Preparing for interviews – A contractor's view

Long before you park the car in the visitors' section of some giant corporation and linger tentatively in the glass-boxed reception before being escorted to the lifts and the interview room, your preparation should have started.

It is utterly surprising how many contractors do not prepare for interviews. Some do not have the experience to realise how important preparation is, and others are so beguiled by their own skills they think preparation is a sign of weakness. Considering the importance of the activity, it is astonishing how, after winning a couple of contracts and working for a big name you get blasé about your employability, and the first thing that goes out the window is your preparation for the next interview.

This should never be the case. The interview is sacrosanct to your success and your success can be immeasurably improved by preparation.

Case Study

When I first began my contracting career I had the good fortune to be dating a recruitment agent and she wouldn't let me off the hook with my preparation.

For my first contract role I applied to a utilities company in Swindon with only a couple of month's real experience in the skills they needed. I did not believe I was a strong candidate, but I wrote down a dozen questions I thought they were likely to ask and composed the answers making sure I preemptively covered any negative points with a positive explanation – almost as if they were good things.

I rehearsed the answers with my partner and she made me go over them again and again until they were smooth and, apparently, unrehearsed.

On the day of the interview I was nervous, but many of the questions I had considered came up and I was able to happily chat about myself knowing I would be giving a very positive impression.

I got the contract, and the discipline my partner instilled has remained with me ever since.

Robert Wallace, 15 years in IT contracting.

Quiz your agent

Good preparation starts with good information, and the place to start is your agent. Many of the following questions should have been answered long before you have confirmation of an interview, but you should make sure you are clear about the project, from who is running it to how long it's expected to last. The agent wont' know everything but it doesn't hurt to ask.
 

  • Who will be conducting the interviews and what are their roles?
  • What are their priorities for the role?
  • What does the agent think are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Who will make the final decision and how?
  • What's the project structure (who runs the project and are they a contractor or perm)
  • What's the format for the interview?
  • How will they expect me to dress?
  • Will there be a test of any kind?
  • At what phase is the project?
  • What's the size and budget of the project?
  • What is the team size?
  • How many contractors work on the project?

Gathering this information will give you an excellent idea of what the client is looking for way beyond the usual "Business Analyst," or "Project Manager." The nuances of contract roles should not be overlooked; there will be a big difference in attitude between a contractor project manager and a permie, and you should know who is conducting the interview before you rehearse your answers. You should also know if the permie technician or the PM has the last word; which one should you impress first?

Conduct company research

Learning just a little bit about the lion's den into which you are about to be thrown can only help.

  • What does the company do?
  • How many employees are there?
  • At how many locations?
  • How long has the company been established?
  • What is the product range and list of services?
  • Find out recent news about them.
  • What's their share price and turnover?

These are, admittedly, nice to haves, but even bringing them in as an aside, during a lift conversation on the way to the coffee machine, can show a professionalism and enthusiasm that will stand out to an interviewer.

Rehearsal

It does seem overkill to many, and few contractors do it as a matter of routine, but to my mind rehearsal is a sure way of making certain you give yourself the best shot at interview. It prevents you from bluffing, floundering, wandering or hesitating and adds confidence in a great big heap. At least it does for me. So given all the intelligence you have gathered from your web search and conversations with your agent, what do you do next?

  • Write a list of probable questions
  • Write a list of positive things you want to say about yourself
  • Write a list of the questions you want to ask
  • Rehearse the answers to the questions referring to your positive list and writing down bullet point reminders as you go. Make sure you include everything with repetition or rambling.
  • Repeat last step until fluent and unhesitating.
  • Spend 10 minutes going over bullet lists just before you go into the interview.
  • Don't forget your list of questions.

So there you are, waiting in reception reviewing your bullet lists and going over your answers in your head, when the moment arrives. Your interviewer strolls through the security latched doors and introduces himself. Before you can put this excellent intelligence and preparation into practice to any great effect, you have to impress in the first four minutes or even less.

William Knight

Monday 23rd Feb 2009