So you’ve done your homework and settled on a couple of agencies to help you find contract work. You’ve made your initial contact, and your “exploratory” interview is scheduled at their office in two days. This interview is your chance to tell them exactly what you are about. Just listen to me, and I’ll show you how to have them eating out of your hand!

Let’s do some role-playing. You are David or Debbie, the Dashing Developer, and I am Wade the Technical Recruiter.

Before the interview
You need to do some soul-searching. You must determine (and later explain) exactly why you are interviewing. My objective in interviewing you is to find out the following:

  • Your availability profile
  • Your hard skill set
  • Your IPC skills

Your availability profile
I will probably ask you these questions very early in our interview. If you are not available when I need you, there is little point in going further. Keep in mind, these questions are examples only, and are in no particular order:

  • How much notice do you need before beginning a job?
  • Can we call you for “same day” assignments?
  • Can you travel anywhere to work, or do you need to stick close to city bus routes?
  • Can you work weekends?
  • Are there any locations or types of businesses that you would not work for? An example might be, “I don’t want to work in hospitals, because they really depress me.”
  • Do you want short “quick hitter” assignments that may only last a day or two, or do you prefer long-term work?
  • How long do you intend to be available for assignments overall?
  • Are you ultimately looking for a permanent job?
  • Do you have a set pay rate you require before you’ll consider a contract assignment, or are you flexible about pay depending on the situation?
  • What kind of work do you most want to do?
  • What kind of work would you settle for?
  • Are you willing to wait for a specific type of work or location, or are you willing to diversify and stay busy?
  • How soon could you start?
  • Are there any anticipated gaps in your availability for employment?
  • Have you planned upcoming trips to Europe, or do you have scheduled National Guard duty coming up?

Sound like a lot of questions? You bet. These are things that a recruiter will need to know when deciding whether you are worth calling when jobs need to be filled. Be prepared to answer them.

Your hard skill set
This is the part where I ask you to brag about yourself. Here are some example questions:

  • What can you do?
  • What can you not do?
  • Are you a Web designer?
  • Are databases your thing?
  • What certifications do you have?
  • Can you perform hardware repairs if needed?
  • Tell me about any project management you have done.

My point is that you should come to the interview prepared to discuss all your skills—I may ask about them in detail! Paint me a picture. Don’t just tell me you designed a database for a school. Tell me what it did, who used it, why it was needed, and how happy the principal was when you showed him what it would do. Use proper names for products and languages you used.

Ultimately, I need to turn around and sell your skills to a customer, so I need to see how your experience is perfect for other jobs. Don’t lie, but don’t be shy. This is not pass/fail. I will ask for details, but my true goal is not to catch you lying—I just want to see what types of work you are comfortable with and would enjoy. Remember: This is why they call it an “exploratory” interview. The technical stuff comes on another day.

Your (gulp) interpersonal communication skills
Although they’re not the most critical skills for a programmer, IPC skills are certainly not to be overlooked. Many geek types choose this career precisely because they don’t like dealing with others. Unfortunately, in the job market, working with others is a necessary evil, and my job as a recruiter is to see if you can do it. I am not looking for a smooth-talking public speaker; all I really want to know is whether you can listen attentively, speak concisely, and form grammatically correct sentences.

Just remember these three points, and your IPC skills will be shown in their best light:

  • You must dress appropriately. Ask me what to wear when you set the appointment, and then wear it. Leave the earrings and sandals at home, and cover the tattoos as best you can. This is not the statement you want to make right now.
  • Look me in the eye throughout my questions and your answers. Don’t stare a hole in my head, but avoid looking at the floor and rolling your eyes, no matter how stupid my questions seem. Basic eye contact will do the trick.
  • Go straight to Point B. Use the shortest distance to get to your answer. Don’t start talking until you know where your answer is going. That way you are less likely to ramble.

To recap, a technical recruiter uses the exploratory interview to determine when you are available, what kinds of jobs to offer you, and how well you communicate. There is no hidden agenda. The more honest detail you can give about these things, the more comfortable a recruiter will be about calling you soon for a job.