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How do you crack an interview when you know nothing?

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Ruby Peethambaran

OK, if you really know NOTHING, it might be a tad difficult but let’s say if you are in the bottom half of the class, how do you go about this daunting task?

I graduated from Govt Model Engineering College, way back in 2000.

This statement has a certain implication. When we graduated there were just 15 engineering colleges in the state. Which means, no shortage of good teachers - especially in a Govt run, IHRD college. And every seat was allotted based on the rank you obtained in All Kerala Entrance.

And this, in turn, meant that most of our teachers were AMAZING. The students themselves were brilliant. ( of course, there are always aberrations to the system - me)

If you take a look at the curriculum, in addition to the 8 semesters of university exams conducted by Cochin University of Sc & Technology, we also had 4 years of labs, seminars, 2 projects - all of which had a Viva voce.

While most of my classmates became proficient in VLSI and Digital Signal processing ( phew… I actually remember some of those terminologies ), I mastered the art of saying “I don’t know”in various styles and became adept at making it look like a new answer each time.

This is not an attempt at self-deprecating humor. Trust me. Some of my teachers at both MEC and XIMB still love me. Even they would not say that I managed to study much at either place. Even then, I managed to get campus placement from both the colleges before graduation.

At both these instances, I secretly gave credit for my placements to my “I don’t know” technique.

In the decade since then I have often been on the other side of the table.

I may have conducted close to 200 interviews so far.

This is what I have come to realize when I combine by personal success as a candidate and my observations as an interviewer.

What are “they” looking for?

1. People who can convince them that an “I don’t know” is not such a bad thing

In many of the jobs, not knowing an answer is not a bad thing. But leaving it at that is the poor choice. You need to communicate effectively to the person on the other side, that you are the kind who can go looking for answers.

During my final placement interview at XIMB, after a couple of well camouflaged, “I don’t knows” the interviewer asked me a question related to project management. He rejected many of my answers. At one point I git fed up and asked him. " Look you are not going to let me loose on a project as soon as I join rt? I will have a Boss, rt? So I will take my solutions to him and if all of them are rubbish, I am sure he would guide me onto the right path. "

I recollect his reaction very vividly. He said, “ MBA grads hate admitting that they don’t know something. I am glad to see that you wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help”

To summarize: A mindset that I can go look for the answers, if communicated effectively almost always closes the deal . ( and Yes, I got the job)

2. Deep Understanding of …. Something

I did my summer internship at Hewlett-Packard. Back in 2004, it was one of the most coveted summers on campus. We were just one month into the course when they visited the campus and hence CP ( who still continues to be a friend and mentor) could not ask me too many questions on marketing.

We spend a good thirty minutes discussing Objectivism, Ayn Rand and Business Ethics. Years later, over a beer he told me it is due to the fact that I had gone beyond the obvious to understand and challenge Ayn Rand’s philosophy, he was enticed to make me the internship offer.

At Fourth Ambit, I have seen our CTO conducting technical interviews. He hardly asks questions about the technology they know (esp if it's a fresher). He challenges their understanding of concepts. To see how far they have thought about it on their own.

3. Passion

Lack of subject knowledge is forgivable ( unless you are a doctor, of course). But not having a passion is not.

Once our CEO was doing an interview for the role of a senior relationship manager. The guy had looked perfect on paper. At the end of a very long interview, he rejected the candidate. This is what he said, “ The guy has skills, he has relevant work ex..and all that. But I just couldn’t find a single thing in his life that he cared deeply about. I just don’t see the passion”.

4. Attitude

I have been asked by many graduating students on how to express the “right attitude” OR “ How can the interviewer know I am not faking a good attitude?”

Have you wondered about the time each interviewer spends asking you about your hobbies, and certain incidents in life? Why do you think they do that? As you speak and go into details, you give the interviewer ample clues into your personality. And there is not much “faking” you can do.

This is one aspect where you cannot take a short cut. If you are not a team player, if you have ever got genuine feedback about your attitude, you need to work on that.

Be it an MNC or a startup, be it a tech or business role, there is no place for someone with a bad attitude. This one needs plain hard work with a lot of good intention.

A note to my more senior audience: - Most of this is relevant to a much younger crowd. From your experience, what are some of the good pieces of advice that you can share with the younger crowd? ( It would be great if you can add your thoughts in the comment section beneath the blog so others can benefit from it)

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