Welcome To Our Interview Mistakes Series
As I’m writing this post, the New Year is preparing to pounce upon us in just a few short days. And with the New Year comes New Year’s Resolutions.
Some people will take this opportunity to commit to a job transition…
Maybe something like “I resolve to get a fabulous new job at an amazing new company, where I’ll be appreciated, where I can grow, where everyone is awesome, and where the grass really is thicker, greener, and happier.”
Or, something like “I resolve to leave this terrible job, where I’m not appreciated, where I’m not growing, where people aren’t awesome, and where the grass isn’t green at all, because it’s starved of vital nutrients by management, and the sun doesn’t shine on it in this toxic wasteland.”
Or, you may find yourself interviewing people who have made one of these resolutions (hopefully, the first one), as your company starts to hire into the New Year. In that case, these posts can help you calibrate, so that you can get another great player on your team.
Regardless, some answers to these questions really are better than others. The purpose of this series is to explore some of those questions and answers.
You’re currently gazing at the first post in a series on interview mistakes. I’ll link additional posts in the series here as they materialize.
And a quick note on terminology: an interviewer interviews an interviewee. To keep you on your toes, I may also call an interviewee a candidate.
Now, let’s get on with it!
I’ve asked and answered this question countless times over the years, in both business and technical interviews. This question seems so harmless, yet it’s potentially lethal and must be handled with care.
As an interviewee, I’ve made mistakes and learned how important this question really is. Everyone enjoys the interview more when I can provide a solid answer.
As an interviewer, I usually start out with questions like these, giving the interviewee a chance to score points early. Sadly, I’ve listened to more bad answers than good ones to this seemingly simple question.
And while I seem to have earned a reputation as a tough interviewer, I’ve learned that this question often sets the tone for the answers yet to come. I can’t recall a time when a weak answer to this question was followed by a strong interview performance.
But more importantly, if you don’t know why you’re interviewing at a company, or can’t articulate it, then what does that say about you? Exactly how many times did the dog eat your homework?
To drill this in, from another perspective, you know how in sports there are some shots that are pretty much set up for you?
Shots like free throws, extra point kicks, penalty kicks, 2-foot putts, a spike after receiving a great set, and so on?
This question is the interview equivalent of one of those shots.
The good news is that you can get good at answering this question. And it’s worth spending time on, because you should answer it to yourself, first. If you can’t, then why are you interviewing with this company?
How Did We Get Here?
This question often comes after a resume review. Perhaps something like
- Hi, I’m Jason, CEO of Next Mountain. Thanks for coming in today.
- <I pick up your resume and glance at it, having read it line-by-line before you arrived>
- Interesting background. Would you like to tell me a little more about yourself?
- <We discuss your background>
- Now, can you tell me, why Next Mountain? Why us?
Or, this question can come at the end of your interview, if there is some time left, especially if this particular interview is meant to be primarily technical. There are many reasons that time may be left in your interview, but let’s ignore those for now.
Instead, let’s dig into this question and start by considering the company’s perspective. Then, we’ll step into the interviewer’s shoes. Finally, we’ll consider some possible answers of varying quality.
The Company’s Perspective
Interviews have a real cost to the company. Those hours that are devoted to interviewing you come out of someone’s budget.
If those hours don’t get made up by the interviewers, then the company paid people to interview you. This is how it should be, since the company has a vested interest in getting good employees. So, ideally, your interview goes well, you join, and you add tons of value to the company.
Or those hours do get made up, by your interviewers, who may have to stay longer or take work home. Guess how excited they’ll be for that, especially if the interview is a flop, which usually means more interviews and more take-home work.
In either case, the company can reasonably expect you to come prepared.
The Interviewer’s Perspective
First, is the interviewer asking this question for no real reason?
Well, maybe. It’s not as silly a question as it sounds. Sometimes, a company will provide lists of questions to interviewers, to try to keep them on track. This may be in lieu of interview training, so it’s probably better than nothing.
Maybe the interviewer is really focused on their main area of work, or they’re really new, and it’s the first question on their list…
Of course, if an interviewer seems to be mindlessly asking questions from a list, trying to get through the interview like a patient enduring a root canal, then that’s a real red flag, and you should take note, briefly, to yourself. Then, you should nail the question, to see if they perk up.
But let’s assume that you have a good interviewer. They are genuinely interested in your rationale for wanting to join their company.
This question basically assesses a few items, such as
- Communication skills — Can the interviewee hit the ball back over the net?
- Preparation — Did the interviewee prepare, and how much so?
- Fit — Is this interviewee’s answer consistent with what we’re looking for?
- Other red flags — Is anything just odd or off in the interviewee’s responses or behavior? (e.g. accidentally answering why work at <insert biggest competitor>)
This question can also come at the end of the interview, if the technical side didn’t really go well.
But, it’s best not to assume that. In fact, interviews can feel terrible, and actually be just fine.
It’s better to keep trying until the end. I think that most interviewers don’t penalize candidates for being nervous—that’s completely normal.
If you get rejected, then make that be the interviewer’s choice. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by giving up too early or psyching yourself out.
So that we can end on a positive note, let’s start with the bad. The really bad.
“Oh, here. Yes. I mean… You know… It’s a great company. And it’s data. I mean it’s a data company. It’s a great data company. Really, really, great data. You know… That’s why, I guess. Data.”
Stop it. Just stop it.
Rambling aimlessly will not do anything to help your interview chances.
Another terrible answer is “You tell me.”
Even if the interview were 99% clinched, and I were 99% certain that I wanted to hire the candidate, this answer would be a red flag. Realistically, how would you then respond when I said “no” or simply made some notes and moved along in the interview?
Another terrible answer could just focus on you and what you get, like… “I guess this company is a reasonably good stepping stone in my path to self actualization, as the amazingly intelligent being that the head of my ultra-spiritually-aware mastermind group told me that I am. I’ll put in my time here, then I’ll move on to a better role, at a company that does really meaningful work, while you chumps keep turning the crank.” That answer is not going to earn you a new friend.
I hope you’re surprised and skeptical at this point. At least one eyebrow should be raised.
“Those answers are crazy,” you say, slightly aghast.
Yes, there is some hyperbole in these made-up answers, but you’d be surprised.
Having asked this question many times, I can tell you that many answers are painful in just how meh they really are.
For example, “This company is a leader in the data space, and the opportunity to work with such great co-workers is really, truly great. I have a friend, or maybe a classmate, who worked here as an intern, and they said it was really great. That’s why I want to join your company.”
Why would someone subject their interviewer to that? Thirty seconds of no content.
At least no red flags were burning brightly, but wow. That answer just said nothing, and it missed a key opportunity to say something.
Good answers usually show that you
- know about the company and why you want to work there
- have a plan for your future and know how this company fits into it
- prepare for events that are important to you, like interviews
- have some level of passion and personality
- could be a good fit for the role and team
- are probably a low-risk hire (no obvious red flags)
As an exercise for the reader, pick a company (even the one that currently employs you, to start), and answer this question.
If you like more structure, then check out the assignment below.
As a reader of this blog, you now have the knowledge to handle the fundamentally important “Why Us?” question. So, let’s take action:
- Start with the website — companies have a particular way of seeing themselves
- Do an internet search — recent news, company profiles, etc.
- Read the job posting (if any) — consider how your skills map to the company’s needs
- Map out an answer — just the bullet points or a mind map, don’t memorize it
- Practice — preferably many times and with others (if no others, then record yourself and consider how convincing you are)
- Revise — if you’ve only completed one draft, then you have a rough draft; polish it
- Repeat — for every company that has offered you an interview, and for every company where you really want to interview
- Bonus points — do this for companies you’re interested in, before starting any conversations with them
Ways To Stay In Touch And Learn More
Check out the Next Mountain website for details on how to stay in touch, as well as for information about our SaaS and mobile applications and products.