How to Avoid Making the Worst Possible Interview Mistake

Covering Face Mistake

It would seem basic: Before you go in for an interview, you research the employer, its business, its culture—pretty much everything you can think of. It would seem basic, but apparently it’s not. When they sit down, a surprising number of candidates aren’t prepared, and stumble into holes that prove fatal to their hopes of landing the job.

By the time the hiring manager’s decided to talk to you, they’ve already decided you have the technical skills to do the job. What they want to gauge now is your fit and your enthusiasm. It’s hard to prove that you’re interested in the position if you don’t know about the company’s business and its recent performance. Truth is, those are basics. You should be able to talk about the company’s technology and the hiring managers own needs, as well. Being unaware of these things is the worst mistake you can possibly make.

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Why? Because this one mistake can lead to others. If you don’t understand a company’s compensation practices, you may make an outrageously high salary demand. Being unaware of its industry’s dynamics could lead you to make statements that seem outrageously naïve. Worst of all, winging it sends the message that you’re not all that interested in the job in the first place, and hints that you might cut corners in your work, as well.

Whether you’re talking to a public or private company, there’s a number of ways to background yourself before the interview begins. For public companies, financial information is readily available and data about salary levels is available on sites like Glassdoor or PayScale. Talking with colleagues and network connections can reveal much about the company’s technology and other operational details. (See information about researching employers here, here and here.)

But your task isn’t simply to avoid mistakes. To be most effective, you want to appear as a natural expert on the company and its business. How do you do that?

  • Cite Facts: Weave your knowledge about the company into your responses. Note quarterly growth percentages, profit goals, recent product launches and snippets of information from the CIO’s blog. Or use information you’ve gleaned about the hiring manager to break the ice. For instance: “I see that you worked for Microsoft. Why did you decide to join a startup?”
  • Mention Your Sources: Quote specific sources when you describe how you learned about the job and the company’s IT initiatives, why you want the position or why you’re a great fit for the environment. Whether they’re press releases, media articles or posts from the corporate blog, the specifics bring you credibility.
  • Clarify Technical Questions: Use your knowledge of the company’s environment to put yourself on solid ground and tailor your responses. As an example, you might say, “I understand that you use performance testing, is that right?” Then structure your answer in a way that fits with the company’s practices.
  • Provide Customized Examples: Highlight skills and abilities that specifically relate to the job and the environment, especially when responding to behavioral interview questions. For instance: “I understand that you use cross-functional teams to re-engineer existing applications. I actually prefer a team approach. Here’s an example.”
  • Ask Insightful Questions: During the conversation, ask questions that touch on subjects that you uncovered while doing your research. For example, you may have found reference to a particular technology the CEO believes in. Ask how that emphasis might impact your work. Or, perhaps you’re environmentally conscious. Will you be able to participate in some of the company’s green initiatives?

No, you don’t work at the company—yet—and no one expects you to have knowledge that’s as in-depth as a current employee’s. But they do assume you’ll know a fair amount about what makes the business tick and how you, specifically, can fit into the operation. Rather than be one of those people who stumble, make the effort and be the one who stands out.

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Image: Pete Pahham/

12 Responses to “How to Avoid Making the Worst Possible Interview Mistake”

  1. Software Engineer

    For software engineers applying companies that are not startups I disagree. I don’t need to dance through these hoops to sell my substantial skills and expertise that will make millions for my employer for my normal senior software engineer salary. Any hiring manager that expect to also get an expert on their company and competition or expects to low ball me obviously doesn’t want to have millions added to the bottom line by employing me. Fine. No sale.

    Yes, I want to work producing something I believe in and care about. We all do. But don’t try to fake it or show of business acumen and understanding the employers market. You will like just look silly if that is not your forte. Always remember that you are bringing something valuable to the table.

    This is a negotiated value exchange. My skills and contribution for a fixed time based amount plus perhaps some small equity stake in most cases.

    Now there this advice does make sense is with a very young company such as a start up. There you certainly do want to hire people that really do get the value proposition and goals of the company and its founders.

    For larger and established companies their is little or no loyalty of the company towards its employees. The employment contract says so in writing. If your job is in defining products then yes it is important you really understand what they want to do. But for most jobs accomplishing the internal goals of the company? Not so much.

  2. John Polucci

    This is where experienced recruitment firm can help. The recruitment firm can help you with the interview and getting your foot in the door. Problem, is that most companies use the Internet, not th job boards.

  3. Scott

    Totally agree with everything BY Software Engineer wrote. This article is cringeworthy.

    As employees, we need to start standing up and valuing ourselves more and make these interviews more of a 50/50 exchange. For employees with desirable skills, companies should have to (equally) sell us on why we want to work there.

  4. contractors R me

    this advice wont get you ANYWHERE if you are interviewing for a contract software developer gig. so take it with a grain of salt. folks who write tips for the whole world, need to have walked in the shoes of the whole world, a feat that would be impossible.

  5. Responds to software dude

    @software engineer- I can tell right now, based in the response you wrote, I wouldn’t hire you.
    A simple thing like grammar goes a very long way. And since your resonse shows a lack of care in the way you project your self in the spoken word, than no sale. ( I believe that’s how you put it.)

    The unfortunate part is, I couldn’t read your response. It is riddled with words that are not used correctly or just plain missing.

    And what little I did read is the nonsense if a boy in a mans world. Yes, you do have to jump through hoops for any salary. Well that is if you want a job.

    • In response to RESPONDS TO SOFTWARE DUDE (“A simple thing like grammar goes a very long way”), you may want to be a little more careful with your own grammar when criticizing someone else’s and make sure it is impeccable. Based on your statements, “And since your resonse shows a lack of care in the way you project your self in the spoken word, than no sale” and “And what little I did read is the nonsense if a boy in a mans world,” I assume even you would have to say “no sale” to yourself my friend. Perhaps the applicable idiom in this instance would be, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

    • Irony Spotter

      @responds to software dude: your response, complaining that software engineer’s post is riddled with errors, is itself riddled with errors. It’s “response”; it’s “THEN no sale”, not “than”; it’s “man’s world.” More ironic than a thousand spoons when all you need is a knife, no?

    • LOL @ Responds to software dude.

      “I wouldn’t hire you.
      A simple thing like grammar goes a very long way. And since your resonse shows a lack of care in the way you project your self in the spoken word, than no sale. ”

      Your “resonse” says you should be fired for telling people they need to show care and not showing any yourself. No sale for advice you can’t follow.

      maybe you should question the wisdom of HR and recruiters in how they evaluate candidates. the assumptions you hold about people not showing attention to grammar being a sign of people not paying attention to code details are not well supported scientifically, and some would say you are just plain wrong in the interview criteria you use to choose a good candidate.

      Your job as a hiring recruiter (I assume you’re a recruiter based on your response focus and tone and assumptions) is to have good grammar and write and speak well to represent the client. I think that’s a relevant skill and ability for someone to be judged on if that person wants a job as a recruiter or HR/Admin staff. So just because you need to pay more attention to grammar for you to do well at your job should not lead you to project that engineers or technical people need to demonstrate interview presentation skills well in order to do well at their job.

    • You must be trolling. I must admit, it explains a great deal about the utterly braindead recruiting practices of programming talent by HR obstructionists that think everyone is a widget and a widget for every cubicle, but who criticizes something as inconsequential to a programmer’s performance as grammar and then proceeds to make the following errors:

      1. decisions are based on evidence, not in evidence.
      2. putting a subordinate clause “based in the response you wrote” in the middle of a statement for no apparent reason.
      3. starting a sentence with a conjunction: “And since…”
      4. misspelling response as ‘resonse’
      5. It’s ‘yourself’, not your self.
      6. He was not communicating in “the spoken word”.
      7. “then no sale”, not “than no sale”
      8. There is no reason for a leading space after an opening parenthesis.
      9. There is no reason for a comma after “The unfortunate part is…”
      10. It is never wise to lecture someone on a lack of rigor and then admit you only read a small portion of their response.
      11. While we are on the topic, it is NEVER wise to lecture someone on grammar, spelling or syntax on the interwebs. The gods of the literary arts shall always find time to smite thee in such a cause. They are probably not too happy with me for this attempt.
      12. Starting another sentence with the conjunction ‘And’: “And what little…”
      13. You should not mix tenses. If you “did read” something (i.e., the past tense), then the correct verb is “was nonsense” not “is nonsense”.
      14. It’s “of a boy” not “if a boy”
      15. It’s “man’s”, (possessive) not “mans” (plural).
      16. It’s “Well, that is…” not “Well that is”, which has an entirely different meaning.

      Lastly, I’d note that his sentence structure is far more articulate, meaningful and pithy than the string of half masticated cliches and mangled text you replied with. He is merely stating facts that most experienced programmers know to be true. Your rejection of what he said appears to spring from some misplaced anger that he refuses to be yet another clone suckling at the teat of his would be gatekeepers. It also bodes very poorly for your employer, who either has not noticed or does not care that you disqualify otherwise qualified candidates because you do not understand what it is they are hired to do.

  6. HybridITPhD


    The logic of your argument is deeply flawed and shows a lack of experience in producing value.

    Hiring capable people requires having the experience and maturity to recoginize that the real world involves tradeoffs. There are many talented technical people who have no need for or interest in pedantic points of grammar and spelling. Do you really believe that the Chicago Bulls would have cut Michael Jordan for grammatical mistakes on a performance review?

    My role as an communication theory researcher primarily requires the ability to communicate concisely and clearly in writing. The support I receive from those around me whose only role is sysadminning frees my resources to focus on research. Their work is valuable and appreciated even if it doesn’t involve the same skillset as mine.

    Responds, the value of your post is to provide talented technical people an example of a type of hiring manager to avoid – one that’s seemingly only interested in hiring employees that will mindlessly conform to arbitrary demands rather than treating employees with respect.

  7. Scott

    Hybrid has excellent points.

    If a hiring manager is impressed with a candidate following this sort of advice, they probably just hired a huge-talker that can’t back anything up. I’ve worked with those sorts dozens of times and they eventually get exposed–but not before costing companies money.

  8. Grammar shaming aside, this type of article is extremely frustrating reading material for an out-of-work software engineer, as has been mentioned above. This article would claim that “the worst possible mistake” is not knowing the company backwards and forwards, at least from the perspective of someone who doesn’t work there. Seriously? The “worst possible mistake”? I can think of a lot worse interview mistakes: not wearing pants, being brash and arrogant, bringing up politics and/or religion, just to name a few.

    I think that if I had some extra time to prep for an interview, a better strategy would be to practice my answer to “what’s the difference between polymorphism and inheritance”. Knowing the company and its industry is worthwhile. Pestering its employees on LinkedIn to glean anecdotes on its workplace culture doesn’t seem like it would be.

    Maybe the author has an axe to grind about people she sees as being unprepared in an interview. Maybe her company really does value these sorts of interview questions. It’s hard to directly criticize her without knowing where she’s coming from. But from the perspective of the job seeker, this sort of advice is almost worthless because it’s very obviously specific to one or just a small subset of companies and it really doesn’t help me ‘ace’ an interview.

    And one last thing – my salary ‘demands’ are absolutely NOT contingent on the business needs, workplace culture, or compensation practices of the place I’m interviewing. If you truly expect me to somehow figure out that your company pays people in a totally unique way (buckets of nickels, for example) and to tailor my salary request in your special money units, then I think I’d just as soon work someplace else.