Mindset Matters: Getting Your Sourced Candidates Ready to Interview

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May 31, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Like many fans of HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley, I love that the show so accurately depicts life in the high-technology industry. A few episodes depict a mindset and experience common among in-demand candidates. When I see it on the screen, it’s entertainment. When I encounter it in my recruiting, it’s challenging.

The “I’m Hot” Mindset

Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti is the close friend of the show’s main character, Richard Hendricks. After Richard’s file-compression startup, Pied Piper, starts attracting high-profile venture capital, there are discussions about whether Big Head — a likable fellow but an average-at-best programmer — would get to stay on with the company. The problem is rendered moot when competitor Hooli offers him a three-year contract at $600,000 per year, unaware that he brings nothing to the table.

In another episode, Gilfoyle, a pompous character who claims to be a systems, networking, and security architect, changes his LinkedIn status. Within hours, he is sent lavish gifts from headhunters anxious to represent him.

Most candidates would agree that those examples are far-fetched. Still, I’ve found happily entrenched candidates commonly respond to my messages by pointing out how many messages like mine they get in a day. “How fortunate I am,” they imply, to get a response. No doubt that their behavior reflects the frenzy of recruiters chasing them. Things are going well, candidates think, and my skills are in high demand. It’s not a stretch to see why they think they’re doing me a favor.

silicon valley

Divergent Mindsets

The mindsets of the candidates and the interview team are often divergent. Candidates are in fact actively and aggressively pursued but, more often than not, they’ll meet with interview teams that seek not only skills but also commitment. They want people who are excited to join. They don’t want to hire someone who is apprehensive about the role or company or who is reluctant to share how their experience and skills can benefit the company.

In most cases it takes considerable effort to get these sourced candidates to the interview stage of the hiring process. That’s when things get really interesting. Recruiters know that even though a candidate is interested he or she is still often apprehensive about the job, the company, and whether it is worth the time to interview.

Recruiters need to address candidates’ concerns, but that’s not enough. They also need to get them in the right mindset to interview.

Share Feedback from Interview Team Debriefs

In my first conversation, I tell candidates to view me as an advocate, as a professional who can help them navigate the hiring process. I tell them that I would like them to receive an offer. I help the candidate understand that while I solicited him or her for the position, and I think there is a strong match, he or she needs to be ready to answer detailed questions about their contributions on related projects in one or more interviews.

I share my concerns with examples of interview team feedback for candidates who interviewed and were rejected:

  • “I spent all my time explaining the role and answering the candidate’s questions.” If all the time is spent answering the candidate’s questions, the interviewer cannot determine whether the candidate has the skills to be successful in the position.
  • “Did not explain his/her role. Used ‘we’ to describe the project.”
  • “Seemed to be a ‘cowboy’. Not sure if he/she would able to collaborate.”

I also point out that it’s common for a candidate’s level of interest to increase after they have gone through the interview process and they often regret not showing more interest during their interview. I explain that it is in the candidate’s best interests to be ready to tell his or her story and get an offer, which puts the candidate in a better position to resolve any issues.

I also summarize some of the feedback from candidates who took the time to prepare for their interviews.

  • “Would be viewed as a trusted advisor.”
  • “Was well prepared. Able to describe fully his/her role, the architecture, and the technical choices made.”
  • “Was able to explain the business case for the project they described.”

Advice for The Interview

Here’s some of the advice I give my candidates as we approach the day of the interview.

Understand the job requirements

Focus on the most important skills, attributes, and experience required for the role.

Prepare to tell your story

The more you prepare and rehearse, the more confident and comfortable you will feel. I suggest that you develop mini-presentations, each three minutes long, for three significant projects. In each presentation describe:

  1. Overview. What was the project’s scope, including its duration and the size of the team? How was the project initiated? What drove the initiatives? What role did you play? How did the group function? What was the work style (e.g., scrum/agile)? What was your contribution? What skills and attributes did you apply to accomplish the task? What tools did you use to complete the project?
  2. Obstacles. What obstacles did you and the team face to complete the project, such as client and technology blockers? What solutions did you consider? How did you decide what to do? What was your role in that decision? How did you influence the client and achieve a solution?
  3. Completion. When was the project considered done? How did it end? Did it meet its schedule and budget? Quantify the impact of your contribution. How was the project received? What feedback did you get from customers?
  4. Continuous improvement. Knowing what you know now, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

Sell your ability to learn

You may not yet have the specific experience the hiring manager seeks. Prepare an example of how you independently and quickly came up to speed on something at the same level of technical complexity.

Show that you are a fearless learner

Many high-technology companies look for evidence that you stay up to date and expand your skills and abilities. Watch the Ted Talk video of Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, based on her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck has influenced many high-technology companies to embrace a “growth mindset.” People with a growth mindset don’t fear failure because they want to improve their performance and know that learning comes from failure. They are also resilient and more likely to continue to work hard despite setbacks.

Expect questions like these:

In a behavioral interview, the questions are about past behavior, on the premise that what you’ve done before indicates what you’ll do in the future. Be prepared to give a detailed example for behaviors they may ask you about, such as resolving conflicts, committing to a task, or going the extra mile.

The interviewer will likely ask specific technical questions concerning, for example, your experience with specific languages or tools. If it is on your résumé it is fair game for questions. Review fundamentals for software development and process (scrum/agile, etc.) before the interview. For example, if you are a software engineer with experience in object-oriented languages, review the principles of object-oriented programming (e.g., encapsulation, accessor, mutator, and abstraction) and be prepared to explain the concepts briefly.

You may be asked to demonstrate white-board problem solving. For this style of assessment, interviewers often, not always, focus more on how you approach the problem than on whether you get the correct answer. These sessions are designed to be interactive, so have fun with it. Keep in mind that the problem presented may be incomplete, with key information purposely omitted. If you solve the problem using assumptions you are likely to arrive at the wrong solution. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions.

Do mock interviews and practice questions.

Be well-rested.

Dress to impress, especially for roles where you’ll work with customers.

Prepare insightful questions based on your research about the company.

When we’re done: confidence

I’ve seen that preparing well for an interview gives the candidate a level of confidence that the interview team notices. It’s the same ready-to-go feeling that you have when you study hard for an exam. When you know what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, you feel more relaxed and can focus on having a fun and engaging conversation. That will distinguish you from the other candidates and make you memorable.


Walking through the interview process with candidates motivates them to prepare to tell their stories. It also helps recruiters develop a strong, positive relationship with their candidates.

No one is surprised or upset when candidates think they are sought-after; it’s reasonable for them to think so because that is what the market is telling them. But letting candidates go to an interview believing that it’s the job of the interview team to convince them to join is the recruiter’s fault, not the candidates, and it’s likely to lead to a negative outcome.

Sharing interview stories with candidates will help them understand the divergent mindsets of the rightfully sought-after candidate and the rightfully demanding interview team. It will also help you assist them to get the job.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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