This is the second part of a 2-part series. The first part covered the basics of project-based interviews and how to conduct them effectively from an employer’s standpoint.
A project or homework assignment part of an interview process can either be a candidate’s greatest opportunity or just a big pain-in-the-ass. No matter how you view a project-based interview, though, if it comes up in your interview you want to be able to not only do it, but knock it out of the park.
This guide aims to give you an edge and help you ace this portion of your interview.
Last week I covered some of the reasons an employer would do a project-based interview, and I also covered some ideas on how to create and conduct them well. Your potential employer may or may not follow these guidelines, though, so this article is written to help in different cases. Like all things, use your judgment and plan accordingly.
Let’s jump in!
You know you have to do a project for your interview; what’s next?
Hopefully you have asked about the process early in your conversations (if you haven’t, then maybe an email to your recruiter or point-of-contact should be the next item on your to do list?), so you see this coming. If that is the case, you should do your best to get details on the project ahead of time if possible.
Depending on the parameters, the project you are assigned may be multiple days, require external resources, or even research. The sooner you know these things the earlier you can start thinking about the problem and arranging your schedule. If you only get a day to do the project, why wouldn’t you want to structure your schedule where you could spend the whole day completing the work?
Here are questions you should ask up front:
- How long will I have to complete the work? [ this will be your upper limit on time ]
- How long does the assignment usually take other candidates? [ so you can plan your schedule – I would give myself at least double whatever they say, that way you know you will have enough time ]
- Can I have the project definition in advance? [ it never hurts to ask, and you can always add the justification that you do better work when you have had more time to think about something ]
These questions can help you plan and make sure you have enough time to devote to the project. If you can, I would encourage you to carve out as much time as you are allowed. If you can’t clear all your commitments,, then try to break up your work time into multiple segments (for example 2 2-hour chunks, instead of 1 4-hour chunk) because this is going to give you a break in between if you get stuck.
Set yourself up for success
When it comes to the logistics of doing the work, make sure that you have put yourself in an environment where you can do your best.
In addition to scheduling your time, plan ahead:
- Location, location, location. Where will you do your best work? Do you work well in a coffee shop or at home? Do you need quiet? Think this through and plan ahead, since if someone else currently employs you then you shouldn’t be completing the project at your office.
- Minimize interruptions. Focus on the task. Turn off your email, social media, or other distractions so you can really get things done.
- Set expectations. If you are taking the day off to do the work, let your family know why so they can be respectful. If you are going to be away from the office, let coworkers know you will be unavailable. Setting these expectations ahead of time can save you from getting distracted or sucked into something else while you’re trying to work.
- Make sure you have everything you need. Do you need an Internet connection? Will you need to go out and talk with potential customers (if so, make sure you pick a time when they will be available – Sunday night at 8pm maybe not be optimal)? Will you need books or software? Figure this out in advance and make sure you gather all this stuff before the clock is ticking.
Do your research ahead of time
Chances are whatever the project is will have something to do with the company. One way you can save yourself time is researching the company ahead of time (this is actually something you should do before you interview anyway).
You want to understand the role you are applying for and how it fits into the company. Read about what the products and services they sell. Match the details in your job description with what is on their website.
Learn their product. Have you created an account and used the product? Make sure you are familiar with how it works. If you can’t sign up, consume all their marketing material – videos, product tours, case studies – everything you can find on their website. As you do this, keep lists about what you like and what you don’t like – this sort of thing can come in super handy in future conversations and interviews.
Who are their customers? When you read the copy on their website who are they targeting? Do they have a list of existing customers? Read up on the problems they solve and what verticals they are in. By getting in the heads of their customers, you will be better equipped to handle anything in that context.
Examine the competition. What other companies seem to be competing against them in the market? How do they position themselves as different? What other products and services seem to be offered? Getting your head around the larger market can help you understand where they are growing and how that will evolve over time. And if you aren’t sure who their competition is, this is a great question to ask in an early interview or conversation.
Who is talking about them? Google the company. Look at their social media accounts. What has been some of their recent press coverage (most sites have a press section where this is nicely compiled for you)? What do people say about them? Are there other companies mentioned in the same article (a clue to competition)? Get a feel for their reputation, recent press coverage (things like launches are often very valuable in conversations and understanding how their product has evolved over time), and general voice and tone.
All of this research will help you understand their values, the direction of the company, and their customers – and will give you a leg up in all aspects of the interview process – not just the project part.
Before you do any work, make sure you understand the scope
Just like any interview question, you should first begin by clarifying what is being asked of you. The last thing you want to do is spend hours of your time working on the wrong thing.
When you first get the assignment, you should verify what success looks like.
Here are some clarifying questions you should be able to answer before doing any work:
- What resources can I use? [ make sure you know what is “legal” and what is out of scope ]
- What is the final product? [ a program, a presentation, a write up ]
- If you get an ambiguous answer to this one, I would follow up with: What are some of the other formats candidates have used?
- How will the final product be reviewed? Will I have the chance to talk through my solution with anyone? [ this helps you to know how much explanation needs to come with your solution – does it need to stand on its own or will you have a chance to explain it? ]
- What should I do if I have a question during my work? [ it is helpful to know this before you get started, just in case ]
Once you dive into the details it is likely you may have more questions, too. And don’t be afraid to ask them! Good questions show that you are thoughtful and thinking through the parameters of the problem.
If you don’t get answers right away, don’t let that deter you. Just document your assumptions and keep moving forward. Chances are you are working with a time constraint, so you don’t want to get hung up on one unclear detail that keeps you from completing the task.
Delivering your goods
When it comes to the final product, focus on substance over style (the only exception is if you are a designer, in which case use your best judgment to know what is most important to them).
If you have to prepare a presentation, use a simple clean slide design. Now is not the time to get fancy. You want to impress them with your content and substance, not on your ability to animate parts of your presentation.
Proofread your work. Give yourself enough time to read over everything. Check for spelling errors or typos. If you wrote something, go through it by reading it out loud. You don’t want to be penalized for neglecting to pay attention to the little details. While a lot of polish is not necessary, simple mistakes can be glaring.
Seek feedback. Before you submit your work try to share it with someone else. Ask a friend or smart colleague to review what you have completed. Practice a presentation if you have to deliver one. Get feedback early in the process if you can so you have the time to make adjustments.
Be punctual. If you have a deadline to submit your work, then submit it on time. If you didn’t finish let them know and ask for extra time – but don’t fail to turn in something by the appointed time. Send them what you have.
If you are worried about the time limit, aim to complete one big part of the project that works well, rather than submitting all the pieces with none of them in working condition.
Give them context. When you send over the final product, take the time to craft a thoughtful email explaining your approach and solution. This can go a long way to explaining anything that might be unclear. Plus, the email is the first thing they’ll see before they review your product; don’t undersell or blow off this opportunity to make another great impression.
You should send this email, even if you will also be explaining it in person, as you never know when an email might be forwarded. This is also a great place to document any assumptions you may have made in throughout the process, so your reviewer goes in knowing what to expect.
Have you done one of these project interviews? Any suggestions or ideas to nailing these types of interviews? If so, leave them in the comments.