The Story of an Interview Flop

Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about interviewing come from an interview experience that meant a ton to me – and all my dreams came crashing down.

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Transcript of “Interview Patterns and Anti-Patterns: The Story of an Interview Flop”

I want to approach this topic with the story of my own experience of an interview that didn’t go well for me. It was an interview that was really, really important to me, and where I went through a lot of heartbreak and a lot of hurt feelings that it didn’t go well.

Everything started out really promisingly enough.

I was looking for jobs, and there was a job internally at the company I was working at – and it sounded extremely exciting. Now, I didn’t know the folks in the team, but the manager looked at my background and said, “You know, you seem really interesting, I’d like to bring you in for an interview, even though it’s not an obvious fit.”

I was REALLY excited. I went in for the interview, and I was super eager, ready to do my best, do everything I could. I had prepared as well as I was able to.

The interview started, and there were lots of questions. I met with multiple people, and they were all very friendly, very hospitable, but they hit me with a series of technical questions, each in their own style. And I didn’t know the answer to a lot of these questions.

But I did my best, and I worked to try to keep a confident, positive attitude. As the day went on, and I met with more and more interviewers, who had more and more questions, I realized – OK, a lot of these times, I think I"m not even understanding the questions properly. I am so far out of the realm of this job and this team that I’m constantly trying to even clarify what we’re talking about and I don’t think that I’m getting it.

Still, this job– it seemed so cool and so perfect and just like the path that my career SHOULD take. It seemed like my destiny. I kept trying. Which is a good thing, I’m not sorry about that. I kept trying, I did my best and I said, “don’t let the problems get you down, keep going.”

I met with yet another interviewer, who asked me questions that, this time I actually could understand. And they were questions like, “can you name some of the isolation levels in SQL Server?”

I was embarrassed, because, you know, I knew about the ‘NOLOCK’ keyword, I knew what Isolation Levels kind of were, but I quickly realized that even this – which I knew enough to know was pretty foundational knowledge – this was something that I didn’t know.

At this point in the day, things really started to sink in. Even though this job seemed like it really should be my destiny, to me, even though I really had my heart set on this, this just wasn’t a good fit.

Sure enough, I wasn’t the only one who clued in on this. Things were handled very gracefully. This team was a wonderful team, you know, someone came to me after lunch and said, “you know, this just isn’t going to work out, we’re going to stop the interview loop here. Thanks for coming over, we really enjoyed meeting with you.” It was a very well-handled experience, because I really wasn’t the right fit for that job.

I took this really hard

I felt really, really bad afterwards. I felt very much like I had failed. I felt like I had failed myself, and even like I’d failed the person who took the chance on me and invited me over. I felt like I’d wasted everyone’s time.

I took some time to lick my wounds. Over time it got better. Over a few days the experience didn’t feel quite so tough anymore. And I started feeling more and more like myself again. I was able to look back now at the interview and recognize – I really wasn’t a good fit. Even though I had wanted that job so badly, it wasn’t the right place for me to go, there and then.

Eventually, I woke up a little

But, thinking about it, there were some things that had come up that day that were things I wanted to act on. Things like those questions about the isolation levels. I realized, you know, this IS something that I want to know, something that I want to learn about. And it’s not that I’m stupid. This is a piece of information I didn’t have because I had never encountered an opportunity that had prompted me to learn it.

At the job I’d been working at, the isolation levels in use were well established. There weren’t a lot of questions about what the right isolation levels should be. None of my team really talked about this kind of thing very often. I realized that there might be cases when we would want to use a different isolation level, and there might be cases where I would see more potential ways we could improve things if I educated myself about this.

So I set myself out a learning plan. I said, “I want to learn about this, this is something the interview brought up for me that I can act on.” I started doing research on this.

I talked to members of my team as well. I realized that I’m not the only one who didn’t know this stuff. There are lots of people who haven’t encountered the right situation to learn about this.

This turned into something amazing

I was just starting to present on topics about SQL Server at this point. I’d been struggling to find the right topics to present on. And I realized – this is actually a good topic! I’m learning about this, and I’ve progressed just past the beginner level. Giving a beginner’s introduction to this topic at free events like SQLSaturdays, that can help other people. And their questions can help me! When I give a presentation about what I’ve learned and people ask these, “Hey, ‘what if’” questions, those a great prompts for me. If I don’t know the answer yet, I can say, “Hey, I’ll look into that and I’ll write a blog post about that.”

This is a great way for me to help other people learn this too. Because maybe they’re going to hit this in an interview situation. Maybe they’re going to hit situations at work where the information is gonna be helpful to them to solve problems.

I found that I was able to help other people. And I was able to help myself, too. The more I learned about this topic, I did find cases where I was able to solve problems, and avoid CAUSING problems with my now improved knowledge of isolation levels.

My speaking career grew, and I found that I really loved it. In many ways, that interview that at the time felt like SUCH a terrible failure of myself – it was the beginning of one of my favorite topics and presentations that I ever did. And it really helped change my career trajectory. Just not in the way that I had originally anticipated at all.

What this taught me about interview patterns and anti-patterns

I think this is at the heart of interviewing. The patterns and the anti-patterns.

It is valuable to recognize when it’s not a good fit. Whether you’re the candidate or not. Maybe you’re the interviewer. Recognizing when it’s not the right person for the right job, it doesn’t mean it’s the fault of the job, it doesn’t mean it’s the fault of the candidate. It really just means, this particular interview isn’t going to lead to a job match.

But maybe, this person would be good in another part of the organization. Maybe there’s something to be gained from the relationships of the people who meet during the interview. Maybe there’s not. But recognizing when it’s not a good fit and accepting that WITHOUT blame is important.

The proactive pattern there is, “OK you know sometimes we just have to accept it’s just not going to work out.”

The anti-pattern, and the thing I would do differently if I had to go back and do it again, is – I would try to, in that period after the interview, when I felt so badly about myself, I would try to take some time to reflect on it and give myself a little perspective sooner.

When I heard that voice in my head saying, “You’re so dumb, it’s all your fault,” I would challenge that thought. I would say, “OK, you’re feeling bad that it didn’t go well because you had these hopes, but you just lack knowledge on these areas. Yeah, you’re not going to get the job, but, this doesn’t mean you’re dumb. This doesn’t mean it’s your fault. It’s not anyone else’s fault either, it just didn’t work out.”

This is, I think, the hardest part of interviewing. It’s like dating, it’s very easy to feel rejected.

But when you have those thoughts and feelings, challenge them. Really, it’s more about finding the right thing at the right time. There is a large element of luck, and background, and having the right skills for the right job at the right time.

Other patterns: after an interview, no matter how well or poorly it goes, analyze the gaps, especially when you’re the candidate. What did you not know about? What do you wish you’d done differently?

When it might be a match, sending a follow up email or or a follow up call or asking for a follow up meeting and saying, “you know, I was asked about X, and I really thought about it a lot and here’s what I learned and what I think afterwards. I think this is a really interesting topic.” Also, reaching out and making sure to thank people for their time – follow up is really important.

But thinking through those gaps, and letting the hiring team know that you’ve thought about it and are continuing to learn from the interview process can be really helpful if you’re close to being a good fit for the job.

In my case, I wasn’t even close to being a good fit for the job. It was clear it wasn’t going to work out. But even then, looking at the gap there and saying, “what would I like to learn from this?” and, “How would I like to close the gap in some of these areas?” is really helpful.

You don’t have to close every gap

In some interviews, you’re going to look at the gap analysis and you’re going to say, “OK there are things that I didn’t know but, that’s just not my path. That’s just not my career.” You don’t have to follow up on them all. But a lot of times there really are going to be things where you say – and maybe they’re small, maybe they’re big – things where you say, “hey, I do want to learn about this. And I do want to go out and change that.”

Also, the other thing that I did, that I’m really proud of is that I kept trying. Not every interview I had after this was a success. Oh, absolutely NOT.

Interviewing is about learning and persistence

But I did keep trying, not only in developing my speaking career, and learning to expand and change the ideas of what I could do with my life, but also just at looking around and being creative about things I could do. Trying different things. That persistence is your number one skill that will help you learn to enjoy interviewing rather than dread it.

See interviews as an opportunity to learn. Whether you’re the candidate or whether you’re the interviewer, there is always something in an interview that you can learn from. Just understand that it may not be what you expected to learn.

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