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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Practice Your Interview Skills

An interview is, in effect, a performance of sorts. Your composure and poise when answering difficult questions go a long way in setting you apart from others who are being interviewed. Some people interview better than others. Unfortunately, if you have difficulty interviewing—for whatever reason—you are going to be handicapped in your job search.

Note, however, that you can go places to get experience without having to botch interviews. These might stretch you well beyond your comfort zone, but they are worth the time and effort:

  • Toastmasters— I also mention Toastmasters in Chapter 7, "Communications Skills.". Toastmasters is an organization that is dedicated to improving an individual's ability to give presentations. It is not directly geared toward interview skills. However, the organization has drills on how to give an impromptu presentation in front of a group. The practice of quickly thinking on your feet is one that is critical to effective interview skills.Typically, Toastmasters groups meet at predetermined times (once a week or once or twice a month). You can find out more about Toastmasters and find local chapters by visiting the Toastmasters website at http://www.toastmasters.org.
  • Local colleges— Most local colleges offer courses in speech communications or presentation skills. Once again, these are not synonymous with interviews. However, just as with Toastmasters, you might be able to refine aspects of on-the-fly verbal communications.

Be Prepared to Answer Difficult Questions

I am often amazed at the surprise of many interviewees when faced with a pointed question. Typically, employers throw one or two into the mix. They want to see the interviewee's reaction, to test the ability of the applicant to think on his feet.

In my consulting business, I often interviewed technologists. My first question often threw them on their heels. I would simply ask, "Are you smart, or are you stupid?"

My small consulting company placed technologists in a variety of environments on a daily basis. I needed people who were technically savvy but also highly adaptable. I could not have someone who was easily flustered when presented with a difficult situation. That question gave me an idea as to how someone might react in such a situation.

I do not expect that you will ever be faced with such a blunt question. However, I do expect that you might be faced with one or more of the questions described in the sections that follow, in addition to a few that aren't mentioned.

Prepare yourself to answer the following questions. More importantly, prepare yourself for questions that force you to think on your feet. Poise and confidence go a long way toward helping you answer effectively.

What Professional Accomplishment Are You Most Proud Of?

If possible, use the same piece of information that you supplied in your cover letter. It gives you a starting-off point, and if the interviewer has reviewed your cover letter, it lends itself to a cohesive message.

What Do You Feel Is Your Greatest Strength? Greatest Weakness?

I pose the two together because if you are asked one, it is likely the other will follow. My advice: Be honest. The employer will find out both if you're hired anyway.

If you have trouble with these questions, refer back to Chapter 5, "Self-Assessment."

When it comes to your weakness, however, frame it in a way that demonstrates an understanding of how you deal with it. For example, if you have trouble keeping track of various tasks, explain how you utilize and keep an accurate and up-to-date day planner.

Don't use a pseudo-weakness to make yourself look good. For example, I have heard interviewees, when asked about their greatest weakness, say, "I work too hard. Often, I take too much work home or stay too late."

The statement sounds trite and arrogant. It won't go over well. The interviewer wants to see if you have a strong sense of your abilities. It is the person who understands his limitations and has plans on how to remedy or work within them that brings value.

Why Are You Leaving Your Last Job?

Honesty is your best policy here. For some, the idea of conveying that you did not like the company or a boss is a difficult one. However, I believe this is more a question of how you frame it. Saying "My boss was a jerk" is probably not going to get you points during the interview.

However, claiming that you felt it was time to move on to a company whose direction better matched your career objectives should be acceptable.

When asked why you are leaving one company for another, it is important that you frame your answer so that you don't disparage your prior employer. Try to present uncomfortable situations in the most flattering light. Table 14-1 provides some ideas on how you can portray key situations that might be causing you to leave a prior employer.

Table 14-1. Diplomacy for Explaining Departure from Your Previous Job

Reason for Leaving

How You Might Explain It

I was fired!

Ouch! This is a tough one. Of course, a company and individual part ways for various reasons. You might say this:

"The company was moving in a professional direction that was incompatible with my professional goals."

Bad management

It is almost never a good idea to speak poorly of bad management, even if your current interviewer seems empathetic or disparages the other company himself. Maintain strict professionalism in this case. You might say this:

"I am looking for a management team that is better focused on company objectives and who helps its staff achieve them. I have heard good things about your company, and I feel I would make a good addition to the team."

Lack of training opportunities at the old company

This is a great reason to leave a company. If training is not part of a company's plan or budget, consider moving on. A company's commitment to its employees can be assessed not only by pay and insurance. Particularly in IT, training is a huge factor, one that impacts overall career growth and satisfaction. You might say this:

"I am looking for a company that works with its employees to ensure that skills match the required tasks and one that places importance on training and future skills."

Moral/ethical issues

If your previous company was involved in unethical practices—consider the case of Arthur Andersen and Enron in 2002, for example—you have to assess your interviewer's awareness of this fact. If your prior company's problems were highly publicized, you might need to address them head-on—acknowledging them openly in the interview. You might say this:

"I need to find a company that is more ethical in its business practices. I need a management team that places a high priority on integrity and honesty."

In all cases, instead of using the question as an opportunity to speak poorly about your past employer or indicate bitterness or complaint, frame the answers positively. The easiest way to do this is to reiterate what you are looking for in the new opportunity instead of focusing on the problems that existed at your prior company.

Although a myriad of reasons exist for leaving a company, the sampling in Table 14-1 is meant as a guideline. As you can see, I am attempting to frame each situation in light of positives with the new company. Although you are implying subtlety that the prior opportunity did not meet your expectations in this area, framing it positively for the new opportunity allows your interviewer to justify and explain how its company meets your requirements. In effect, the interviewer can begin to see how you are looking for a company just like that one.

There is nothing wrong with looking for personal advancement and financial/professional gain. If the reason for your leaving a company is to find a better opportunity and make more money, let the employer know.

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

"On a white sandy beach in the Caribbean."

That's a good answer, but it's probably not what the interviewer is looking for. Once again, honesty is the best policy. Let the interviewer know your professional aspirations. Motivated employees generally produce better and are more valuable. Contrary to popular misconception, most managers are not threatened by good employees. A manager advances to the degree that he develops others. Good managers will seek out employees who want to get ahead and be rewarded.

If you are unfortunate enough to run across a manager who is threatened by your ambition and talent, it is better to know this during the interview rather than two years into a miserable job experience.

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