When You Get So Close...
Lessons learned from a failed interview
7 min read
I used to think I was great at interviews. I was trained on them as a teenager participating in (and winning) scholarships and contests. I usually come across as likeable — and I've gotten almost every job I've seriously interviewed for.
Except for this one.
This is the story of my worst interview failure and the lessons I learned from the experience. By reading this, I hope you can learn from my mistakes and do much better than I did in your next interview.
While working full-time as a developer, I completed a computer science degree. As I finished, an opportunity for exactly the kind of job I wanted fell into my lap. It was for a company that worked with Laravel, which is a framework I love. It seemed like the stars were aligned — and I was finally about to make the big career jump I had wanted!
I submitted my résumé and cover letter to the company. Shortly after, I was informed that they wanted to do a short introductory interview with me for us to get to know each other.
This went well, and I had a lovely conversation. Eventually an email came back saying that they wanted me to interview over Zoom with the owner of the company, Norman!
This is where things really went off the rails for me, I'm afraid. What follows is a list of things not to do in an interview based off this experience.
I first figured that I'd establish rapport by explaining my familiarity with the company.
Me: "So I saw your company's promo video."
Norman: "Oh yeah? What did you think?"
Me: "It was fun, but pretty goofy."
Norman: "Oh? Goofy, hey? Yeah, I guess..."
I quickly realized that this was a... suboptimal choice of words.
Interview Pro Tip 1: Do not insult the interviewer's work within the first five minutes of the interview.
Next, we went on to discuss the company and what they do which went well enough. Then we got to talking about my experience. As we discussed my specific skills with Laravel and some of the frameworks they work with, I kept reminding him that I'm not very experienced and mentioning things that I didn't know very well.
"I'm an experienced developer but I only really have a year of experience working with Laravel, and I definitely don't know as much as the people you have working for you already."
I actually was more skilled and knowledgeable with Laravel than I was probably making myself sound. I had learned a lot and done some complex projects with it by that point. What was I thinking?
Interview Pro Tip 2: Do not undersell yourself or point out your shortcomings unprompted.
We then got to the standard interview questions. These are some of the easier questions to prepare for because they are quite common.
Norman asked "What is the hardest thing you've ever worked on and how did you handle that?"
I was stumped. I sat there for what felt like an entire minute in awkward silence, my mind racing as I began to perspire. Finally, I rambled off some obscure and probably insignificant details of a caching system I had built years ago, which was probably not a good example and not particularly relevant to the work this company does. Norman seemed somewhat unsatisfied.
Instead, I should have had a list of good talking points like this prepared in advance. A list of things that were really challenging that led to euphoric moments when I conquered them, resulting in notable advances in my abilities as a developer. When interviewers ask this sort of question, they want to find out how you solve problems, how you perform under pressure, and to get an idea of what you are capable of at your best.
My response offered little or none of this. I should have been better prepared.
Interview Pro Tip 3: Do not fail to prepare for common questions. Do satisfy the interviewer's reasons for asking.
Because I realized I was failing hard, I thought I could fall back on demonstrating some of my work. Demoing a project you have worked on is very common in interviews.
"How about I show you something I built?" I said.
Norman: "Yeah, sure."
Me: (clicking frantically, realizing that my computer hasn't granted Zoom permission to share my screen) "Oh, uh... I'm getting an error. It says I don't have permission to share my screen. I'd have to hang up and call back after restarting Zoom. I don't use this very often!"
Norman: "It's okay, let's just move on."
I should have tested this before the interview, even calling a friend and checking everything out. This just made me look incompetent at using a computer.
Interview Pro Tip 4: Do not start an interview without testing your software and ensuring everything works.
Soon after this we got to everyone's favorite awkward part of the interview. The salary negotiation! "How much are you looking to make if you are hired?"
Me: "Well, I'm really more interested in the opportunity to learn than the money but I guess I'd like to make more than I make where I work now." I began, as I rambled on.
I continued to list a few numbers that I thought I'd be satisfied with, all of which were probably a bit lower than they should have been.
This likely devalued me in the interviewer's eyes. I should have just named a number that was significantly higher than what I made before, and that is commensurate with what the industry pays based on my research. If you're a bit too high they will simply offer you less. If you're way, way too high you might seem like you don't have a clue what you're doing.
Interview Pro Tip 5: Do not beat around the bush with salary. Just name a salary higher than what you'd be happy with.
As the interview closed out, Norman asked "Where are you at in your job search right now?"
I responded "I'm not really looking that much right now, I just thought you'd be an interesting company to work for."
Yikes, what a terrible way to answer! I made it sound like I'm not actually serious about taking on a new job and that I'm not actively about to be scooped up by anyone else. This would have been a perfect time to take a completely different approach to answering this question by applying scarcity principle and social proof to put some pressure on the interviewer.
I should have answered something like "I've found some interesting prospects and I'm evaluating my options. I hope to make a decision by the end of next month". That would have
- Made me seem like I'm serious about taking a new job.
- Made it sound like I'm actually desired by other companies.
- Put a set time on the interviewer's decision-making, spurring him to get back to me.
I did none of these things and may have just put the nail in the coffin of that interview.
Interview Pro Tip 6: Do not make it seem like you aren't serious about the job or that no one else is interested in you.
We concluded the interview with traditional pleasantries and it was over. I reflected on some of what had just transpired, thinking about how some of that could have gone better.
Now, despite the tone and focus of this article, it wasn't actually a bad interview. It was pretty good overall, but for all I know there may have been some stiff competition. And who knows why exactly they never ended up offering me a job. Well, actually, you know who knows? The guy that interviewed me. But I don't. Because I never followed up. And I never asked him. And I never heard from that company again.
If you're interested in the job, it behooves you to follow up 2–5 days later if you haven't heard back. In many cases, taking such initiative is exactly what is needed to make you seem like you're seriously interested. I've heard of interviewers who don't even hire people who don't follow up after.
If you reach out and they inform you that you didn't get the job, you can (and should) ask why not, and what you could have done better. Most people want you to be successful, so interviewers are often happy to give you some detail. This feedback could be invaluable for your next interview.
Interview Pro Tip 7: Do not forget to follow up with the company a few days after the interview.
If you're on the hunt for a new job, I hope you've found some useful advice in this article when it comes to doing your interview. It sucks to have to learn these sorts of lessons the hard way, but in the end, you can become better with each of your failures. I hope my failed interview helps you ace yours.
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