Six little words immediately mark you as unprepared for the interview and sour your future boss on your viability as a candidate.
Here’s the scenario. You’re across the desk from the hiring manager. He’s thanked you for taking the time to come in, and tells a little bit about himself, and provides details about the position that weren’t in the ad. After a minute or two of this, he lobs out “So, that’s what we do. Tell me about yourself.” You get a puzzled look on your face and say it:
“What do you want to know?”
six words that say “I’ve failed to prepare.” Probably three out of four interviewees give me that answer.
Anyone who’s heard my talk with Bill Odom on how to get a good job (or HREF="http://conferences.oreillynet.com/cs/os2004/view/e_sess/5372">read
the slides) knows that I’m down on the idea of memorizing snappy answers to stupid questions, especially “How do you move Mt. Fuji”-type questions that are somehow meant to see how clever you are. “Tell me about yourself” is not one of these dumb questions, and you’ll get it every time if the interviewer knows what he’s doing. It might be some other open-ended conversation starter (”What can you bring to our company”, “How can you help us out”, etc), but the intent will be there: The hiring manager wants you to sell yourself, and you must oblige.
The first step in getting past the tendency to say “What do you want to know” is to change your view of the interview. It’s not an inquisition, where you only speak when spoken to, and answer only those questions asked. Your primary responsibility is to sell yourself, to show the manager that you have the skills he or she wants. When the hiring manager says “tell me about yourself,” that’s your cue to show what you’ve done on your “prepare for the interview” project.
Yes, it’s a project! Think of your job interview as the first day of your new job, with the hiring manager or HR or whoever you’ll be meeting with as your new boss. Your assignment is to bring to the interview a presentation on why you are the right person for the job. The job ad probably tells you a lot about what the required skill set is. Your search of the company’s website should tell you something about what they do. Googling for email from company employees on technical mailing lists and newsgroups
may give an idea of what day-to-day tech life is like. You may even want to talk to the hiring manager directly, either on the phone or in email, to find out any other details that might help you in preparing. This isn’t weird or creepy: The hiring manager wants to hire you! She wants you to be the answer to her prayers!
You might also find, as part of this project, that things aren’t everything you wanted. Maybe you’ll find that the company runs all IIS and Exchange, and there’s no way in hell you’d work for such a place. Maybe they work in an industry you have no interest in. Maybe you’ll find that it’s not a good match for you before you waste your time. There’s nothing wrong with canceling a job interview.
There are plenty of books out there that give you “great answers to tough interview questions”, but most of them talk about slick ways to get out of silly, overly aggressive questions that you probably would only get from a company that you don’t want to work for anyway. Take these canned responses from the books with a grain of salt.
Focus on the big question. Know how to answer “tell me about yourself”, as it applies to the job you’re applying for, or you’re wasting your time as well as the interviewer’s.
(See also “The worst way to start a resume”)