How to stand out when Interviewing – Part 3: Craft Your Theme

As the previous post Gathering Data about Yourself discussed capturing metrics you’ll use later in the process, this post talks about one point where you can use those metrics to nail down more specifics to aid in your job hunt. This post talks about crafting a theme that will guide you for the rest of the process I lay out for interviewing.

What is a theme? How can crafting a theme help me when interviewing?

Crafting your theme is the idea that you want to tie your career goals and experience into an easy-to-understand statement. My theme is that I’m a quality-driven Release Engineer that saves the company time and money by creating and automating a reliable and repeatable build, test, and release process that can be executed by other members of the organization. There’s a ton of information packed in that statement. When you read that statement, you know exactly what I plan to do when I join a company. You know that I plan on eliminating work that others have to do by automating portions of the build-test-releas process so that they don’t have to manually run things like regression test suites or push builds by hand to QA environments. You know that I’m going to do it in a quality-driven way, which could be in the form of getting my code peer reviewed or supplementing my code with unit tests and integration tests. You know that I’m going to implement it in a way that others can perform the job in my absence and after I’ve left the company. This may be in the form of automation or documentation. This might be done by setting up alerts and reporting metrics. This also might be done by educating my fellow employees in what needs to be done in certain scenarios, such as when a build breaks or a deployment fails. These items all fit into my all-encompassing theme. I don’t want there to be single points of failure in the software development lifecycle, so I naturally build in things to address this.

It’s a good idea to come up with a theme for your resume and job hunt because when you go to write your base resume and tailor it to each company you apply at, the theme keeps the items on your resume that you include (and reject) in check. If I was trying to go for a Release Engineer position, and I had the theme above, I’d talk about things like cutting down build execution time, automating the creation of lab environments, and working with other groups to find out what are issues that they deal with as a result of the build process or that can be addressed during the build process. I wouldn’t necessarily include things like project management unless they were relevant to my theme or I could present them in a way that enhanced my theme.

A theme greatly helps you layout out your responses to interview questions and how to frame your experience, which we will get to in a future post.

Ok, I’m sold. How do I craft my theme?

To create a theme, look at the data you’ve collected so far about yourself and the work you’ve done. If you’ve collected enough data, you should see patterns emerging to help define your theme. If it’s still too early in the process and you haven’t collected enough data yet, you can start prioritizing items and metrics to collect data that will help drive home points that you want to include in your theme. If you were a software developer, you could ask yourself, “What type of software developer do I want to be considered as? Someone who takes measured risks that can help a company transition out of a startup and into a business by knowing when to automate certain types of tests and when to perform manual tests? Or do I want to be someone that is considered a team lead or senior engineer that can perform project management related activities?”

You can initially drive towards a theme by saying that you want to be X time of employee, such as the software developer that is someone that takes time to architect, design, and test things correctly the first time, even if it takes a little longer than the average developer. If you are a project manager, you could say that you are a “fix it” manager that can make appropriate adjustments to scope and planning to get a derailed project back on track and to release on time.

Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is the first thing I want people to think about when they see my work?
  • Do I work better as someone who takes a project and works on it in isolation or do I need customer feedback on a regular basis? – One way to present the first one is as someone who can wow clients with features they didn’t know they wanted/needed (the Apple approach). The second can be presented as someone that tailors solutions to customer feedback to give the customer exactly what they needed by working with the customer closely.
  • Do I provide more value by seeking out projects proactively or by honing my craft to do the best possible job I can with the assignments I’m given? – Think of this as the Jack of all trades or the Ace of Spades approach. A startup needs someone who can do a little bit of everything (Jack of all trades), but NASA needs someone who can develop a method or six of slowing down a car-sized robot in a thin atmosphere (Ace of Spades).
  • What are my strong suits? What am I terrible at?

As you gain more experience and want to further your career, your theme will change. This is natural progression, so don’t worry about this, but the idea is that you need to be able to present a coherent and well crafted argument every time you go to interview. By giving them a clear statement of what you do and how you do it, they will know exactly what they want to drill down into instead of asking you spaghetti-on-the-wall questions to see what sticks. The more specific questions they ask, the better the interview will go. Would you rather be asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Tell me about a weakness you have,” or would you rather be discussing how you eliminated 80% of the late nights in the last month of a typical release by writing a regression test suite that covered 50% of the code being released?

If you found value in this content, I encourage you to read the rest of the posts in this series about how to stand out when interviewing:

  1. Picking a new PositionOne of the biggest problems people encounter when they are looking for a new job is, “What do I look for now? Should I get the same job somewhere else? Should I try to move up? What if I’m not qualified?!” In this post, we discuss a couple of methods you can use to help you get clarity in which direction you should head with your career.
  2. Gather Data about YourselfThis post discusses some ways you can use to get concrete insight on information you can use to prove your skills and experience throughout your job search.
  3. (You are here) Craft your Theme - Once you’ve gathered the data, you should either see or develop some sort of trend in your work. You should also try to craft this theme to fit into your overall career goals. Your theme should provide a narrative behind where your career has been and where you are proactively directing it.
  4. Writing your Base Resume - I recommend you write a base resume to help you get a solid grasp of the direction you want to head with your career. This post discusses an approach I take to doing this.
  5. Build your Portfolio - By providing a portfolio of your work, you not only tell the person or company you are interviewing with that you are awesome, but you give them examples of your work so that they can investigate it for themselves.
  6. Practicing InterviewingWith this post, we talk about some methods you can use to practice interviewing.
  7. Picking the Companies to interview - In this post, we’ll talk about picking the right companies to interview with so that you know how to tailor your resume.
  8. How to prepare for an interview - While you are waiting for companies to respond back asking for interviews, you should be breaking apart the job descriptions even further and writing down examples of work you’ve done previously to satisfy each requirement that they are listing. You should be also boning up on the basics of your potential job and the theory behind it.
  9. Common Interview Questions and Answers - You’ve made it this far and you’re starting to interview with companies. During each interview, you want to ask 3 specific questions which I’ll cover later in this article.
  10. Accepting a Job Offer - At the end of the interview process with each company, one of two (obvious) things will happen: rejection or acceptance. I’ll discuss how to deal with each one of them and where to go from there.
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  1. […] Craft your Theme - Once you’ve gathered the data, you should either see or develop some sort of trend in your work. You should also try to craft this theme to fit into your overall career goals. Your theme should provide a narrative behind where your career has been and where you are proactively directing it. […]

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