There’s a common misconception in the techie community that you should make sure you don’t fall prey to. Here’s what it sounds like.

So I went on the interview, and the interviewer was totally unprepared. First thing he asks me, he says "So, Dave, tell me about yourself." He's got my resume right there on the desk in front of him. It's like he didn't even read it! What could I say? I said "Well, what do you want to know?"

Poor Dave is laboring under the impression that his interviewer was trying to find out facts about him. Dave’s attitude is basically “RTFM, dude.” Dave’s written down everything on the resume, so why should he have to bother explaining it to the hiring manager?

For the sake of his job search, Dave would do well to learn that Job interviews are not about obtaining factual information about you. They are about assessing the candidate as a person, as potential team member.

If the hiring process was as simple as gathering printed requirements from resumes, there would be no need for interviews. Hiring managers could sit back and shuffle through stacks of paper until the right combination of skills showed up. It’s not that simple. When the hiring manager hires someone, he’s hiring a human being, not a bunch of programming languages and network skill sets off a checklist. Hiring is fundamentally a human process, no matter how computer-oriented we may be.

The question “Tell me about yourself” serves at least three purposes.

  • It gives the candidate a chance to give her elevator speech, to tell about herself and what value she'll bring to the organization, and set the interview off in a given direction.
  • It lets the manager see how well prepared the candidate is for the interview.
  • It lets the candidate show how well-spoken she is.
  • It lets the manager get an idea of the candidate's attitude and personality. In Dave's case, his attitude is terrible and that will come out. Dave won't get the job.
  • It lets the manager compare what you tell him with what's on the resume, to see if there are any discrepancies.

The worst response to “Tell me about yourself” is to ask “Well, what do you want to know?” What the hiring manager wants to know is what you’ll do to help him make money for the company, or do things faster, because business speaks in terms of money and time. To be able to answer that, you’ll have to be prepared, and probably do some research about the company and the position itself. It should not be a canned answer you use at every company.

None of this is to say that there aren’t incompetent, unprepared interviewers who fall back on “Tell me about yourself”. Chances are, however, that when you’re asked this in an interview, you’re being given a chance to make a good impression and to start the interview right. Don’t blow it by misunderstanding its purpose.