Nailing the interview: A headhunter tells how

Think like an investment banker and present a business plan for how you

You can ace your job interview by remembering one simple fact: The company interviewing you isn’t in business to hire people. It’s in business to produce profit. That’s why all those interview books are wrong: Success in a job interview is not about answering questions. It’s about managing your meeting so that you can show how you will deliver profit. Unless you get that, you have no business in the job interview to begin with -- in Silicon Valley or any other tech mecca.

The profit-based interview

More so than other industries, technology is focused on profit. There is no room for hiring errors in a company that’s heavily invested in R&D, under the watchful eye of venture capitalists waiting to cash out, or hanging by its stock price. This means your objective in the interview isn’t to deliver good answers to questions. It’s to transcend the questions -- the entire interview process, in fact -- so that you can present your business plan for how you’re going to do the work profitably.

A profit-based interview starts with good choices. You can’t ace just any interview, only the one for a job that’s right for you. I cannot overemphasize this: The reason people fail in most interviews is they’re interviewing for the wrong jobs. The level of motivation that’s crucial for success starts with choosing the right company and the right work. There aren’t 50 “right” jobs out there for you, so don’t shotgun your résumé to 50 companies.

Don’t chase job listings

You must invest in the right interviews. This starts with motivation. The higher your motivation, the more powerful your interviews will be. For example, select only companies involved in technologies you really want to work on. Success also depends on the soundness of the business, your ability to contribute to it, and the quality of the people.

Don’t ignore companies that have downsized. If a company is basically sound and has good prospects, a layoff can signal opportunities for talented problem-solvers who are needed to turn the business around.

Don’t chase job listings. The job you want may not even be open. Don’t let that stop you. Applying only for listed jobs is a fool’s errand because the competition is enormous. Instead, apply for a job that’s created just for you, as a result of your demonstration that the company needs you.

Don’t pursue just companies -- seek out good people. The best people work for very good companies. If a company has a strong technical staff, that’s one to pursue. Don’t know how good the team is? Find out -- or don’t apply.

Think like an investment banker

To pick the right companies and to be prepared for a compelling meeting with management, you need to think like an investment banker. It’s not enough to read the annual report and a recent trade article. Become an expert in the company’s business.

Track down past and present employees of the company. Ask them what the company’s biggest problems and challenges are. Then figure out how you can help tackle them.

Talk to the company’s customers and vendors. You will find the hidden skeletons, and you will learn who the real decision-makers are in the company.

Check every company’s references. Talk with people who depend on the company for a living: attorneys, bankers, investors, landlords, and news reporters. This will give you an industrywide perspective and potentially keep you out of harm’s way. Explain that you are considering an investment in the company. (Your career is indeed an investment!) Ask for their insight and advice. Is this a good company, and why?

How will you produce profit?

Figure out why the company needs you: How will you produce profit? Believe me, no manager will figure that out based on your résumé or application. You must work this equation out yourself. If you can explain it in the interview, you will leapfrog almost all your competition.

Don’t let your meeting turn into a rote Q&A session about routine interview questions. (What’s your greatest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years?) Make it a working meeting where you and the hiring manager roll up your sleeves and discuss how to make the department more successful and the company more profitable.

Create a business plan for the job you want. Outline the objectives of this “business” in terms of profit. An IT job doesn’t generate revenue, but it factors into the company’s profitability. Will you help increase efficiency? Reduce costs? Improve customer satisfaction? Eliminate waste? Speed up production cycles?

Show how you will pull it off. Be prepared to present a five-minute plan. If you can’t demonstrate your ability to deliver profit, you simply don’t deserve the job.

Interview for the right job

Confirm where you fit into the profit equation by meeting the rest of the team. Respectfully ask the boss to show you the work -- what you’d be doing if you were hired -- so that you can demonstrate how you’d do it. Volunteer to attend a project meeting and participate as a guest. The bottom line is, That great job you want is a lot of hard work, so be ready to do the job in the interview. One candidate answers questions; another demonstrates how he or she will do the job. Which candidate would you hire?

Technology companies are very selective because they can’t afford hiring errors. You must be selective, too. You can ace only the interview for the right job. Choose wisely. Study the problems and challenges that you’ll be hired to tackle. Then, present your business plan. Prove you can produce profit in your work, and your career will profit, too. It’s the best way to get hired in technology.