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Understanding the Interviewer’s Mindset

How to get into the interviewer’s mind and perform better at the data science job interview.

To the job candidates, job interviews could seem like one-sided encounters. They ask, I answer. I talk, they listen. They are powerful, I’m powerless. They have a choice, I don’t have.

Well, that’s often true. The interviewers are in a position of power. They are hidden behind the organization, and you confront them on your own. You have nothing but your knowledge, your experience, your personality. You have only yourself. And they have a job. You don’t. Make a little mistake, and your destiny is at the mercy of the wave of their hand.

While it’s true in a way, it’s not completely true. And even though they usually have the upper hand over you, it’s not that you’re completely powerless. As they try to understand how you tick, nobody said you’re not allowed to understand what makes them tick.

Once you understand that, you’ll see how easily you can turn the tables on them. You’ll be able to turn the interview into a conversation between two equal sides. That way both sides can get what they want, without the feeling they had to roll over. That’s much better than making compromise. After all, compromise is defined as a solution that leaves both sides equally unhappy.

To avoid that, I’m here to take a look at some things that make interviewers more human. After understanding their insecurities, I’ll go into what they’re looking for at the interview. Finally, I’ll give you some advice on how to prepare for such data science interviews.

What Makes Interviewers More Human?

Here’s a short summary table, so you get a feeling. I’ll elaborate all these four points in a moment.

Interviewers Don’t Like Interviews Either.

There, you have at least one thing in common. The truth is, the interviewers, just like you, hate interviews. For some other reasons than you, but nevertheless, the feeling is the same.

They don’t like interviews because they pull them from the job.

However, they know they shouldn’t allow their schedule get the better of their professionalism. You should be able to connect with that. You’re too under pressure for not having a job, or leaving the office to go to an interview. You can make the interviewer hate the experience less if you show respect for their time. Arrive on time for the interview. Be prepared, so your answers about your job history, the company, etc., are more on point and, with that, less time-consuming. Follow the interview structure and stick to the topics the interviewer leads you into. This is what you should do. But these three points could also be a red flag for you if the interviewer disregards them.

The interviewers are also usually not trained in conducting the interviews. Most of them only sail on their experience and pure conscientiousness to Google “How to conduct a job interview” before they meet you. Just as you’ll use your experience from the previous interviews and reading numerous articles about acing the job interview. Maybe even an article about understanding the interviewer’s mindset.

They’re, just like you, afraid they’ll make a fool of themselves.

They’re not Looking for the Best People.

I mean, they are trying to find the ideal candidate. But the reality is the fiercest enemy of the ideals. The truth is they are trying to find the best candidate given the circumstances and constraints. Basically, they will look for someone who is reasonably good, given the time and budget they have for hiring. They will compare the candidate’s quality with the time and money need for acquiring them. If they have someone who has almost everything they need and someone marginally better but who requires several times more time and money invested, the company will probably settle for the first candidate.

You should be aware of that when you think your experience, education, and knowledge are not sufficient. The only thing you should do is highlight all the good sides of you as a candidate. You don’t need to be perfect, just good enough. Perfect is the enemy of the good.

They Don’t Know What They Want.

The companies often don’t know what they’re looking for, exactly what qualifications they need, etc.

For example, the company might have an idea that they need someone good with data analysis. But it doesn’t guarantee they know which skills they need, what tools will be used for data analysis, and so on. You know how you struggle when they ask you “Where do you see yourself in 5 years”? Not having a clear idea about the candidate they want shows they struggle with that question too.

It’ll be easier for you to have a two-way conversation with the interviewer when you understand that. It’s not necessary they’re trying to find holes in your knowledge. No, they quite often want to talk to you as an expert, see how you understand the job you applied for. They want you to help them have a clearer idea of what they need and who they need. For example, they could ask you about your experience with PostgreSQL. Maybe they’re asking this because they’re considering making a transition to this database. In conversation with them, you could ask some questions about the data quantity, what they want to do with it, how the database looks now. From that point, you could talk about why PostgreSQL could be a good option. Or why some other database could be even better for their needs. Maybe SQL Server, which you’re much more familiar with. Here you’re helping them create needs, not answering to their needs. You’re helping them find the best possible candidate: Hopefully, yourself.

Finding a Good Employee is not Easy.

Don’t assume all jobs you applied for are budding with candidates that are all but one better than you. It’s not necessarily so. Companies often have trouble finding a good employee, especially when they often fight for the candidates with some of the big tech companies. This means you’re not that disposable as you might think. You shouldn’t, of course, storm into an interview screaming, “You need me, I know you need me! You, hire me now!”. But it’s important to remember that it’s highly likely the company needs you like you need them.

In some ways, all those four points show some interviewers’ and companies’ insecurities Knowing about someone’s insecurities makes them more human. It makes them more like you.

Now you know about the interviewers’ (possible) insecurities, what they don’t like and don’t know. I think it’s time we touch on the topic of what they know. Because for sure there are some traits most of the interviewers are looking for in their candidates.

What do the Interviewers Want?

Risk-free Hires

Ideally, they’re looking for someone who is risk-free. Of course, there’s no such candidate. But for sure, the interviewers’ job is to hire someone who is as low-risk as possible.

Risk-free hire means finding someone who has respectable and relevant experience. The interviewer wants that experience to be as close to the company’s needs as possible. If they find such a candidate, it’s quite likely the candidate’s transition at the new job will go smoothly. It’s logical; if you’re dealing with situations you’ve already dealt with before, the chance is you learned something, and you know how to tackle these situations (better). Again, risk-free candidate is the best one they can get given the time and money.

They’re also looking for someone who has a good track of contributing positively to the working environment. Someone pleasant to work with. Someone who doesn’t take credit for somebody else’s achievement, who doesn’t crack under pressure, someone who doesn’t play a blame game when going gets tough.

And, of course, they’re looking for someone who will be happy with the company. Someone who’ll contribute for as long as possible. They’ll hesitate to invest time and money in you if they see you’re not interested in staying longer with them.

Immediate Contribution

Speaking of contribution, the companies would really like to find someone who can contribute immediately. The plug-and-play employee. It usually happens in situations when there’s an urgent need to hire someone. Finding someone who can contribute immediately is an ideal solution for such situations.

However, sometimes it’s not possible to find such a candidate. Or the companies intentionally hire someone because of his or her potential, not so much current knowledge or previous experience. After all, even the plug-and-play employee will have to spend some time adapting to a new environment. Maybe learning to work with a new core system, understand the data structure, some specifics of the business, or the company itself. Of course, it takes less time if you’re experienced. But sometimes, companies want to build on a long-timescale, develop the employees’ potential for future benefits, and, in a way, model the employees to their needs from scratch. They are looking for the ability to learn, not so the current knowledge. After all, most jobs are not that complex, so that someone who is reasonably intelligent and, possibly, has some relevant education can’t learn the required skills. Some of them take a lot of time, for sure, but the companies are sometimes willing to invest that time.

Progression and Good Branding

How do you choose the company you want to work for? I’m sure you’re looking at the company’s image, among other things. All things equal, it’s always better to work at a company that has some sort of prestige and desirability to its image.

It’s the same with the job candidates. The interviewers are looking to make their company better. In practice and in the eyes of others, too. To do that, they will be looking at the school and/or college you went to. Usually, the most valued colleges are such for a reason. In a way, the colleges made the initial selection for them. While the prestigious college doesn’t guarantee a good employee, it at least guarantees (to some extent) someone’s knowledge and ability to learn.

But, there’s always a but! College is generally important only if you don’t have any (or little) experience. When comparing such candidates, the interviewers have to evaluate you on the college you went to and your grades. In almost all other situations, experience beats any education. The employer’s looking at what you’re capable of doing in practice. Which always looks slightly better if you previously worked at some prominent companies. Again, as with the prestigious colleges, the assumption is you couldn’t work for such great companies if you’re not quite good.

Not only that, it possibly brings a valuable and knowledgeable employee to their company. It also looks good when the company can brag about how their data science team is all with, let’s say, FAANG background.

Along with good branding, employers also want to see some progression in your CV or data science cover letter. It could be hierarchically within the same company or by changing the companies. It could also be that you didn’t climb the ladder, but you went to a more technically advanced and challenging company every few years. All that shows you didn’t stagnate. You showed the willingness to be better and to take more responsibility. That’s something your interviewer will like, for sure.

Matching Cultures

A lot of text has been written about the company cultures. Every company thinks it is unique, with a completely different company culture compared to others. To be honest, when talking about the company cultures, we’re, more often than not, talking about some vague and generic concepts the companies are trying to present as unique to them.

They’re not. Just like you won’t be unique when you say this to the interviewer:

"I'm an excellent team player but also very independent."

Everybody says that. And they say it because they don’t know what the interviewer wants to hear, so they try to cover everything.

If you really want to strike a chord with an interviewer and stand out, you must take a little risk. Not some kind of mindless risk. If you’re prepared for the interview and listen to the interviewer’s cues, you’ll be able to get what the interviewer is looking for in terms of fitting in. As I said, there are no that many variations. So, for example, if you see during the course of the interview that teamwork is essential, focus on that. Don’t go about how you’re good at teamwork, but also very independent. No, focus only on teamwork. And tell them stories that present you as a great team worker. Nobody will assume that, because of your great teamwork, you’re completely dependable on others and can’t get anything done by yourself.

It’s the same the other way round. If the company is just starting, and you’ll have to figure out many things on your own, focus on giving several examples that will paint you as a highly independent professional. That, too, doesn’t mean you’re a hermit that doesn’t want to have anybody around and scares colleagues off.

Simple Language

I know it can be tempting. You’re so eager to show the interviewer how good you are so that you try to cram jargon, buzz-words, and sexy abbreviations whenever possible. Usually, you can’t avoid it completely. It’s only natural to use some terminology specific to a certain job and/or industry.

However, interviewers usually don’t like that because it could sound like bragging. Maybe even like you’re using the buzz-words to hide the lack of substantial knowledge about the topic. Even if you’re not doing it because of that, don’t give the interviewer the reason to doubt it.

Being able to explain your job and what you did in simple words is often a sign of someone who really understands what they’re talking about. It shows not only their through-and-through understanding but that they are also able to think of their own explanations, not only use generic phrases everybody else uses.

There’s one additional important reason why the interviewers like to hear simple language used. Today, it has become increasingly important for data scientists and all others working with data to communicate with various shareholders of very different backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge. Cross-departmental collaboration is something you can’t avoid anymore and is required ever so more. This means you’ll have to be able to explain something in a less technical way to people who are not familiar with even the basics of what you do. The only way to get them on board is to make them understand you. They’ll be able to do that if you know what you’re doing and if you’re able to explain it—no better place to start showing these characteristics than the job interview. And no surprise the interviewer could ask you something along those lines: “How would you explain a cloud technology to a 6-year old?”.

How to Prepare for These Interviews

Study Your Employer and Interviewer

You should be prepared for the interview. You can’t always be prepared for what you’ll be asked. But what is a must-do is you study your employer. Get to know their products, their history, their industry, organizational structure, and so on.

Do the same with your interviewer. If you know his or her name, try to do a little research on them. Find information about their background: where they went to school/college, where did they work, what is their field of expertise.

That’ll show your interest in the company, and it’ll make it easier to talk about your future job once you know the basics of the company. Being familiar with the interviewer can also help connect with them, especially if you have something in common.

Understand the Company Culture

This is something you can only generally understand if reading about the culture on their websites. As I said, that often includes generic statements that could mean anything and nothing. What is much more important (and more difficult) to do is try to “feel” the company culture from what you see when you arrive at the interview and what you pick up from the interviewer. You don’t have much time to do that, but you can get some clues. Is the office looking empty or buzzing with people? Do people work on their own or in teams; sometimes, it’s possible to pick up that, especially if it’s an open-space office. Does the office seem silent, or is it filled with people’s chatter? Does the communication seem cold and professional, or is it relaxed?

These are only some several suggestions. But the main point is to keep your eyes and ears open to what you hear and see when you arrive for the interview. And especially what are the signals from the interviewer. Adapt to them.

Understand the Type of Work

This is something you can only partially know beforehand. You can try to understand the type of work from the job description, doing internet research, and so on. But you can’t understand everything. That’s why it’s important to prepare some questions for the interview regarding the type of work. For example, do I work in a team or on my own? Does this-and-this has to be set up from scratch or only improved? What technologies do you use? What technologies do you intend to use?

As a data scientist, the best way to understand the type of work you’ll have to do on the job is going through some non-coding and coding questions we’ve prepared for you.

Of course, some other questions will occur to you during the interview. The point of these questions is not just to show you have something to ask. It’s to make clearer what is expected of you. As a (very desirable) side-effect, you’ll show you understand the (possible) problematics of the job and industry. Also, having these questions will give you a framework for the questions you can’t prepare and can only arise from the conversation with the interviewer.

Get Personal Stories Ready

No, I’m not talking about how you cried when you first read “The Little Prince”. Even though this shouldn’t be excluded, either. Especially if the interviewer asks you what is your favorite book.

I’m thinking more of the personal stories that will showcase the skills the interviewer is looking for. Maybe a story about how you were installed as a project leader in the middle of the project and how you handled this? Or how you ended up in data science even though you’re an economist? Or how you were a first employee of a certain start-up, and what are the differences between job then and now that the company employs 30 people?

See, all these stories are very useful. They tell a lot about yourself. Only one such story can encapsulate your personality, how you deal with adversity, your data science technical skills, soft skills, your composure, wittiness, humor, eloquence, even the overall outlook on life. By telling personal stories, you’ll do all that in a non-direct way, without bragging and boringly providing a list of things you’re good at. Tell a story, and let the interviewer conclude if they like what they hear or not.

Before the interview, think of 4-5 stories that are interesting and highlight something you did well.

Be Yourself

I admit, there’s no preparation for that. You either are yourself, or you’re not. Even when you’re not yourself, that is what you are. But let’s not get too philosophical here. What I want to say is: be authentic. Yes, be prepared. Try to read the interviewer’s cues. But don’t go out of your way to make them like you. No matter what you think, people usually see through that. And chances are, you’ll get it completely wrong. Even if you fool them on the interview, you’ll be found out when you start working, and in no time, you’ll be out of your job.

There’s no point in that. It’s always better to be who you are, be honest in your responses, talk the way you talk, think the way you think. You should try to show the best version of yourself. Not the best version of someone else.

Summary

The first important step in understanding the interviewer’s mind is to accept interviewers are human too. They’re like you more than you think. They don’t like interviews; they can be insecure, not sure what they’re looking for. And for sure they’re not looking for a perfect employee. By understanding this, you’ll help yourself break the habit of approaching interviewers with fear or some kind of idealization. Once you realize they’re not that perfect, it’ll be easier to establish a two-way rapport with them.

Secondly, you need to understand what they are looking for. They’re looking for someone who is as low-risk hire as possible. They also want someone who can contribute immediately. Or, if not, someone who is willing to learn. Most importantly, they want someone who can fit in with other people and who’ll contribute to a workplace being as pleasurable as possible. Finally, it’s always good for a company image to have someone with a respectable educational and/or working background.

In the end, after understanding this, you need to have a certain strategy to strike a chord with the interviewer. It basically comes down to preparation and being alert at the interview. You should study the company and the interviewer. Make sure to research the company’s culture and absorb it onsite. Do research on a type of work, prepare some questions, and be ready to ask the questions based on what you learn about the job during the interview. Prepare several stories that’ll showcase your technical and soft skills. Once you’ve prepared all that, relax and be yourself. If being yourself is exactly not being relaxed, that’s fine too.