How to get a job, part 2: first round interviews.


Part 1: submitting your application.

Part 2 talks about the initial screening process. Your resume has captured the attention of a hiring manager. What can you do to maximize moving onto the next round?

Note: this is a dense essay. Views expressed are all my own.

1. CIA case study: prepare for the interview.

I once applied for the CIA. I was in college at the time, attended an on-campus career fair, and dropped off my resume at the CIA table. I received a call from the recruiter that night; he said my resume had piqued his interest.

We scheduled a secret interview. The recruiter said it was a general interview, so I figured we’d have a short and simple chat about the role, my experiences, and my Chinese speaking skills that he had observed.

I didn’t prepare, not one bit.

That was a mistake. You see, the “general interview” turned out to be 1 hour 45 minutes long. Everything I said was written down and is likely stored in the CIA archives of “Hire Only If You Hate America.”

Things were bad from the getgo.

Recruiter: “Why do you want to work for the CIA?”

Me: “Just want to see what’s out there for me, figured my Chinese speaking skills can be an asset.”

Think about that response from an employer’s perspective. You’re looking for a guy to join a top-secret organization that protects U.S. interests overseas. You’re looking for a patriot who is willing to do virtually anything for his or her country. Does my answer convince you that I am the right fit for a Top Secret security clearance? Does it sound like I want to work for you?

So, why did I want to work for the CIA? Perhaps a better answer would have been:

I was born and raised in America and feel a sense of loyalty to my country. I believe I can align my personal skills with that of our country’s interests. I study international relations and am fascinated by geopolitics, different cultures, and security intelligence. Furthermore, I studied abroad at Peking University, culminating my desire to use my Chinese language and people skills to advance our interests in China or Taiwan.

It gets worse. Half way through the interview, bad answer after bad answer, the recruiter asks:

Recruiter: “Can you discuss at least one scenario where you directly influenced another person or group of persons to do something?”

Me: “I like to exercise and stay healthy. I convinced my family to switch over from white rice to brown rice. And also from 2% milk to fat free milk. Before this, my family had eaten white rice and drank 2% milk their whole lives. “

Yes, I seriously said that.

Put yourself in the CIA’s shoes. You’re looking to deploy an agent into a region to influence the locals into doing something. Does that rice and milk anecdote convince you that this person is capable of carrying out that mission? Is this person qualified?

Have I directly influenced the decisionmaking or actions of others? Certainly. But, I should have thought of those anecdotes before the interview, instead of citing rice and milk. It’s impressive that the recruiter held a straight face while writing that down. He may have wrote “Pretending to write constructive stuff down to stay sane, this guy is the village idiot.”

I never heard back from them again.

2. Re-emphasis: prepare for the interview by conducting interviews.

I learned a lot from the CIA interview at the expense of our tax dollars. The same happened with plenty more companies over the years. These interviews were highly valuable, allowing me to reflect on all the goods and bads.

It’s possible to gain interview skills without having to conduct them with real companies. It’s incredibly easy to create a scenario where you are being interviewed. Pass along your application(s) and job description(s) to friends, who will wear the hat of the interviewer and ask you questions. As Randy Pausch said, “your critics are your best friends.” During the mock interview, have them provide feedback on what you should definitely say during an actual interview, what you should avoid, and everything in between.

Google common interview questions and provide them with the list. When conducting first round interviews, I ask many questions found in the 50 Common Questions article.

The goal of these mock interviews is to help you reflect on everything you’ve ever learned that can be transferred to the specific role you’re applying for. What have you learned from the classroom setting? Or that of sports, clubs, organizations, volunteer efforts, traveling, and/or previous work experiences?

Think about all those stories you have and spew it out. Let your friend, otherwise known as the nicest interviewer you’ll ever face, tell you why those stories are relevant or not. Let him or her refine your anecdotes: “Discard that part, it’s trash… keep that pitch, it was strong… shorten that section… you’re rambling, clean up that part.”

Do this in person, on the phone, and over Skype. Do this standing up (you will feel more confident) and sitting down. Do this with all your notes, then without them (which is harder). Do this with a table between you and the person, or without — the lack of a physical barrier between you and the person is scary, and you must prepare for it.

Do this with as many friends as possible, from a variety of backgrounds. They don’t have to be older or have more experience. What’s important is that they all bring in different perspectives — the more you have, the more you’ll be able to resonate with the millions of different employers out there. Some of the most helpful mock interviews I’ve had were from friends who are 2-4 years younger, who did not have any full-time work experience.

3. Anything listed on your application is fair game.

If you’ve listed a certain skill, be prepared to demonstrate it. Good employers will weed out the skills you’ve listed, that you cannot perform, resulting in a red flag. Vagueness will not suffice, especially if employers ask for specific incidents. Be honest with yourself and think twice about what you put down on your resume.

While still living in Taiwan, I interviewed with a firm where half the interview was conducted in Mandarin. Imagine the embarrassment were I not able to produce a coherent sentence in that language. This realization led me to finally remove “Taiwanese proficiency” as a language skill from my resume. Be honest with yourself. My Taiwanese is absolutely terrible.

4. Research the company.

This is common knowledge, but I cannot emphasize it enough: learn everything you can about the company.

I once interviewed with a company where the interviewer did not initiate any questions for one entire hour. The conversation begun with:

Me: “How did you want to start? Do you have any questions for me?”

Employer: “Nope. I’d like you to ask me questions instead. It will help me gauge what you know about the company, and we can take things from there.”

This was an effective way to gauge whether I had any knowledge about the company. We talked about everything, from the new CEO and company re-structuring, to competitive advantages or lack thereof, to people operations and workflow.

With the right research, you should have plenty of questions for the interviewer for a full-fledge conversation. More on Section 6.

5. Talk to the interviewer as you would a friend.

Starting an interview in a nervous manner is okay, and the employer will understand that. We’ve all been there before; public speaking isn’t easy. However, you should naturally ease into the conversation and feel comfortable after a few minutes. The two of you are simply engaging in dialogue and exchanging information that will determine whether you and the company are fit for each other.

Imagine all the conversations you’ve held with a longtime friend. Imagine the comfort you have confiding in a trusted person. Try replicating that comfort level while talking to the interviewer — he or she is human after all. Without citing any psychology or social behavioral text, it’s safe to generalize that people are empathetic. The aura you exude is felt by others, and you don’t want to give off give off uncomfortable vibes.

An alternative approach: imagine yourself as the last standing hero of the Free World. You’re going off to war (the interview room). Every moment of your life has led to this. You must emerge victorious. Here’s some epic music to help with the mood-setting.

6. Ask the right questions: you are also the interviewer.

I’ve read many articles that stress the importance of asking questions at the end of the interview. “It shows you care about the company, and that you’ve done your homework,” they say. That is true.

Unfortunately, most of these articles are biased towards employers and don’t talk about the bigger reason behind asking questions. The authors of those articles operate under the assumption that readers have already determined, with complete information, that the company they are applying for is the right fit.

That is certainly not the case. Interview the company back.

Small to medium sized companies need that role filled and are more desperate than you think. Note: I cannot apply the aforementioned statement to larger, 1,000+ person companies. Many of your questions should probe and gauge whether the company is in alignment with your own goals. Unless you are extremely desperate for a job (i.e. need money for food or rent), I advise looking into every company with great curiosity, but with an equal amount of skepticism.

Similar to the employer inquiring about your background to verify that you are the same person who you describe on paper, you should do the same with the company from the very first interview. All companies have their own issues, issues that are almost always hidden from the public. These issues can be anything: clashes between members of the senior management, disillusioned staff, potential long-term budget problems, unsustainable business model, high employee turnover, etc.

These macro-scale problems should be asked in a professional way, i.e.:

What are your thoughts about the CEO and/or senior management team? Is this feeling shared amongst your other colleagues? Do employees generally approve of the senior management team?

What are the largest issues that the company is facing at this time? What steps are they taking to mitigate these issues or risks?

Is the company net profitable? If not, when is the company projected to become profitable?

What is the average employee tenure across the sales/marketing/operations/product/technical team(s)?

Below is an email I received from a potential hire:


Wouldn’t you want this person on your team? An engineer who not only identifies tough business questions, but also has the nerve to ask them. In other words, someone who encompasses the skills we’re looking for (technical chops) with business savvy. This is a potential leader, and someone I would want on my team.

The employer’s answers should give you a sense of whether the company’s weaknesses are worth your time. Good employers will either answer honestly, or say “I don’t know, will get back to you.”   If your question is incredibly important and the employer answers with the latter, make sure to follow up with your question. Good employers will give you a more complete sense of the entire business, its vision, and your role in that vision. They also know that lying to potential hires will cause more harm in the long run — not matching a competitive employee’s expectations to reality will lead to quick turnover and reputation damage. The hiring process will have to start over again and is incredibly unproductive for the company.

Lastly, be mindful of employers who jog around your question like politicians do with tough questions. The more it’s done, the more you should worry. If you sense a bunch of lies and inconsistencies, run away very quickly and do unto them as the CIA did unto me.

Fast turnover is at the crux of bad hiring practices, and I plan to discuss this in future posts.

7. Play nice and help the employer do their jobs.

Don’t waste your time if… you’ve identified a misalignment in the company’s goals versus your own. It would be an awful waste of time on both ends for unnecessary back-and-forth, especially if you know you won’t take any offer. The employer will also appreciate this; their end goal is to simply find the right person for the job.

I once interviewed with a company’s CEO. I identified that the position wasn’t something I was looking for and thanked him for his time. I recommended someone else for the position; low and behold, they knew each other! He and I became friends and occasionally help each other out on business and personal needs.

Disregard the above if… you need more interview practice. Just don’t let the employer know that you’re doing this, else they’ll end the conversation very quickly. And don’t do this to me if I ever interview you! 😉

Final notes on Part 2.

I’ve skipped a bunch of job interview tips that are common all over the web. Let me know if you’d like me to cover any points in greater detail.

Part 3 will talk about later-stage interviews. I will include a link here when it has been published. Subscribe/bookmark to receive an email then!

Lastly, remember to avoid talking about milk and rice.

3 thoughts on “How to get a job, part 2: first round interviews.”

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