06 July 2010


I've been looking for jobs for the past 4 months or so (kind of sporadically back in March, in a more focused way since May) and that means I have been having a lot of interviews. A LOT of interviews. So I created a little equation that will show you how the process works.

5 x applications yields 1 x call-back/phone screen
5 x phone screens yields 1 x in-person interview
5 x in-person yields 1 x second in-person interview
3 x second in-person yields 1 x job offer

Did you do the math? It's ugly out there. Stop & Shop is hiring, though!

Anyway, I've figured out some processes that make interviewing easier for me and I thought I'd share them (and also archive them for my own reference.) I'm not going to talk about obvious things like not lying because you already know not to lie. This is also going to include some things which might be specific to my industry, but I'm sure you can make parallels on your own.

To prepare for a phone screen, I do the following things:

1. Review the job description and my resume and try to think of specific ways in which my experience matches (or doesn't) the desired candidate. They want someone who has handled budgets over $250,000? My last two jobs have included budgets over a million! They want someone to lead a team of 4? Uh ... I have only supervised and trained interns. I need to figure out how to address that in the phone screen.

2. Figure out the company's business model and what life-cycle stage the company is at (are they a start-up with three other people running out of someone's basement or are they a start-up with 100 people who are on a round C of venture capital financing and planning to go public within two years?) This stuff is important not only in helping you figure out if you want to work there, but also in providing you with material to ask strategic questions (I'm getting there, I promise.)

3. Snoop around as much as possible about your interviewer/hiring manager. What's their professional background - do you know anyone in common? Are they an avid mountain biker? You can jot this down and, if you're able, say work it into the conversation, e.g. "Years ago I did a little SEO work for my brother's side business - he has a start-up that makes parts for mountain bikes. Man, that was a long time ago - back in the day, all you had to do for SEO was a few on-page elements!"

Do they have hands-on experience in your area or are they looking for someone who is already a self-directed expert who won't need much input? It requires different strategies. If I see that the hiring manager has a strong paid or natural background, I'm going to need to make this person feel confident that I know what I'm doing and that I'm okay with a boss who likes to log in and check out the accounts. If it's someone who has almost no hands-on experience in a search role, I'm going to have to - again- make the hiring manager feel confident in my expertise and in my ability to handle money and fulfill my quotas without needing hand-holding when it comes to tactical execution. (For the record, I'm pretty happy with both styles of management.)

Is the hiring manager on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn? Do they have a blog? Do they have a profile on the company website? Use whatever you can! Pump mutual acquaintances for information!

4. Plan your own questions to ask during the phone screen. Essentially you want your questions to show that you've done your due diligence researching and that you can think strategically (no one wants to hire a monkey who can't do anything but push a lever over and over again.) The questions that you ask are your only opportunity to show off how smart you are, so put some thought into them. In my industry, I don't usually bother to ask why the position is open - usually I'm talking to start-ups and this is a new role, or the person who did the job before me has moved on to another opportunity. But if you're a teacher or an editor or something, yes, it could be pretty important to ask why the role is open if the interviewer hasn't addressed it.

Ask how they measure success and what their internal reporting systems look like - is it very granular or is closing the loop going to be something that they need help with? What software platforms are they using to measure internally and externally? What's the business goal of the website? (You would think it would be obvious, but it's not always clear if the goal is to brand or the drive leads/sales or to raise category awareness ...)

Take notes, because you can then use that information to build your next set of questions in the in-person. If they say on the phone that they've got no problem closing the loop and their reporting is very granular indeed, then in the in-person you can ask how about their attribution model - is it last click attribution or are they looking for patterns in second and third visits? How are they using that granular information in a strategic way that helps inform key business decisions - what's their strategy for separating the wheat from the chaff in the super-detailed granular reporting that's available? Yadda yadda.

5. Listen closely for the pauses in the conversation so you don't step on their questions. This one is REALLY hard for me since I am such a blabbermouth and I just expect people to interrupt me right back. But there's no better way to ruin a phone screen than by not letting your interviewer get a word in edgewise. (Guess how I know?) Phone screens are harder than in-person interviews in this way because you don't get to see someone's body language or expressions. On the plus side, phone screens are a bit like an open-book test - you can be looking at the company's website while you're on the phone.

6. Analyze the company before the call. In my case this usually means doing a basic SEO and analytics audit. This gives me an idea of how professional they are (looking at a site's SEO is a little like being in the dressing room of an actor who is getting ready for a performance - what do they look like without makeup, flattering lighting and costume? If you're in a field where SEO doesn't apply, look for successes and failures of the company - did the publishing company famously pass on The Lovely Bones? Does the school district consistently win awards or do they barely scrape by with below-average test scores? This is all information you can work into your conversation on the fly (although be careful about alluding to embarrassing failures.)

Preparing for an in-person interview:

1. Snoop and take notes on ALL the people you'll be meeting with, if you know who that will be, and don't be afraid to take notes. Maybe they went to the same college as you, years later - you can establish a bond over that.

2. Figure out your outfit and have it ready before the day of the interview. And by outfit, I don't just mean making sure that your suit and shirt are pressed and ready in the closet - you also need to print out a copy of the job description, a couple of spare resumes (often people are given little notice before they interview you and haven't had time to review your resume), a notebook, a business-type handbag (whatever the dude equivalent is - a briefcase? Laptop bag?), a few pens. Put your phone on silent the night before. Set your alarm the night before and put a reminder in your phone or calendar three or four hours before the interview reminding you to get ready. Put gum and a spare pair of stockings in your bag. Gas up the car. Whatever - it's already going to be stressful, so if everything is ready to go, that's one less thing you need to charge around the house looking for.

3. Print out the directions, calculate how long it'll take to get there and then plan for an extra 50% of travel time. If it's 30 minutes away, leave 45 minutes or an hour early. (I like to leave at least half an hour of padding.) Make sure your phone is charged in case someone rear-ends you on your way there. Arrive early to the building (and spend the time reviewing your notes) - you'll be calm and cool. Announce yourself to the receptionist three to five minutes before the interview time - this shows that you're prompt but doesn't stress out your interviewer by making them feel that they have to see you immediately.

3. Review all the snooping and conclusions from your phone screen prep - it's pretty common for weeks to elapse between phone screens and in-person interviews so you want to make sure it's all fresh in your mind.

4. Prepare a separate set of questions for the in-person - they'll remember if you repeat yourself. These should be based at least in part on the information you got during the phone screen (this shows that you were listening and that you're able to draw conclusions.) I would shoot for questions that are about 2/3 about the business (and many of these will be answered in the natural course of the interview) and 1/3 about interpersonal stuff.

You can ask things like, "What does your ideal candidate look like - and what are you looking for that I don't have?" or "What's your preferred management style?". If you know the manager is looking to build a team, ask about some of the challenges she's faced in the process. If you know this department is a new area for the company, ask what the success metrics are - how will they know that Facebook is worthwhile and has made a good return on the time investment? They'll definitely talk a lot about how great the company is and how wonderful the prospects are - so ask if they can tell you a little bit about what's not so great about the company. Ask about your interviewer's background - people love to talk about themselves. Don't make the first joke (I *always* fail on this one). Ask where the company/department will be in 5 years (or two). Try to get across to the manager that you're not interested in their job.

And as my friend Kat points out - a little reverse interrogation goes a long way. You can have all these questions ready, but use common sense in deciding when and how much you want to control the interview.

5. Get ready for hard, unexpected questions. Don't be scared to take a moment or two to think or to say, "Can we come back to that? I can't think of an example right now." I try to be as candid as possible while not damaging myself. Someone once said, "We've talked a lot about what you're good at - now tell me what you're not so good at." The cliched answers of "I try too hard/too much of a perfectionist/care too much" were not going to do anything for me here if I wanted to maintain the rapport with the interviewer, so I thought for a moment and said, "Well, I'm not great at confrontation - many women aren't, and it's something I'm working on. I'm also a bit of a procrastinator, which I am really working hard on, because otherwise I end up in the office at 9 pm trying to make a deadline and my husband is unhappy and it's a bad scene." In this case, that answer worked - my interviewer smiled and said she procrastinates sometimes too. It also happens to be the exact truth - I do struggle sometimes with procrastination and it is something I'm trying hard to be better about.

I've also been asked to talk about a time when I screwed up and how I responded. In that case, my answer was to talk about a time when a test had gone wrong due to my own inattention - so I confessed that I'd screwed up on a test and then talked about the lessons I had learned - in this case, I learned to A) build reporting on test results into my regular results reporting and B) to set up my test reporting BEFORE the test goes live, so that I know ahead of time what my success metrics will be and I have a framework that I can plug the results into. I've been asked about a time that I was yelled at by someone much higher up and how I responded (I didn't have an answer for that one since it's never happened and, in fact, I totally blew that question.)

I've been asked about a time when I had a conflict with someone at work and how I dealt with it. Again, I didn't really have a good answer since I'm not good at confrontations, so I just told the truth: that I don't tend to have blow-ups with people (even though maybe sometimes I should) and that when I've run across people who are really irritating to work with (in my case it's only happened a few times and it was always with someone who didn't appear to me to be doing their share of the work) I've addressed it on an ad-hoc basis - either let go of it if it wasn't affecting my performance results or talked to the person themselves or talked to a manager or HR if talking to the person had no results.

Sometimes you don't have a non-damaging anecdote to relate either because you haven't actually experienced it or the situation was for-real, legitimately insane (but you can't say that in an interview) - so sometimes it's okay to say, "that hasn't happened, but here's how I would try to address it." I mean, if your teammate isn't pulling their weight you don't always know why - maybe their kid has cancer! - so it's not always something that can be directly addressed or solved. Acknowledging the reality of messy real-world situations is just as likely to score you points in an interview as having a good story to tell.

6. Sincerity is the best sales tool. Use it.

And like I said, most of my examples are from my industry - but the point isn't to give you specific questions to ask or not ask, the point is to show you how to think strategically about your own interviews.

Good luck! And wish me some luck too, please - I need a job sooner rather than later.