At various points throughout every engineer’s career, he or she must participate in a conversation with a hiring manager – or a group of managers – regarding employment status.
Whether you seek employment with a new firm or a new position with your current employer, this conversation, and the entire interview process, is your opportunity to advance your career.
Much like your resume should create a positive first impression of you as an engineering professional, the interview process should reinforce your overall value to a potential employer, and enable them to envision you as a productive member of their team.
The pressure to “interview well” can cause anxiety, but when you know the process and apply the key guidelines for successful employment conversations, you can approach the task as a learned skill.
A Recruiter’s Guide to a Successful Engineering Interview
In my experience of working with thousands of people from both sides of the “interview desk” – both employers and candidates throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island who seek to fill positions in the fields of Mechanical Engineering, Quality Engineering, Robotics/Automation Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering, and Civil Engineering – I know firsthand the factors that foster a mutually-beneficial interview process that results in an employee-employer match.
Interview Tips for Engineers
The first few minutes of any in-person social interaction greatly influences a person’s impression of you, so it is important to present yourself well from the first moment of interaction, to impress and inspire a hiring professional with your “total offering” of conduct, capabilities, experience and work history.
BEFORE Your Interview:
Know Your Skills and Accomplishments
Thoroughly review your resume and know everything that it includes. Don’t get caught by surprise by an interviewer’s question about something that you forgot was there. Make sure that you’re prepared to discuss each bullet point regarding your education, accomplishments, and experience.
Prepare Your References
Prepare an updated list of professional references, including past managers and supervisors, and have it ready for your interview. Make sure you have secured permission from each reference.
Research Your Interviewer
Try to learn in advance the names of people with whom you will be interviewing. Research their background via Google or professional sites like LinkedIn (not Facebook) to seek common professional connections such as education, work history, or colleagues. Knowing their professional background and interests will help you prepare your own questions and anticipate potential lines of questioning.
Learn About Your Potential New Employer
Research the company. Thoroughly review their website. Understand where they fit in their industry or market sector. What engineering challenges might they be facing? Review online press releases in which the firm is mentioned or company officials are quoted on an issue. This can yield useful talking points for certain industries, and across technical disciplines.
Plan Key Talking Points
Using the requirements and skills listed in the employer’s job description as your guide, plan some key talking points and relevant examples to use during the interview.
Plan Your Answers to Common Interview Questions
Be ready for common interview questions by planning and practicing your answers in advance.
Examples of Common Engineering Interview Questions
- Project-based questions – Engineering interviews often involve questions that require you to discuss your specific role on a project, and the end result. What did you accomplish?
- Problem-solving questions – Engineers of all disciplines are often asked, “How would you approach this problem…”, since hiring managers need to know that you can apply your technical knowledge in a reasonable and methodical manner. It is important to realize, though, that there often isn’t a definitively right or wrong answer. Your interviewer simply wants to gain a sense of how you think, and observe how you communicate your answer.
Practice Answering Questions Out Loud
Saying something out loud is very different than simply rehearsing it in your mind. Practice asking and answering questions out loud, in front of a mirror or ideally in front of another person, to give you a comfort level with hearing yourself answer questions using appropriate inflection and pauses.
Consider How You Will Sell Yourself
Prior to the interview, thoughtfully consider which of your unique traits and accomplishments you could discuss, that could help the potential employer to overcome their firm’s challenges.
Men should wear a suit, or at the very least a suit jacket and tie with trousers. Women should wear a suit, conservative dress, or blouse/sweater and trousers. Even though today’s work environments are generally more casual than in the past, most companies still expect that candidates will dress up for an interview.
Don’t Arrive Too Early
10 minutes early is a sufficient amount of time to arrive before an interview. If you arrive too early, it’s always a good idea to review your resume or the company website one more time while waiting in your car or in the lower lobby if it’s a multi-story building.
Don’t Bring Electronics
The safest and most efficient plan is to leave all electronics in the car, instead of bringing them inside and needing to power them off or silence them. Some technical companies have a policy of no-cell-phones-allowed, due to the sensitive nature of their business.
DURING Your Interview:
Shake Hands with Your Interviewer
Smile, make solid eye contact, and shake hands with your interviewer. This will be easier if you try to think of them as a professional colleague with whom you are excited to have a conversation.
First Impressions Should Convey Trustworthiness and Competence
When asked about how people form first impressions, Social Scientist Amy Cuddy explains that our first impression of another person isn’t a single impression, but two impressions. First, we’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, to try and answer the question, “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” Second, we’re asking ourselves, “How strong and competent is this person?” This speaks to whether or not they’re capable of enacting their intentions. Research shows that these two trait dimensions account for 80 to 90 percent of an overall first impression, across many cultures.
Take Time to Collect Your Thoughts
Before starting your answer to a question, you can take a moment to pause and collect your thoughts. Seasoned hiring managers will understand and respect it as a sign that you are thoughtfully considering the question. (See also: Practice answering questions out loud.)
Don’t Talk Too Much
Talking too much is often a sign of nervousness; however, don’t use one-word answers, either. Fully answer a question and then wait for the next question. Speak up if you believe the interviewer has misunderstood something you said or that was included on your resume.
It’s OK to Say, I Don’t Know
If given a problem to solve or a hypothetical situation for which to discuss a solution, and you don’t know the answer, it’s acceptable to say that you don’t know. In fact, it’s far more preferable than trying to fake your way through an answer that your interviewer will certainly see right through. Instead, provide some clues as to how you would approach the problem. For example, discuss things you might consider when assessing the situation to determine your approach. As mentioned previously, engineering interviewers are often seeking to understand your thought process, not necessarily to see if you come up with the “right” answer or approach.
Be Specific About Your Contributions and Results
Focus on your own contributions or results, and don’t use language such as “we” or “our team” excessively during the interview. Interviewers will be most interested in your specific role and accomplishments. You can explain that you were part of a team, since interviewers look to be sure you can work effectively with others, as is increasingly expected of engineers, but be sure to highlight your own specifics, as well.
Be Honest, Positive, and Upbeat
If you are asked whether you have experience with a specific technical tool, software or process and you do not, answer honestly and then if you can, follow with a positive statement such as, “I’ve done this, which is similar” and explain.
Asking questions helps to demonstrate your interest in the position and company. Show that you’ve taken time to research the company. Don’t just ask questions easily answered by a cursory look at the website.
Ask About Any Concerns Regarding Your Qualifications
Asking the hiring manager if they have any concerns about your qualifications provides you with an opportunity to address any concerns, and potentially correct the record if something has been misunderstood or didn’t come to light during the interview.
Don’t Ask About Compensation and Benefits
Compensation and benefits are topics generally reserved for a second or follow-up interview. Instead, consider asking your interviewer about opportunities for advancement, and career paths that can provide professional growth with the firm.
Seasoned hiring managers can often sense when a candidate is exaggerating their abilities or experience. Temper your confidence with a dose of humility, and if you’ve prepared well for the interview, you will naturally impress the hiring manager with your research, technical knowledge, problem-solving, and ability to express yourself and your accomplishments.
Don’t Speak Negatively about Prior Managers or Employers
Maintain a positive tone, and you’ll be perceived as a team player who doesn’t get caught up in negativity and office politics, and can rise above past professional differences.
Don’t Try Too Hard
If you’re very uncomfortable with your interviewer, it probably isn’t the right opportunity for you. Remember that you’re interviewing them too, and for your long-term success and happiness, the opportunity must be the right fit.
AFTER Your Interview:
Thank Your Interviewer
Send a thank you note after the interview, within 24 hours. In today’s business environment, and especially among technology-based industries, email is the universally-accepted method, as it is quicker than U.S. Mail, and delivers immediate impact.
Reflect on the Conversation
While it’s fresh in your mind, take time to reflect on what went well, and things you believe could be improved about your conversation with the hiring manager. Consider following up on any specifics that were discussed, should you gain the opportunity for a second interview.
Interview Skills Lead to Success in Today’s Candidate-Driven Engineering Job Market
In today’s candidate-driven job market, engineering skills are in demand. Opportunities abound for qualified candidates in the fields of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, quality engineering, robotics/automation engineering, civil engineering, and manufacturing engineering.
Candidates who heed the general principals outlined in the above engineering interview tips will enhance their interview skills and increase their chances of being hired.
Increase Your Chances of Landing an Interview: Resume Formats and Templates
To gain an interview opportunity, it’s important that your resume promotes you well. Some of the most popular engineering resume formats include: Chronological, Functional, and Project-Based. The best format to use depends on your career experience, and how it supports the position you seek. You can learn more about the reasons to use each type, and view resume templates, in my article, The Perfect Engineering Resume.