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The Winning Interview OPEN ACCESS

Knowing Yourself and the Organization—Your Strengths and Your Weaknesses—Will Arm you with Confidence

[+] Author Notes

E.N. Friesen is an ASME Life Fellow who worked as an engineer and manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. After his retirement he formed Seagull Consultants and taught project management courses at Loyola Marymount University.

Mechanical Engineering 135(03), 42-47 (Mar 01, 2013) (6 pages) Paper No: ME-13-MAR3; doi: 10.1115/1.2013-MAR-3

This article provides an overview of various successful tips and considerations that could result in a winning interview for a mechanical engineer. A winning interview is one that allows you to find out if the position and potential employer are really right for you. It is also one that allows the potential employer to determine if you are the best candidate for the position, and if you will fit into the employer’s team, now and in the future. One of the self-diagnostic tools is called ‘SWOT Analysis,’ in which ‘SWOT’ stands for ‘strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.’ Strengths and weaknesses focus on you. Opportunities and threats are directed away from you toward the organization and the environment in which it operates. Opportunities and threats are both external and internal to the organization. Learning about them requires some intelligence gathering. Besides noting the opportunities that you foresee for the employer, you should develop a strategy for overcoming the threats. Being open and direct in your questioning and observations during the interview will show your level of confidence and the effort you have made.

To get employment as a mechanical engineer, or to win a contract, you will be interviewed, usually more than once. An interview is a way of communicating and exchanging data and information about both yourself and your potential employer for the purpose of making a sound decision to work together.

To get the position that you want, you must have a winning interview.

A winning interview is one that allows you to find out if the position and potential employer are really right for you. It is also one that allows the potential employer to determine if you are the best candidate for the position, and if you will fit into the employer’s team, now and in the future.

Many interviews are brief. Ten, twenty, or thirty minutes are typical. During the interview, both you and the employer need to find out about each other. The potential employer must evaluate your ability to meet the company’s needs, and will do so based on information that you provide. This comes from your résumé, your examples, references, what you say in the interview, and how you say it.

Similarly, you should evaluate the opportunity presented and any offer that is made according to what you know about the organization. Find out how well you fit.

Making this process a winner for both sides requires some work on your part. This work starts with first knowing yourself. Next is to learn about your prospective employer, and organization. Do your homework and be prepared. Learn how to listen and to read between the lines. Practice and stay in the moment.

An excellent self-diagnostic tool is the “SWOT Analysis.”

“SWOT” stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

We each have our own set of strengths and weaknesses. What are yours? Identify them for yourself, honestly and fully. For some, just out of school, a strength would be education, grades, class work, etc. Weaknesses may include a lack of experience.

If you have worked a while, which accomplishments are you most proud? How did you bring value to your employer and the work you did? Who can attest to these facts? Do you have examples and exhibits that you could bring to the interview? Are they appropriate to the position, or a general representation of your capabilities? Which skills, knowledge, and abilities do you possess? How may these be of value to a potential employer? How could you fit in to the organization, now and later? What is your work ethic? Get and give examples. Be able to concisely explain.

Are you conversant or fluent in languages, including computer programming languages? Are you certified or licensed? What is your experience level for certain engineering work? Are you familiar with local codes, customs, and standards? Typical weaknesses are a lack of these attributes, knowledge, and skills. What have you done or are you doing to improve, minimize, and overcome your weaknesses? Be specific.

Be strong.

Strengths and weaknesses focus on you. Opportunities and threats are directed away from you toward the organization and the environment in which it operates. Opportunities and threats are both external and internal to the organization. Learning about them requires some intelligence gathering.

Develop files of information about your potential employers. What do you know about each organization, its operations, needs, finances, business and market plans, etc.? Develop your questions. Know what you need to know.

Good sources of public information are magazines and newspapers, press releases, annual reports, and the Internet. Get brochures and handouts. Read the company’s ads. Find out who is who in the organization. This is your “external or public intel.”

“Inside intel” requires establishing one or more contacts in the organization. This is where your network of family and friends comes into play. Mentors and references are of great value in fact fi nding. Let them know you appreciate their help. Reciprocate.

You must check and verify your data, just as you mine and use your sources.

Opportunities may be in the market, technology, or product development. A company may be focused on improving productivity or reducing errors and omissions. Opportunities are specifi c to each organization. Your task is to get some advance knowledge about what these may be and how you may be able to leverage your intel.

Threats include the external, such as a declining market, poor business or financial conditions, obsolete product lines, or legal and regulatory issues. Each threat may have a signfi cant bearing on a company’s pros pects, or on yours. Find out as much as you can in advance and determine what you may need or want to learn during the interview. Mentally prepare and rehearse your questions.

Are you Certified or Liscensed? What is your Experience Level? Which Skills, Knowledge, and Abilities do you Possess? What is your Work Ethic?

Intelligence Gathering:

Develop Files of Information about your Potential Employers ... Inside Intel vs. External/Public Intel ... Get Advance Knowledge about Opportunities in the Organization and how you may be able to Leverage Your Intel.

Threats to an organization may also be internal. This is a delicate subject, as they may be due to policy, ignorance, or willful neglect by management. Internal threats may be a reason to hire a new face. Try to find out with questions. Practice listening to answers.

If your sources have not been able to get this information, the interviewer may be willing to discuss the subject, but don’t press it. Use this information in your evaluation of the firm.

Prepare a dossier or file for each potential employer. Integrate this information into your own specific SWOT analysis for the particular interview you are getting ready to do. See where you may be able to fit in and to be of value. How each potential employer may meet your goals and objectives. Evaluate and prioritize the data you are able to gather. Document findings.

For each relevant threat, you need to work out your strategy to minimize any adverse impact on your future work and value to the employer. Recognize the probable threats. Then prioritize them based on their potential impact and probability of occurrence. This is a risk management exercise. Be creative in your potential strategies.

Make a grid of your strengths and weaknesses as one dimension, and the opportunities and threats that you face or foresee in the future for you and your potential employer as the other dimension. This grid exercise is multi-dimensional, as is life.

In this SWOT grid, the high priority cell A is where your specific strengths mesh with the organization’s opportunities. A second cell B should show how your strengths can help meet potential threats to the organization.

Both of these cells should be specific in describing how you believe you may bring value to the organization in the position you are seeking.

A third cell C is important in identifying where you may be weak in capitalizing on the organization’s opportunities. The fourth cell shows where your weaknesses coincide with threats to the organization. Cell D is the lowest priority, but don’t neglect it, as it may be significant in some cases.

For this grid to be most effective, you need to honestly populate it with all relevant data. Making a list of attributes for each heading may take several pages but is the best place to begin and stimulate your data gathering.

Having made your lists, and their intersections, focus on the strengths/opportunity cell A first. These are your key selling points to the employer. By anticipating questions and developing powerful answers, with your strengths and opportunities in mind, you will be prepared to say why you are the best candidate.

The weaknesses/threats cell D identifies things that must be addressed. By using your imagination, you can develop a strategy for overcoming all or most of them. Be prepared and you won’t be embarrassed.

The other two cells, strengths/threats, B, and weaknesses/opportunities, C, are important and should be addressed, but are of lower priority, at least initially. You need to develop a strategy to address these two cells, because you may be asked about them, and how you respond is as important as what you say. Look for the leverage for you and the firm.

It is best to be prepared. A SWOT analysis is unique to each person, and valuable in knowing yourself. That knowledge will make you comfortable with yourself. It will show in how you handle yourself and how you do in an interview. You are and should be the expert about you. If you are honest with yourself, you will recognize your advantages and the benefits that you can bring to a potential employer. This knowledge gives you power.

Examples and exhibits of your accomplishments will demonstrate your strengths.

Besides noting the opportunities that you foresee for the employer, you should develop a strategy for overcoming the threats. Which events may occur, and are probable? How would you propose to prevent these events from being too costly?

Having an idea of how to answer that kind of question is evidence that you have considered the possibilities. That evidence may be more important than your proposed remedy. Employers are looking for people who can help them solve problems and make gains for the organization.

Not all the information you need to have may be available by the time of the interview. The interview is your chance to ask questions and find out. The interviewer will be interested in your questions and how you frame them. It is an evaluation point.

The interview should be an exchange of information. It should provide adequate information for evaluation and to make a hiring decision, by both parties.

Being open and direct in your questioning and observations during the interview will show your level of confidence and the effort you have made. But you need to determine how far you should go with a discussion. Be aware of body language and pay attention to the line of questions being asked. The better you are able to read the interviewer, and respond appropriately, the better you will do.

It is wise, too, to consider your audience. What do you believe they are looking for, and how do you, in particular, meet their needs? Help interviewers by anticipating their needs and make the exchange easy for them. Listen.

If you or the interviewer is being vague, you are both just wasting time. If either of you seems want to avoid certain issues, that is a red flag of danger. You can be assertive and in control, and even guide the discussion, if need be. Not all interviewers are good.

Good Listening in Four Steps:

 

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  1. Hear “how and what” is being communicated. If you’re unclear, ask for clarification. Get specific; be sure to understand.

  2. Be polite and respectful.

  3. Analyze what you heard and saw.

  4. Form your response. Respond concisely, directly, and honestly.

During the interview, you put your best side forward by being informed so your questions can be to the point as you try to learn about terms and conditions.

If you don’t know the answer to an interview question, you must say so directly. Be honest. Hemming and hawing or being bashful can hurt you. Depending on the situation, you may offer to find out and report later. Remember, the interviewer is looking for reasons to select or reject you. Your task is to make a decision in your favor as easy as possible for the interviewer.

Being respectful includes turning off your cell phone. Dressing appropriately for the situation is where some of your inside intel helps, by giving you an idea of the culture of the organization. Sometimes a coat and tie is required, sometimes not. At times casual or field clothes may be appropriate. It all depends on the culture.

Inquire before your interview if there are any conditions or limitations on what you may bring with you in the way of exhibits and samples.

Do not bring or discuss any classified, confidential, or proprietary information in an interview. Your exhibits and samples may include a class or team project of recent completion, certificates, commendations, or certifications—anything that you are proud of and is public.

For a winning interview you must present a compelling case that you are the candidate who will do the best work and add the most value to the employer’s organization. Your immediate task is to make the interviewer comfortable with the decision to hire you, now. Assuming that is, that you are comfortable with being an integral part of the organization.

What’s a Swot Grid?

The SWOT grid seeks to find intersections of your strengths and weaknesses with opportunities and threats facing a potential employer’s organization. Here is a hypothetical example.

Strengths

Opportunities

The organization has an opportunity to develop a new line of products in the robotic tool industry.

My specific strengths include high grades in machine and tool design. Three years of classroom use of CAD/CAM tools, two years of programming experience, and I was the lead person on our senior robotics project.

Threats

The threats to the development of robotic tools include the high level of competition in this market, both in the U.S. and internationally.

My strengths are due to class work in this specific area, team project work, and additional reading and investigation. I feel competent and ready to make a significant hands-on contribution in this endeavor. The organization needs to grow in robotics, or it will lose market share. To date, the organization has been a leader and has been responsive to changing customer needs.

Weaknesses

The opportunity to make a profitable robotic tool, or set of tools is dependent on getting to market early with the correct product that the customer needs. In the current market, this is undermined by a lack of service after sale and competent staff to assist, as needed and on-call.

While I do not have past work experience in this area, I am ready to assist in the design, development, and deployment of such robotic tools, and am able to make on-site visits and decisions, to the limit of my skills, knowledge, abilities, and training (to be provided by the organization).

Multi-tasking robotic tools are becoming more complex and complicated to develop, install, and service. The weakness of vendor support makes an expensive tool purchase problematic. A positive commitment to satisfaction of the customer/user is needed with strong corporate on-site implementation program. Any errors and omissions must be immediately addressed to the customer’s satisfaction. A log of errors, omissions, and problems must be maintained, and from it a set of lessons learned, and communicated to both our customers and our staff.

I have no experience but am willing to assist in this assignment. Our organizational ability to learn and adapt is critical to overcome any disadvantages. In most organizations this is a culture to be adopted and stressed to gain maximum effectiveness in the market.

Interviews typically end with a final question: “Do you have anything more to add?” If you do, briefly respond, thank the interviewer, and leave. Thank the receptionist (a possible intel source) on your way out. After leaving, make notes and document specifics.

After your interview, immediately follow up with a short “thank you” to all who were involved. You shouldn’t add anything, or try to answer unanswered questions or open issues, unless you have been asked to do so.

In one of my winning interviews, I noted that there were 35 other candidates for the position. All these candidates were fully educated and qualified.

I said that the interviewers had a difficult choice to make as we were all capable of doing the work. But to assist them in their choice, I noted that while we all could do the work, I would be their best choice because I actually would deliver the most value for the employer.

It worked for me. Good luck.

Copyright © 2013 by ASME
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