Prepping for a Do-or-Die Job Interview

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Job interviews are nerve-racking experiences, even for seasoned professionals. As with so many things in life, however, even a little bit of prep work can make a huge difference, both for your nerves and your chances of success.

When it comes to technology jobs, preparation is especially important, as you may find yourself answering mathematical riddles or dealing with complex white-board questions in addition to the “standard” interview queries.

With all that in mind, here are some key tips for prepping for your next big job interview:

Research the Company’s Interview Setup

Every organization conducts its job interviews differently. Some take a more traditional approach, focusing on hiring-manager interviews supplemented (perhaps) by a white-boarding session or two. Others attempt to gauge candidates’ skills and experience by subjecting them to batteries of weird interview questions, impromptu programming sessions, or other unusual tests.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have known what to expect when you walked into a prospective employer’s office. But thanks to the Internet (as well as any colleagues or acquaintances who have interviewed with that company before), you can often find out what’s waiting for you, days or weeks before you settle into the interviewee chair. Do that research into the company’s interviewing style, and prepare accordingly.

Next: Figure Out Everything the Company Does (click here or below)

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Figure Out Everything the Company Does

Picture this: you’ve sat down with a hiring manager for a job interview. The prospective employer is a software firm with a number of products and services. While you managed to take a look at the company’s Website, you didn’t get as much time as you might have liked to research its history and setup.

The hiring manager’s first question: “So, what did you think of [X product]?”

While that’s a pretty standard question, there’s just one little problem: you’ve never heard of that product before. You have no idea about its features, or how you would have built or managed it differently. Sure, you could evade by saying something like, “I thought it was great.” But that opens up the interviewer asking you for more detail.

Before heading into a job interview, take a lot of time to research everything the company does. The consequences of neglecting this part of your interview prep are potentially dire.

Next: Warm Up with Some Brain Teasers (click here or below)

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Warm Up with Some Brain Teasers

Tech companies are famous for asking candidates to answer odd questions, although the practice has reportedly ebbed in the past few years. Microsoft interviewers once asked prospective engineers why manhole covers were round, and Google tossed complicated puzzles at anyone who wanted to work there; executives from both those companies now frame brainteasers as useless.

That doesn’t mean all tech firms have stopped asking candidates to perform some mental gymnastics. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reportedly tosses a geography-related riddle at prospective engineers, for example, while software-development shops are known for asking engineers to solve complicated programming issues.

Before your interview, take an hour or two to work through some brainteasers and puzzles. You should also prepare yourself to deal with a problem you can’t solve (hint: always take a shot at a solution, and show all your work).

Next: Create an Outline (click here or below)

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Create an Outline

You’d be surprised at how many people head into an interview without a clear sense of why they want to work for a particular firm, or what they’d do if they landed the job. This is a bit odd, because “Why do you want to work here?” is often one of the first questions the interviewer asks.

With that in mind, before heading into the interview, sit down and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does the company align with your passions?
  • What problem does the company tackle that you want to help solve?
  • How can your skillset help the company succeed?
  • What could you accomplish for the company on a tactical level?
  • How will your background help you succeed in the role?

Once you’ve worked out the answers to all these questions, consider how you can arrange them into a compelling story or narrative arc. For example, if the company builds mobile software designed to help people more easily order food online, you could tell the interviewer that you have a lifelong passion for e-commerce, stemming from some pivotal event in college, and that you feel the company’s software and tools are best-in-market.

That will be a lot better answer than, “I want to work for your company because I think you’re doing cool stuff.” The interviewer has probably heard that exact same response a dozen times that day.

In order to answer the above questions in a compelling way, you’ll also need to research the company in exhaustive detail, including all its latest developments. For example, did the firm recently introduce a new business unit? Does it plan on spinning off a division as a separate entity? Is it embroiled in the middle of a huge stock scandal? If you’re interviewing at a large firm, publications such as Hacker News, TechCrunch, and Yahoo Finance can give you some much-needed insight into its current setup and operations.

Next: Know Your Passion (click here or below)

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Know Your Passion

Everybody can describe what he or she did in previous roles. What will make you stand out is accentuating your passion projects; that way, you’ll demonstrate to the hiring managers that you enjoy certain tech disciplines so much, you even pursue them during your off-hours.

But a lot of candidates also pursue passion projects. How do you make yourself stand out? Don’t just say that you’ve built an app or Website—everybody’s done that. Instead, show the impact your project might have had. That doesn’t necessarily mean you earned a lot of money from it; you can show how you introduced more efficient code or pioneered a new development technique.

Next: Prep Your Simple Answers (click here or below)

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Prep Your Simple Answers

You can spend hours discussing complex concepts with similarly-minded peers. Your initial recruiter or hiring manager, however, may not have your level of technical expertise, especially if you focus on an esoteric or especially complex branch of technology.

Before your job interview, sit down and rehearse how you’ll answer broad questions about your background and skills in as reductive a way as possible. For example, if your professional focus on Apache Hadoop, you don’t want any answer involving your skillset to plunge instantly into the minutiae of secondary namenodes, FUSE, or the Thrift API. Instead, talk about how your work with Hadoop translates into noticeable boosts in company efficiency and even revenue.

When talking about your most recent projects, make sure to touch (however briefly) on the following points:

  • Project goals
  • Project resources
  • Timeline
  • Collaborators

From there, you can broadly discuss project progression from start to finish, always emphasizing the ultimate results and steering away from excessive jargon. If a later interviewer wants to plunge into the weeds with you, you’ll have that opportunity; but for initial interviews, prepare to keep things as simple as possible unless prompted otherwise.

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