Interview Strategies Part One - The inside track

What is your Contract-to-Interview Ratio?

Some contractors seem to have a golden touch when it comes to interviews. Others have to go through several interviews to land the contract.

Where do you fit in?

What is this golden touch and can it be learned?

This article covers the key skills and approaches that will give you the best chance of getting the contract. Anything that will give you the edge over your fellow interviewees is worth knowing.

Having interviewed contractors for Oracle, Shell, TVL and AstraZeneca amongst others, I would like to share with you the pitfalls to avoid and the keys you can use to unlock your next contract opportunity.

This article is in two parts because there's a lot to talk about!

In Part I, we'll look at your VIEWING of the interview. That is, how you see the interview process, as this will determine your approach, your state of mind and your behaviours.

In Part II, we'll look at your DOING of the interview. How to prepare for the interview in terms of your state of being and what steps you can take to be at your best.

So, let's begin with how to view the interview process.

Words as triggers

Certain words can act as triggers that set off a whole train of see-hear-feel experiences.

What does the word "interview" trigger with you?

For some, it has connotations of "examination" which through years of conditioning brings with it an urge to "revise and pass" the interview. It can lead to candidates being overly nervous and concerned that they might get something "wrong".

In fact, some nerves are good. They can keep you alert and on the ball.

One contractor I worked with described an interview as being "like the Sword of Damacles hanging over me". A bit extreme perhaps, yet some do go into cold sweats at the mere thought of it.

Clearly, this is not the best way to walk into an interview.

Turn the Interview into a Meeting

So, what to do?

Well, first of all, you can shift the focus and choose a different meaning for this occasion commonly known as an "interview". There's no law that says you must "see it" this way.

Another way is to view it as a simple "meeting".

Straight away, that feels different. You can embellish this by viewing it as a "meeting in which both parties get to find out whether you'd like to work together or not".

This shifts the onus from being a "one-down interview situation" to one of equality, as partners in a meeting with the mutual aim of working together.

It is often forgotten that a client wants you to fit the bill. Clients have a dislike of interviewing. It's time-consuming and distracts from their main focus: getting the project done, or keeping service levels up. So remember, they want you to get the contract. All they ask, is that you meet them on their terms.

Now, looking at the interview as a mutually beneficial meeting is just one option, and you can find one that works for you. The point being that how you "view" this occasion has a big influence on your capacity to be at ease and have your experience and knowledge at your fingertips.

Quick Review: Spend a minute now assessing how you currently view interviews. Do you enjoy them? Perhaps you see them as a necessary evil? What are you pleased about in your current approach? What would you like to do better?

What the client is looking for

Interview Myth: The one who can prove themselves the most experienced or most technically proficient will get the role.

Generally, this is not the case. Getting the "highest score" in the test helps, but is not the key.

So, what is the client looking for?

Likeability - The Key for Stand-up Comedians, Politicians and Interview Candidates

Usually, they have two key criteria:
1. Can you do the job?
2. Will you fit in with the team?

Some will use Technical Tests to check that you have at least the basic knowledge you claim to have. They may ask you about previous work you've done. So, in part, it is an objective assessment.

With respect to the second criterion (whether you will fit into the team) here we are in the realms of the subjective and things such as your mood, character, tone, posture all come into play.

Meeting this second criterion is the focus of Part II of this article.

I bring it up here to point out that fitting with the team is THE key criteria. For example, I have seen the best technical candidates turned down time and again because they might "embarrass certain team members" or "wouldn't fit in".

Contractors who come in with the mindset of impressing with their technical prowess often fail to see how much damage this is doing to their chances.

Teams generally do not want know-it-alls. They want people who are open, willing to share what they have learned (yes, tech transfer) and keen to learn the ways of the new system and company.

Meeting the First Criterion - Can you do the job?

1. Technical Tests
Find out from the agent whether it's likely the client may use technical tests. If they do, it might pay to refresh those aspects of your skills that you may not have used for a while.

In most skill areas, there are certain questions - "trick" questions - often requiring you to make fine distinctions between one thing and another. If you've been contracting for a while, you probably know these already. If you don't, sometimes the only way to learn is to take the test!

Learn the "Trick' Questions, Ask Around.

Also, when you take the test, it will serve you to make notes afterwards of the kind of questions asked. This will act as a helpful reminder in future.

2. Previous Experience
In the interview, you will be asked about previous experience & projects. If you can, relate it to the client's project, describe a problem and how it was solved. Enjoy the telling. Ask them if they'd like to know more.

3. Convincers
It's sometimes helpful to prepare two or three bits of knowledge or experience that are not widely known about. These might be exceptions to common rules, or surprising ways to improve performance.

In fact, anything which is:
1. Useful.
2. Not widely known.
3. Ideally, related to the client's project.

Then, you can feed these into your responses during the interview.

Convince the Client with Little-Known yet Valuable Knowledge.

Three is a good number, as it often takes three examples to create a pattern and therefore, to convince.

Asking the client questions

Because of the examination mindset mentioned earlier, contractors often don't ask the client any questions at all about their system or project.

What generally happens is that, at the end of the interview, the client asks, "Do you have any questions?" - by which time the contractor is so keen to leave and get to the bar (ok, not all), that they spurt out a few obvious questions and then zip off.

If this is going to be a "mutually beneficial meeting" then it needs to be a dialogue, rather than a question & answer session.

Ask Questions, Show an Interest

The client is always impressed and happy to find a candidate who is actually interested in this project they spend every working hour building. As most candidates generally only answer questions, those that ask questions stand out a mile.

Self-imposed pressure

Being at ease yet alert in an interview is ideal. To achieve that, we might look at some of the ways we can put pressure on ourselves, and how to relieve that pressure by changing the viewing of it.

1. Pressure from really wanting the contract.
Sometimes, if a contract is right up our street in terms of skills, work, company, location and so on - perhaps it will allow you to break into a new sector, or upgrade your skills - we can want it so much, that we fear not getting it.

We can start to worry about how miffed we'll be if we don't get it. To an extent, we can talk ourselves into not getting it.

In such situations, you can adopt the "I'll give it everything, and what will be will be." approach. This takes some of the pressure off, but allows you to go for it.

We cannot control what the client says or does, but we can prepare well and choose our response. By placing the focus on ourselves, we release the pressure on ourselves.

2. Pressure from lack of opportunities.
If we haven't had many interviews and one comes along, we might panic about what happens if we don't get this one. Once again, the fear comes up of the consequences.

Given that no-one can guarantee anything in this life, how can we view this in a way which will take the pressure off.

Well, we might begin by recognising that we have done well to get the interview, and that clearly the client is interested. We can acknowledge that, since there are no guarantees, we will give it our best and handle the consequences. We can also acknowledge that with every interview we can - if we use the experience wisely - gain confidence and experience in interviews, so that with each one, the likelihood of a contract improves.

Release the Pressure, Control What You Can Control

When I began contracting, I made many mistakes with interviews. It took me a few months to realise that it was my approach that wasn't helping. Once I discovered some of the basic keys to interviews and applied them consistently, I got every subsequent contract.

I share this to encourage you to look at your own approach thus far and to re-evaluate it if you are not getting the results you desire, and to begin considering how you might enhance your own approach.

In Summary

  • Look at how you VIEW the interview process.
  • Find a better way to view it that suits your style.
  • Remember that the client is focussing on two key criteria.
  • Be smart about how you approach the technical test.
  • Be curious and ask the client some questions about their project.
  • Release the pressure by changing your approach.
  • Review every interview afterwards and learn from it.

Read Part 2

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