So you’re out of work, you’ve done your homework, and you’ve settled on a couple of agencies to help you find some contract work to fill the gap until your next permanent gig. You just made your initial contact, and the recruiter says you need to meet for an exploratory interview at his office in two days. “What’s this exploratory interview?” you ask. “Sounds a bit like surgery.”

Let’s do some role-playing. I’ll be Wade the technical recruiter, and you’ll be Dave (or Debbie) the dashing developer. Step into my office. I’ll tell you more about these exploratory interviews and offer you some advice on getting that recruiter to eat out of your hand.

Just an initial meeting, really
An exploratory interview is what we recruiters call an initial meeting, where we determine what sorts of jobs we’ll be able to offer you. This interview is your chance to tell us exactly what you’re all about—but if you blow it, we’ll likely cross you off our list. Many traditional employers also conduct exploratory interviews to screen applicants before sending their resumes to the department that needs an employee. Don’t worry, though, the tips I’m about to share will work just as well in either situation.

Basically, in conducting an exploratory interview, my objective is threefold:

  • I want to find out your availability profile.
  • I want to know what your hard skills are.
  • I want to find out how well developed your interpersonal communication (IPC) skills are.

Your availability profile
Early on in the interview, I’ll ask you questions to establish your availability profile—how soon and how often you’ll be available for work. If you aren’t going to be available when I need you, there is little point in going further, so don’t give me the wrong impression here. This is relatively straightforward stuff; I’ll ask you questions such as:

  • How much notice will you need before beginning a job?
  • Can we call you for “same day” assignments?
  • Can you work weekends?
  • What kind of work do you most want to do, and what would you settle for?
  • Will you diversify in order to stay busy?
  • Do you have a set pay rate you need to even consider a contract assignment, or are you flexible on pay, depending on the situation?
  • Are there any anticipated gaps in your availability for employment, like upcoming vacations or National Guard duty?
  • Do you want short assignments that may last only a day or two, or do you prefer more long-term work?

You’ll also have a chance to tell me about any special requirements or needs you have, such as types of companies or locations where you don’t particularly like to work or if you need job locations close to a bus route.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? These are all things that a recruiter will need to know when deciding whether you are worth calling when those jobs need to be filled. So you should be prepared to answer all such questions.

Your hard skill set
Next we’ll probably move on to your hard, technical skill set. This is where you get to brag on yourself. Come to the interview prepared to discuss any and all of your skills in detail. Remember that, ultimately, I need to turn around and sell you and your skills to a customer, so I need to see how your experience makes you a good fit for other jobs. The only way I can do that is if you make it clear to me what you’re able to do. Oddly enough, however, this is where most people fall down in the interview process.

The biggest advice I can give you for this phase is this: Paint me a picture when you tell me about your skills. Don’t just say, “I designed a database application for a school.” Instead, tell me what the application did, who used it, why it was needed, and how happy the principal was when you showed him how well it worked. Tell me a story that I can repeat to customers that will make them want you for their position.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be shy about your experience, and volunteer related information: If I ask about SQL Server, tell me about your experience with Oracle as well.
  • Be honest; lying doesn’t help anyone here.
  • Use the proper names and version numbers for the products and languages you’ve used.

Finally, remember that while I will ask for details, my true goal is not to catch you lying. I simply want to see what types of work you are comfortable with and would enjoy. That’s why we call it an exploratory interview.

Your IPC skills
Granted that you may have chosen a technical career specifically because you don’t like dealing with others, and communication often isn’t the most critical skill for a programmer. However, communication skills can’t be completely ignored, because working with others is a necessary evil. One of my jobs as a recruiter is to see if you can do it.

But, relax. I’m not planning on making you do any public speaking anytime soon. 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:

  • Dress appropriately: Ask me what you should wear when you set the appointment, and wear it. Leave the earrings and sandals at home, and cover the tattoos as best you can; they may make statements you don’t want to make right now.
  • Make eye contact: Look me in the eye during my questioning and while giving your answers. You don’t need to stare a hole in my head, but avoid looking at the floor and rolling your eyes, no matter how stupid my questions seem. Just basic eye contact will do the trick.
  • Rambling is bad: People tend to ramble when in stressful situations, and interviews can be pretty stressful. Go straight from point A to point B, and use the shortest distance to get to your answer. Don’t start talking until you know what your answer is going to be and how you’re going to get there.

To recap, technical recruiters use exploratory interviews to determine when you are available, what kinds of jobs to offer you, and how well you communicate. There really is no hidden agenda. By following the tips I’ve provided and providing as much honest detail as you can, you’ll make that recruiter comfortable calling you for his next job.