The headline for this commentary comes from advice that is frequently given to fiction writers: “Show it, don’t say it.” Oddly, I had not heard this saying until very recently. Apparently I have been living under a rock, while everyone else was out collecting such wisdom. Now that I have heard it, that saying seems to be everywhere.
Let me get to the point here. Being a pretty good problem solver will help you get hired, even in a weak economy. But as the headline warns, you need to show it, not say it.
I recently came across a “what you should never say in a job interview” article on the web. High on their list was “I am a problem solver.” The reason they did not want you to say that, is that everybody says that. It has become a cliché in the extreme, indicating that you are too stupid to think up something original.
While I can accept their premise, I firmly believe that what you want to do is show the interviewer that you are a pretty good problem solver. This is completely different from a person who says, “Oh, I am a problem solver.”
When I was a hiring manager, I wanted people who could calmly think and talk their way through a problem. They did not have to get every answer right, but it was really important that they had learned one specific skill from all of those years of school: show your work.
I once hired an engineer who got nearly every answer to my interview questions wrong—the first time. When I suggested a different way to look at the problem, or a different analysis, he could then discuss and share what he had assumed or misunderstood. It became clear to me that this candidate did not have much experience, but he was very, very smart and had a wonderfully fearless and surprisingly egoless attitude. He was willing to run with an idea. Given solid evidence that he was going down the wrong path; he could analyze and propose better solutions and could explain the strengths and weaknesses of his original and later proposal. Later, another manager confided to me that this engineer had become the go-to reference for his coworkers. Other engineers trusted him to solve (or help solve) their toughest problems.
In addition to being able to work through problems during the interview, the best candidates always brought some examples of problems (tasks, challenges, barriers) they had overcome. Some might bring photographs of a system or a circuit. Some might bring a publicly available datasheet for a product that they had developed.
Important note: NEVER display or share proprietary or confidential information during an interview. That demonstrates a carelessness that instantly puts you on the DON’T HIRE list. If you are willing to spill secrets from your current or previous employer, the interviewer assumes that his secrets will not be safe with you.
Let’s suppose that you are unfortunate enough to have not done any co-op or internship work during your studies. Does this mean you can never get hired? On the contrary, you might have taken apart and repaired dozens of personal computers while you were a student. Maybe you built your own guitar effects processor. Maybe you tore apart a radio or television, just to find out how it worked or how some part of it worked. Maybe you can tear down a car engine to tiny little bits and put it back together again—working better than when you started. Are you a ham radio operator?
These are all great examples that show a candidate has the curiosity, drive, and brain-power to solve a particular problem. More importantly, they were willing to get their hands dirty and work on problems that involved real-world constraints (such as time, money, and results).
So when you are in the hot seat getting interviewed: don’t say you are a problem solver. Show them you are a problem solver. Remember to ask good questions and show your work.