Hacking The Job Search: Fail Fast, Early, And Small

Trying to snag a job but haven't gone through the process in awhile? There's no better way to learn than to go through some interviews without the consequences...

I was confused. I was receiving a call on my phone, but I didn’t recognize the number. I knew it was for a follow up phone interview for some job, but I couldn’t remember which company or which interviewer. I guess I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for this one. Eh, I wasn’t too worried about it. How could I be so careless about a potential job offer?  Despite the fact that I hadn’t lined up a new line of work following my impending transition from the Marine Corps, I wasn’t exactly ready to sign up for a new career yet, either.

I was getting this call early on in the transition process. I was still about a month from leaving the military. Most of my job search was going to be done during my terminal leave, giving me a couple months of paid time off to line up a new career. There were a couple hiring conferences and networking events that I had scheduled for that period, events where I knew I’d be interested in the companies and positions offered. However, I didn’t want those opportunities to be the first time I was interviewed. So even though I wasn’t entirely prepared or even interested in finding a job yet, I figured I’d give it a try anyway. Learn by doing, as they say. 

Get the biggest bang for your buck

To maximize the experience, I replied to one of the recruiting companies that I’m sure most service members have been spammed by throughout their careers. The recruiters had been sending me e-mails since the day I was commissioned. I finally gave them a call and after a few chats and passing along my resume, I was scheduled for one of their hiring conferences where they brought in a couple dozen companies looking for veteran talent. The recruiting firm tried to match me with ones that I might be a good fit with, but remember, this was going to be a learning experience, so I was valuing quantity over quality at this point. I pushed to have another interview added to the list for me, bringing the total number to 6. Not bad for a weekend. 

The best thing about conferences like these is that you get feedback from the recruiter that was given to them by the people who just interviewed you. It’s a great way to improve upon your interviewing skills, because if you were doing this on your own, you generally don’t get any reply from the company at all, other than a, “Thank you for coming,” if you’re lucky. Another big plus was just getting a better understanding of the hiring conference structure. On day 1, all the candidates got briefed on the different companies and positions, giving us some opportunities to fine tune what we would be saying during the interviews. On day 2 and 3, interviews were lined up throughout the day, in various hotel rooms at the conference. I quickly learned that I had to be on my game and well prepared before showing up, because some interview were back-to-back and the companies might be from widely different industries (energy vs. pharmaceuticals), the positions could be completely different (project management vs. sales), or the companies might be direct competitors. Keeping everything straight required a lot of reviewing of the notes from the briefs on Day 1. One final benefit — when you get that many interviews in a row, you start getting used to the pressure and you get more comfortable just going through it. 

Looking for a job is a full time job

I did reasonably well at the conference and had the opportunity to line up a few follow up interviews afterward. While I still had little interest in taking most of these jobs, I still wanted to continue the process for as long as possible to learn as much as I could. I didn’t feel like I was being disingenuous with any of these companies. If I was truly impressed with a position, I might take it. That just wasn’t my priority at the time. And I’m glad I went through with the follow ups because it’s a totally different game than going for job interviews at a conference. It ended up being quite the rigmarole, coordinating follow ups around working hours, taking phone calls at all hours, and using leave to go on more interviews.  It’s true what they say, looking for a job is a full time job in itself, and it certainly felt like I was balancing two jobs, my day job and my job search, at times. And the interviews weren’t all sit downs one-on-one. Now I’d be visiting offices, going on sales calls, or interviewing on the phone. Getting placed in these scenarios was exactly what I was trying to learn more about. And I saw that getting a job is a lot longer process than I’d imagined.

In the end, I didn’t take a job from this first round of interviews, although I did come close. It was well worth the effort still, as I was far better prepared for my interviews and follow-ups at later conferences, where I eventually did take an offer. If you’re in a position where you can take an opportunity like this to learn and fail with little consequences, I would suggest going for it. Getting that experience was just as valuable to me, and probably far more so, than just going over interview questions and refining my resume all day. Here are a few other things I learned along the way:

There are a lot of jobs out there I didn’t know about

I took interviews with a variety of companies for a variety of positions, from pharmaceutical sales, to IT network providers, to construction project managers for a national food chain. This was the first lesson I learned. There are actually quite a few widely varying career choices available to me with my military background. As much homework as I had done on the careers I might be interested in doing following the military, there was still a lot I didn’t know, including what was out there. These job interviews were as much about gathering more information about different opportunities as it was about getting hired. 

Interviewers asked a lot of the same questions

One thing you’ll quickly learn after doing several interviews in a row is that there are common questions you’ll be asked over and over. Sure, everybody asks you to introduce yourself, or to walk them through your resume. But I also got asked questions about certain aspects of my background from my resume. That told me two things. Either my resume was confusing to them and it was something I needed to fix, or, it was an important aspect of my experience that people were interested in, so I should have a good explanation or story to expound upon it if the question was asked again. Little insights like these are golden for being well prepared down the line.


Going through an interview is like working on a comedy stand up routine. You throw out a story and then refine it depending on the audience reactions. As I answered similar questions from interview to interview, I would pay attention to how well I was connecting with people. I had worked on dozens of questions in preparation for my interviews, writing out pages and pages of answers, but telling it in person was the best feedback. I could see when the interviewers would nod in agreement, or laugh at an anecdote, or start to get that faraway glaze look in their eyes if I talked for too long. 

Reading the interview

One of the things you learn from going through the interview process is a better understanding of what the interviewer is looking for. Sometimes, they would dive deep into my experience on managing projects. Other times, it was my ability to grasp technical subjects. And sometimes, it was just to see if I was someone they could get along with. I started to see how little some of the things in my background mattered, and how important others were. Depending on the position or industry, I started to have a good idea of what I might be asked, and this really helped me hone in on the types of answers I would give, and what I would  highlight from my background.

All of this experience was invaluable for my next run of interviews about a month later. I was more confident, had well refined answers, and was more prepared to answer questions about my background. That’s why I’d suggest taking just about any interview you can early on in the process and to take it as far as you can, if only to get more comfortable with the process.

Finally, the issue of this phone call. As I prepared to take the call, there was one more lesson to remind myself — I needed a better system to keep track of what my follow up appointments would be.