What are you interested in?

I need a bit of advice.

How do people answer the standard interview question:  “What are you looking for?”  or it’s more personal variation “What are you interested in?”  Setting aside the obvious “Ever since my <insert here difficult experiance shared by you and interviewer> my passion is <insert target firm mission statement here>, why I’d do that for free if I could!”

There is nothing wrong with this question, I guess.  The hiring process is all about finding a good match, and time is short.    It is necessary to know what both sides are about, and  I’m no longer surprised that HR and/or the interviewer hasn’t done any preparation.  But for me one problem is that my interests are extremely diverse.  The moment I say anything it seems to cause all kinds of unfortunate side effects; not the least of which is how it blinds them to other things I’m interested in.

When handling this question I find I recall the salesman’s rule: “never mention features.”  I.e. if you say to the buyer “this car has whitewalls” you stand a high probablity that the next thing to happen is the buyer will say “Oh.  I’m not really a fan of whitewalls.”  So, for example I reply, as I did recently:  “I’ve recently become interested applications of message buses, like AMQP, to distributed systems.”  Which immediately got the “My group isn’t responsible for those whitewalls.”

I’m always touched when the interviewer mirrors back the interest i mention here and there thru out rest of the conversation.  Though that, uncharitably, always feel a bit like a bad date.

So, how do other people handle this?

5 thoughts on “What are you interested in?

  1. Kimbo M

    You might try saying “I don’t know enough about what you do to say what I’d be interested in.” and try to get more info.

  2. Zack

    Step 1: before any job searching, make sure you know those things you are interested in. Maybe they are: AMPQ-widgets with whitewalls; finding starfish on Connecticut beaches; and writings done by Irish women while in prison in Ireland, 1700-1850.

    Step 2: apply for jobs at organizations that might have some plausible connection to at least one of your listed interests, and that issue paychecks regularly for doing work.

    Step 3: Before interviewing for a specific job, read the company’s mission statement, and re-read the listing for the job as it was posted.

    Step 4: When asked what you are interested in, describe the smallest possible circle of subject matter that includes one of your listed interests from Step 1 and the duties of the duties of the job listing as posted. Buy yourself time to think by spewing a list of synonyms for words found in the company’s mission statement.

    Thus, if you applied for a paying job which would involve putting RFID tags on horseshoe crabs which wash up on Maine beaches, for a company with a mission statement that read, “Our mission is to document the current state of wildlife to establish a standard so that future conservation efforts have something to refer to,” you might say:

    My interests involve studying New England invertebrates, because I think it’s important to understand the natural status quo if we want to enable any future preservation efforts.

    The key thing is talking about that circle which is just big enough to encompass one true interest of your own, and the duties listed in the job description.

    What if you interview for a position which involves cataloging paintings of African-Americans which were painted during the American civil war? You are interested in the role of historical minorities in Anglo-Western arts, both as creators and subjects.

    I know it sounds like I’m describing a game of bs, but if you’re doing an emotionally sincere job search, then you should probably naturally end up doing some of this bigger-circle-drawing.

  3. Ben Hyde

    I see that both Kimbo and Zack give the same advise that the books on sales do; i.e. to avoid the risks associated with revealing features of the products for fear that they will invoke an immune response in the buyer. I agree, except when I don’t.

    The salesman’s goal is to close the deal and move on to the next one. My goal, and presumably that of the buyer in these cases, is to find common ground. Of course in the current job market the buyers seem to be pure immune response.

    Zack has revealed a full recipe for job searching. R. the question at hand his advise to stop confusing the buyers by preparing a clear area of common interest is good. I do that. It is a bit frustrating that they always seem a bit bewildered to discover that I’m also interested in Victorian era transportation to the colonies and how it effected the starfish populations.

  4. mtraven

    I wish I had a good answer for you. My standard approach is to give a very broad statement of what I’m interested in, something like “tools to help people manage complex knowledge”, which covers a variety of front-end and back-end projects. It avoids the whitewall problem, but I haven’t had great luck with interviews so I don’t know whether it’s a good strategy or not.

  5. Johnny Monsarrat

    “What are you looking for?” is just their way of saying, what inspires you?

    Just say, “I have an eclectic background because I’m always seeking new challenges and I like being on top of whatever is cool, which of course keeps changing.”

    And be open about what makes you happy or unhappy in the workplace… there’s no real incentive to hide that you need flex time because you sleep at odd hours… if you need flex time and sleep at odd hours. What’s the point of hiding it and then discovering later on once you’re hired that you can’t handle it.

    (Or substitute any other issue.)

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