13 insider tips for acing your job interview

Esoteric puzzles, landmine questions, ‘cultural fit’ -- these 13 tips help you navigate the IT interview process with confidence

Job Interviewing Skills
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If you’re an IT pro, chances the job interview is at -- or very near -- the top of your list of personal hells. Why not? Tech job interviews can be grueling experiences, rife with esoteric puzzles, uncomfortable pauses, landmine questions, and the aching underlying feeling that maybe you don’t belong.

Throughout the process, you will be talking with strangers via phone and video, taking tests, answering challenging and often uncomfortable questions, traveling on sleepless red-eye flights, and enduring multiple anxious periods of not knowing what is going on, how you’ve been received, or what will happen next.

To really ace the interview and minimize your anxiety going in, you must be prepared to an almost otherworldly extent, on many fronts at once. This means deep research on the position and company to decode what to expect during the interview process and to understand the company dynamics at as near the level of a current employee as you can.

Still sure you want to pursue that new job?

IT interview tip No. 1: Don’t be afraid to reach out early

Interview preparation begins the moment you find yourself intrigued by a posting. The questions you anticipate fielding, how you’ll present your skills and experience persuasively, what you’ll ask to get a better grasp of the position -- the interview should always be a point of reflection as you dig deeper in researching the job.

One note to keep in mind early: Sometimes the company can be more important than the advertised position. Just because the job ad says “junior programmer” does not mean the company doesn’t also need a senior developer. The key to acing an IT interview is finding the perfect fit. Don’t be afraid to call or email; many jobs are not advertised. In some cases, early contact on a not-quite-right job can lead to an informal conversation with the recruiter, who can tell you whether other, better-suited jobs are on offer or if the organization is open to expanding the role to fit your extraordinary qualifications.

IT interview tip No. 2: Don't believe everything you read on Glassdoor

Resources such as Glassdoor provide a wealth of information about the hiring and interviewing process at most major companies. In fact, for many IT pros, Glassdoor’s community reviews of a company’s culture, salary information, and so on is the first stop in researching a position. The information can be extensive, detailed, and very valuable, providing instant insights from fellow professionals of their experiences with your target company.

But as with every other aspect of the Internet, be aware that people who don’t like the company are much more likely to review it than people who like the company. Take all the negativity -- you’re likely to encounter a lot -- with a block of salt and make up your own mind. Don’t be dissuaded from pursuing what could be your dream job, or get derailed by interview advice from someone who might not have been the right fit or was not as well prepared for the interview as you will be.

IT interview tip No. 3: Find employee blogs and read them in depth

Once you know what the company thinks is important about the position you are targeting and how its interview process works, it’s time to gather all the information you can about the company. For most major companies, there are blogs, books, and websites devoted to their inner workings, technical focus, and business culture. Immersing yourself in these is not a waste of time; it helps you feel prepared, making you more relaxed when it comes time to interview.

Here, employee blogs can be a goldmine. When preparing for an interview with a major international consulting and development firm, I came across the blog of its chief scientist and read it -- all of it. This took about three days, several hours per day.

I also watched several of his presentations on YouTube, as well as presentations by the company’s CTO and other technical employees. I read everything on the company website, researched the founder’s background and vision, and skimmed hundreds of tweets and blog posts by current employees.

At no point in the interview process was I asked anything about this information, but it gave me a very good idea of what the company was focused on technically and socially, thus informing the conversations I had -- not just the technical ones. Doing so brings you a lot closer to the company, making it much easier to convince those who interview you that you belong and are ready to make a difference right away.

IT interview tip No. 4: Research social culture -- it's as critical as technical focus

Employee blogs, social media, and social networks are a great source of insider information about the company’s social culture. Does everyone complain that there’s no work/life balance? Do employees frequently get together after-hours to drink shots and sing karaoke? Do project teams volunteer for social-good projects together? Do employees often appear as speakers at conferences?

None of these are particularly important, but together they paint an overall picture of the social culture at the company. Do you find this picture attractive? Could you find yourself fitting into the company’s social dynamic?

For some, a company with an all-work-and-no-play focus is fine; for others, working somewhere with people you actually want to be around after-hours can be a great benefit. Many people take jobs they think they will like only to discover they don’t enjoy the dynamics of the workplace once they are hired, or simply enter the interview process blind to the social tenor interviews will take. Getting a sense of the day-to-day social interactions of a potential employer goes a long way toward giving you a sense of what to expect about the interview process.

IT interview tip No. 5: Understanding the underlying principles of interview puzzles is the key to crushing them

One of the more controversial -- and anxiety-inducing -- hiring practices these days is the use of puzzles during interviews. Perhaps because of this, the puzzles themselves often find their way onto the Net.

The last thing you should do is memorize the answers to the questions you find when researching a particular company. Read them to understand what kind of questions you might be asked, what kind of answers they might be looking for, and what the underlying purpose of the questions might be. Memorizing the answers can easily backfire; it takes only a small change to the question to render published answers incorrect -- not to mention the fact that rattling off answers to complex questions without taking time to think is highly suspicious. People who memorize answers without understanding underlying principles are easily exposed, and interviewers know it.

Instead, use your research as a guide to uncovering the underlying purpose of the puzzles. Silly questions about cannibals and canoes may be intended to see how you think through a logic puzzle, or it may be to see if you push back against stupid questions, or it may be to see if you think out of the box. Each company has its own agenda for asking these kinds of questions; study published puzzles with a mind to unlock them.

IT interview tip No. 6: Connect with current employees

As you prepare for your interview, be sure to make use of social networking outlets like LinkedIn. Send an invitation to connect with a few people in the company accompanied by a short note explaining that you have an interview soon and would appreciate some tips can confirm, deny, or expand on the research you’ve already done. You can ask about what to wear, what to expect, and so on, but the key to not coming off like a creep is to limit your correspondence to one question per contact; make it easy for them to connect and respond. Humor certainly helps in reaching out, but above all, be yourself.

IT interview tip No. 7: Don't tilt at windmills

If you find that the kinds of things a company asks in its interviews are ridiculous, irrelevant, or offensive, reconsider whether you really want to work there. It takes a lot of work to prepare for an interview, and if you find that a company’s process or culture makes your skin crawl, it may be in your best interests to walk away.

True, practice makes perfect. And if you’ve been out of the job market for a while, going through a couple not-quite-right or even uncomfortable interviews can help you get back in the saddle. But the strain of chasing a bad fit can ultimately be very unrewarding and potentially demoralizing, not to mention a distraction from finding exactly the right position for you.

IT interview tip No. 8: Dress as if you already work there

It’s simple, almost hackneyed, but it’s true: What you wear, how you present yourself, your body language, and so on, all of these influence the interviewers and thus the outcome. If the company is “business casual,” don’t show up in a suit. Dress as if you already work there. If you’re not sure from the description, ask your recruiter or inside contact, look for office pictures, or if possible drop by the office and peek through the window.

Before you walk into the room, remind yourself of your good qualities. Stand up straight, make eye contact, and enter the space as if you belong there -- not as if you own it or rule it, but as if it is a comfortable, familiar place where several of your friends reside. You want to project an open, friendly level of confidence, to set both you and the interviewers at ease.

IT interview tip No. 9: Let your personality out

Interviewers -- the good ones -- aren’t merely looking for boxes to check. They’re looking for someone who fits into the company culture, adds value to the business, and is able to grow with the job. It's important to let your personality out, though not all at once. This may be difficult for those with a more introverted personality to ease into, and for the more extroverted among us it may be hard to hold back on the thousand things you find fascinating.

Pick two or three areas of personal interest that you feel are relevant to the job, the company, or the interviewer. You may not be able to identify these in advance, so stay alert for clues during the course of the conversation. When opportunity presents, add a little bit of your personality into the dialog, and see if that increases interest or engagement. If it does, continue the thread for a little bit; if it doesn’t, don’t press it.

In the end, you want the company to be excited about you, not about filling a round hole with an uninteresting peg.

IT interview tip No. 10: Beware the "interviewing the interviewer" trap

Some publications recommend you take control of the interview by “interviewing the interviewer.” This can be misinterpreted as adversarial in some circumstances. It’s fine to turn the interview process into a conversation instead of an interrogation and ask questions. For example, if asked about your experience with a particular programming language, it’s not a bad idea to answer with pertinent facts briefly, then follow up with a leading question such as, “How much of my work would be with this language, and in what domains?”

This is easier than it sounds, and it is definitely a good idea to prepare questions for the interviewer in advance, especially if you have concerns about the position or company. But by no means do you want to come off as challenging the interviewer by turning the process on its head. You want to be remembered as someone who is well-prepared, well-informed, and easy to talk to -- not someone who is going to undermine colleagues by questioning them for the sake of showing what you know.

IT interview tip No. 11: Help the interviewer imagine you in the position

Open-ended questions are an excellent opportunity to help the interviewer imagine you in the position. For example, “What would my day-to-day duties be?” pretty much forces the interviewer to imagine that you already have the position and are going about your daily routine before answering, or at least drawing a parallel between you and their ideal candidate or between you and the last person to fill the position.

IT interview tip No. 12: Always speak favorably about former employers

It doesn’t matter if your prior employer was a complete control freak who made your life a living hell; always speak favorably about them. Don’t say, “I got tired of text messages at midnight asking me for help with the manager’s moonlighting project, so I’m looking for a new gig.” Instead, make it positive: “I enjoyed the variety of challenges presented but am looking for new ones.” Going on and on about how badly your prior employer treated you is a serious red flag, no matter how justified you feel you are in doing so.

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