The IT industry prides itself on using structured methodologies to dramatically improve process quality and efficiency--even in regards creative processes that seem not to lend themselves to such structured approaches.
One such process, however, that is critical to the success of all IT organizations, and to optimizing the development of our careers, is the job interview process. Yet many job seekers and hiring managers still practice this key process as an art form, rather than as a process structured for repeatable successful outcomes.
So many IT managers struggle with making the job interview process an effective tool for finding the right candidates. In addition, search firms find that both candidates and hiring managers constantly sub-optimize this critical business process.
The good news is that there is a simple process that has been successfully used by firms as a best practice for the interview process. The better news is that IT job seekers can also use this same tool to stand out from the crowd. Understanding how to make the most of this process will significantly enhance your chances for a successful interview, whether or not the interviewer uses the same technique.
That is, if your interviewer uses it, you will be much better prepared to address their questions. If your interviewer does not use it, then your use of the technique will improve the quality of the interview process and give you more control of the conversation.
This simple process is called Targeted Selection. It is based upon the premise that past performance in work situations is often a good indicator of future performance in similar situations. While the financial services industry is quick to advise us that this is not the case for financial investments, the HR industry has many studies to prove that it is the case for on the job performance.
The Targeted Selection process is a behavior-based approach to collect job-related behavior from your past experience. As such, the basic structure of a Targeted Selection interview question includes the phrase, "Tell me about a time when..." or "Tell me about a situation where..." Contrast this to the more typical interview questions like:
"Do you know..."
"What would you do if..."
"How would you handle..."
How and Why Targeted Selection Works for the Hiring Company
Targeted Selection works so well and is so highly valued by the companies that use it for several reasons:
1. As stated above, a person's past behavior is a good predictor of their future behavior in similar circumstances. This is the reason that financial institutions place so much emphasis on your credit history, which is a reflection of your past behavior related to managing your money.
2. It brings a repeatable structure to what is too often an unstructured process. When a company applies Targeted Selection to their job openings, they specify all the critical requirements of the job. This includes skills, qualities, knowledge and behaviors most important for succeeding in the job.
They then create a list of questions specifically designed to uncover how well your experience matches their requirements. (This is actually similar to the process of designing test cases for a project's test case register.)
3. The specificity needed to answer such experiential-based questions quickly weeds out people with insufficient experience, and makes it much harder for candidates to bluff their way through the questions. For example, it's relatively easy for anyone to give a good answer to, "How would you handle a client who demanded an unreasonable project completion date."
It's more of a challenge -- and better indicator of what you would do in the future -- to answer, "Tell me about a time when a client demanded an unreasonable project completion date. What were the circumstances? What did you do? How did they react? What was the final outcome?"
How to Use Targeted Selection as a Job Seeker
The same properties that make Targeted Selection so valuable for hiring companies make it a potent tool for the job seeker as well. Planning for a Targeted Selection interview process prepares you to provide much higher quality answers to any interview question, whether or not is based on the behavioral approach.
Suppose for example, you were asked a typical interview question like, "What do you know about pivot tables?" Anyone could provide a fairly generic answer to the question, whether or not they had extensive hands on experience. For instance, "A pivot table is a data summarization tool in data visualization programs like Excel and BI software. It can sort, count, total or give the average of the data stored in one table and display the results in a second table showing the summarized data."
Compare that to providing a brief story of how you addressed an actual business situation by using a pivot table: "Several months ago one of our sales managers came to us with a request for a program to analyze data on a recent campaign. He was in a hurry for the results and was not quite sure what he wanted. It was one of those 'I'll know it when I see it situations' we so often face. So I suggested we sit down and play with his data in Excel to get a sense of what trends it might contain. We imported a representative extract from the sales system into Excel and then used the PivotTable functions to slice and dice the data. By working interactively with him, he quickly saw what he wanted to know, and within half an hour had the answer to his questions. In fact, he had figured out a useful set of questions around which he could do further analysis on his own."
How much more compelling is this second approach than the first one? Look at what you've communicated by answering the question this way:
I've actually done this hands-on.
I was responsive and creative to my client's needs.
I was effective at helping them clarify those needs and showed up as part of the solution. (How often do IT staff stumble when clients aren't sure what they need?)
I'm comfortable in situations of ambiguity.
I can communicate well and collaborate with colleagues.
I get things done.
Another benefit for the job seeker in this latter scenario is that we are often more comfortable and articulate when we describe a situation that actually occurred, than we are with answering to a more conceptual question.
Some simple steps to apply the above and prepare for an interview are the following:
Identify the key skills, qualities, knowledge and behaviors most important for succeeding in the job.
Identify 1-3 experiences you have in applying or using those behaviors. (You may want to use some different examples with different interviewers. This way when they compare notes after the interviews they get an even more impressive picture.)
Practice telling your story for each experience a few times, until you can describe it easily and fairly briefly. (Give a short version as your initial answer and allow the interviewer to ask for more detail if they want it.)
Once you have your arsenal of stories, keep an open mind during the interview and be flexible. If you are asked a question for which you don't have a perfect fit, respond along the lines of, "I was in a situation somewhat like that one once where..."
Bob Kantor is an IT management coach and consultant, specializing in improving IT leadership effectiveness. Contact him at KantorConsultingGroup.com.