Cracking the Job Interview

I received an overwhelming response to my earlier post: How to Find a Job, most of which were emails requesting me to do a write-up on “the interview process.” So here it is and I hope you will find it useful. Like with the earlier article though, this is not an exhaustive list that guarantees success, but something that has always worked for me, and quite a few others that I know are good at interviewing.

It is funny how we all anxiously wait for the call or the email that invites us for a job interview; we fist-pump the air with excitement, run around like mad men, and in more dire situations, perhaps even break down into tears. But this all-encompassing exuberance is quickly ripped away from us once we realize that we haven’t really gotten the job, and that this intimidating ‘thing’ lies between us and our elusive job – the Interview.

The Interview Blues

It is okay to be nervous, the best of the breed do, too. I am pretty sure President Clinton had a few moments of shaky legs before he delivered what could possibly be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American President. The secret is, to contain those strong emotions, usually very anxious ones, and deliver the best version of yourself. Days leading up to the interview should be spent researching the company, brushing up on forgotten materials and honing skills specifically mentioned on the job description. It is NOT a time to sit and worry about how you would ever get through the interview. Look at it this way: You would have to give the interview anyway right? So, why not spend time in attempts to make it better rather than ruin it even more? Although it comes with practice, you will just have to stop thinking about D-Day and focus on preparing yourself as much as possible.

Do your best and forget the rest. — Tony Horton

The Day of the Interview

Let me actually start with the night before the interview. I am sure you have done your best preparing for the big day. But unless you are the absolute master of your trade (in which case you wouldn’t even be reading this post), you must have still some topics left uncovered. There is no point cramming your head with them at the last hour. There are two reasons why this wont work:

You will never (or very rarely) be asked questions straight from the book. Last moment preparations are just NOT good for you to grasp the knowledge well enough that you can actually use it to solve meaningful problems. Let me give you an example. Say you spent the entire night before the interview going over topics such as logistics, risk-taking, and problem-solving. But , your interview question will NOT be definitions, as it is assumed that you know those. Your question will be much cleverer. One infamous question for an analyst position at Goldman Sachs is, “If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?” There is no right or wrong here, simply how you use your knowledge and combine them to come with a meaningful solutions. After all, that is what problem-solving is, right? If definitions could save the world, it would have been an easier place.

What you learn the day before in a hurry stays in your temporary memory. And the next day, when part of it has evaporated, and part mixed in with the subject matter that you actually know pretty well, every thing you say will make NO sense to the interviewer, because you will end up sounding confused and hesitant, constantly rolling your eyes towards the ceiling, trying to gather the picture memory from last night’s rapid learning. It will just make things worse.

So the best bet is to go with what you know best. There is no point knowing something 10%, it really won’t make a difference, only confuse you on stuff you already know. So the night before, just relax, watch a movie, sleep well, eat will, do a couple of mock interviews with a friend, or a mirror if necessary. Then, well, just go to bed. Avoid thinking too much, because if that worked, I would have won the lottery by now.

Interview Etiquette

Dress code: There is no set rule for this. I have gone to a couple of interviews in my suit, and some, in shorts and flip flops. If you have researched the company well, you should know for sure what they expect you to wear. A common misconception is to wear formal no matter what. Well, being overdressed is as bad as being underdressed, so be careful. And even at places where a formal dress code is expected, please don’t flaunt your Ralph Laurens and Armanis – it is not a fashion ramp, you can always wear those at the party you host when you get the job offer. For the interview though, please dress conservatively. And also remember that your dress is one of the first impressions that will play on the interviewer’s mind.

Arrival Time: Plan on arriving early, at least 20-30 minutes before the interview. That will not only give you space for any unseen events, but also give you a moment or two to recompose yourself, wash your face, tidy up your hair and chew a gum. IMPORTANT: Please spit out the gum before you go in though. It is viewed as immensely offensive. Perhaps, a breath freshener is a better option.

Conversations: No matter how young or cool the interviewer is, he/she is there with only one purpose, to weed out the bad candidates. So refrain from talking about your hot girlfriend or your favorite beer. He/she might go out with you later to the bars, but you wont be hired for sure. When talking during the interview, it is okay to ask questions and give explanations, just don’t interrupt anyone in the middle or go on talking for long periods of time. Listening is as important as talking – you will get very important clues as to what is expected of you.

Thankfulness: Interviews are expensive and require both, time and money, especially the ones that fly you to their location all expenses paid. So please be thankful regardless of whether you got the job or not. Send a thank you note – email, phone, written, anything will do, as long as it’s done.

Handshakes– Another thing that makes a very strong initial impression, is a handshake. This one is even backed up by scientific research. Have a firm and short handshake. When I was at Epic, they had a special orientation section that focused only on handshakes. This is what I learned are the types of handshakes you should NEVER have:

Boneless – No bones or energy, just a blob entering and leaving someone’s hand. Shows lack of confidence and control.

Creepy Creeperson – Shaking hands for literally with both hands for 5 minutes. It is someone else’s hand, please let go! Shows off a very groveling nature.

Iron Man – The bone shattering jerk. This signals someone who is trying too hard, or has the tendency to bully others.

The Phone Screen

The first part of most interviews will probably be the phone screen. Unless explicitly mentioned, this will usually be a general confirmation-of-interest sort of interview. They will talk about the position, maybe discuss a few points from your resume, ask a few behavioral questions (more on that later) and if it goes well, invite you for the on-site interview. Although this is the majority of cases, there and exceptions as well, so be prepared. Amazon and Google are both infamous for having up to 3 or 4 hour-long, fully technical interviews on the phone. But like I mentioned before, they will let you know that it will be so. If nothing is said, it will most probably end up being a regular phone screen. There are a few steps you can take to make sure your phone screen goes well:

  • Having your resume in front is sometimes not enough. Have index cards for each work experience you have, with key points lined out. Have index cards also for each project, or each skill listed. And with each interview you will add more to those cards, and they are reusable! Lie them all on the ground but make a path where you can walk around. If you get asked any specific details from your resume, just take a second, find the card, and there you go – you have the outline of what you want to say right there. Overtime though, you wont even needs cards, it will come to you as if you are telling an exciting story.
  • Make sure the phone reception is good. Use a landline if possible. Use good quality headphones with microphone so that both your hands are free, in case you need to grab something quick.
  • Have a computer ready. And maybe some relevant sites open as well. You will never know when you might need to look up something. IMPORTANT note though, don’t type so loud that the interviewer can hear you typing.
  • Make sure you are alone. That is just better.
  • Look at the mirror and smile when you are interviewing. It is proven by various studies the your tone sounds much more confident when you are smiling.

The Behavioral/HR Interview

This is where most people struggle, but I think it is the easiest one. Tell me about yourself – the mother of all behavioral questions. The idea is not to take it as a quiz. They are asking you something about yourself, and they don’t know you. So they have no clue what the right answer is. This is the best place where you can let your personality flourish, tell them a story and link it up to whatever is relevant. Behavioral questions are intended to see if your personality is a match for the company and vice versa. So be honest. There is no point in being dishonest because if you end up in the wrong place, you, more than anyone else will regret it. Those 8 hours every single day will feel miserable. So if you are a person who works well in a team, don’t say you love working alone just because the job description says projects are mostly done individually. Because by the 3rd day, you will feel alone, have no social interactions and turn into an unhappy zombie who is working only for the paycheck. So just make it easy for yourself, don’t lie.

What you should be doing though is, understanding what the question is really asking for, and relating it to relevant experiences. A tricky one is: What are your strengths or your weaknesses? Don’t even bother about the clichéd ones like hard working, too obsessed with organization and such. They are again, looking for you to be honest, but also tell them how you manage to overcome those weaknesses, or use seemingly simple strengths to great advantage. The strength or the weakness is not the deal here, it is what you do with them that is important.

The best way to go about this is browse around for questions on the internet, and try to figure out what the question is looking for beneath the surface. After some practice, it will come naturally.

The Technical Interview

I cannot think of many jobs where you can get away without a technical interview. A technical interview may range from simple questions related to the subject matter to puzzles to small yet challenging projects. Most of them will involve a whiteboard, which is a skill you will have to master. The purpose of the whiteboard is not to see how bad your handwriting is, but to analyze your thought process. So it is very important to speak out what you are thinking while you are thinking. As a matter fact, your end solution is not even that important as most whiteboard questions either have multiple answers or none at all. So all you have to show for, is your thought process.

Other than that, there is not much here rather than just knowing your stuff. If you are interviewing for an Entry Level Developer position, make sure you can write code to point out the differences between inheritance, polymorphism, composition, association, abstraction and encapsulation, as the bare minimum. Expect to write some abstract data structures such as linked lists, chained maps and trees. Make sure you understand deep and shallow copying if you are dealing with arrays. Know why you would want to use hash codes. Expect to write some tree traversal algorithms and some search algorithms, most probably a binary search or some modification of it. All of this will be asked in the most basic form though, nothing that would take up more than 20 mins if you know precisely what you are doing. Anything more advanced, and the mention of the magic word sometimes does the trick. For example, knowing the fact that you need to use Dijkstra’s algorithm to find the shortest path in a directed graph is usually enough, no one really expects you to know the algorithm by memory. After all, it’s only a Google away from you at all times 🙂

For finance or economics jobs, you may be given a case study and an interesting problem to solve. “How many street lights are there in Manhattan?”, is a pretty common question for Financial Analysts. No one really knows what the answer is. But there are some very specific ways to get pretty close to finding that number, and that process is what the interviewers are interested in.

Some technical interviews have puzzles and tricky math questions as well. This is true mostly for software, math, finance/business analyst positions. Some are actual math puzzles, but those are pretty rare. Usually, they are, once again, ones that see your wit and thought process. For instance, I was asked this question for one of my interviews: “If an apple costs 20 cents, an orange costs 60 cents and a grapefruit costs 80 cents, how much is a pear?” What would the most common answer be? 40 cents, right? Because the prices have been increasing by 20 cents each, and 40c is the missing number. Good catch, that could be correct. It is a fine answer. But someone who has a keen analytic mind is expected to go deeper than what is so clearly visible. My answer to that question was, a pear costs 20 cents. Why? I looked at it this way:

I assumed, the cost of each vowel in a word to be 10 cents. So,

Apple has 2 vowels (a,e) = 2 * 10c = 20c

Orange has 3 vowels (o,a,e) = 3 * 10c = 60c

Grapefruit has 4 vowels (a,e,u,i) = 4 * 10c = 80c

So keeping that model in mind,

A pear has only 2 vowels (e,a) = 2 * 10c = 20c

It turns out this is quite a famous puzzle and 20c is the right answer. So the trick is to always look beyond what is clearly evident.

The Interview Process

The interview process is pretty standard across all industries. Here is the general process I have seen during my interviews.

  • Application or Referral
  • Acknowledgement of application, scheduling of initial assessment test or directly, phone screen
  • Usually 1, but may be up to 3-4 phone interviews, especially if company is pretty far from your location
  • Invitation for technical project (Only in some cases): You are expected to complete a project and submit within a given time frame
  • Invitation for on-site interviews (Usually at the company’s expense)
  • On-site Interviews (anywhere from 2 – 10 hours): Couple of assessment tests/puzzles, technical interviews, behavioral interview, HR interview
  • It usually takes about 1-2 weeks for each step to progress. Some companies are faster, some are slower. It is a good idea to send an email after the expected turnaround time has passed.

One of my Interview Experiences

As an example, here is one of my personal interview story to give you context of how all this pans out.

I met the HR representative at a college fair, and handed out my resume. I was contacted about two weeks later and asked to schedule a 45 minute window for a personality assessment test. The test was more or less like the GRE, only shorter. It consisted of analogies, some pretty tough English sentence completions and some probability questions as well. Since I had recently taken the GRE, it was pretty easy.

Then the very next day, I was contacted to schedule an hour long phone interview. During the phone interview, I was called by one of the developers. We went through my resume, talked about some of my projects, he told me about the company and the position, asked me a couple of run of the mill behavioral questions, I asked some as well and that was that. He said on the phone that I would hear about the next step in a week.

In about a week, I heard back from them. Since the company was pretty far from where I lived, they sent me an assessment packet to the career center of my college and wanted me to take it proctored by one of their personnel. The packet consisted of three parts: Logic, problem solving and programming. Logic was mostly puzzles like the one I mentioned above, maybe around 30 – 40 questions. Problem solving had some math questions, around 20 I think, and programming had 5 recursion-heavy programming problems. The maximum amount of time I could use was4 hours. I think I was done in about 3.

Once I sent back the package, I did not hear back for another 2-3 weeks. I contacted my HR and she said my application was still being reviewed. In another week or so, I she contacted me and invited me for an on-site interview to their headquarters. I was also in touch with their travel department to plan the trip, so that they could book the flight and the hotel for me.

On the day of the on-site interview, I received an hour-long tour of the company. Then, had my first interview. It was a scenario-based interview, which was a mixture of some technical, as well as, behavioral questions. Then I went for lunch with some team members. After lunch I had two technical interviews both of which were about an hour. Then I was given a 30-min assessment test, which was more like a rapid-fire puzzle-solving marathon. And finally I had a 40-min interview (mostly behavioral and negotiation-type) with my recruiter. I started at 8 am and was done around 4 pm.

In two weeks I received the offer on the phone and had a week to accept or reject it.

Lastly, Some Tips

Practice: Nothing is better than practice. And no practice is better than the real thing. So go to interviews, even if you know you don’t want that job, or you are very ill prepared for the interview — you will only get better and feel more confident.

Mock Interview with the Critiquing Friend: This is very important. Do some mock interviews, but not with the friend that you know will say everything is golden, but the one that will give you a hard time, pick at every small detail and make you feel uncomfortable. In the end, the picky one will be much more helpful to you than the one that agrees to everything you say. So call that friend and ask him/her for the favor. And thank them, buy a or beer or two 😉

Do NOT Lie: You should never lie, neither in your resume, nor your interviews. Because interviewers are experts at interviewing and their respective fields as well, with years of experience. Your lies will just fall out of place, and your resume will either be rejected or even worse, if it makes through an automated screening system, you will have a very embarrassing and scarring interview experience when your lie is caught during the in-person interview. So please save everyone the trouble, and be honest. You will be respected much more for that.

Be Positive: Just because you don’t hear back from companies, or are rejected, does not mean you are bad. If the company thinks you are not a good match, you probably wont be happy there anyway. So, keep trying. You will find the one that you like and that likes you, too. Just keep at it!

Ask for feedback: Regardless of how the interview went, you can always ask your interviewers for feedback later. Even if they rejected you, they might offer you some very insightful feedback that will help you get better. But maybe they wont give any feedback. In any case, you have nothing to lose.

Be a student: Always be prepared to learn. Keep your ego inside your pocket and seek help and advice from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who may have more experience. You will be surprised at how many people are genuinely willing to help. But no one will do so, until you ask.

Tell a Story

In general, an interview is an exciting opportunity, as long as you take it that way. It can be a nightmare as well. So, to have the best experience possible, and to learn along the way, think of it as an opportunity to tell your story, make a movie about yourself. You have all the pieces ready. The interview is the process where you put those pieces together to tell the story that you want them to hear. You will not get many such opportunities in life, where busy and successful professionals — senior developers and analysts, vice presidents, directors alike — will all forget who they are, just to focus on who you are. So, make it count!

Good luck, just remember to have fun along to way!

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