How to survive your first HR interview

Or: Dating strategies for tech job seekers

Possibly an interview. Yours will likely be over the phone, or via video.

Did we just hear you got an invite for an interview? Congrats!

An invite for the first interview is good news. It means that you have already passed the first stage of the application process, the CV screen.

Now, how do you make it past the first phone interview?

Let’s first take a step back. Let’s discuss the why, the what, the how, and the who of a typical first interview, a.k.a. phone screen.

  • Why: Recruiters do phone screens to identify great candidates and ‘sell’ you the job. It’s a crucial moment of truth for both of you.
  • What: Recruiters will ask you open-ended questions to assess you on specific ‘soft skills’. We will go over these questions in detail below.
  • How: Phone screens usually take 20–30 minutes. Most firms still prefer traditional audio calls, while a few use video/skype.
  • Who: Recruiters are gatekeepers. You need their support to get the job. To do so, establish a personal connection and make their life easier. How? We’ll get to that.
Next: What is your goal for the interview? Your goal is not to pass, but to shine. If you shine, you will find someone very powerful. A personal ambassador inside the company — your recruiter.

To get there, you must make it past five all-important questions.

Can I trust you? Do you even know my name? Are you a jerk? Can I see a future with you?

Pretty spot-on questions. Never heard them in a job interview? We neither.

You don’t hear them, because they are only in recruiters’ minds. Of course, they don’t ask them out loud. It would be rude. Inappropriate. And who would answer “Yes, I am totally a jerk!” anyway?

Recruiters thus resort to indirect, open-ended questions. That way, they can, well, figure out if you are a jerk or not. Among other things.

These are the corresponding questions from recruiters you will likely hear:

  1. “Who are you? Tell me a bit about yourself!”
  2. “Why do you want this job?”
  3. “What is your biggest achievement/failure in life?”
  4. “Why do you want to switch jobs now?
  5. “Will I endorse you to my colleagues?”

So, what are the magical answers to these questions? We are not here to give you boilerplate answers. In fact, you will only shine if you take time to think about these, and carefully craft your answers. Our friends at Blinkist, a startup in Berlin, recommend this as well. We looked, there are no shortcuts.

But, here are some hints, one for each of these questions.

Question 1. “Who are you? Tell me a bit about yourself!”

Your strategy: Craft your one-liner. Example: I’m a full stack developer with 5 years of experience, seeking a mid-level Java role in a B2C startup.

A one-liner is short and effective. It shows 4 things. Who you are (full stack developer), your experience (5 years), the type of job (mainly Java), and the environment (B2C, startup) you are seeking.

To assess these four points, recruiters will likely ask follow-up questions on each one of them. To prepare, write down 2–3 bullets of detailed evidence for each one.

Practice your one-liner pitch. Say it out loud. Record yourself, and play it back to you. Memorize it, but not to the point of sounding like an automaton.

Question 2. “Why do you want this job?”

Your strategy: Do your background research. By now, recruiters will have spent some time reading your CV, LinkedIn, website and Github. They have invested time in you. So should you, in them.

Be interested. Read the job description. What makes this one unique? Read the firm’s website to get a feel for the customer and the product. Read a few reviews about the product online. What issues do they have?

Read the company’s job website to get a feeling for their culture. Read a few reviews on Glassdoor. Go on LinkedIn and get a picture of the folks working in their tech teams. But don’t make random LinkedIn connections, don’t stalk them. Don’t look desperate.

Then, use this information to come up with 3 reasons why you want to work especially at this company. Not at Google. Or Zalando. At THIS company.

PRO TIP: Write down at least one doubt or open question. Recruiters want to see your sincere interest in the job and team. Do that by asking at least one research-backed question. Do that when the time is right, usually at the end of the chat.

Question 3. “What is your biggest achievement/failure in life?”

Your strategy: There is no I in team. A great manager says I in moments of failure and WE in moments of success. Do the same, without taking it too far.

Think about 2 moments in your professional life. One, where you achieved something memorable. Example: I was part of the team moving our company to a microservice architecture. Your story should show your specific role in this joint effort, and how you worked with others.

The other question is a tricky one. “What is your biggest failure?” Suggestion: Talk about a large technical challenge to which you and your team initially failed to respond. Initially failed. Not “forever failed”.

This could mean: you were too late or had the wrong approach. Or you lacked resources or did not fully understand the users' needs. All are well-known, relatable reasons.

PRO TIP: Say how you overcame the challenge (with a team?), and say what you learned from it. A failure story is a great chance to display your sincerity and credibility to the recruiter. To do so effectively, balance the failure aspect with the learning aspect.

Question 4. “Why do you want to switch jobs now?

Your strategy: Tell a coherent story. Changing jobs is like changing personal relationships. It’s a delicate moment for everyone involved, including your new partner.

Even your recruiters are torn. Yes, they’re happy you are applying to work with their teams. But someone switching jobs today might again switch jobs tomorrow. How can they know you are reliable?

If you have stayed less than 2 years in your typical job, don’t worry. It’s becoming more and more common. Still, this means you will face some questions as to why you switched so often.

See, Germany is a pretty collectivist country. In German work culture, the rule is still: group before the individual. Techies switching jobs every 12 months are still often seen as mercenaries. Because of that, here are some things you don’t want to say:

  • I had a better offer somewhere else a.k.a. “I am a mercenary”
  • The tech stack had become so boring a.k.a. “I will do this in 12 months again”

Other bad signals to send:

  • The team was restructured a.k.a. “I was fired”
  • I did not like the management style a.k.a. “I rebelled against my boss”
  • I want a better work-life balance a.k.a. “It was too much work”

PRO TIP: write down a consistent story about why you moved jobs. The story must have a logical endpoint: the company you are applying to right now.

Example: “I always wanted to work for a B2C startup doing leading-edge work, close to the end customer. All my career moves so far were directed at that. I hope to fulfill this aspiration by working with you in Berlin.”

Question 5. Will I endorse you to my colleagues?

Your strategy: Open up. During and after your chat, recruiters ask themselves one question. Can I imagine working with this person? Of course, they will not ask you directly.

It is thus your job to open up and put yourself as a person on display. Be a sudden new friend, from afar.

To get there, here are not one, not two, but three suggestions:

  • Build a relationship. Make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation. When you get a chance, ask a question. Or comment on something the recruiter shared with you. Ask not any question, ask a thoughtful one. Here are a few great questions to ask.
  • Be relatable. Genetically, similarity breeds comfort. Even if you are different, and look different, you should seek common ground. Have you worked on similar products before? What aspect of the new job or company do you already see in yourself? Do you also have a dog, like their office dog? Do you know a precious few words of German? It starts with that.
  • Be credible. Do not make grandiose statements about yourself. Do not say “I am a reliable, excellent person.” To German recruiters, this will make you look sheepish. Instead, tell a story about your determination in the face of adversity, e.g. when working for months on a complex technical challenge you finally helped solve. Those words will speak for themselves. They allow the recruiter to derive your reliability and excellence. Finally, don’t make stuff up — recruiters have a nose for it.

That’s it. We hope you enjoyed the read. Now it’s time for action. As always, we are rooting for you. Keep us posted.

— Your friends at Imagine

→ Explore our blog

© 2018-2022 Imagine Foundation e.V. Made with 🤍 in Berlin.