If you’re wondering about your next job, there are a series of Rands articles which might make the transition easier. First off, there’s A Glimpse and a Hook, which will describe how managers read your resume. Then we’ve got The Sanity Check, which will prepare you for the phone screen. And finally, there’s Ninety Days, which sketches out a plan for the first three months of your new gig.
There are two gaping holes in this series of articles. First, I’m missing a piece on your interview, and second, there’s no article about how to negotiate. I’m saving negotiation for a later piece because first you’ve got to convince a bunch of people you don’t know that they should spend the next three years with you.
An interview is an exchange of information, and the first and best way to screw up an interview is to forget is that it’s as important for you to gather information as it is to give it.
You may really need this job, and this might give you the impression that the steady flow of people who are parading through your interview room are calling the shots. And yes, if you let them, they will be, but while they need to learn about you, you need to learn about them. You need to figure out their Button.
Before you start pushing buttons, you need to gather a little data about how your interview is constructed. Is it structured or unstructured?
In a structured interview, each person interviewing you has a specific topic area: people skills, technical skills, etc. This means that each interview has a specific purpose and no two interviews that day are going to be alike. Someone has put in effort to make sure the different interviewers don’t step on each other’s toes.
The unstructured interview is a free-for-all. There’s an interview list, but no one has been given guidance about what to ask, so they wing it. With each person who walks in the door, an unstructured interview is a study in personality identification. More on this in a moment when I explain about interview creatures.
In general, the participants in structured interviews come prepared. There is a process, which occurred before you showed up. This might have involved a pre-interview meeting. They’ve read your resume and each person is likely capable of carrying the interview.
Unstructured interviewers waste the first ten minutes of the interview doing the homework they should’ve done before you arrived. It’s annoying, but, as you’ll see, it’s a great way to figure out what they are about.
As an aside, my preferred use of interview time is a structured-unstructured hybrid. While I don’t give interviewers specific topics to cover, I’ve chosen specific people because I know they gravitate towards certain professional areas such as technical aptitude or cultural fit. This structural ambiguity means interviewers can creatively adapt their questions to each person while also assuring that I get a complete professional picture of the candidate.
Understanding the structure of the interview process gives you some of your first insight into the organization, but the information doesn’t start to flow until you stare at and understand your potential future co-workers.
Structured or unstructured, each person who walks into the interview will bring a different agenda. The sooner you know what their agenda is, the sooner you’re prepared to handle your only job during this interview. You need to get them talking.
That’s right. Your goal is exactly the same as their goal, which is to learn by getting them to talk. It might strike you as a bad strategy, because if they’re talking, they’re not learning anything about you, but that is not your problem. In fact, if I get through a round of interviews and the interviewers have done most of the talking, I’m wondering if I want to work in a group where they haven’t figured out how to vet candidates.
Like meetings, there are different personalities that are going to walk into the interview, and each person has a Button. When you press this button, they’re going to be compelled to talk. Some personalities hide their buttons better than others, but most people have at least one.
Here’s a list of some common interview creatures organized by increasing difficulty of button discovery.
Pissed Off Pete
Pete’s agenda is obvious 30 seconds into the interview because he’s pissed off. This isn’t an interview; this is an opportunity for Pete to rant to a captive audience. He’s going to go through the motions by bringing in your resume and feigning interest, but all he really wants to do is gripe about “the situation”.
The Button: Ask anything. Doesn’t matter, Pete is going to twist the answer so that he can ramble some more about how screwed up “the situation” is.
Influence: Low. These interviews are normally a waste of time and there are two red flags to consider. First, who thought it was a good idea for Pete to interview you? Don’t they know he’s a one-trick rant pony? Second, why is Pete so pissed off? What kind of organization lets Pete get this tense?
Perhaps your best tactic with Pete is to spend as much time as possible understanding “the situation”. If it’s so bad that he’s going to ignore the opportunity of learning about you, a potential co-worker, maybe “the situation” is something you should understand before you consider joining the company. Even better, asking about “the situation” is a great button exploration technique in later interviews.
Yeah, Patty’s here, too. Again, this isn’t an interview. Patty loves to talk and the moment you ask anything, she’ll start and it’ll be hard to get her to stop.
The Button: Ask any question.
Influence: Like Pete, I have concerns about an organization that puts Patty on the interview schedule. Unlike Pete, Patty can be a huge source of information, so use the time well. She’ll answer any question: “Why do you love your job?”, “Who’s a jerk?”, “Why’s Pete so pissed off?”
Given that Patty is going to do most of the talking, her report on you is going to be vanilla and dull. Don’t sweat her.
This is an advanced, artful combination of Pete and Patty. Like them, The Poet really has something he wants to tell you about, but unlike them, he’s not going to give it up unless you specifically ask him about it. He’s aware of what his job is and that’s to ask you questions.
The Button: The Poet is sneaky, but he’s still going to reveal his button via his questions. What is he asking about? Where is he repeating himself? “He’s an engineer, but he keeps asking interaction design questions. I wonder what happens if I ask him a question about interaction design?”
Pure Poetry. Listen hard because what’s coming out of The Poet’s mouth is important, and he’s not going to talk for long because, unlike Patty’s chattiness and Pete’s pissed-off-ed-ness, he’s not dedicated to his poetry. He’s going to turn it around quickly because he really wants to hear about your poetry.
Influence: Medium. The Poet is articulate and artful and this will not only color his opinion of you. The distinctiveness of his report will travel further in the organization than the useless vanilla crap captured by Patty and Pete.
Halfway through the interview day, Greg is going to walk in the room and say nothing. He’s going to size you up for ten seconds and then he’s going to ask, “How… would you… test a soda machine… in the dark… submerged in strawberry jello?”
Greg is on a power trip. He believes his job is to confuse you with a dazzling brainteaser. His belief is that catching you off-guard with this left field question is going to demonstrate whether or not you’re mentally nimble, but my belief is that Greg mostly just likes to see people squirm.
The Button: You’re going to need to first get past Greg’s question and my advice is to relax and have fun with it. These types of brainteasers are usually designed to demonstrate your thinking process, so think out loud and when you’re done, go on a button hunt.
This can be tricky since Greg clearly likes to be on the offensive, but I’ve found that interviewers who lead with random, huge, bizarre questions are compensating for the fact they don’t really like having a normal conversation. So. Have one.
Influence: Low to medium. Greg believes his value is high, but it’s likely the rest of his team know who you figured out with his first question. He’s a mental bully.
Now we’re getting into some tricky personalities. Slick Steve is probably not a part of the engineering organization. He’s the product manager or some other Marketing denizen. This means that he doesn’t natively speak engineering, but as part of the strategic portion of the organization, he routinely talks to a lot of people, so he can wing it. He’s read this article and he knows that you’re trying to gather information. He’s a tough nut to crack.
The Button: Steve is going to completely ignore your attempts to find his button. “So Steve, what do you think the biggest challenges are for product marketing?” His response, “What do you think they are?”
You’ve got to fake Steve out a bit to find his button, and that means getting a little tricky. Try this: hit Steve with an esoteric engineering question you’re sure he won’t know. Remember, Steve is slick, which means he wants to maintain the calm, controlled elegance of his interview, so being unable to answer a question might trip him up. This is why you follow up with a question you’re sure he’ll be able to answer. Ask him that lame marketing challenges question again. He’ll answer it this time because he’s presently feeling ignorant, flustered, and needing to get back his feeling of control.
Like The Poet, Steve isn’t giving up his button easily, but once you’ve got him talking you have a chance to listen and see if you can find it.
Influence: Medium? Steve’s here and he’s not an engineer, which means the organization values him. He’s here to vet something. The question is: what?
Bob is a button problem. Bob will sit down, ask his first question, his second question, his third, and you will learn nothing about him except that he’s silent. He’s not going to engage in witty repartee, he’s literally going to ignore your button exploration questions, and this is going to annoy you.
The Button: Don’t get rattled. In my experience, Bob is the senior technical guy on the team and his social skills just aren’t that good. He’s there to vet your technical chops and that’s it. He has no button. He’s not qualified to assess team fit and he knows this, so show him what you’ve got.
Influence: Very High. If you’re interviewing for a technical gig, this is the interview. This is the one you were losing sleep over. This is why you bought Dive into Python and read it over the weekend. No one, other than the CEO, is going to trump Bob. Good luck.
Interviewing with The CEO is not necessarily an interview with the CEO; it’s the interview with the highest-level manager during your interview process. This is likely the hiring manager’s manager.
Where’s the Button? Simply put, you need to be prepared for some serious Jedi Mind Shit with The CEO. The feint’n'jab you used on Slick Steve isn’t going to work here. In fact, the CEO may start the whole interview with, “What questions do you have for me?”
Oh good. This is going to be easy.
Yeah, it’s not.
The Button: As you’ll see below, the influence of The CEO is extraordinarily high, and like Silent Bob, I want you to ignore your button acquisition activities with this guy. I want you to talk. I want you to sell yourself and tell great stories about your successes. Gather your organizational intelligence in other interviews; this is your opportunity to sell yourself to one of the major influencers in the organization.
Influence: Very High. The CEO is going to say that he isn’t the decision-maker. He’ll say that the hiring manager is, but it’s unlikely that if you do poorly with the CEO that the hiring manager will contradict his boss.
A Fresh Perspective
Interviews are exhausting. Baring your professional soul for multiple rounds of interviews with a bunch of strangers will wear you out and, when you’re done, you’ll be wondering, “What did they learn about me? Did I nail it? Am I a fit? Did I get the gig?” All good questions, but you should also be asking, “Do I want this job? Do I like these people? Is it a healthy organization?”
By the end of a couple of rounds of interviews, you’re going to know more about the health of the group you interviewed with than a lot of the people who interviewed you do. Freaky, isn’t it? Fact: all the different creatures you interview with are lost in the day to day of their respective jobs. The fresh perspective that you have after many hours of interviewing is unique and informative and while you still need Ninety Days to figure out what is really going on, you still have a lot of data.
… if you pushed a lot of buttons.