0 GPA. It was a good time to look for a job.
One company was flying in a few Virginia Tech students for interviews. We flew in to Raleigh-Durham, NC the day before, spent the night in a hotel, and a car was sent for us in the morning. We showed up at the office, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
They showed us around the building and pointed out all the groundbreaking work they were doing. Then they put on a fantastic presentation, and I was completely sold. During my interviews, I easily answered all the questions they threw at me, and I had a great feeling about everything. At the end, I smiled, shook the guy’s hand, and waited outside with the rest of the candidates. Pretty soon I would be told that I had taken one giant leap towards the American Dream.
Except that I didn’t get the job.
“What do you mean I didn’t get the job?” I shouted, with little concern for how I sounded. The lady just said “Unfortunately, the interviewers didn’t think you were a good match for the positions they had available.” Today, I know that that’s a euphemism for “You suck.” Back then, I thought they really meant that somehow my skills didn’t fit anything they had available.
I couldn’t stop trying to figure out what had gone wrong. I replayed my interviews over and over in my head, and I didn’t really see what I could have done better. I guess I could have answered some of the questions faster, instead of taking some time to remember the syntax of certain Unix commands, but I didn’t think that was it.
I decided that I had to email them and find out. So I wrote up a polite but direct email, saying I really wanted to work there, I was confused about why I didn’t get an offer, and I was wondering if they could tell me why.
The answer really surprised me. It was right then that I learned the most important question to answer in a job interview is one that doesn’t get asked. And that question is “Do you want the job?”
The lady said that the interviewers liked me, and they were impressed with my technical knowledge, but they thought I was just job shopping, and didn’t seem to have any real interest in the company at all. They said I didn’t ask many questions, or even say that I wanted the job.
Wait a minute, time out here–I have to tell them that I want the job? Why the hell would I fly in and interview for a job I didn’t want? And no real interest in the company? I had spent days reading their website and they were one of my top two choices. I didn’t ask many questions because I already knew what I needed to know. Why didn’t they ask me why I wanted to work there, if there was any doubt?
I thought that an interview was like a test: they ask questions, you answer them correctly, and you get the job. But actually, you pass the test by asking questions, not answering them. You ask questions to show interest in the company and convince them that you want the job.
I didn’t get my dream job, but I had a second chance. Right before I had hopped on the plane for the first interview, I had gotten a message from another person in that company, inviting me in for an interview in a different division. So when I returned, I set up that interview and got on another plane, this time to New Jersey. Time to test out my new interviewing skills.
I knew the company’s drill by now, so I was a little impatient with seeing the tour and the presentation again. I wanted to get to the interview. While I thought I’d do better in the interview this time, there was something going against me. At the first interview, I was competing against other Virginia Tech students. This time, I was competing against people from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon. Would asking a few questions be enough to stand out against them?
It was. I got the job. In fact, I had multiple people fighting over me, and I got an offer for about 50% more money than my next best offer.
What made this moment even better is that I recognized one of the people there from the first interview. She was the one I had emailed to find out why I didn’t get the job before. She came up to me, smiled, and said “I’ll pass this news on to your friends from the other office.” (Incidentally, I’ve sometimes wondered how my life would have turned out if I had gotten the job in North Carolina instead of New Jersey.)
So my tricks worked, but I didn’t know why. All I did was ask questions that weren’t really important, or which I already knew the answer to. My natural inclination is to ask questions to obtain information, not to impress people. But apparently, asking questions is an effective way to show that you want a job.
Here are some of my favorite interview questions to ask:
- How long have you worked here?
- What is your favorite thing about working here?
- If you had to pick something as your least favorite thing about working here, what would that be?
- What kind of person are you looking for?
- Can you talk about what would make someone a good match, or not a good match?
- Can you describe a typical day here?
I’ve heard several times that at the end of the interview, you should explicitly state that you want the job. If you can find a natural way to say that, fine, but I like to ask “Is there any reason you wouldn’t hire me?” This makes it clear that you want the job, and it has the added benefit of possibly giving you a chance to address any perceived weaknesses.
There are other questions that will implant the idea of you working there, such as “Can I meet some of the people I’d be working with?” or “Where are the good places to have lunch around here?”
You should send an email after the fact as a thank you, and you can use this to clarify that you really want to work there. I sent one thank you email where I said that I was wearing the temporary tattoo they had given me. Later, they said they hired me specifically because of that. (Their second reason for hiring me: because they were in Virginia and I was in New Jersey, they wanted to know if I could be available for an interview in the next couple of weeks. I said I could be there in 4 hours.)
In a logical world, these dumb tricks wouldn’t work. But most people aren’t logical. So if someone is going to give more weight to your temporary tattoo than to your ability to get the job done, slapping on a tattoo is an easy way to game the system.
I made the mistake of thinking that you aced an interview by answering the questions they asked. I had no idea that you also have to answer the hidden question of “Do you want the job?” Once I learned that, interviewing became much easier.
Have you ever made a mistake? Catherine Lawson will link to you if you fess up by July 22nd (see that link for details).
This post appeared in The 7th Edition Of The Carnival Of Careers, hosted by Erik Folgate.