IT job interviews: Try the behavioral approach for a win-win

Using a behavioral-based approach to the IT job interview process benefits both job seekers and employers. Here's how to put it to work for you
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The job interview process is critical to the success of all organizations, and to the development of your career. Yet many job seekers and hiring managers still practice this key process as an art form rather than as a process structured for repeatable successful outcomes.

The good news is that there is a simple process that has been successfully used by firms as a best practice for the interview process. The better news is that job seekers can also use this same tool to stand out from the crowd.

Understanding how to make the most of this process will significantly enhance your chances for a successful interview, whether or not the interviewer uses the same technique. As a candidate, you will be much better prepared to address questions, improving the quality of the interview process, and giving you more control of the conversation.

[ Trying to land a new job during the pandemic? Read How to get a job during COVID-19: 9 smart tips  and Virtual interviews: 6 ways to succeed.]

This process is called behavioral-based interviewing, and it’s designed to collect job-related behavior from your past experience. As such, the basic structure of its interview questions includes the phrase, “Tell me about a time when…” or “Tell me about a situation where…” Contrast this to the more typical interview questions like these:

  • “Do you know…”
  • “What is…”
  • “What would you do if…”
  • “How would you handle…”

How behavioral-based interviewing works for the hiring company

This approach works well and is highly valued by companies that use it, for several reasons. As stated above, a person’s past behavior is a good predictor of their future behavior in similar circumstances. This is why financial institutions place so much emphasis on your credit history – it’s a reflection of your past behavior related to managing your money.

It also brings a repeatable structure to what is too often an unstructured process. When a company applies behavioral-based interviewing to their job openings, they specify all the critical requirements of the job. This includes skills, qualities, knowledge, and behaviors most important for succeeding in the job.

They then create a list of questions specifically designed to uncover how well your experience matches their requirements. (This is actually similar to the process of designing test cases for a project’s test case register.)

The specificity needed to answer such experiential-based questions quickly weeds out people with insufficient experience and makes it much harder for candidates to bluff their way through the questions. For example, it’s relatively easy to give a good answer to, “How would you handle a client who demanded an unreasonable project completion date?” It’s more of a challenge – and a better indicator of what you would do in the future – to answer, “Tell me about a time when a client demanded an unreasonable project completion date. What were the circumstances? What did you do? How did they react? What was the final outcome?”

How to use behavioral-based interviewing as a job seeker

The same properties that make behavioral-based interviewing valuable for hiring companies make it a potent tool for job seekers as well. Planning for a behavioral-based interview process prepares you to provide much higher-quality answers to any interview question, whether or not is based on the behavioral approach.

The same properties that make behavioral-based interviewing valuable for hiring companies make it a potent tool for the job seeker as well.

Suppose, for example, you were asked a typical interview question for a business analyst, such as “What do you know about Excel pivot tables?”

You could provide a fairly generic answer to the question, whether or not you have extensive hands-on experience. For example, “A pivot table is a data summarization tool in data visualization programs like Excel and BI software. It can sort, count, total, or give the average of the data stored in one table and display the results in a second table showing the summarized data.”

Compare that to telling a brief story of how you addressed an actual business situation by using an Excel pivot table: "When I was a business analyst at Smith Enterprises, one of our regional sales directors came to me with a request for a new business intelligence solution to analyze data on a new product campaign. He was in a hurry for the results and was not quite sure what he wanted. It was one of those ‘I’ll know it when I see it situations’ we so often face.

“So I suggested we sit down and play with his data in Excel to get a sense of what trends it might contain. We imported a representative extract from the existing sales system into Excel and then used the PivotTable functions to slice and dice the data. By working interactively with him, he quickly saw what he wanted to know, and within half an hour had the answer to his questions. In fact, he had figured out a useful set of questions around which he could do further analysis on his own. As a result, he realized that he already had the solution that he needed.”

How much more compelling is this second approach than the first one? Look at what you’ve communicated by answering the question this way:

  • I’ve actually done this hands-on.
  • I was responsive and creative to my client’s needs.
  • I was effective at helping them clarify those needs and showed up as part of the solution. (How often do IT staff stumble when clients aren’t sure what they need?)
  • I’m comfortable in situations of ambiguity.
  • I can communicate well and collaborate with colleagues.
  • I get things done.
  • I’m credible!

Another benefit for the job seeker in this latter scenario is that most of us are more comfortable and articulate when we describe a situation that actually occurred than we are answering a more conceptual question.

Most of us are more comfortable and articulate when we describe a situation that actually occurred than we are answering a more conceptual question.

Here are some simple steps to apply the above concept to prepare for an interview:

  • Identify the key skills, qualities, knowledge, and behaviors most important for succeeding in the job you’re interviewing for.
  • Identify two or three experiences you have in applying or using those behaviors. (You may want to use different examples with different interviewers. That way, when they compare notes after the interviews, they’ll get an even more impressive picture.)
  • Practice telling your story for each experience a few times, until you can describe it easily and fairly briefly. (Give a short version as your initial answer and allow the interviewer to ask for more detail if they want it.)
  • Once you have your arsenal of stories, keep an open mind during the interview, and be flexible. If you are asked a question for which you don’t have a perfect fit, respond along the lines of “I was in a situation somewhat like that one once where…”
  • If you are in the early stages of your career, be creative and look to non-professional experiences that credibly demonstrate how you have performed in such a situation These might include college, high school, or even community or religious organizations.

A note about confidence

Successful interviewing also requires that you reframe the overall situation. The first step is to stop thinking that “they” have something that “you” want and that only they can give you.

Instead, I advise my clients to be curious about the employer’s challenges and explore those as an equal, including how you might help them address those challenges.

The trick is less about acting confident and more about being confident. And by simply reframing your thinking, you can instantly gain the confidence you want and need.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.