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How To Mess Up An Interview

By Sean McCown,

Here's the first in a series of articles on interviewing that I promised you. Let me start by saying that I'm sure that some of you will disagree with some of my strategies, or even my advice. That's you're prerogative, but I've been interviewing for a very long time now, and I've been on both sides a lot. When I was contracting, I changed jobs every 2-4 months for about 5yrs, so I've been on my share of interviews. I've talked to dozens of recruiters, and been in front of hiring managers, HR directors, IT directors, and technical panels. Anyway, this series may be a bit out of order, but there are a lot of topics to cover, and I may bounce around a bit. OK, that's the boring part; now let's get to the meat.

Interviews are Plays

The first thing you need to realize is that interviews are like plays. You're auditioning as the part of their DBA. That means you'll be far better off if you approach it like actors approach their auditions. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. There are two things I do whenever I start looking for a job. The first one is bone up on SQL, but more on that later. The 2nd thing I do is practice answering questions. This is really more important than you think. We're applying the principle of muscle memory here. If you know the answer to a question, you may have a hard time wording it. I can't count the number of times that I've had a guy come in who knew exactly what he was trying to say, but just couldn't think of the words. Call it nerves, lack of intrinsic knowledge, or whatever… what it boils down to is lack of preparation.

The important thing is to either ask yourself questions, or have someone else do it, and answer them out loud. I'll say that again because it's very important. Answer out loud. I practice in the car, I practice in the shower, I practice in the bathroom. Wherever I can find a spare moment to myself I answer questions out loud. You'll be amazed at how this will improve your ability to think under pressure. You not only get your rap down, but you also get used to hearing yourself say the words. This is the most important part of all. Get used to hearing yourself say the words. If you just think the answers, your brain won't be used to hearing it out loud and you'll get distracted in the interview and start to forget little words. Then you'll stumble, and once you do you'll start to get nervous if it doesn't come back to you right away. Now you'll just get questions wrong because things aren't going well.

So get used to hearing your mouth give the answers and you'll be far better off. Not only will you get used to hearing it, but you'll get to practice the exact wording you want to use to get your point across. You'll find that you may not really know how to fully explain something simple. If that's the case, then you know where you need to concentrate your efforts.

You're NOT my Priest!!

OK, I hate to burst your bubble, but everyone isn't a Christian, nor does everyone want to hear religious expressions at work. Whether your interviewer is an atheist or a Buddhist, coming to talk to him about a job is no time to be a witness for anyone but yourself. You're there to sell yourself, so keep the 'God bless you' and the 'Go with God', and the 'I'll pray for you' crap at home. I had a guy once… actually a pretty horrible candidate… he didn't answer hardly anything right, and decided to make up for it on the way to the elevator with 'God bless you'. First of all, like that's really going to make a difference. Second, you have no idea who I am, and maybe that offends me. If you really want someone to be blessed, you don't have to say it out loud for it to be heard by its intended audience, so keep it out of the interview.

It also shows a lack of restraint and makes me question whether you could hold your mouth with our clients, or keep it off your email signature, or out of your reports. I actually used to work with a girl who would sneak in a 'God bless you' into everything she wrote. It's was almost subliminal. She wrote a Crystal report, somewhere in the description of an item, or in the legend of a chart, something… there it was. When confronted with it and asked to stop, she said that she wouldn't forsake her lord and refused to stop. After a couple more times, the company canned her. So do us all a favor, and next time you want to open your mouth to say something like that in an interview, curse instead. It's a lot less offensive and more appropriate for an IT shop.

Can I Curse?

You know, this may seem like a no-brainer, but it really isn't. Let me just say that I've cursed in almost every interview I've gone to in the past several years and it's always worked out very well. You can't just start dropping swears though… there's a method.

Put simply, follow the leader. If you're interviewer is a cool guy, and you're developing a rapport with him, and he says the s-word that rhymes with 'quit', then you can say it too. If you're talking to a guy and he says 'damn', then you may be in trouble if you say the f-word that rhymes with pluck, muck, suck, truck, luck, duck, buck, cluck, puck and well… you get the idea. Basically, just mirror him.

There are actually two schools of thought to cursing in a professional environment, and I follow them both at different times.

The first rule says that no matter how much your client curses, you take the high road. You never know when someone will be watching and get offended, or when the other person can dish it out and not be able to take it. So it's just more professional to abstain no matter how relaxed of an example is being set. I follow this rule with new customers, and with established customers I don't know that well, or don't trust.

The second rule says be cool. If someone is cursing at you, then it's usually safe to assume they don't mind hearing the words themselves. So, you can feel free to keep it real with them.

So why wouldn't I advise you to play it safe in an interview? Why curse at all? Well, you have to remember the purpose of the interview to begin with, and that's to find out if you're the kind of person they want working there. To many companies, and I'm certainly no exception, team building is more important than skills. You simply have to get along with the team. And you want them to think you're one of them. Show them that you're not a square. However, like I said, there are limits. So the rule I follow is always stay at his level and at most one step above. If he says 'damn', then you can say 'damn'. If he says 's---', then you can say 's---'. If he says 'ch---' then you can say it too.

Or, one step above like if he says 'damn', then you can probably say 's---', etc.

I remember earlier this year I interviewed a young guy who was just pathetic. Poor kid didn't know anything. That being beside the point, he also couldn't control his mouth. He dropped the F-bomb 3 times, and after each one he got this scared look on his face and apologized like I'd just found him in my living room floor in his undies with my dog and a jar of peanut butter. That one factor, had he been a fabulous DBA even, showed me that he wasn't professional enough to be able to control himself around my customers.

So you can see I don't follow the strict no cursing rule that so many do, but make up your own mind. One more thing though and then I'll drop this topic. If you do curse, whether you mean to or not, don't apologize. It makes you look like you can't control yourself. But by all means… do us all a favor. If you're going to curse, curse, if you're not, then don't. Seriously though… don't use dang, or shucks, or monkeytrucker, or the like… it's really gay. Curse and be proud, or don't say anything.

OK, this is getting really long, so I'll stop this now, and let you get on with your lives, and next time I'll talk about some specific interviewing techniques you can use to prepare, and I'll also talk a bit about how to actually become technically competent.

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