Preparing for the Interview

Do you remember the last time you had to interview for a job? If you are like most people, you probably put the experience out of your head shortly after landing the role because let’s be honest…no one likes sitting through interviews. They are exciting, nerve racking, emotional roller coasters that are an unfortunate part of adulting. In this guide we are going to look at some of the best ways to prepare for an interview so perhaps put your mind a little more at ease.

Waiting for a Phone Call

Usually the first part of an interview involves a phone screen with someone in HR. They scanned your resume, found some keywords that match, and want to do a quick phone screen to make sure you are both a real person and address any glaring red flags (in their mind). Ironically enough, I think the HR phone screen is the hardest part of any pre-sales interview. Why? Because you are trying to convince someone that doesn’t come from a technical background that you are not only a fit for the job, but that you stand out above the rest. Not an easy task. Unless you have someone referring you into the job (which you should), it’s hard to know if you will even get the phone call for an HR screen. Now couple this near impossible task with the different types of interviews you will go through (physically) and you are in for a fun time!

Note: Don’t get me wrong, interviews are not all doom and gloom, but the emotional aspects of interviewing are something that are not discussed enough. The examples we are talking about here are in relation to a single interview and most folks are usually juggling a few interviews, at different stages, all at the same time. It takes a toll.

To help feel prepared for the HR screen, here are some quick tips:

  • If possible, know what type of conversation you are going to have. Phone, zoom, in person…it will help you prepare both mentally and physically. Since most HR screens are short and you don’t know if / when they are going to happen…they are usually a phone call.
  • Prepare your answer ahead of time. Employment history, gaps, salary, why you want to work at company X, etc. Basically, know what questions to expect ahead of time since they are all pretty standard at this stage.
  • Write down your answers and your questions. If there is anything super pressing that you need an answer too in the HR screen (like does the company offer healthcare benefits because the job description wasn’t clear), get those answered up front.

Once you’ve made it past the initial HR screen…that’s when the real fun begins!

An Interview Here, An Interview There

We’ve already talked about the HR screening portion of the interview, so now let’s outline what the rest of the process looks like (for a pre-sales role). While your mileage may vary by company, the general interview process is usually the same:

  • The HR screen
  • A conversation with the hiring manager
  • The technical interview with a potential peer
  • A panel interview / demo
  • The offer

Each of these phases will look a little different, but overall you should know roughly what to expect going into them.

The Hiring Manager

For this portion of the interview, you are being assessed on a few different areas. What experience do you bring to the table? Would you be a good fit culturally for the company? Do you have a general understanding of the technology and space that the company operates in? Do you know anything about the company’s solutions (or even better, their competitor’s solution)? Ultimately, this is less about being “technical” and more about how you fit into the team that the hiring manager is responsible for. Since it’s early on in the interview process and everyone is used to the remote world we now live in, it’s fairly common for this portion of the interview to be held over the phone or a video call.

Tip: If it’s a video call, assume that you will have a camera on and find yourself a semi-quiet space to be in so you can stay focused.

The Technical Interview

If you’ve never been through a technical interview before, buckle up because you are in for a ride! Think of it less like an interview and more like an interrogation. These portions of the interview process are usually handled by someone already in the role, usually a little more senior. They will ask you every twisted combination of questions possible so you unfortunately need to be prepared for anything. They might go super deep on a singular topic or stay broad and touch on many different topics. Who knows!

One thing is for certain though, the technical portion of the interview has to relate to the solution being sold. This should help narrow the scope a little bit, but make sure you are prepared. Again, this portion of the interview is most likely to occur over the phone or a video call.

Note: For the technical interview, anything you listed on your resume or LinkedIn profile is fair game to be questioned! If you haven’t already, make sure you clean up both items and only list things that are relevant to the type of pre-sales role that you are applying too or something that you’ve worked on in the last 5(ish) years.

Tip: Never ever lie or make up an answer in a technical interview (well any part of the interview really, but especially the technical part of the interview). Most of the people doing these interviews have been at this a while and we can tell very quickly when you are out of your depth on a given topic. If you don’t know the answer, either be honest about that OR be up front and say, “I don’t know the answer to the question, however this is how I might approach finding out the answer”.

The Panel Interview

This is one of the last phases of the interview process and it’s also the phase that I see the most people panic about. While every interview process is different, the most common scenario is that you will have to get a demo of a product or solution to a panel of individuals (which usually include the hiring manager). Other than a date and a time, there is often very little information provided to you (this is trap number one). Once you are on the call, most people dive right into the demo rattling off features and technical points (trap number two). Fifteen minutes later, when you finally come up for air, and ask if anyone has questions…you’ll either get crickets or you’ll be hammered (trap number three).

So let’s re-wind.

Demo Prep - Before the meeting ever occurs, make sure you set the stage (the interviewers won’t do it for you). If necessary, assign each person a role / persona, just like in a real meeting. Send out an agenda ahead of the interview meeting and clearly outline what you plan to cover. When you finally get into the meeting, reference the preparation that you did and ask if anyone has any questions prior to you getting started.

Outcomes, Not Features - For too long, people have referred to the pre-sales role as the “technical person” in the room. While you are indeed the technical person, you are also in the business of selling them on something; more specifically, selling them on an outcome. When you give your demo, break apart each topic you plan to cover with a technical statement tied to a business outcome (super important!).

Pace Yourself - The worst thing you can do in a demo is ramble on for 15 minutes. That is also true when it comes to an interview scenario as well. If you are doing the demo to the panel over video chat, set a timer in the corner of your screen or on your phone next to you. Use the time to ensure that you breathe, pause to see “reactions in the room”, and prompt each person to ask a question. If your audience isn’t engaged, you are in trouble. The Offer

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! It’s a great feeling to receive that offer. If the offer is being presented to you verbally, make sure you ask for it in writing within a reasonable time frame after the call. Also set the expectation that you will need time to review the offer and communicate back any questions or concerns you might have. Finally, make sure you weigh all the components of the offer provided to you so you know where to negotiate if necessary. Not sure what to look for, I got you covered.

Closing Thoughts

In no particular order, here are some final tips to remember throughout the interview process.

  • Always have the answers to (dumb) questions written down ahead of time so you can respond confidently and calmly. Things like, “why are you looking to leave”, “can you explain this employment gap”, “you don’t have experience with X”. These things will come up, they are often to poke at anything the employer might consider a red flag (whether it’s a valid consideration or not).

  • While we are still heavily living in a remote first world, the need to see customers, colleagues, etc. in person is starting to return into the business world. It’s hard to say how much of your interview process will be virtual vs in person, but if you are required to go in person for the interview…make sure you leave enough time for travel, building security, etc. It seems obvious but many of us haven’t had to do this in a while and we forget just how long some of these things take.

  • Always, always, always, bring a list of questions with you to every portion of the interview. As strange as it seems, don’t forget that interviews are a two way street. You are interviewing and assessing them just as much as they are doing the same to you. Make sure you ask the tough questions, understand what the company is like, and know that you would rather uncover something during the interview process than start working there and be in a position where you need to leave a few weeks into the job. Which leads me to my next point.

  • Do your research. Before each meeting. Before the offer. Before you even apply. Talk to folks that are already in the role at the company. Talk to former employees. Find out everything you can on what it’s like to work for your potential future employer and the culture + teams they have built. You should never be surprised in an interview, ever.

  • Whether you are a seasoned pre-sales professional or a newcomer to the role; make sure that you practice for each phase of the interview process. This includes answering technical questions, the demo, setting agendas, etc. We learn, and improve, through practice…even those of us who have been at this a while.

By this point you should be armed with everything you need to crush the interview process, no matter where you applied. Yes, there is still an emotional component. No, there is nothing you can do to make that fully go away. But going in prepared, and as calm as you can possibly be, is the best way to ensure that they see the best, and most authentic, version of you. If you are still feeling nervous, practice with a friend and solicit some feedback. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly helps you make progress.

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