Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Interviewing the Company Where You Are Interviewing

When looking for a new gig, a manager--heck, anybody--needs to get a good idea of what she is getting into.

During the interview process (and I'll have more posts about actually being interviewed and doing the interviewing in the future), the main point of the people who are interviewing you is to determine if you'd be a good fit (or any kind of fit, depending on their overall desperation) for the role available. This puts a lot of pressure on you to perform for them and assure them that you are a good fit. You did show up to the interview, so you do want the job, which means that most people doing the interview feel as if they are in the driver's chair of the whole interview process.

This does not have to be so.

Maybe its because I'm a control freak, or maybe its just a good idea, or maybe people have been too scared to tell me to do otherwise, but I don't trust the judgment of other people, exclusively, on big decisions in my life (like taking a new job), especially people I've never met before today. Just because you managed through hours of meetings or a 10 minute phone call and they think you're a fit, doesn't mean that these people who've never met you before are experts on your ability to fit in with them. They barely know you.

Its important for you to evaluate if you are a good fit for their company, as well.

This doesn't mean you stop jumping through their hoops, admiring the salary options, salivating at the free coffee, etc. But it does mean that in addition to trying to impress them, you're also trying to let them impress you.

This mindset, when managed properly, can show on your face and in your demeanor. You don't want to operate as if they have something they have to prove to you--that's the quickest way to get booted out the door as prima donna. But people who come prepared, having read up on the company and the industry, and ask good questions that pertain to the future of the job and the company, get higher marks on interviews AND they are satisfying their informational needs about fitting in.

Spending time interviewing them back--in the friendliest way possible--can provide you with clues about the work environment and, for most people you actually want to work for, will impress them.

When accepting a phone interview, set up a time when you don't have to be rushed. Look up the company and the industry before the phone call. Review your resume so you can take a pop quiz on it (which is often what phone interviews are all about). Don't worry about saying "I don't know," but always finish "I don't know," with "I will find out," and an explanation of how you'll do that. No one expects you to know everything, but they do expect you to know how to find out.

You will always be given a chance to ask questions. The first question should always be to the interviewer him/herself: how do you like working there? What are some of your favorite things? People like to be asked about themselves; it puts a plus in your column in their head, which is always good if you're talking to a screener or other person that can stop the interview process if they don't like you. Listen to the answer. The more specific they are about what they like, the more you can compare to what you like. The vaguer they are, the more likely that they are either a) in a hurry or b) not as wildly excited about working there as they hope you'll be. Don't be afraid to ask them specifics about vague answers. Be good-natured and tell them you're honestly interested in what they have to say and think (and be interested--if they continue to hedge or admit they've just been hired, or burst with repressed anger, you will be).

The next question is to ask about the office environment--are people podded together in cubes, or have their own desks they can configure, or do people have doors and offices? What works best for you and how does it compare to what they have? Ask about dress code for the office and for the upcoming interview. In the tech sector most people don't care what you wear, but if you really want the job and someone really does care, you want to be covered. Sometimes interviewers refuse to give details, because they want to see "what you'll do." If that's the case, shy immediately away from wardrobe questions.

Unless you're talking to someone you'll eventually be working with (like a boss or a co-worker), that's it for questions on the phone unless you have some of your own. If it is a boss or co-worker, ask them to describe the team you are joining. If lots of buzzwords are used, Danger Will Robinson. If lots of specifics are discussed and/or you can hear a smile in their voice, you're probably headed for something good. Just make sure that the team environment they describe is one in which you know you work well. Feel free to ask questions about communication--does everyone hang out on IM or do they do everything by shouting over cubicle walls? How noisy it is there?

When arriving for the interview in person, dress as was suggested by the phone interviewer. If they didn't suggest anything, I typically swear at them in my head, and then wear a suit. If things look more casual, I can take the jacket off to blend in with nice slacks and a shirt. It's hard to get dressier once you've gotten to an interview. For men, I would wear a suit and, if you are so inclined, a tie. If you are no so inclined, a buttoned down shirt and a pair of slacks and a jacket are a good place to start; you can then unbutton buttons to show a T-shirt and take off the jacket if the environment is much more casual.

The more you seem like the people at the interview, the more they will like you. This is why mirroring--copying gestures of people you're trying to impress--often gives good results. I don't recommend trying that on an interview, however; you could end up annoying someone who had a kid brother who did the same thing past the point of it being funny anymore. But I do recommend altering your attire--if you can and its appropriate--to match the casualness or priority of those interviewing you.

While you're emulating them, compare what they wear to what you like to wear to work and what you have in your closet. Do they all dress up far more than you do? If yes, and you get the job, is there going to be a problem with your wardrobe (spoken or unspoken)? There's really nothing like going to work somewhere and finding out that the entire high school cheerleading team is the rest of the team, and apparently you're the mascot, which is not nearly as cool, but is easily designated by clothing (and cliques/attitude, etc.)

Answer the questions you're given in the interview to the best of your ability, and then ask questions of your own, of every person that interviews you. The same magic question from the phone interview: How do you like it here, and what do you like about it? You want to avoid asking what they don't like; they're going to lie, be vague, or otherwise fail to answer you, and, on top of that, they'll associate something negative (whatever they don't like about work) with you. So. Skip that question.

In addition to the "what do you like" question, ask them what a typical day in the office is like for each of them. When do they get in, how do they work (what is their work station like), how do they collaborate with others on the team, and such. Most people will inadvertently give you details about their job that they might not have given, from "the coffee is crappy so I always stop at Starbucks" to "We all get in before 9 am because the boss freaks out if we don't."

While they're interviewing you and you are interviewing them, also look for tone of voice and any non-verbal cues. Some people are just naturally nervous, so don't assume that because you're seeing some non-verbal cues that those cues have to do with you or with your interview. But watch them when you ask about day-to-day aspects in the office, and when you ask them how they like it there. Immediately crossing their arms on "what do you like about this place?" is probably a really good warning sign. People who are ONLY vaguely positive about the entire thing--from that they like there to what they do everyday--also a warning sign. People who are interested in the job (even if they're uncomfortable meeting your eyes) and can tell you one or two specific things they like about the job are positive signs.

Anyway. There's volumes to write on this topic. Maybe I'll revisit it again later. For now, enjoy, and remember: the interviewer doesn't have all the power, even in this bad economy. Good skills are worth their weight in gold no matter what the financial markets are doing. Don't be afraid to check for fit, yourself, and if it increases your ability to land the job as well as your knowledge of whether or not you really want the job, you basically score.


  1. Thanks for codifying a lot of things that I've been doing on my current round of interview. I always try to remember body language, but in the moment I often forget to keep my attention on it. While I'm hoping my interviewing days are behind me for a while, the experiences are certainly fresh in my mind and I was glad to read an engagingly presented summary of what to do.

  2. My second question is always "Do you have any questions... for some one who is not in HR or a manager?". My first question is "Do you need a break?". Question 3 covers the remainder of the interview and tells me if your technically up to the challenge.