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I am an experienced professional who has been at the same company since I began my career. I am looking for a change now. Strangely, during interviews I find I perform well with technical questions but the non-technical questions seem to get me.

How can I develop the confidence to answer questions like:

  • What were your contributions to your most recent project
  • How have you impacted the company's growth
  • How were you able to improve productivity in your projects

I know you cannot answer these questions for me but I do not know how to prepare good responses for these types of questions, and then deliver them with confidence during the interview.

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6  
Practice, practice, practice. Find friends, family, whatever, and have them ask you those questions until you are comfortable giving the response. Or just find a rubber duck and talk at it until you are comfortable. –  enderland Jan 16 '13 at 20:33
1  
I'd suggest making a new question to ask about past contributions as this is likely to be closed as a duplicate of the "Tell me about yourself" –  JB King Jan 16 '13 at 20:52

7 Answers 7

How can I develop the confidence to answer questions like:

There is no magical "instant confidence" anyone can give you.

I know you cannot answer these questions for me but I do not know how to prepare good responses for these types of questions, and then deliver them with confidence during the interview.

You need to practice.

Seriously.

If you've been at the same company your entire career you probably have interviewed only a handful of times and not at all recently. Unless interviewing comes naturally to you, you won't feel comfortable at all, and if your only opportunities to interview come in the actual interviews which happen only once every few years, you'll never develop the skills to do so (especially if you don't feel confident in the first place).


So, to answer your question more specifically:

How can I develop the confidence to answer questions like:

You need to practice answering them. Do this in three steps.

  1. Find lots of questions like that which are hard for you to answer. The Internet makes this really easy
  2. Write out short answers to them
  3. Have people (family, friends, Toastmasters, a rubber duck, or the wall) ask you them and get familiar answering htem

Note most questions of this sort are considered STAR interview questions. That article gives a good framework as to "how should I answer?" almost all questions like you describe:

  • Situation: The interviewer wants you to present a recent challenge and situation in which you found yourself.
  • Task: What did you have to achieve? The interviewer will be looking to see what you were trying to achieve from the situation.
  • Action: What did you do? The interviewer will be looking for information on what you did, why you did it and what were the alternatives.
  • Results: What was the outcome of your actions? What did you achieve through your actions and did you meet your objectives. What did you learn from this experience and have you used this learning since?

At the very least, to get better at non-technical questions, think of the STAR response quoted above whenever asked one of those questions.

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15  
There is no magical "instant confidence" anyone can give you - well, there is. But showing up to interviews drunk has its own set of associated problems. :-) –  Carson63000 Jan 17 '13 at 2:03
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+1 good references for use. The key to developing confidence is to practice over and over and get the feedback on where your short comings are so you can correct them. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 17 '13 at 18:04

Be yourself. Be prepared.

In an interview situation, nothing damages your confidence more than pretending to be something you're not. You're trying to keep the story straight in your head while under pressure and they're basically interrogating you. And if they smell a rat, they'll find it, that's their job. It's not good.

And the worst thing about it is that they might actually want you, not the perception of a person that you're putting out there. You might not get a job that you'd be a perfect fit for. Or (worse, in my opinion), you might get a job that you're a poor fit for and be miserable.

Take your last question, for example: How were you able to improve productivity in your projects?

Are you an agent for change? Can you demonstrate it? It's actually ok if you're not. If they have a team full of agents for change already, they might just want someone who'll quietly work their asses off and not complain that they could do more if the coffee-maker was four inches closer to their desk and the carpet had a thicker pile.

There is a whole spectrum of "agent for change" that ranges from "I just get on with things" to "I will throw chairs around the office to get a process changed." You don't know which part of the spectrum they're looking for (probably neither extreme), so don't try to guess. Just be yourself and let them decide if you're the person they're looking for.

With that in mind, though, it's worth looking around the internet for standard interview questions in your industry, or even going to interviews just for experience, then thinking about the best answers that explain to them who you are.

"Heh, to tell the truth, my recent teams have been full of people who fight over processes, ad nauseum, and honestly I haven't felt the need to get involved. But, if I was on a less-forceful team and I felt something in the process was slowing us down unnecessarily, I'd write up a short business-case for it, pass it around the team to see if they supported it, and then I'd present it to my boss, as a complete solution. I mean, no one wants to hear about problems, right? Just solutions."

Boom! You've not really answered the question, because you don't have an answer, but you have let them know who you are, what you'd be inclined to do in that situation AND you've shown a bit of empathy towards managers in the process. They love you. You're hired.

But that's just one example. The point is to be prepared for most questions, and be ready with answers that tell them who you are. The more prepared you are, the more confident you'll be. If they then come up with a question that you haven't considered already, you can confidently smile, say "That's a GOOD question," and take a moment to think about it.

You'll be so well-versed in coming up with answers by that point that you'll be less likely to draw a blank.

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Note: My background is as a software developer and thus I'm answering from this perspective based on my experiences with these questions. This answer isn't intended to cover all possibilities.

What were your contributions to your most recent project

I'd answer by giving the background of the project that I knew, what roles did I fill and what was the result of the project. Then I'd go more in depth of examples of what I did and how this helped to bring a successful result in the end.

How have you impacted the company's growth

This depends a lot in terms of where you fit in the company overall.

If you are working on the Product Development side of things then there may be features where you had the idea and presented it to the company, helped implement some new feature or fixed some bugs that helped improve customer satisfaction with the product.

If you are working on the Information Systems side of things then there may be systems that were put in place to help the company run better, make some processes more efficient, or assisting someone that was having technical difficulties with an internal system.

The key here is to see how did you matter at the company.

How were you able to improve productivity in your projects

This is where I'd be tempted to point to projects where there were lessons learned that they got applied to future projects. For example, X years ago while implementing a new CRM system, we discovered communication gaps in getting from sales the current processes used.

Another answer here could be some new process that was created while you worked somewhere to handle things better than how they were done before. The key here is to point out how were things done, what brought the change and how did the change work in the end.

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I believe the best way to answer these types of questions is not just to think about them when you are looking for a job but to think about what you are contributing and how it relates to company profit as you work. And to proactively try to make sure that you do make significant contributions. And to keep notes on such things as they happen.

If you work this way, then answering the questions is easy, you already know what you have contributed.

There is a fundamental difference in the workplace in being a person who accomplishes things and being a person who is responsible for things and just does things as they come up. The people who ask these sorts of questions are usually looking for the former kind of people in a sea of the latter kind.

So start looking for ways to improve the process and things that can increase profit and suggest those types of projects. Start looking beyond your current responsibilites into what things can you do to make the workplace more effective and efficient and to deliver the best possible product. Lobby to get assigned to the projects that wil have the most impact on the organization or the profit (not just the ones that look fun technologically). Volunteer for special projects espcially where they involve improving company processes. Start thinking interms of the business not just in programming terms.

Pay attention to the impact of your work. If you wrote a software routine that ended up saving hours of user time, quantify it and keep the numbers for use in interviews or in your resume. This is helpful for your performance appraisal as well. ANd make these kind of point in your self appraisal if you write one in the performance review process. They give you a handy document to use to review your accomplishments when it is time to move on to another place.

Learn to sell your ideas to management and then work to get them implemented.

Keep a file of any letters or emails or awards you get that talk to your superior performance on some project. Is it more powerful to be able to say in an interview "Last year I got 14 client letters thanking me for my work on their projects" or "My clients like me."

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One thing to be aware of with the questions you mentioned. They sound like "Drill-down" questions.

Some HR/interviewers (if they are any good) will use a drill down technique on these questions to determine if the person is lying or not.

So they are not overly interested in the first answer, but use it as a method to get you to explain in more detail a facet of the overall question. If someone is lying they will normally get to a point where they would not be able to respond.

For example:

Interviewer: "What were your contributions to your most recent project?"

Interviewee:"I wrote the network API for our project"

Interviewer:"What network protocol did you go?" 

Interviewee:"UDP"

Interviewer:"Why did you pick UDP vs other protocols?" 

Interviewee:"<explains>" 

.... (and so on). 
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Often times these non-technical questions do not have a corresponding answer. Think of it as a 0-to-many relationship. Many times you are going to have to wing-it. But always step back initially and thinking about what they are asking, not the question itself, at least not too directly.

Sometimes interviewers will either intentionally, or not, ask questions which insinuate something which is simply not true. EG: Being asked "How have you impacted the company's growth" assumes your current/previous company wants [asset/human capital] growth. This question doesn't have a direct answer as its premise is simply wrong.

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Confidence comes from two things: (1) anticipation and (2) preparation

You have the anticipation down pat, because the questions you have listed are clear, concise and well articulated

Your lack of confidence comes from not dome anything at all about the preparation part. In fact, you admit that " I do not know how to prepare good responses for these types of questions". You are not going to deliver with confidence responses that add up to a big fat zero and are really non-responses - I sense that you have too much intellectual integrity for that.

You need to take the bull by the horns and attempt to come up with responses. Once you come up with responses that you can be proud of, the confident delivery part will take care of itself.

I find it strange that you can't find anything to say. If your most recent project was your own, then you obviously contributed everything to it, except for the elements that you "borrowed" from your co-workers, that is. As for you impact on your company's growth, that's easy to answer if you are a sales professional. I am a systems engineer, so coming up with dollars and cents is much harder. Nevertheless, I can point to instances where my ideas were widely adopted, that some tasks were done in hours instead of days, etc. As for improving your productivity on projects, you can't come up with anything at all? Really? Did you learn from your mistakes of commission and omission? Did you try to systematically re-use pieces from previous projects? Did you learn new tools and successfully deploy them to improve productivity? I have a hard time believing that you can't come up with anything at all.

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