About four years ago a friend told me one night that she had an interview the next week and was looking for some comfort as she was extremely nervous, as most people are about interviews. I thought back on my my carreer and realized that in the nine year of my career I had been to thirteen interviews and, more importantly, that I had received a job offer from every one of those interviews. I did not accept all the offers, but the point is that I had not once been to an interview without getting a job offer from it. In the past four years, I have been to another 6 interviews, of which I did not get job offers for 2 of them. The one was an interview at Volkswagen which a friend had setup because he 'wanted' me to work there and by the time we started the interview, I realized that the position was not in my field at all. The second one was a telephonic interview, which I hate, and I simply did not see eye to eye with the person who interviewed me. I did go for an interview with another manager at the same company a couple of weeks later and started working there 2 days later.
Job offers from 17 out of 19 interviews is not a bad track record and no, I am not some kind of a technical genius that every company would want to employ simply by looking at my resume. I am a computer programmer and there are many programmers out there with better technical skills than me.
The secret, I believe is confidence. Not necessarily confidence in yourself, but creating confidence in your interviewer's mind. I once had a 4 1/2 hour interview in Sydney, Australia. Before that I could not imagine such a long interview was possible, it was for a very senior position. If, like most people, you don't like interviews in general, imagine sitting there for 4 1/2 hours. Anyway, about halfway through the interview, the interviewer told me that he had another 2 or 3 people that he's considering for the position, but that he's got a 'warm and fuzzy feeling' about me. Not something I really want to hear from another male, but when he said that, I realized that the job was mine.
Your objective, then, is to create that 'warm and fuzzy' feeling in your interviewer's mind.
Before an interview, I always think of what I would like to see in the other person if I was on the other side of the table, in other words, if I was interviewing somebody else for this position. Computer programming is considered as a technical field, even on a managerial level, but the technical aspect has very seldom been the deciding factor, unless the interviewer has poor people skills or a lack of experience. Generally anybody with a bit of experience will be more interested in your personality than your technical abilities. I am assuming, of course, that you are applying for positions which you are in some way qualified to fill. So how do you focus on your personality and what personality traits should you try to demonstrate? Let me give you some examples of what I consider as important in an interview.
There are two dreaded questions that used to come up in every interview a couple of years ago, though I haven't heard them for a while now. What are 5 of your strengths and what are 5 of your weaknesses? Whenever I got the first of these two questions, I would start my answer with 'Yes, I knew this was coming so I thought about it last night and...' or something along those lines.
It sounds wrong, because the intention of those questions is to see whether you know yourself. If you have to think about it the previous night, it doesn't say much about your self-knowledge. Nonetheless, I do this for two reasons. Firstly, I'm being honest with them. Everybody prepares for an interview, or at least you should! I'm just showing them that I'm a real person and that I don't claim to have all the answers. Secondly, it's a tension breaker. Quite often, if it is an experienced interviewer, they will make some comment about you having to prepare your answers in advance and this gives you an opportunity to sidetrack from their 'prepared' questions. The more you can get to speak freely with the interviewer and not as a response to a question, the more opportunity you have of showing them your real character. It also passes the time so that they don't have to think up irrelevant technical questions to make the interview 'long enough'.
Also keep in mind that nobody is expected to have all the right answers. As I said before, I am not the know-it-all genius of computer programming, so in most interviews there is at least one question for which I do not have the answer or topic that I do not know about. When this happens, I do not pretend to have the answer or try to sound intelligent about the topic. I simply tell them that I do not know. What's important, though, is the way you say you don't know. Even if the words coming out of your mouth are as simple as 'I don't know', the perception that your attitude should portray is that he or she does not know, but it's okay that they don't know. In other words, say it with confidence and self respect. 'I don't know because I've never needed to use that in the past' or 'I normally use such and such instead' and, if possible, tell them why you prefer your alternative. Also try to tell them how you would learn this topic if it is required in your new position. This, again, achieves two objects. It shows them your problem solving abilities and it gives you another opportunity to speak freely. Finally, if you have no clue what they're talking about, ask them to explain the topic or to give you an example. Again, speaking freely and showing them that you are interested in learning and also that you are comfortable in their company.
I also think one of the key factors for anybody in an interview is to see that you can think for yourself and that you have your own opinions. DO NOT use yes/no answers!! Every question that an interviewer asks should be seen as an opportunity for you to speak and not a hurdle that you have to cross as quickly as possible. Of course you must stay on topic or they will think you are trying to evade the question. However, try to elaborate and give them examples to show your experience and understanding of the topic. Even if this is your first interview and you have no working experience, it should not be a problem - remember you are trying to steer the conversion towards your personality and not your technical skills. Even after 13 years in the industry, I still use a lot of examples and stories (short stories, stay on topic) from my personal life to answer interview questions.
I have now mentioned this 'speaking freely' a number of times and I guess that's the basis of it all. Remember that the person on the other side of the desk is nothing but that, just another person. I always try to be early for an interview so that I have some time to relax after the traffic. During those last couple of minutes, I stand outside having a cigarette and I play out a little scene in my mind, which I would rather not repeat here. Anyway, it boils down to me having a casual conversation with the interviewer and explaining to them that we're all in the same boat. We're all here on this planet for a short time and all just trying to make the best of things. Yes, it sounds stupid, I know. But for me it re-affirms in my mind that the person I am about to talk to is just another person and that I should treat them as that.
So let me summarize. Focus on your personality, not your technical abilities. Unless you're the best in your industry, in which case I'm talking to the other 99.999% in your industry. Remember that the interviewer is just another person and treat them as one by speaking to them as you would somebody that you have known for a while. This is the only way you can have some control of steering the conversation in the direction you want. While being comfortable and speaking your mind, do show respect at the same time and remember, it's still their interview, so let them have the final control. Finally, BE HONEST.
Dirk Wessels is a computer programmer and runs unique-jobs.co.za in his spare time. You can also visit JobAdvisor.com.sg for more Job Vacancies e.g Banking Jobs, Engineering Jobs, Executive Recruitment or get the latest Job advice from our Career Guide.