Posted by: Nicholas Davis | August 18, 2011

Random interviewing advice

Quite a few of my friends are moving jobs at the moment for various reasons and hence I’ve been chatting to a lot of people recently about working in Geneva, and job hunting in general. Coincidentally I’ve also had to do a lot of interviewing at work over the last few months. I therefore thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned about the hiring process from writing job descriptions, sifting through piles (or folders) of CVs and meeting some very interesting people on Skype or in person. Here are two points based on some recent experience, in the form of “factors that not many applicants seem to consider when applying/interviewing for a job”. They could be really obvious to you, but I definitely under-appreciated both before having the opportunity to act as a hiring manager.

First, I don’t think many people writing an application or going to a job interview realize that the person on the other side of the desk can be almost as nervous, stressed and under pressure as the applicant – maybe not in that exact moment, but about the whole hiring decision in general. If as a manager you make a bad hire, you cost your company a huge amount of money and time, you risk your own reputation and job, and your own workload gets only bigger while you try and sort it out. This means that there are incentives for interviewers to be risk averse and to hire someone they are sure as possible can get the job done well. Therefore, as an applicant it might be a useful strategy to do what you can do be a compelling candidate without triggering alarm bells that might make the hiring manager or HR person any more nervous than they already are. (As an aside, I believe this is a key reason for why candidates with personal recommendations get so often put to the top of the pile – their perceived risk is far lower when someone known is willing to vouch for them.)

To this end it might be useful for applicants to put themselves in the interviewer’s shoes and ask themselves “what would make it easy for this person to hire me?”. Since it’s hard to know this without actually talking to people in the company (that kind of intel is never in the job description), good questions to ask a potential boss or colleague might be along the lines of “what parts of this job do you think it’s most important that I excel at in order to get the job done efficiently and effectively (subtext: how I can I make your life easier)?” and “what kind of person have you seen perform the best in this kind of role previously (subtext: which characteristics might you lean or be biased towards based on previous good or bad experience)?”. You want to do research and ask questions that help you a) know what is viewed as a good fit so you can present accordingly, and b) signal subtly that you appreciate that this is a big decision for the interviewer and you are confident that by choosing you they won’t make their life harder.

Second, not all positions are alike: a colleague recently pointed out to me that one important distinction is between positions that are “perform” hires, and those that are “develop” hires. Even if the hiring manager isn’t thinking in those terms, I reckon it’s very useful to know which bucket the position falls into before the interview and prepare accordingly.

For a “perform” position you’re being hired to execute on something that needs doing (often urgently), and the best candidate is someone with a solid track record doing exactly that. A lot of temporary positions fall into this pile, so do many senior positions, and it pays here to focus on tangible stories of past experience and success. Making life easy for a boss means being able to rapidly adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the organization while transferring your existing skills to the problem at hand. Your value will come from being able to be seen as competent quickly and to ease the burden on the team. It may help a lot if you can start immediately!

However you might also be applying for a “develop” position where the majority of what you need to do well comes from being familiar with detailed organizational processes, intricate politics or proprietary technologies, or where you’re simply expected to do a fair amount of training or other form of “getting up to speed” before being seen as competent at the job. In this case it’s your potential that you need to signal as one of your key attributes, ensuring the interviewer knows that you’re aware that learning, flexibility and commitment are important. Your value will come from being a pleasant, quick learner who is willing to stick around and make good on the time and training the organization will invest in you. (NB: Beware of jobs where the interviewer signals immediate “perform” expectations in a complex “develop” environment – you might be signing up for a tough ride in the first six months or so!)

Both of these tips require you to think of the motivation behind the position in the first place and the decision-making processes that will guide the hiring manager, which is easier said than done. However any advance information you can get on either of these elements before applying will in my experience help a lot. At least if it happens to be me on the other side of the table or skype connection…


  1. Wow, not only do we have the same name, put I am going on an interview in 2 hours. Great info.! Very helpful and lots I didn’t previously consider.

  2. Interesting line there, nicely splitting certain issues on the hiring front. When to convince colleagues we are looking for a developer when the bureaucracy insists on a performing ToR?

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