I have done hundreds of interviews by now, interviewing candidates at Microsoft, Google, Slack and even for my own startups. Most of them have been delightful — talking to smart people about hard problems is always fun. By now I have a pretty good intuition about who will pass the interview cycle and who will fail. Following a little introspection, I figured it is easier to see who will fail than who will pass — there are distinct common pitfalls that smart people fall into when doing interviews. In this article I will cover the most common mistakes.
To set the context — I am only talking about interviews in tech companies for mid to senior levels. High tech interviews are long and hard— most candidates need to undergo 3–6 interviews sometimes lasting full days.
Here is a simple guide to failing an interview, even if you are super smart:
1) Come unprepared
Sounds trivial, well, this is the most common problem I see in many interviews. Candidates come without basic knowledge about the domain or without doing the basic research.
- Candidates do not know the basic public information about the company (LMGTFY)
- Not knowing basic public information about your interviewers (assuming you get the list beforehand, also check out Accompany)
- Have not used or researched a platform’s API before the technical interview.
- Have no notion of what the role entails — Haven’t read the job description or sought out people currently in this role to provide guidance on what’s expected.
When I interviewed at Slack, I came with a printed version of my plans for Developer Relations, this might have been overkill, but you can’t say I wasn’t prepared.
Have a vision for what you intend to accomplish, always have a backup plan in case you run out of power/etc, and work with the recruiter to know what to expect in terms of the interview setup — will you be in a room full of people? Who will interview you?
Also note that companies share a lot of valuable information online: product vision, business jargon, company mission, and company values. All these might be important for you to explore, as the hiring committee might evaluate you by referring to these aspects.
2) Interview for the wrong job
You have great people skills and are biz savvy, but no tech skills? Don’t interview for a senior tech role! This could be both the interviewer’s and your fault, but it doesn’t matter. Make sure you fit the role you are seeking — it will make you happier in life.
Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith in order to make a career jump, and then you might not be the perfect fit for the role. Make sure you can outline the logical steps for the leap of faith — for example: “I have not managed a team of 100, but I did manage 25 and excelled at that role”.(Also see, being unlucky)
3) Interview for the wrong reason
This is more common than you think. Candidates want to join a company for the wrong reasons. Again, examples tell the story best:
- I want to join the company because my friends told me it is a rocket ship
- Do you have massages on campus?
- I was looking for a BD role but you just closed it so…
- I heard you are very competitive with your compensation
- I have worked in a startup for too long and want to rest a bit in a big company
- I’m looking to find my lifetime partner here ;)
Other than the last one, I have heard all of these answers to a simple question — why do you want this job? Here is how it might look to a hiring manager:
Motivation and incentive are a crucial part of what a good interview committee will be looking for. If you are not here for the right reasons, save yourself time and do not interview.
4) Be arrogant/ over-confident (or just a jerk)
This is astonishingly common, especially with smart people. Being a jerk is the easiest way to fail an interview. Your job is not to make your interviewer feel bad or stupid or inferior. You should treat people nicely in general, and more so in an interview process. Make sure you listen patiently to questions before you answer them, argue with reason rather than emotion when needed, admit your failures rather than cast the blame on others — these are basic guidelines for life as well as a common interview.
Here are some examples of problematic behavior:
5) Be dishonest
I said it once and I will say it again:
6) Be unlucky
Ending with a slightly sad note, a lot of good candidates end up not getting the job because of unlucky circumstances:
- Role or priorities change
- Another candidate did marginally better
- You/interviewer had a bad day — yes it happens
- Bad chemistry with one of the interviewers
- Timing was not right — you interviewed too early or too late
Other than the luck factor, all of the other aspects of a failed interview can be prevented — doing your homework, making sure you interview to the right role for the right reason, be courteous and honest, all of these are basic and simple things you can learn and do, and they will put you on the top list of any hiring committee, assuming you are, as we said, a smart candidate :)