17

In an interview the HR interviewer asked me the following question:

What's so special about you the might make me consider hiring you?

I was prepared for the classic "Mention some of your strengths" and its sibling "Mention some of your weaknesses", so I began talking about my strengths with examples from my past experience.

The problem is every time I talked about one of my strengths the interviewer would reply:

All our employees are like that... or do something like that...

For example, I mentioned that I'm a fast learner, hard worker, love programming, team player each with an example from my past.
However, the HR interviewer made it sound like its normal to have all these characteristics.

What do you do in such situation?

  • 1
    Did the interviewer intend the phrase "all our employees are like that" to indicate that you would fit in well OR to indicate that they're looking for something more? – Angelo Sep 13 '12 at 12:35
  • @Angelo Well, I'm not really sure, but whenever I mentioned something he made that unimpressed face. So I think he was looking for something more. – Long Sep 13 '12 at 13:05
  • 7
    "What's so special about your company that I should spend my precious time here?" – kevin cline Sep 13 '12 at 16:38
  • 1
    +1 to kevin. A question like this tells you about the culture in the company. This may be a good question to ask when hiring traders, salesmen, brokers, etc but not devs. It tells you next to nothing relevant. – MrFox Sep 13 '12 at 17:06
  • I personally think the "what's special about you" is a dumb question. How would I know what's special about me compared to the next applicant? – Xeo Sep 13 '12 at 21:25
22

Two things here. First the interviewer may or may not have been playing you with his reaction to see how you responded to the stress of feeling your answer was incorrect. Remember anytime an interviewer pushes back like this he is also assessing your ability to handle stress (As well as he might be trying to get a different answer from you). He may not have been as unhappy with your answer as he indicated. If you keep that in mind, it is less stressful in an interview when they do this to you.

On the other had there is a big difference between what are your strengths and what makes you so special that I should hire you. The difference is showing what you have accomplished using those strengths and what you personally can bring to the company that will be of value to them. This question should be to be answered in business terms not general terms.

Suppose you are interviewing 20 people and you ask this question and 19 of them say they are fast learners, team players etc. The 20th says, "You should hire me because in my last job I saved the company $100,000 by doing XYZ and in the job before that, my ABC project took the time to process a widget from 1 hour to ten minutes thus saving 1000 manhours a year. And I can help your company out because of my skill with GHI and LMNOP."

Which one impressed you more? Always remember an interview situation is a competion and your answers are being judged in relationship to what the other people being interviewed also say.

Having asked this particular question many times, I can tell you that approximately 99.5% of people answer the way you did. This is one of the the best questions to really make yourself shine over other candidates. It is what separates the achievers from the rest of the pack. Think in terms of money saved, time saved, positive changes to the organization (things like get others to start doing unit tests as an example), how well you met deadlines and things you did that others were not able to successfully do.

  • +1, especially the first paragraph (as well as the rest). I would think there is quite some value for interviewers to learn in this sort of dialogue. It turns out in the real world you ARE under stress often, you often have to defend things you take as important when others don't, etc. – enderland Sep 13 '12 at 14:48
  • And incidentally the worst two answers I ever got to this question were "I need the job" and "I deserve a promotion" – HLGEM Sep 13 '12 at 15:05
  • "I saved the company $100 000 by doing XYZ" doesn't mean there's anything special about you, only that you did something special. – DistantEcho Sep 14 '12 at 7:54
  • @Niphra, as a hiring offical what you have accomplished is what is special about you to me. I don't want people who only have potential, I want people who get things done. – HLGEM Sep 21 '12 at 17:32
9

As an interviewer, I'll first gripe that I probably wouldn't ask this question unless I wanted to see how the candidate responds to massive ambiguity. The ability to actually answer this question aptly is not something I'd expect from most people. Especially not technical ones.

But - taking it from the interviewer's perspective - he's right. Most people that have made it through a screening process will tell you that they are smart, they are dedicated (or work hard) and they have the skills and experience to get things done. So it's hard to distinguish one candidate from another when we get into this.

What I find useful in this case is the idea of what unique qualities do you bring to a team and do the job? People are not cookie cutters - they have likes/dislikes, personal points of pride, particular ways of thinking - all of which make them unique, and when people are put together in a good team, they manage to compliment each other. As an interviewer, I'm taking this into account - I don't want a team that are carbon copies of each other, nor do I want a team that is so wildly ecletic that they can't form a cohesive whole.

I put this into the realm of "personal branding" - I didn't even realize there was jargon for it until recently. Alot of the advice in this area can sound really flaky - but the thing that sticks out is that who you are is more than either specific activities on the job, or being a geenrally ideal employee - is how you do what you do and what you put the most focus in. Some of these aren't going to change, you are who you are, so the trick is to "brand" them as an asset.

Here's my example -

I'm the summer camp counselor of digital security. I have all the training and experience in security that you see on my resume, but the real deal is that I like having people get along and having them work together to get big things accomplished. I'm never going to be that guy sitting in a cave saying "no" as loudly as possible - I'll be in there trying to figure out how to get the job done, while preventing risk adequately. It can mean that I come off as more permissive than most security gurus, but it produces a net win, because people don't circumvent me - they go to me for help because they trust me.

That's alot more than just "I've got a solid technical expertise" or "I'm a great team leader" - you get a sense of who I am and what I'm like to work with. I'm taking a bit of a risk - if you wanted a hard core, yelling and screaming security guy who was going to bang on the table an shriek about the dangers of the internet - then you won't hire me. But if you are worried that your ops folks won't trust that sort of person and you need a good collaborator, you're probably drooling at the idea of having me on your team.

At the same time, if I didn't like the people stuff, and I'd spin a different tale about being ... the Sherlock Holms of digital security or something similar.

In the end, though, my proposed strategy means committing to something. Talking about strengths/weaknesses, it can be easy to avoid pigeon holing yourself into an area where you don't come off well. Talking about "what makes you special" really honestly, can mean that they go "yep, that's special, but not what we want". The trick is being confident enough that you've sold a good story, and if they don't like who you honestly are, then better to find it out before you quit your current job.

3

It's certainly normal to say you have all of those things in an interview. It's not exactly abnormal to have all those characteristics. They were looking for something different, something that none of the other candidates would have said.

The correct answer depends on you. Whatever it is, it should be true.

Perhaps something you've done that saved your previous business significant amounts of money. Or a skill that you have that most people in your line of work don't even claim to have. Perhaps something you'll bring to the team that you'd be surprised if they already have. Certainly, if you're applying for a specific role, you should make it relevant to that role.

It's a difficult question to answer in an interesting way. And there certainly isn't a single correct answer. Just answers that make you stand out from everyone else.

3

Other than being a really strong team player, you've used programmer stereo-types. Try combining them or looking at them in some other ways.

  • Do you work hard at non-programming tasks?
  • Have you ever been part of a non-technical team?

  • Do you love programming so much at the expense of learning the business domain?

  • As a fast learning, hard working person who loves programming, do you know when stop and get help or will you just work on a problem forever?

  • Do you excel at soft skills? Speaking in front of a group, writing, persuasion, dealing with people in the company at all levels, user emphathy.

It's not just you. HR asks these questions a lot and I'm sure they get tired of the same answers.

Also, it doesn't have to be job or programming related.

3

The interviewer has a point. Just about everyone considers themselves "fast learner, hard worker, love programming, team player, ..." - even, thanks to the Kruger-Dunning effect, those who spectacularly aren't. So it was good to lead with those, but once you get that response from the interviewer, find SOMETHING else about yourself.

It's a bit of an unfair question, because developers in their 20's are usually pretty similar. And interviewers are not allowed to ask about your hobbies, family background, and so on, but you're likely to use that in your answers. I would guess that most good answers (I'm fluent in French, I am an experienced public speaker on non-technical topics, I won that blah blah blah award) would already be on your resume and you would have been able to remember to mention them when asked. (Never refrain from telling an interviewer something that is on your resume: they didn't memorize it, and they may be asking as a way to learn more about it.)

But on your resume or not, try to find something like that, something that makes you different from the rest. It doesn't have to be technical. For example, maybe you were in a rock band in highschool and performed a dozen or so times. You probably don't have it on your resume, but it actually shows you have some skills that are relevant to many jobs: negotiating, planning, teamwork, stage presence etc.

Since it is a curveball question it's ok to take a minute when you get the pushback and say "let me me think" - but it would be handy if you had already thought about it.

1

The "why should I hire you" question is a valid one. Quite frankly, if I have a dozen resumes on my desk for one position, I'm looking for something to narrow it down and produce just a few that really stand out. Why, if there are a dozen, or two dozen, or a hundred, resumes on my desk, why do you deserve this job more than any of them?

The problem is every time I talked about one of my strengths the interviewer would reply:

All our employees are like that... or do something like that...

Your response should be "and that's why you hired them, and that's why you should hire me". It acknowledges that the interviewer (often the hiring manager) is good at picking people, and then makes the obvious connection; if all the people he's hired are hard workers, team players, fast learners etc, and you're a hard worker, team player, fast learner, etc, then you're a good fit for the company. Now, while just slightly obvious as brown-nosing, it doesn't really answer the underlying question; the interviewer is looking for more than just a hard worker, fast learner, loves coding, etc.

Usually, the "why should I hire you" question differs from "what are your strengths" in one key way; "why should I hire you" challenges you to give me something about yourself that no other applicant can provide. That's what the interviewer was probably trying to hint at; you were giving him various strengths, but those were all pretty generic. When the interviewer asks "why should I hire you", the proper response is some quality about yourself, which would interest your prospective employer, that you can qualify with a superlative and back it up: "I can pick up new things faster than anyone else you're likely to interview"; "I know more about < insert relevant technology here > than anyone you've already hired". The implication is obvious; if you're going to claim to be "better", "faster", "smarter", etc than any other interviewee or current employee, sight unseen, you better be holding a pretty strong hand.

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