The Major Interviewing Pitfall No One Talks About



Photo: WOC in Tech

We all knew that kid in high school. You know, the one who tried just a little too hard. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he was always the first to raise his hand, and maybe he came on just a bit too strong when it came to making new friends.

When you’re interviewing for a new position it’s hard not to act like that kid. Especially when you’re eager, and maybe even desperate for a new job. But interviewers can spot someone who is trying too hard from a mile away. Especially when you’re trying to sound “smart.” (By the way I’m so much better now, you guys, I promise.)

Smart is in quotes because nothing makes a candidate look worse (insecure, desperate, presumptuous, annoying) than trying too hard to sound smart.

During the interview, this tendency might make the applicant look presumptuous. For example, maybe he remarks “Well I assume your code delivery process includes X, since it’s obviously the latest and best” or “I left my old job because frankly the people were just too dumb.” Were they dumb, or are you trying to compensate after being pushed out because no one could stand you? As the interviewer, I’m not sure.

I exaggerate (a little) to make the point, which is this: don’t be that guy or gal.

To be clear: you should absolutely answer pointed questions to the best of your ability and do what you can to come across as credible and effective, just don’t focus on conveying smart. More often than not you’ll accomplish the opposite.

My students are much more effective when they focus on a different word. Curiosity.

Curiosity is the perfect word to embody in interviews for at least three reasons:

  1. Curious people ask a lot of questions (right, duh) and bring an expansive point of view, one conducive both to properly framing complex challenges and to developing innovative solutions to those problems.
  1. Curious people tend to be humble, and humble people (as opposed to those who assume to know everything) tend to make good team players. There are few things that tech companies like more than team players (ok, maybe world-class engineers who may or may not be team players, but still).
  1. Curiosity helps you to ask good questions, questions that (a.) let you demonstrate intelligence by way of genuine humility and (b.) letting your interviewers feel authoritative as they “teach” you how they (at the company) think about the question.

Some good questions are:

  • “What goes into the decision to build what you build? Who makes that decision?” and
  • “What obstacle, if removed, would allow the company to grow at 10x its current rate?”

Both demonstrate a curiosity of the key questions that all companies wrestle with, without having any of the negatives associated with being presumptuous.

Bonus: Curiosity is a strange thing that somehow obliterates counterproductive emotions like fear and nervousness, common bedfellows of the interview. Go ahead, get curious about an interesting topic—got it? Now try to be fearful about something at the same time—I’ll bet you can’t.

Get curious. Learn how to change your career.

It Starts With “Yes.”

Jon Carpenter helps driven people forever eliminate career ruts, setting them on a path toward higher-paying, more fulfilling work. Get his exclusive guide: “The Top-8 Reasons Careers Stall—And How to Eliminate Them” at—free for General Assembly readers.