My first interview, for my first job, was for a Data Analyst position at a growing San Francisco startup (there was very little talk of “data science” back then). I was just leaving graduate school and I had never gone through a tech-world interview before. I flew out to San Francisco from upstate New York and spent about five hours on site, interviewing with two other analysts, the analytics manager, the engineering director, the CFO, and the CEO.
I did a lot of things wrong in the interview. Here’s a list of my failures:
- I failed to answer a statistics question because I couldn’t understand what the interviewer was talking about.
- I failed to answer a math-based critical thinking question satisfactorily because the interviewer couldn’t understand what *I* was talking about.
- I asked the CEO an incredibly dumb question (something along the lines of “what’s your five-year plan?”) because when he asked what questions I had, I couldn’t think of anything.
- When I went to draw a diagram, I picked the only wall that wasn’t coated in dry erase paint. The resulting diagram stayed on that wall for my entire tenure at the company.
Despite all this, I had an offer from the company in my inbox an hour after I left the interview. How did I flub so many parts of the interview and still get the job? It’s because I got one part of the interview absolutely right: the narrative part.
Interviewing is storytelling
There is a lot of content on the Internet that will coach you on how to prepare for the technical part of the interview. And certainly, you should read that content and prepare as best you can for technical screening. But there’s more to interviewing than the technical piece alone. If you flub a technical interview, you can still get hired. But if you fail the narrative part of the interview, you will not get the job.
The narrative part of the interview appears in many forms. It’s there when the interviewer asks you to talk about your background. It’s there when they ask you to walk them through a past project. It’s there when they ask you about how you resolved a conflict in your last job. The narrative part is where you get to tell stories about yourself. It’s where you get to explain your background and your past projects. It’s where your personality, strengths, and style bubble up through the lens of your past experience.
Competent people fail technical interviews all the time. But they redeem themselves by speaking compellingly about what they’ve done. If you get tripped up over a whiteboard question, but you can explain in detail how you used [insert machine learning method here] to solve [really interesting problem you’re passionate about], the interview team will often still conclude that you know what you’re doing.
Still, the interviewer can only work with the information that you give them. They only know as much about you as you can communicate with your story. Your work can’t speak for itself, and you need to frame your past experience and highlight it such that it resonates with your listener. To be a great interviewer, you need to be a great storyteller.
How to prepare
Tell yourself stories about your background. Say them aloud in the car. Say them to the mirror. Imagine you’re being interviewed on a talk show. Tell your story to someone who knows you. Tell your story to someone who doesn’t know you. Watch their reactions: What hooks them? Where does your story drag? Where are you unintentionally downplaying your achievements? Where are you being unclear? Where are you adding too many irrelevant or unnecessary details?
Get used to these words coming out of your mouth, so that it becomes natural to you. You’re tricking your brain into learning these sound bites, so that when it comes time to explain yourself, you can do it smoothly. You will already know the right way to phrase things, the right points in the story to hit, and the right things to gloss over.
Come to your interview armed with stories. You’ll need…
- Your origin story. Explain your background and overall experience. Practice and iterate: your first version of your origin story will spend way too much time on something no one cares about. I had to ask myself: Does anyone really care that you got a Philosophy degree before getting a Physics degree, Susan? The answer is no! I only bring up that additional piece of biographical information with audiences who have already indicated a relevant interest—otherwise, I anchor on the piece of information I know (from practice) hooks people’s attention. Yes, it’s unfortunate that we have to package ourselves into small, digestible boxes that aren’t representative of all our interests and passions and weird quirks. But people can only digest so much information, so find one strong narrative track and stick to it. You should have a 30-second, 90-second, and 3-minute version of your origin story. Then, when you’re in an interview scenario, you must choose in the moment how detailed you are going to be, and which length of pitch to use. (If this is too much structure for you, don’t get stuck in your head about it. Just practice, practice, practice talking about yourself, and note when you’re going down a narrative path that seems to drag.)
- The stories of your past projects. Come with at least three and rank them in your mind (which is your favorite, which is your strongest). Make sure you highlight the motivation for the project (the hook of why it interested you or why it was important), along with the methodology and the outcome. How you choose a problem is one of the most compelling parts of your past work, so don’t skip it and jump right in to talking about clustering algorithms. Similarly, you want to cap the story off by telling us the Grand Conclusion: What was the outcome of the project? What was its impact? How did the story end? For your project-based stories, be able to give the high-level summary as well as the detailed version, so that you can give your interviewer the level of detail their question calls for. Don’t be afraid to include a human element (“my team was really stumped on how we were going to [x], because the executives wanted [y]…”). Collaborative problem solving is a key part of every single business with >1 employee.
- The story of a time you solved a problem or took initiative to fix a process that was broken. Your goal is to prove you can drive value for the company in question, that you can spot opportunities and execute on them. Explain why the problem arose or why the process was broken. This is the hero’s journey of business problems. (“The good people of [company] were in the thrall of [broken process]. I set out to save them. But the problem was worse than I thought! After hours of terrible effort, inspiration appeared. I solved the problem and the business was saved.”) When you reach your Grand Conclusion, quantify your results—the man-hours you saved, the revenue you drove, the number of people you helped, etc.
- A story of conflict resolution, or a time you struggled with something and got through it. Lots of interviews involve an “overcoming obstacles” type of question. This question may focus on interpersonal conflict (“tell me about a time you butted heads with a team member”) or on general challenges (“tell me about a time you encountered a problem you didn’t know how to solve”). Think carefully about what in your background can show (1) that you can work with others in the face of personality differences or disagreements, and/or (2) that you can move forward and be successful when faced with a challenge you haven’t met before.
- Your story of your future, within the context of the company with which you’re interviewing. Tell the story of what excites you or interests you about the company. Describe the value you can see yourself adding to the team. Don’t be braggadocious, but do consider how your unique talents would serve the team (frame things of being of service and being useful if you worry that you’re coming off as overly arrogant). Describe the value you think you’d get out of working there: how inspired you are by the rest of the team or the company mission, or what you can learn from the problem space. Just don’t bullshit, though—be genuine.
You have to come armed with a lot of stories because you don’t know what you’re going to be asked. But as the interviewer asks you questions, you’ll see clear openings either to tell these stories in full, or to cherry-pick a few choice lines for your answer. The interview should still be an organic conversation (you’re not going to bring your stories on notecards and read from them), but by practicing your stories ahead of time, you’ll gain acquaintance with your own strengths and learn how to explain elements of your background in a concise and compelling way.
There’s no perfect recipe for telling these stories, and you’ll find as you tell them that there is always room for improvement. But understand that your discussion of your background in an interview setting is fundamentally narrative. You need to capture your audience’s attention and tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What was the motivation? What was the moment of crisis where it seemed like everything would go wrong? What did you do to save the day? Not every story you have will fit that model, of course, but the general idea holds: The best interview story is coherent and entertaining, impressive and surprising. Learn to tell your story well and you will land the job.
Bonus: The magic question
Many interviewees do not recognize that an interview is an opportunity to build a relationship. People tend to treat interviewing too much like school, like they’re being tested. But at heart, an interview is an opportunity for someone to get to know you, and vice versa. So when they ask if you have any questions for them, you can take this as an opening for a bit of relationship-building.
Lots of online resources make recommendations on what you can ask at this point in the interview to sound smart and impressive. I am not a fan of canned questions like these. People can tell that they are phony. If you have meaningful questions about the company, go ahead and ask them—that’s what this part of the interview is designed for. But if you feel stumped—or you just want to test out if what I’m about to say is true—you can ask the magic question:
“What’s your background?”
I have told several students to ask this question, and they always feel a little awkward about it. “Is it really my place to ask them something like that?” they wonder. But I’ve yet to see this question fail. Asking “What’s your background?” shifts the tone of the conversation. Many interviewers will be pleasantly surprised—Oh, you want to know about *me*?? People like to talk about themselves! It’s nice to give them an opening to tell you more about them. Plus, it gives you a lot more information about who the interviewer is as a person, and it can help you see how you’d work together if you were to join the company.
Meanwhile, “What’s your background?” softens the tone at the end of the interview. It closes things out with a casual, friendly conversation that leaves everyone at ease. It ensures that your interviewer leaves in a good mood, and that you are relaxed and ready to talk to the next interviewer on the list.
Go forward, storyteller
You can’t know ahead of time what questions you’ll be asked in an interview, but you can come armed with a strong, well-practiced ability to convey your background and past experiences in the most compelling way possible. By learning to tell your story well, you’re doing your interviewers a favor: you’re ensuring that you’re giving them the best possible information on who you are as a candidate and as a person. Practicing telling your story helps prepare you for anything an interviewer will throw at you. Work at it and go into your interviews with confidence.
Oh, and one last thing: Make sure you ask which walls have dry-erase paint on them *before* you start drawing.
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