How not to botch an interview

I just dealt with an attempt to interview me by email that checked off pretty nearly every possible mistake in the form. As a public service, I now reproduce the advice I gave after bailing out halfway through the list of questions.

Asking your subject questions you should already have known the answers to in order to be qualified to do the interview is very irritating. When you do that, expect your subject to be reluctant to respond at all.

Do your homework first, then come back with questions that go beyond what the subject has revealed in his or her written work. Try to make the questions interesting and specific, not vague and general.

A good heuristic to apply before writing down each question is: how many times do I estimate the subject will have been asked this before? The likelihood that the subject will be unspeakably bored by having to repeat him or herself rises with that number. If your estimate is in double digits, discard the question.

Also, when presenting a numbered or bulleted list of questions, it’s bad form to bundle many divergent sub-questions under what is nominally a single question. It comes off as lazy and scattershot.

If you ask two dozen open-ended questions that properly require essay-length answers, you are not being respectful of the value of your subject’s time. Sharper, more focused questions to which you can expect shorter answers are better.

As an interviewer, you must put as much time and thought into making the interview experience thought-provoking for your subject as you do into making it interesting for your readers. If you do not do this, you have no grounds for complaint when your subject’s responses are curt and boring.

You botched this attempt rather badly, I’m afraid. Think carefully about these tips; they will help you improve your performance.

26 thoughts on “How not to botch an interview

  1. >>Asking your subject questions you should already have known the answers to in order to be qualified to do the interview is very irritating.

    Sounds like someone got confused by the “legal” maxim to not ask a witness a question to which you do not already know the answer.

  2. My experience is that a great many interviewers, both F2F and telephone (never had an email interview) do not understand that the interview works both ways – you are interviewing them as a potential employer just as stringently as they are interviewing you as a potential employee.

  3. In general, do you accept questions that require you to read some (short) online post/article/review?

    • >In general, do you accept questions that require you to read some (short) online post/article/review?

      I don’t have any restriction against it, but reserve the right to bail out if the article is boring.

  4. I’ve been on the other side of that process, in IT at a largeish corporate entity. We informed HR of the skill set we wanted; HR wrote its ads for something different entirely, did pre-interviews, then sent us some random collection of resumes, none of which even came close to meeting our requirements, which weren’t really much more stringent than “warm body.”

    Anyone with even the modest level of skill we would accept probably looked at HR’s garbled mess and moved on without tossing their hat in the ring.

    My wife’s employer is similar, except they’re now a subsidiary of a Swiss-owned corporation which insists all laws, regulations, and “best practices” of Switzerland and two American states be followed, plus oversight from Switzerland… hiring an employee has become so tedious that the American operations are filling their positions with temps, which come under a different set of rules and a different budget. They desperately need some technical people, but the kind of people they need typically don’t work through temp agencies, particularly at the wages they are willing to pay.

  5. @TRX:

    I don’t think ESR was interviewing for a job :)

    What company does your wife work for? I’m looking for a new job…

  6. I’ve done a few interviews, and it was almost shocking how grateful the subjects were when they discovered I had done my homework in advance and was not going to ask them the same damned stupid questions they’ve had to answer every other time.

    Along the same lines (and topically), I heard a really superb radio interview with Leonard Nimoy this morning. Obviously, it was a recording from a few years ago, when he was in Boston doing some voiceover work for the Boston Pops. The interviewer, bless her, didn’t ask him a single question about Star Trek. Instead she asked about the Pops project, and about Nimoy’s childhood in Boston’s now-vanished West End. He really opened up, and the result was fifteen minutes of really fascinating radio. It was so unusual to hear a non-vapid interview on the radio that I was almost shocked.

  7. Knowing nothing else about that email interview, I get the sense that it may have been for an audience that is unfamiliar with ESR. (This is one of the few explanations I can think of that would explain the questions without the interviewer being necessarily naive, a possibility which I am in no way rejecting.) If that’s the case, then the interview is kinda pointless without a lengthy preface in which the interviewer “introduces” the audience to the subject. I’ve seen that in a lot of places.

    Minor writing note, in that vein: if your interview article contains the phrase “[we/I] caught up with…”, I will loathe you with great intensity.

    …and: what Trent said. Heh.

  8. Much of this is useful and sensible, but if it’s a press interview there are conditions that may be grounds for a caveat or two.

    “Asking your subject questions you should already have known the answers to in order to be qualified to do the interview is very irritating.” True; but not all interviewers get the chance to prep sufficiently, and some are often given assignments solely on the basis of availability rather than prior interest in the topic.

    “Try to make the questions interesting and specific, not vague and general.” Also good advice, but it should be borne in mind that what is interesting and specific for the subject may be too nitpicky, dull or obscure for a large readership. General questions work for general audiences.

    “If you ask two dozen open-ended questions that properly require essay-length answers, you are not being respectful of the value of your subject’s time. Sharper, more focused questions to which you can expect shorter answers are better.” Two dozen such questions is definitely too much — in fact an e-mail interview should never have more than ten or twelve questions at all, unless it is deliberately structured as an “answer these 20 questions in one line each” sort of gag. But it should be noted that most interviewers tend to assume their subjects want to be interviewed and enjoy talking at length about themselves and their opinions, and that being given more room to pontificate rather than less is generally seen as a feature rather than a bug.

    “As an interviewer, you must put as much time and thought into making the interview experience thought-provoking for your subject as you do into making it interesting for your readers.” As much time and thought as possible, certainly, but there can be reasons other than interviewer laziness why an interview may fail to accomplish the former yet still deliver the latter. I am lucky enough to be married to a former film critic and journalist, and while she always did her best to ask intelligent and thoughtful questions when she interviewed actors or directors, she was always hobbled by the limits of time given her for preparation on one hand (especially if she wasn’t immediately familiar with the project in question), volume of competition on the other (it was very hard to think of a question that somebody hadn’t already asked), and editorial interference on the gripping hand (sometimes you are given instructions on what to ask and what not).

  9. I wonder if some of this is caused by reporters used to doing political questions, where of cource what the subject wants is a bunch of softball questions that he has prepared answers for.

  10. > respectful of the value of your subject’s time.

    I’ve shown up for interviews at the agreed time, then spent anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes of my time before deciding they either didn’t want to interview me in the first place, or their time management sucked.

    The last couple of times, I told the reception people that they’d used up my time and travel expenses and asked where I should send my bill. This was apparently a new and unwelcome concept to them… I thought my hourly rate was exceedingly reasonable.

  11. >Asking your subject questions you should already have known the answers to in order to be qualified to do the interview is very irritating. When you do that, expect your subject to be reluctant to respond at all. Do your homework first, then come back with questions that go beyond what the subject has revealed in his or her written work.

    Obviously, the readers didn’t do that homework. A journalist must assume the readers know almost nothing. This means a journalist would have to lead up the interview with a long essay about the interviewee – and I am simply not sure that is good style. If it is an interview, maybe the readers don’t want to the journalist to ramble about the interviewee’s bio. I don’t like it much when I go to listen to a speaker and first I have to listen to someone else giving a long introduction of the speaker… Maybe the best solution is the journalist writing out a set of introductiory Q&A himself based on the interviewee’s bio and the interviewee would simply approve or correct it. Another solution is to go straight to the interesting stuff and basically ask the interviewee to carefully weave biographical info into it any way he sees fit: you can generally count on people liking to boast or talk about themselves a bit.

  12. I tend to get bored with a long oral intro to a speaker before that speaker, too. But consider the alternative: short intro, cut to that speaker, who then starts on some novel topic of his interest which ends up so esoteric that the audience is lost from the opening statement on.

    Somebody – introducer or speaker – probably needs to prep the audience. (Or sometimes the audience itself needed to know what it was getting into.)

    Reminds me of a talk I once attended, given by Knuth at UT Austin. With Djikstra as introducer. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember barely keeping up. (And then losing track when a grad student asked what I have to believe was a reasonably astute question that went over my head.) Contrast with another presentation by Stroustrup that just left me flat. Preparation makes a difference.

    There can be good or bad intros, of course. I’d say the trick is not to ramble (ahem). Build up to the interview target, and avoid deviation. And if you do deviate, be entertaining. I’ve read a fair number of Playboy Interviews, for example, that have lengthy text before the first question appears; a good interviewer, I believe, will also be a good writer, and handle this well.

    Bio notes? Hm. Leave that to an actual biographer, I’d say.

  13. When interviewing for a database dev project, I actually had some passive-aggressive HR person ask me questions like ‘What is your favorite animal’ and other previous mind game questions. But after that animal question, I explained that I was likely a poor fit for what they has in mind and left.

  14. I am 36 and never had to deal with HR. I take it as an evidence that I am working at unusually small firms (2 to 40 employees, at least in one office, some had multiple offices).

    Can anyone recommend an essay about the advantages and disadvantages of working at small or big firms? (I don’t mean startups, they are a special case. I mean ones that never intend to get big. They serve niches.) (One disadvantage I see is that I don’t really understand the term “career” or “promotions”: when the org chart is like 1) owner 2) everybody else then there is simply no position to get promoted into. One advantage I see is basically no policies. Install whatever you want to etc. oh and no HR.)

  15. The biggest thing about working in a big firm is loss of creativity and professional independence. And it can be a hard pill to swallow if you’ve been independent in your profession.

    I’m presently working as a legal officer with an insurance firm and its HR policies are pages long. There are restrictions on computer and internet usage. In fact, I only get a Citrix workstation (thin client) at work and I cannot install anything or do anything other than read mail and use MS Office.

    And in a big organization, you are basically a cog in the wheel. I feel very small in the large scheme of things and the legal department is basically the last resort (where claims are denied on various grounds and consumers file lawsuits against us). And while working, you basically report to your boss. Very little room for creativity or decision making, at my level.

    From independent legal practice to working in a firm, I can feel how badly I miss my professional independence.

  16. Oh, and the 9 to 5:30 office timings can be really tiresome, if you’re used to managing your own time and schedule your work as and when you feel like working.

  17. Yeah, the thing about working for yourself is that you only have to work half days and it doesn’t matter which 12 hours you pick..

  18. Shenpen:
    > Obviously, the readers didn’t do that homework. A journalist must assume the readers know almost nothing.

    That really depends on what journal the journalist is working for. Someone writing for OpenSource.sys-con.com can assume that readers know a lot different things that someone writing for Time or some other legacy media. Someone writing for Spectrum can make a whole bunch of other assumptions.

    Also there is absolutely no reason why a contemporary author could not link to a lot of background information and then focus on what’s *new*.

  19. “Also, when presenting a numbered or bulleted list of questions, it’s bad form to bundle many divergent sub-questions under what is nominally a single question. It comes off as lazy and scattershot.”

    It *does* come off as “lazy and scattershot”, even when attorneys do it in interrogatories (which surprisingly many do, too often). Sometimes this is an attempt to skate around a procedural rule or court order limiting the number of interrogatories that may be asked, but not always.

  20. @ShenPen

    After more than 30 years working mostly as a short-term consultant / contract programmer (usually 3-18 month gigs), I would have to say that there is huge variability that results mostly from ‘corporate culture’ and unit autonomy. In general tho, smaller units allow greater scope of responsibility and freedom, larger less, and government completely stifling.

    The most important thing during your job interview is to learn how to winkle out that aspect of the job during the interview simply because it really is that variable. If you don’t, you stand to make bad decisions about how good your fit is (and I have made plenty). Your immediate boss pretty much makes the job in that way, in my experience

  21. Corporate life is truly boring. All you can do is to get used to it and make the best of it. Even if the job is interesting as such, the atmosphere of working in a drab, colourless, sanitized environment makes it feel boring. I especially find sitting at a desk from 9 to 5:30 with short breaks in-between very depressing.

    On the other hand, I enjoyed my stint as an independent legal practitioner even though I didn’t have the security of a fixed monthly income. I want to return to it some day.

  22. (Sorry, offtopic: is it considered an ugly move in hackerdom to give a software your name in order to advertise your own name for consulting etc. work? Same thing as corporations doing when calling a product Microsoft Excel, not just Excel? Would ESR look very bad if he called fetchmail Raymond’s Fetchmail instead? Bit of a 19th century vibe… In understand how it makes harder to hand over projects to other maintainers but the $$$ advantages such things could offer on job or consulting interviews may make this tempting.)

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