Thursday, May 30, 2013

Interview: How I Answer Basic Questions

I've been on a handful of interviews (less than 10). I think I have been pretty successful in that I have been offered the job to a majority of my interviews (declining a couple). I've been on the other side only a few times. Below are some random thoughts on certain basic questions. Sorry about the flow of information. I may clean this more in the future.

Before getting to the questions, I just wanted to state some general advice for all questions. Stay calm, speak slowly. Practice not filling in the pauses with uh, um, eh, or other non-constructive words. It is ok to take a moment in silence to construct your response. These simple practices will help you more on presentation of yourself with more confidence.

Do not be disappointed if you do not get an offer. There are many factors besides your responses like sudden hiring freeze (a friend's group hired a candidate, sent an offer, the candidate had quit, then the department enacted an immediate hiring freeze which denied the candidate).

Most importantly, learn from your interviews. Which questions did you stumble on? How can you improve on the questions? Why did the interviewer ask the question? If you believe you have lost any hope, practice some other responses but still be respectful to the interviewer.

I had a head-hunter (who thought it was an Application Development position) set me up for a DB programming position which I did not have any interest, so I knew pretty early in the interview that this was not really for me. I had explained my concerns to the interviewer which he kindly explained that I could still qualify so I spent the remainder of the interviewer how I could contribute in other ways. Unfortunately, I still did not like the position so saved the interviewer some time by saying that I still was not interested. But I found (also from other interviews) how interviewers seem to have a more positive outlook if I took more control over the interview. By control, I do not mean speaking all the time. In an odd way, it becomes more than me volunteering the basic information but interviewing the employer why I should choose them.

  • Tell me about yourself?
    • This is primarily an ice-breaker
    • Take this chance to find what type of person the interviewer is to determine how to answer the interview questions
      • If laid-back, then you have more freedom to focus on anything important to you like your strengths or more information about the company
      • If process-oriented, try not to go out of process and answer questions more directly
      • If inexperienced interviewer from HR, do not spend a lot of time in details of your expertise
      • If someone that you may work with if hired, go into more detail
      • If the interviewer shares a story, try to tie in the story with your answers (but do not overdo it)
    • Make sure to prepare items that you want to highlight about yourself
      • Do not bring up any negative aspects.
    • I have always enjoyed programming since high school. I studied electrical engineering to better understand the electronics behind programming, specializing in computer engineering. I also ended up with a Computer Science minor. I developed software primarily for both Application and Web development in C# and .NET for several years. I worked mostly with small-sized companies so I have a wide range of experience in the different SDLC process. I later completed my masters in Software Engineering with a thesis on Software Traceability to improve Software Documentation. Finally and for the first time a non-development role, I now do software release management which I find to be very fascinating.
  • Why did you leave your last job?
    • Use your discretion. The interviewers are primarily testing to see if you did something terribly wrong. On a lesser level, they are also trying to learn how you perceive your coworkers.
      • Avoid any personal reasons. Examples (potential alternatives):
        • I hated my boss (We did not agree on certain topics. [Provide constructive example]"
        • Boss was stupid (See above)
        • Could not stand coworker (See above)
        • Passed on a promotion (See above)
        • I did not enjoy the work (The work was not challenging. The work did not use all my potential.)
        • Bored (See above)
        • No money [Choose a different reason. No alternative]
      • Other generic responses:
        • Looking for new opportunities
        • Closer to home (if true)
        • Better hours (if true, but may also hurt your chances)
    • (Unfortunately, I cannot share my answer publicly on this question... but for the previous job for example-sake)
    • I had moved back into the area to help my family and found the job conveniently nearby. Eventually, I no longer needed to stay and there was no new job opportunities within the company. I applied for graduate school but the company did not allow part-time work so I put in a month notice basically the time I got the acceptance letter and start of class.
  • What kind of salary are you looking for?
    • This is just a filter question. There really is no way to spin your answer for further consideration if you are looking for something outside the employer's range. A good HR person may consider if you are worth your price, but they will almost always not offer if you are beyond their price range.
    • There are a lot of opinions on this from salary range, a specific amount, and avoiding this question. I think this really depends on your situation. Ways to avoid is by saying it depends on what the responsibilities are, benefits, urgency of hire, etc.
    • I have no range in mind, please make an offer if you are interested.
      • I am employed, single, no family, can easily move, wide range of relevant experience, no debt, healthy, and not planning to retire early but looking for a place where my talent can be used.  
      • Just an example if I was looking, I am currently happy where I am at although suburb life is quite boring. Although at the rate that I am at... it may be possible for someone to buy me away *nudge nudge* LOL
  • How do you respond to the change in workplace?
    • Provide an example if possible.
    • There is always change. I try to take as much notes if time permits. For me it is important to have as much formal information as possible because many future problems come such changes especially tasks related to audit trails. Most changes are forward-looking but unfortunately audits are backward-looking. Rarely do any of the companies I worked for could actually do a backward trace on tickets.
      • I've always wondered how they prove something like this. What prevents someone from just using this type of story.
  • Do you like to work independently?
    • Be truthful but make sure to add how you still are capable to work the other option.
    • I enjoy working in teams and independently. Even independently, I am usually aware of the company direction (if one exists) and try to align the two goals together. Even without a goal, I always find things to do or resourceful to find the information needed. I rarely need to be micro-managed. 
  • What do you know about our organization?
    • Be truthful even if you do not know. You should do some research although I have been in interviews where head hunters just dropped me in so there is no way I would know. If you had notice, be prepared to lose some points if you did not research. Pretending to know will lose you more points.
    • For IT, the question is more an ice-breaker. I did not know any of the companies I worked for prior to the interview. I researched online but rarely does it tie in with the position. One exception would be if the position is at a software firm and I was to work on that platform, then maybe a decent response would be helpful.
  • What has been your biggest professional disappointment?
    • This should not be difficult but make sure you choose one where it has driven you to better success.
    • I was laid-off because I was made to be the scapegoat of an unpopular project that changed multiple hands and should have been completed before I started.
      • Bad answer
    • I was unable to fully promote a very unpopular software implementation within the entire organization. This has helped me reflect on many parts of project management and people management. This experience has helped me greatly with my current employment in handling difficult people.
  • Tell me about the most fun you have had on the job.
    • Make sure this is business related. This should not be a party unless it has business relevance like team building.
    • The most fun I've had on the job was working on New Year's eve with coworkers to update software for the new year. Ordered pizza, watched a move, then worked on several clients into the new year. A yearly event that created a bond with coworkers that I still keep in touch with.
    • On an individual level, I always enjoy creating tools or processes that assist my work. For example, I created an content management tool so that I didn't have to make updates to the website, enterprise platform, and other applications. This later became more useful when we needed new modules to a manufacturing platform which would have cost the company over $30k.
  • How do you manage stress at your workplace?
    • If possible, provide an example where your stress was tested. If more than one, choose one that will help with your career.
    • I am rarely stressed in as a mental state. When I do have one, they are more like puzzles to be solved. Most of my stress comes more from time constraints. I think because I am capable of getting things done, I always seem to end up with tasks that no one else can do and also needs to be done immediately. I used to stress that there was not enough time in the day to fix them all. Today, I now know how to manage myself and people around me.
  • What plans do you have for improving your qualifications?
    • I haven't had this question but you should always be thinking about this for your career.
    • I am trying to find time to further the thesis I wrote for my graduate program.
  • Have you ever been asked to leave a position?
    • If yes, you should always have this explanation prepared.
    • Yes, there were some fundamental differences between myself and the management team. I wanted to share our department information so that we can be more streamlined with the other departments. I helped promote Confluence, a free wiki solution, to help publish work completed and documentation. Management wanted to control the information so that they can manage other departments more easily. After I left, two others have also left. One of the two was the main promoter of Confluence. Now, they have implemented Confluence and replaced with more people to handle the same workload. 
      • I haven't, so I just made up a story.
  • What are your main achievements when you were working in your previous position?
    • If more than one, choose one that strengthens where you want your career to go (which may not necessarily be your strength).
    • I assisted a client with their logistics solution that they specifically requested a support contract for me to be their primary support architect for $50k which most contracts were around $2k and $10k was a big client. 
  • If you had enough money to retire right now, would you?
    • Yes seems like a terrible answer but be prepared to why you wouldn't. "I like to stay busy." "I enjoy being around people."
    • No, I enjoy creating solutions to problems. And if there were no problems in the world, I'd like to be teacher.
  • Why are you interested in this position?
    • I haven't had this question. I cannot see how this is a useful question except to see if you know what the job is. A generic response would be that I am looking for new opportunities or looking for new skills and experience.
    • Generic responses:
      • My experience will help you in different ways, while I can learn your methods.
      • I enjoy working in a team. I worked by myself in my old job.
        • Or vice versa
      • I am looking for an environment where I can work more effectively, and I think I can accomplish that with your resources in A, B, and C.
    • Generic bad responses:
      • More pay
      • Less hours
      • Less work
  • How do you approach the problem when a customer calls you and says they cannot access the database?
  • What qualifications and experience do you have that make you feel that you could do this job successfully?
    • Review the prerequisites for the position and cross-reference with your experience and qualifications.
  • What are your strong points? Weak points?
    • Spin the weak points into strong points. Generic ones are "work too hard," "too focused," etc. Better ones are real weak points added with how you deal with them. For example, I have poor memory, so I take a lot of notes. (see my post on note-taking)
    • This question also becomes easier as you have more work experience. You will soon realize where you are valued and where you are not as good at.
    • I am weak at flash recalling details especially details that were discussed months ago. But once I recall (usually with a few reminder keywords), I usually recall more details than most others. This is the primary reason I started taking notes.
  • Do you prefer working with others or by yourself?
    • You should be truthful with this or related to the position. There is a similar question above if you enjoy working independently. 
  • What is your ultimate career goal? What are you doing to achieve that goal?
    •  This should be business related.
    • My ultimate career goal is to be at a place where I can work effectively with a team of people to produce a solution to a problem greater than what a single person can solve. Experience has shown that I work well in a lead or management role where I am trying to get my team to work as independently as possible. Similar to one of my life goals in trying to be lazy where I will do everything I can to eventually do nothing knowing that I will never reach that goal but yet somehow motivating in itself.
  • What personality traits do you most admire in a person? Why?
    • I have not been asked this before but I find it an interesting question. 
    • Perseverance and vision. In all areas of life, I always found it odd that basically all children have these two traits yet seem very lacking in adults. And the adults that do, they appear very effective and happy in whatever they do and wherever they are.
  • How would you describe the perfect job? What would be characteristic of such a position?
    • Use your discretion. Make sure it has business relevance. Avoid saying "Casual attire because it is comfortable." A better option would be "Casual attire because it encourages free thinking." I would still avoid that unless you have good evidence of such statements. Although personally, semi-formal should be the minimum in my opinion for most working environments.
    • Same as "What is your ultimate career goal" for me.
  • What do you think determines a person’s progress in a good organization?
    • I have not been asked this before. I am also not sure what the question is asking.
    • I'd ask what they mean by progress and by good organization. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that determining a person's progress is difficult to define. Because everyone's collection of skills are typically very unique, certain groups of people work differently together. By this it would seem that the group's result would then determine the person's progress, but this would not identify a slacker. Thus I can only answer in general that a person's progress would be how well the person fits into the company.
  • What have you learned from some of the jobs you have held? Any important lessons?
    • This should be an easy question to answer. Be prepared to keep the lesson relevant to the job prospect. Choose a lesson better reflects your strengths.
    • Confidence. The most important lesson from any task or job is to always have experience. To get the most experience, you need to learn. The best way to learn is to reach out, ask questions, or try things out. At the end of the day, you realize people will accept small mistakes and if you are lucky will have more respect for you as long as you learn from it.  
  • What have you done which shows initiative and willingness to work?
    • This is a straight-forward question. If you don't have one, you should try to find something of the sort. Volunteering work is a good place to start if you cannot find something at work. Start a new process; document a process if one does not exist; organize a get-together with coworkers; coordinate an event.
    • I have started many small projects to improve the way I work. I've created a CMS solution and other modules to improve manufacturing processes. I've set new process to help the team implement new solutions more easily and more supportable. I watch out for my colleagues and help them grow into the position. Turnover at a company was about 2 weeks to 3 months. The group I trained stayed for several years. 
  • Finally towards the end they normally would ask “Do you have any questions”?
    • You should prepare a bunch of questions. After some experience, this question becomes easier because you have a better what you are looking for. This is your opportunity to interview your interviewer to find out if the company is a good fit for you.
    • "How many people would I report to?" "What is the turnover?" "Why is this position open?" "Who do you report to?" "What is the experience of my supervisor/manager/boss?" "Who would I be working with?"

Most Common Questions 2013 (Thanks to Thiep)

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