Why candidates fail the job interview

At the moment, my work group is looking to hire a couple of new Oracle DBAs. My colleague, who is doing the interviewing, regaled us with stories about the people he interviewed. He extended at least one offer; whether or not the candidate accepts remains to be seen.

His stories reminded me of a SQL Saturday presentation by my friend, Thomas Grohser, entitled “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute.” The link sends you to a YouTube video of the session he did for the professional development virtual group. I haven’t yet looked at the video, but I have attended his session live and in-person at previous SQL Saturdays. If you are able to spare an hour, take a look at Thomas’ presentation. He gives a very good presentation, as he always does.

I have a few thoughts that, hopefully, will help you if you’re looking to go to a job interview. Again, I didn’t watch the video, so I’m not sure whether or not Thomas covered these points in his virtual presentation, but he did touch on them whenever I attended his live presentations, and I thought they were worth pointing out.

  • If you do NOT ask any questions, consider your interview blown. I overheard my colleague mention that he asked one of his candidates, “do you have any questions,” and he responded with, “Nope!”

    In the back of my mind, I said to myself, “he just disqualified himself. Please tell me you’re not extending him an offer.”

    Seriously. It is absolutely critical that you ask questions at an interview. If you do NOT ask any questions, then you just failed the interview.

    A candidate who asks questions indicates that (s)he is interested in the position and the organization. Keep in mind that you’re interviewing the company just as much as the company is interviewing you. Interviewing is a two-way street. You need to make sure that the position is the right fit for you.

    If you don’t ask questions, it’s an indication that you aren’t interested. Worse, it also signals that you aren’t taking the interview seriously. Why would a company want to hire you if you’re not serious about the interview?

    Bottom line: never, EVER, NOT ask questions at an interview!!!
  • It’s important to ask the right questions. Make sure that, when you do ask questions, ask the right ones. You should frame your questions in such a way that it shows you’re interested in the company.

    You shouldn’t ask questions about salary, benefits, etc. unless the interviewer brings it up. The company doesn’t want an employee who is self-centered. Instead, ask questions that show that you want to be a team player. A common one that I’ve asked when I’ve interviewed is, “what are the organization’s biggest challenges, and what can I do to help you out?”

    Whenever I’ve interviewed, I’ve always prepared at least two or three questions (sometimes more, depending on the interview) to ask in advance. I’ll ask questions about their system environment and their competition. I’ve even asked questions about their workplace dynamic — a question as simple as, “what do you guys like to do for lunch?” can sometimes be revealing about their workplace atmosphere.

    I highly recommend books titled Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview (I’ve seen these books in various titles — 200 Best Questions, 300, etc.). Get them from Amazon, check them out from your local library, or whatever works for you.
  • It’s okay not to know everything. I recently saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine who interviewed a candidate who didn’t know about what (s)he was being asked, and said so. My friend commented that it was refreshing that a candidate just admitted that (s)he didn’t know the answer, rather than try to BS his or her way through the interview.

    We’re human. We don’t have unlimited data storage that we can query on a whim. As such, you’re not going to know the answer to every interview question thrown at you.

    One of the worst things you can do is try to BS your way through every question thrown at you. More often than not, a good interviewer who knows what (s)he’s doing will see through it. That will not reflect well on you during an interview.

    Thomas admits that he will ask the candidate questions that either don’t have a correct answer or have ambiguous answers. (The question itself might even be ambiguous.) He isn’t looking to see if you know the facts; rather, he is looking to see how you answer the question. Answering “here’s how I would find the answer” or “I don’t know, but this is what I think” is often enough to satisfactorily answer the question.
  • Respect the interview. Make sure you’re showered, cleaned up, and properly dressed. Make sure you show up on time (even better, show up early — fifteen to thirty minutes early should suffice). Come prepared. If you’re late or unable to show up, contact them immediately and let them know. Say “please” and “thank you.” Use a firm handshake.

    In short, respect the interview. Not doing so conveys a message that you’re not taking it seriously, which causes the interviewer to question whether or not you really want the job. If you don’t take the interview seriously, chances are that the job offer will go to the candidate who does.

Hopefully, these tips will help you nail the interview. They might not guarantee that you’ll land the position, but they’ll definitely increase your chances of doing so.

Good luck at your interview.

References and memorization

I was working on a document, and wanted to toggle the language on MS Word that was used for proofing (I downloaded the template from our UK subsidiary, so it was proofing in UK, not US, English). I couldn’t remember how to do it, so I consulted Google, found my answer, changed the setting, and went along my merry way.

For whatever reason, it got me thinking about Microsoft certification exams (it’s funny how one’s mind works sometimes). It’s been a long time since I took one. What got me thinking was that, when you take a certification exam, you are not allowed to bring any notes or references with you into the testing room (as far as I remember — I’m not sure if that’s still the case now; like I said, it’s been a long time since I took a certification exam).

In this day and age where finding information is as easy as picking up your smartphone, I really believe that memorization is overrated (and, maybe in some cases, even dangerous). I wrote as much a while back, and I still believe that now.

Back when I worked as an adjunct instructor, all my assignments, quizzes, and exams that I gave to students were open-book, open-note. I also told my students that they were allowed to help each other work toward the answers, including during an exam. They were not allowed to outright give each other answers; that constituted cheating and were grounds for failing the exam. Maybe some instructors might scoff at this approach, but my students were very good about adhering to those rules (many of them told me later that they learned more in my class than any other they’d ever taken), and there was a method to my madness.

For one thing, I told my students that the ability to look up and research information was an important skill to have. We, as imperfect human beings, are never going to remember absolutely everything, so to be able to know how find the correct answers is important. Second, when we’re in a working environment, the ability to work together as a team is critical. When you’re working within a team environment, being able to work with others to achieve a common goal is a big deal.

Finally, how many workplaces are going to tell you, “okay, put away all your books and references. You’re going to do this project entirely from memory.” I don’t know about you, but if a manager ever told me to do that, I wouldn’t be able to update and distribute my resume fast enough.

In his SQL Saturday presentation entitled “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute,” Thomas Grohser mentions that he does not expect any candidate to be able to know everything. If a candidate says that (s)he “does not know the answer, but here’s how I would go about finding the answer,” then that is a perfectly acceptable answer. More often than not, trying to do everything from memory is a bad and sometimes dangerous approach, and is a bad way of thinking.

We are not perfect. We will never remember everything. And anyone who says that (s)he knows everything is full of crap. Rather than try to brute-force memorize anything and everything, it’s more important to develop skills that teach you how to think and how to find, verify, and process information. If I was a hiring manager, that ability would be vastly more valuable than someone who says that (s)he “knows everything.”

SQL Saturday #855, Albany — the debrief

This past weekend, we (the CASSUG user group) hosted our sixth SQL Saturday. I’ve attended dozens of SQL Saturdays, but the ones that we hold in my own backyard are always the most special to me. This is one of my favorite events of the entire year, and I look forward to it each summer.

At the speaker’s dinner on Friday night!

I’ll start by talking about my own presentations, which took place in the afternoon (I was scheduled for the last two time slots of the day). My first talk was a lightning talk about business cards. (If you want to know about what I presented, check out my ‘blog article — it pretty much outlines what I talked about.) Mine was one of seven talks, along with talks by Bryan Cafferky, Andy Yun, Deborah Melkin, Michelle Gutzait, Taiob Ali, and Paresh Motiwala. Besides my own talk, I was able to catch the first five talks (unfortunately, I had to leave to prepare for my presentation, so I missed Paresh’s — but that’s okay, because he gives a terrible talk, anyway*), and I can tell you that every one of them was an awesome presentation. I loved every single one of them.

(*ed note: I’m kidding, Paresh! You know I love you!)

I get ready to do my presentation

All kidding aside… immediately after the lightning talks session, I had my own full-length presentation to do. I debuted a brand-new presentation about ‘blogging. For the most part, it went well, but it isn’t perfect. I did get a couple of comments back saying that they were expecting more about the career aspect of ‘blogging. Apparently, they were looking for a direct link between ‘blogging and career. The idea of my presentation is that ‘blogging can enhance your professional profile and well-being, but apparently, that didn’t come across in my presentation. I’m scheduled to give this talk again in Providence next month, so I’ll have to figure out what tweaks I need to make between now and then.

Other than that, I attended two other sessions: Matt Cushing’s networking presentation, and Thomas Grohser’s interviewing presentation. I’ve attended both presentations before, and they are both great sessions; if you ever have a chance to attend either presentation, I recommended them highly! Tom asked me to attend his; when I attended his previous sessions, he liked my questions and commentary so much that he asked me to come back to ask the same questions and make the same comments — for the benefit of others in attendance. For Matt’s session, it was more a matter of personal pride. He has given the presentation (I think it’s been) six times, and I have been to all six! It’ll be seven for seven next month; he’s coming back to Albany to give his presentation at our user group meeting!

SQL Saturday isn’t possible without the help of volunteers!

I had to skip out on the second round of sessions to pick up more ice (which was especially critical, since it was the hottest day of the year so far). I didn’t just speak at Albany SQL Saturday; I also served as a volunteer. As I’ve written before, SQL Saturday is an all-volunteer event, and they wouldn’t be possible without all the volunteers who do the behind-the-scenes dirty work, such as setting up, manning the registration tables, making coffee, cleaning up, assembling attendee bags, and all the little things that help make the event go (such as picking up more ice for the coolers). Volunteers are the unsung heroes of SQL Saturday, so if you ever attend an event, make sure that you show them your appreciation!

A few of us went out for ice cream after the speaker’s dinner!

There were many other aspects of SQL Saturday that made it fun — and are among the many reasons why it is one of my favorite events of the year! I didn’t even mention the speaker’s dinner on Friday night, the after-party on Saturday after it was all over, and the great time I had with many friends whom I often only get to see at these events!

SQL Saturday is a lot of hard work and effort, but it is well worth it! It isn’t just about the data sessions and free training; it’s also about networking, talking to vendors, making friends, and having fun! If you ever get to a SQL Saturday near you, I highly recommend it!

So, what’s in it for me… I mean, the company?

The Facebook “Your Memories” feature can sometimes be an interesting thing.  Yesterday, this memory from four years ago came up on my Facebook feed, and it’s one I want to share.

I think I’ve discovered the secret to great interviews — and I’m sharing this for the benefit of other job seekers like me.

Based on some resources that I’ve read (including “What Color Is Your Parachute?”), most job seekers go to an interview wanting to know, “what’s in it for me?” What they *should* be doing is asking the company, “what’s in it for them?” In other words, ask the company what they want and what you can do to fulfill it. Sell yourself on the precept of what value you bring to the company.

For the past two days, I’ve gone into interviews with this mindset, and it has served me well. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like I aced yesterday’s interview. Also, during this morning’s interview, I asked the question, “what are intergroup dynamics like? What other groups do you work with, how are the relationships, and what can I do to improve them?” When I asked that, I saw nods around the room that said, “that’s a good question!”

It’s too soon to say whether or not I landed either job, but I feel like I interviewed well, and I feel like I have a fighting chance.

Ever since I had this revelation four years ago, I’ve used this approach in every single job interview.  I won’t say that I aced every single job interview — I didn’t — but this mindset has made for better interviewing on my part.

Let me back up a little before I delve into this further.  It’s been often said that you should never not ask questions at a job interview.  Asking questions demonstrates that you’re interested in the job.  I’ve heard stories where a job candidate completely blew the interview simply because he or she did not ask any questions.  Not asking questions demonstrates that you’re indifferent toward the company or the job.

That said, it’s also important to ask the right questions.  Never ask about salary or benefits (as a general rule, I believe that you should never talk about salary or benefits, unless the interviewer brings it up).  If at all possible, try to avoid questions that ask, “what’s in it for me.”  Instead, ask questions that demonstrate, “how can I help you.”

Employers are nearly always looking for value, and their employees are no exception.  When interviewing potential candidates, they look to see what kind of value the candidates offer.  For me, I go to every job interview with a number of questions that I’ve formulated in advance — questions that demonstrate I’m interested, and I want to help.  For example, one question I always ask is, “what issues does the company or organization face, and how can I help address them?”  I’m asking what I can do for them.  It shows that I’m interested, and it shows that I’m willing to lend a hand.

For your reference, I found this information in my local library.  A couple of books I would recommend include the most recent edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? and Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview.  Among other things, these books provide ideas for questions for you to take with you to the interview.  Much of this information is also available on the internet; do a search and see what you can find.

I would also consider attending seminars and conferences, if you are able to do so.  For example, Thomas Grohser, one of my friends on the SQL Saturday speaker’s circuit, has a presentation called “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute.”  I’ve sat in on his presentation, and I would recommend it to any job seeker.

I won’t say that this mindset guarantees that you’ll get the job, but it will increase your chances.  This approach shows the interviewer that you’re interested, and you can add value to the organization.

Best of luck to you in your interview.