How to Interview Technical Writers Even If You’re Not One

Yes, I’m that terrible person who interviews technical writers and asks those awkward questions. Here are some of the things I’m looking for when I interview people.

First, companies expect that graduates will have the same (more or less) writing skills – that’s a given. So, what they’re looking for are other qualities.

Such as?

  • Problem solving skills – describe a problem you had and how you overcame the issues. Be modest & don’t tie yourself up in knots.
  • Collaboration – demonstrate how/where you collaborated with others. I don’t mean email or twitter but, for example, how you took responsibility (“the project was running behind schedule, so we decided to hold a workshop…”) and how this resolved the issue at hand.
  • Technologies – talk about an area you have some expertise. Show how this solved problems (always be the person who solves problems and gets things resolved!) and the benefits it offers.
  • Memberships – if you’re a member of the STC or local IT group, talk about it. Paint a picture of someone who is savvy, interested in the community and likes to interact.
  • Goals – they want you for the long term. Hiring is expensive. Interviews cost money. Describe your career path and where you want to be. Discuss how this company helps you realize your goals.

Can you see the difference this makes?

Instead of hiring a person just because they’re out of work, the company is getting someone who shares their vision.

Interviews – other things to remember

  • Who does the interview – many companies don’t have a technical writing team. This means the IT manager (or PM) will do the interview. If this is the case, do your prep work and expect questions about code, schedules and other area.
  • Privacy — HR people may ‘hint’ or suggest that you discuss your lifestyle. Keep it simple but be polite.
  • Tests – many companies will ask you to do a 45 min test. Expect this. Don’t be alarmed if they pull this out of the bag at the end of the interview. They shouldn’t do this but some people are like that.

Things not to do at your interview

I’m looking for someone to write documents – someone who is low maintenance. You need to be that person. With that in mind, don’t:

  • Arrive late – give yourself time to part the car, find the office, have a drink and calm down, especially if it’s a long drive to get there. Have a light snack (e.g. banana) before going in.
  • Wear heavy cologne or perfume. In a small room, it can be over-whelming
  • Eat garlic or other such foods before the interview. See above. Mouth freshener never hurt.
  • Run down your previous employer. If reflects poorly on you and makes you look petty. Talk them up.

“It’s a great company but I want to move into XYZ, so I thought I’d speak to you.”

Be the type of person you’d like to hire.

Steer clear of the following:

  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Gossip
  • Extreme ideologies
  • Age
  • Family

None of these are their business. Allude to them, e.g. your family, if you wish but keep it brief. Don’t get too buddy-buddy. This is an interview. Keep it professional.

and then…

  • Ask questions. This is the single biggest mistake interviewees make. They don’t ask questions. They think that being silent shows respect. Of course it does, but open up. You must have questions. Ask them. I want to hear what you think of the company.
  • Show your interest. I used to print out the company annual report and discuss sections with the interviewers (when looking for work) – this blew them away.
  • Quote things for their site.
  • Talk about the company — as though you already worked for them.
  • Social Media — have you joined their Facebook page? Do you follow them on Twitter. If not, why?

Don’t think of yourself as just a technical writer. You’re a potential asset to the company and if THEY make the right decision, they will hire you!

See the difference?

What the most difficult question you were asked at an interview? What is the biggest mistake you made at an interview?