Navigate past early cuts in the IT hiring process and make it to the "serious candidate" stage, using this advice from recruiters.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

November 5, 2014

9 Min Read
Dress for a phone or video interview just as you would for an in-person meeting. (Source: <a href="" target="_blank">Motohiko Tokuriki</a>)

IT Job Interviews 101: What Not To Wear

IT Job Interviews 101: What Not To Wear

IT Job Interviews 101: What Not To Wear (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

You got that first foot in the door. Now don't shoot yourself in that foot before you get to take the next step.

The tenuous space between the early stages of a hiring process -- the first email reply or callback from HR, for example -- and an offer letter can be difficult to navigate, fraught with all manner of trials and tribulations, both real and imagined. Things sometimes happen that you can't control -- personnel changes, sudden budget freezes, bad luck, whatever. Don't fret too much over those unpredictable factors.

Instead, worry about the ways you might be hampering your own path to the IT job you want, particularly at that critical juncture between "paper" candidate -- your mix of skills, experience, and other attributes look good enough on paper to get you out of the slush pile and into the second-look pile -- and serious candidate, as in: someone the company might actually want to hire. It could be an early-stage phone call, a technical test, a Skype interview, your LinkedIn and GitHub accounts, or other elements of the hiring game. Whether a first prescreen step or farther along in the vetting process that just about every employer performs, you must ensure you're sending the right signals. Otherwise, IT pros with sought-after skills will find their phone rings plenty, but actual offers rarely follow.

"There are [some] common mistakes that come up over and over again that you'd think would be intuitive, but I don't think they are," said Hallie Yarger, recruiting manager for the central region at Mondo, told us in an interview.

[Employers see a talent shortage. Job hunters see a broken hiring process. Read our related article, The IT Talent Shortage Debate.]

Let's look at them -- and moreover look at some positive ways to survive and thrive within the often-mysterious machinations of corporate hiring processes.

1. Customize your first impression.
If you read a job description, you should be able to extract several key responsibilities of the position. (If you can't, it's probably not the job for you.) And if you can do that, you can definitely tailor your initial approach to the company. Don't embellish or flat-out lie, but do shape your resume and other materials for the audience.

"Take those main responsibilities and then inject those into how the resume is written or how it's organized -- that's the first step," Yarger said.

Similarly, understand the corporate personality. If you're keen on working for a startup, for instance, keep in mind that the startup might not be as keen on old-school, traditionally formatted resumes. A large, long-established firm with an entrenched white-collar environment, on the other hand? "They're probably going to look for a more traditional-style resume," Yarger said. "Understanding your audience is really important."

2. Don't skip the cover letter.
"A lot of people don't do cover letters anymore, and I think a well-written cover letter can make a difference," Yarger said. "It shows a candidate who really understands the role and who can speak to their experience."

Resumes and LinkedIn profiles might open the door, but they won't actually get you the job -- it's how you communicate your interest and value that ultimately matter.

3. Don't let logistics derail you.
Successful phone interviews and early digital interactions with a potential employer depend on clean, clear logistics -- don't let a bad connection sink you before you've even had a chance to be seriously considered for the gig. Take every precaution to ensure a clear connection, don't use a speakerphone, and don't do the call from somewhere with background noise. Moreover, Yarger recommends that you're aware of how your voice sounds over the phone.

"I recommend candidates leave themselves a voicemail so that they know how they come across on the phone, and that they practice their basic introduction of themselves," Yarger said. "Your first impression on the phone is pretty important with an employer, so you have to make sure you're setting it up right from the beginning."

4. Don't treat phone screens as easy or unimportant.
Early-stage phone calls and other first-impression steps exist for a reason: Candidates who appear strong on paper, but might end up being a manager's worst nightmare, tend to weed themselves out. Believe it or not, Yarger said IT recruiters commonly face the problem of would-be candidates who confirm a phone prescreen and then are either woefully unprepared for the call or miss the appointment altogether. "That's a big way to get your name crossed off with a company -- forever," Yarger said.

5. Get down into the details.
If you really want the job, do the homework -- on the position, the hiring manager, the company. Not knowing the details -- including the job title you're applying for (yes, really -- some people don't) -- essentially announces: "I don't really want this job." All but the most desperate or shoddily managed employers will receive the message loud-and-clear -- and move in a different direction.

Know the job description inside-out and have some talking points as to how your recent experience fits, Yarger advises. Research the people you're dealing with on LinkedIn. Don't be creepy, but do look for potential conversation points -- perhaps they're involved with LinkedIn Groups or other communities that fit your own background and interests, for example. Understand what's going on with the business: read recent press coverage, press releases, and other public material on the company.

"Hiring managers will be impressed to see that you went above and beyond to understand what the state of the company is right now and what the main objectives are and how you can fit into that," Yarger said.

6. Expect surprises.
As with No. 4, too many times an otherwise viable candidate will undermine him or herself by assuming early steps are simply formalities. Treat every step as the step if you want the gig. A perfect example for IT pros: Always be prepared for technical questions or tests, even if the setup for a call, video chat, or face-to-face meeting is simply to "get to know one another" or "see if it's a good fit."

Yarger pointed out that many prescreening calls and similar vetting steps occur under the assumption that questions will be informational and behavioral in nature, but IT pros should always expect things to turn technical in a snap, even if it's supposedly a background call from HR.

"Don't let yourself get thrown off if it gets technical," she said. "We do have hiring managers that like to surprise candidates, because they want to see how they'll do in an environment where things are constantly changing -- which is the state of a lot of IT departments. Things come up and you have to be able to roll with it and not lose your cool."

7. Dress formally even for remote interaction.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you dress up for face-to-face interviews. Yarger recommends the same for phone interviews and other remote interactions; moreover, she advises standing up for phone calls to keep focused.

"You might think that you're just having a laid-back conversation with a hiring manager, with somebody in HR, but the reality is they're assessing a lot more than your background," Yarger said. "It's all about the presentation, and I think when you put yourself in the right frame of mind you can come across as more confident and more professional."

8. Take special care with video chats.
Skype interviews and other online video meetings are increasingly common -- and increasingly perilous for job-seekers who lack the appropriate self-awareness. "Your presentation is still really everything and people usually assess whether they want to move forward with you within the first three seconds of seeing you," Yarger said.

Gulp. So, how do you make those three seconds count? Grooming and appearance matter; no, your workout attire isn't appropriate, nor is bed-head or other signs of the too-casual candidate. "Business professional" should be your mantra for videoconferences, Yarger said; if anything, you need to be even more hyper-aware than you'd be in a face-to-face meeting, she added.

"I definitely recommend both men and women to be wearing blazers, men wearing a tie, women to make sure their hair is done [and] out of their face, no dangly earrings to distract from them, [and] for men: making sure they've shaved,” Yarger said. Bottom line: Prep for online meetings like you would for an onsite interview.

Some related advice: Do the video chat in front of a blank background to keep the focus on you. Keep children and other family members out of sight and out of earshot. Treat everything like you've walked into corporate HQ. In some ways, hiring managers can be even more harsh in their judgments online than in person.

Another pitfall of the video chat: naturally, you're in front of your computer during the meeting, and Yarger said some candidates run into issues because it becomes apparent they're Googling answers to questions as they arise or otherwise multitasking, for better or worse, because we're so used to doing that.

"You want to be able to show you can think on your feet and you're not taking advantage of the situation of being remote," Yarger said. "How well you handle that Skype [call] might lead to you being able to work remotely in the future, or, if they don't have a good first impression of you, not only are they probably not going to move forward with you but who knows what kind of connections they have and what kind of reputation you're creating for yourself."

If the world wasn't changing, we might continue to view IT purely as a service organization, and ITSM might be the most important focus for IT leaders. But it's not, it isn't and it won't be -- at least not in its present form. Get the Research: Beyond IT Service Management report today. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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