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Four things I learnt from bombing a job interview

I failed on the most basic of requirements. How did this happen and what did I learn from it?

UX/UI Design
3 minute read 

I suck at job applications. It might be because I hate doing them, but I’m exceptional at interviewing. In 20 years, I interviewed for 16 jobs and was offered 12 of them. If we counted interview rounds, I participated in 32 and progressed 28 times.

I recently interviewed for a head of design role and based on my track record, the feedback was unexpected. I failed on the most basic of requirements. How did this happen and what did I learn from it?

One, never underestimate the power of preparation...

…even if you’ve done something successfully dozens of times.

I think I was successful at interviewing because I prepared myself as thoroughly as possible. I researched the company, reviewed the job description and interview process several times, prepped material for presentation and tried to create the best experience for my interviewers.

Before my first interview with Accenture; my first job after uni, I had seven pages of notes in front of me to ensure that I didn’t forget anything. Over time, as I talked more about things I had actually done, rather than draw on other parts of my life to prove that I could do the job, I wrote fewer notes but always did the prep.

This time, because I wasn’t looking for a job and fell into the process by referral, I didn’t follow my own tried and true process. I prepared my case study simply by looking at the brief. It was a disaster.

Had I asked myself the usual questions, I would have noticed that the project I chose and the medium for presenting were a mismatch for the expectations of the role.

Two, give yourself more than enough time to arrive if interviewing in person.

And then more time than that.

I leave my house far less since the pandemic. I work from home 90% of the time and have cut back significantly on socialising and sports. As a result, I’ve forgotten how much time it takes to get across London. For this failed interview, I gave myself just 12 minutes of contingency. My first train arrived late which had a knock-on effect on how much time I lost changing trains twice along the way.

I arrived ten minutes late and the hiring manager docked points from my suitability for the role based on my lack of punctuality. He assumed I either didn’t want the job badly enough or was disorganised.


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Three, leadership is not the same as management.

If you’re interviewing for a management position, you need to prepare very differently.

I had a couple of management roles when I was a software engineer. I managed application packaging teams and spent time assigning tasks/ roles to people, managing stakeholders, working on the team processes and generally ensuring that the team hit our targets and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

As a designer, I had never done this before. I was an individual contributor with line management of an individual or two. My core contribution was designing with some delegation, mentoring and process support as additional tasks.

I was asked to prepare a case study for this interview and chose a product that showcased my ability to drive a product redesign from discovery through delivery. I communicated my leadership skillset yet there was nothing about managing a person or a team. The worst bit was that I had not even thought about this until I received my feedback.

Four, check-in with yourself about whether you really want the job

This probably applies for level changing or independent contributor to manager type roles.

That bit of feedback; that I might not want the job, was the most profound revelation I received during my interview. It’s true, I did not want the job. For the last two or three years, I vacillated between wanting a design manager role and wanting to remain an individual contributor. People I worked with kept telling me I would be a great manager. I let one of them refer me when this job opened up.

Going through this process, one of the very positive bits of feedback I received was how much I love the craft of design and communicate my process and point of view quite well.

And it’s true, I do love design. And I can’t see myself, at least in the immediate future, doing anything where I lose the chance to do hands-on design.

So what now?

I won't lie– it sucked to bomb this interview. But I was cocky and life knocks you down a peg or two when that happens. However, I now know with 100% confidence that I don’t want to be a head of design who does no hands-on work. So ultimately, it was an excellent thing to go through and I look forward to making sure it never happens again.

What about you? Have you ever sucked at an interview? Do you know why? And what steps have you taken to prevent the same thing happening again?