7 tips for nailing your job interview

Be more prepared, confident, and impressive at your next job interview with these strategies.
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So far in this job search tips series, we've covered resumes and cover letters, but naturally there's a lot more to the job hunt than just writing documents. Assuming you've wowed your potential employer with your skills, expertise, and contributions to free and open source software, now you get to start the interview process.

If you're like most people, you probably get nervous for interviews, but what you need to remember is that you're interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you. A good interview is a dialogue where each side is looking to learn more about the other. You're an active participant in this process, not merely a passive victim. Recognizing your agency can help reduce some of the nerves that come with the territory.

There are many different kinds of interviews, and the ones you'll experience will vary from position to position. There's the phone screening, the phone interview, the technical test, the in-person interview, the panel interview… There are so many different ways for a prospective employer to activate those nerves of yours.

Don't worry. It'll be OK. Although there are many different types of interviews, I've collected a list of seven tips that will help you be more prepared and confident no matter the interview.

1. Do your research

Step one in being prepared is, well, to prepare. This means learning about the company, its industry, its products, maybe its leaders, and any news about these things. Has the company recently had a scandal? Or closed a funding round? Or closed a scandalous funding round? These are things you want to know before you start an interview.

Another piece of research you'll want to do is the typical salary for that role in the geographic area where it is based. It's unreasonable to expect to be paid a San Francisco salary for a role that's based in Omaha, so please make sure your research is for the correct region. There are several resources for salary research–Salary.com, PayScale, Indeed, and Glassdoor are the most popular. I recommend you search all of them and compare the answers. This allows you to set up some internal expectations as to what the role may pay.

Before each interview, review all of your research so you'll be more prepared when the conversation begins.

During the course of your research, you may learn something that makes you no longer interested in the job anymore. That's okay! There's no problem with writing your contact at the company and withdrawing your application from consideration. Had you not taken the time to research, you'd be stuck slogging through the entire hiring process for a job you don't want. By withdrawing you've saved everyone (yourself most of all) a lot of time and effort.

2. Dress comfortably, but well

Yes, dress even for phone or other interviews where no one will see you. The way you dress can have powerful effects on your confidence level and mindset. Taking the time to up your sartorial game even a little can help you feel more self-assured during an interview.

When I say "up your sartorial game," what exactly do I mean? The level of formality necessary will vary by company, by industry, and by context. If you're interviewing for a job at a large financial, legal, or insurance firm, you may need to wear a nice suit. That level of formality is rarely necessary when interviewing at a software company, but don't assume. It's okay to ask the recruiter or your contact at the company what you should wear to an interview. Whatever their answer, considering wearing something just a touch more formal than that. To play it safe, it rarely hurts to dress just a little more impressively or conservatively than you usually would. Even if you go for t-shirt and jeans, your outfit should be neat, tidy, and have a put-together look.

Regardless of what you wear, please make sure that it fits well and you feel good in it. If your clothes are too tight, too loose, scratchy, or otherwise uncomfortable, you won't present as well. You'll spend the interview fidgeting and feeling self-conscious. If you have the means, it really pays off to have a good tailor adjust your nice outfit so it fits you perfectly. You'll feel as good as you look, and that can make a large difference in your confidence level during an interview.

3. Prepare questions

When an interviewer asks, "Do you have any questions for me?" any answer that isn't "Yes!" is the wrong answer. Remember, you're interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you. Surely you must be curious about some aspects of the company, the role, the job duties, the team? If not, then you may want to reconsider whether you actually want this job.

Before you start an interview, make sure to have several questions prepared. I recommend you have at least five questions ready to go, but more than that is OK. Whether it's five or 500, it's likely you won't have the time to get through them all, so be strategic in the questions you ask your interviewer. Always ask the questions that are most important to you first, just in case there isn't a lot of time left in the interview. For instance, if it's very important to you to know the company's free and open source usage and contribution policy, make sure to ask that as soon as is reasonable in the flow of conversation.

Trying to ask the same questions of all your interviewers, if possible (it isn't always), is helpful. The variation or lack thereof in answers can be revealing. If the entire team isn't on the same page on certain things, that tells you one thing about a company. The entire team providing more or less the same answers tells you something else. Again, be strategic in your questioning.

If you forget to prepare questions in advance (it happens to the best sometimes), there are certain ones that you can keep in your pocket, just in case. For instance, "Is this a new role or are you replacing someone?" with a possible follow up of, "What happened to the previous person who held this role?" Another useful question is, "What is the biggest challenge the team is facing right now?" This one can be particularly clarifying when asked of several members of the team so you can compare their answers. If you come up with some generic but useful questions like this, it can help you not only gather information about your potential employer and team but also look very organized and engaged.

4. Ask questions

Speaking of being engaged, don't feel you have to save all your questions for when your interviewer asks for them. During the course of the conversation, your interviewer is bound to say something that you don't quite understand or are curious about. Don't just sit there silently with a concentrated look on your face, nodding knowingly when your mind is actually racing with questions. Ask them. Be engaged. I can't say it often enough: You're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. Don't simply allow the interview to happen to you. Engage in the dialogue. Be an active participant in it.

There's another good reason to ask questions as they arise during your interview: Studies show that people like us better if we show interest in them, their stories, and their challenges. Done well, asking questions during an interview can help endear us to our interviewers and make them more disposed to give us a thumbs-up during the review process. Be careful, though, that you only use this when you are legitimately interested in the job and the stories your interviewer can tell you about it. You're not there to manipulate potential future teammates, you're there to relate to them.

5. It's okay to say "I don't know"

It's no surprise that you'll be asked many questions throughout the interview process. It's inevitable that you won't have the answer on hand for every one of them. What do you do?

You say, "I don't know."

No one knows everything, and if the company with which you're speaking expects that you do, then perhaps they're not a good fit for you. It's perfectly fine to admit that you don't know the answer to a question, but don't leave it at that. During the course of your duties at this company, you'll come across many questions you can't answer. What will you do in those cases? Simply say "I don't know" and then move on? No, you'd do what you could to find an answer.

So after saying "I don't know," follow it up with "…but here's how I could find out the answer." It's valuable to a potential employer to know that you're willing to put in the effort to solve difficult problems on your own and to see that you have a plan for how to get started cracking that tough nut.

6. Be on time

If you've ever interviewed before, you've experienced it: late interviewers. Maybe their prior meeting ran late. Maybe they just forgot about it. Whatever the reason, interviewers frequently arrive late to your interview. It's disrespectful of your time, but it still happens.

While your interviewer is likely to be a few minutes late, you will not. You are going to do everything in your power to be on time. You'll set alarms, reminder notifications, and put sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. You'll dial into conference calls before they start and you'll leave the house 30 minutes early, even if that means you spend those 30 minutes waiting in your parked car outside of the office.

Note: When I say you should be on time, what I actually mean is that you will be five minutes early. More than that and you put your interviewers and their colleagues in an awkward position as they figure out what to do with you for the extra time. Less than that and you won't have time to visit the restroom, get a drink of water, and settle in for your interview.

The more preparation you do in advance—such as giving yourself plenty of time to show up to the interview—the more comfortable you'll be and the more chance of success you'll have given yourself.

7. Take notes

Take notes before, during, and after each interview or conversation you have. Write to whom you spoke, what their position is at the company, what was asked and answered (on either side of the conversation), and what your impressions were at the end of each conversation.

These notes will be invaluable as you progress through the interview process. You should review them in advance of each interview, not only to refresh your memory about what prior interviewers discussed but also to help you recall questions that were not answered earlier. It's much more effective to say, "When I spoke with Regina, she said you were having problems with your throughput. Could you tell me more about that?" than to say, "Someone else mentioned throughput problems…" It shows you're engaged and interested in the position.

You may believe that you have a photographic memory. You never forget a name, face, or detail. Even if that's the case, humor me and take notes anyway. For the majority of people, our memory is not as effective as we like to think it is. Don't accidentally shortchange yourself by assuming yours is flawless.

VM Brasseur profile photo
VM (aka Vicky) spent most of her 20 years in the tech industry leading software development departments and teams, and providing technical management and leadership consulting for small and medium businesses.


For technical interviews, I would add a step for practicing. There are multiple sites that list questions that hiring companies have asked in the past. Knowing the types of questions and possible answers will help with settling your nerves.

The tips are meant to be general and not focus on any one pursuit (programming). Naturally there are hundreds of other tips which could apply depending on pursuit, position, situation.

In reply to by Ray S

Always a delightful pleasure to read your articles

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