Authentic Interviews

Patton, from the 1970 movie Patton
Rommel, I read your book!
(Infantry Attacks)

Having been lucky enough in both Microsoft and previous companies to spend a large amount of my time hiring and developing the best talent in the industry, I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of people from a huge variety of backgrounds. While some people are comfortable in a completely obscure process, there is a movement to provide greater transparency on structure and questions from an interview, in order to drive more inclusive practices.

As a strong advocate of Early-in-Career talent and a talent ambassador in Microsoft, I decided to put together a brief explanation of how I approach interviews, to help people know how to prepare better. This builds on the Interview Tips already available on the Microsoft Careers page.

The Interview Process

To ensure diversity within the team, interviews groups will be made up of different individuals – across commercial, technology, business functions. Each of the interviewers will have a set of competencies they’re looking out for – and may include things such as:

  • Role fit (technical or functional)
    • Technical Presentation (e.g. a presentation of an architecture you’ve previously implemented)
    • Commercial Presentation (e.g. a ‘sales meeting’ run through of a simulated commercial deal)
  • Cultural fit[0]
  • Customer Engagement
  • Leadership

As a rule, I avoid panel interviews, which can leave candidates feeling ‘teamed up’ on.

An important, but often overlooked piece of interviews on both sides: the interviewer has a responsibility to you, as a candidate, to find a way for you to fit into the role or business. For every ‘con’ or ‘red flag’, the interviewer should be looking for a mitigation to ensure you can be successful. Remember during the process that everyone you speak to is on your side.

Everyone involved in the interview process will look for good examples of the competencies they’re interviewing for, and afterwards will look for consistency of answers across interviewer to ensure authenticity.

[0] Cultural fit does not mean adherence to the existing culture. Culture fit includes bringing additional diversity of thought, background, and experience in order to develop an organisation’s culture further.

Before The Interview

Profile

Don’t write a 27 page CV

It’s tough to be clear and concise in written communication, but there is almost no document where brevity is more important than a CV. Don’t feel tempted to include a dozen pages of each individual task you had to achieve in companies 25 years ago, nor detailed transcripts of every exam you’ve ever sat.

A CV exists to highlight what you’re proud of. List the companies or qualifications, pick the 1-2 things for each that really set you apart, and let those shine.

Preparation

  • Think about yourself
  • Think about the company
  • Learn about the role and people in similar roles
  • Prepare 1-2 stories that you’re proud of
  • Learn a little about the people you’re interviewing with
    • While not necessary, it can help you in structuring your responses – much in the same way you might do before meeting a customer.

During The Interview

Introductions

Every interview should start with an introduction. By taking 2-3 minutes to introduce yourself, you help set the tone for a conversation and avoid the typical nerve wracking ‘pop quiz’ rapid fire style. Ahead of your interview, take some time to think of the key parts of your career that you’d like to highlight, and practice introducing yourself.

STAR

The STAR interview process is as useful for candidates as it is for the interviewing company themselves – as it provides a structure for both questions and answers. STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is a methodology which focusses on practical examples of your history to answer a situational question.

Let’s take an example question:

Tell me about a time you took a risk professionally

  • Step 0: Prepare
    • Listen to the question carefully and ensure you understand
    • Pause and think of a real example from your history which fits the circumstance.
    • Ideally, you have already prepared and discussed a few with a mirror / your friends / your dog. Aim for at least 5 strong examples from your history
    • Don’t be tempted to make up a fake example. Inconsistency shows.
  • Step 1: Situation
    • Describe the event or situation you were in
    • “I was working on deploying a platform to production for a customer in Indonesia. We had delays on hardware delivery but the deadline was tied to the SEA Games Event, and was set in stone”
  • Step 2: Task
    • Describe the task you had to do
    • “I had a deadline of Monday. On the Friday, I was asked by my client to find a way to meet it despite the delays”
  • Step 3: Action
    • Describe the specific actions you took. It’s important to talk about “I” and “we” appropriately. (We can work towards a goal, but I did some actions)
    • “I decided to try deploying to Public Cloud. We had never deployed to Cloud before, so this was a risk, but I knew the ability to immediately provision resources globally might allow us to meet the deadline. I quickly skilled up and I deployed a Cloud infrastructure”
  • Step 4: Result
    • Give the truthful answer to what happened. We are a sum of our past experiences – successful or not.
    • “It worked! We managed to meet the deadline because of the infrastructure I deployed, and the customer was happy”
    • “It didn’t work. I learned a lot about rapid deployment on to Cloud but due to the application architecture requirements (e.g. multicast) it wasn’t suitable.”

Motivation

Everyone has different motivations for changing roles or being interested in a company – but be transparent and honest about how you’re motivated and what you’re interested in. There are typically three motivators:

  • Compensation
    • What everyone thinks of first
    • Is a given—we all expect pay for our time, effort, expertise
    • Should pay enough to remove it as an issue, but don’t be afraid to be honest
    • “I just had triplets unexpectedly” is a valid reason
  • Outside in
    • Recognition from management and peers
    • Progress in role
    • Promotions and moving to higher-level roles
    • “I want to be CTO”
  • Inside out
    • Following interests, passions, curiosity
    • Responsibility, impact and power
    • Growing knowledge and skills, having access to information
    • Getting consulted, being an “important contributor”
    • “I want to build”

These are common motivations for individuals when thinking about their role – but it’s also important to think about the motivation for the company you want to join. There are hundreds of amazing places to work – what drives you to the one you’re applying for? While you don’t have to disclose the specific reasons – especially if you’re uncomfortable – you should make sure you represent yourself authentically. If it’s because of what the company is doing, because you have always wanted to, or if you just want to find a new home for your career – be real.

After the Interview

Feedback and Debriefs

Following an interview, feedback is usually “blind submitted” – meaning the interviewer submits their unbiased feedback before being able to read anyone else’s. The format most follow is simple:

  • Why you’re great for the role
    • “Great experience with Product X in customer style Y”
    • These will be objectively linked to the role itself or the organisation and why the person’s strength will benefit them
  • What might prevent you being successful for the role
    • “Only worked with commercial enterprises, no experience in public sector infrastructure which is a requirement for this role”
    • These form the basis of a development or growth plan if an individual is successful, to bridge any gaps identified. For instance, buddying up with someone who has worked in the target sector.
  • Red flags that would cause problems for the company
    • “Offered to take a copy of their existing employer’s CRM database before leaving”
    • These are evaluated in the context of the role, and generally uncommon.

As mentioned above, it’s the interviewer’s responsibility to both you and the hiring manager to ensure they’re thinking about mitigations for any development areas.

Following up with the Hiring Manager

Once interview feedback is submitted, feedback itself is generally immutable. Thanking your interviewer or reaching out to them on LinkedIn is fine – but the recruiter is your main touch point.

Summary

No matter what happens, all of the parties involved in an interview have an opportunity to grow and develop. After an interview, take the time to reflect on the people you’ve met, what you’ve learned about the organisation and teams, and how you can build on top for even greater future success.

As above, it is the responsibility of the interviewers to make sure they do their best to find ways to help you into the company – if you deliver yourself authentically, you have done yourself

Interviewing has given me the opportunity to challenge my biases, learn more about people, organisations, and cultures, and help grow some of the world’s best talent. It is the best bit of my role, and something I hope, with this post, more people can embrace and enjoy.

If this post resonated with you, and you’re interested in being part of hiring and developing the best – check out some of the career postings in Microsoft’s Customer Success Unit. I’d love to get the chance to speak to you.

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