By Katherine Spencer Lee | September 2008

Question: I interviewed with a few companies for software engineering positions over the past couple of months, but had no luck securing a second interview. I have four years of experience and all the requisite skills detailed in the job ads, so I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Do you have any advice on how to improve my job hunting prospects? Katherine Spencer Lee responds: Many skilled IT professionals underestimate the importance of the interview. In today's competitive IT job market, it's not enough to look good on paper. You also must demonstrate solid soft skills, a strong work ethic and a personality that is compatible with the corporate culture. A so-so interview can tip the scales toward another candidate, even if you're otherwise well-suited for the position. Here are some tips to turn your interviews from a potential liability into an advantage: Start strong When it comes to interviewing, the first few minutes are often the most crucial. In fact, hiring managers polled by Robert Half International said it takes them just 10 minutes to form an opinion of a job candidate, despite meeting with staff-level applicants for 55 minutes and management-level applicants for 86 minutes, on average. The impression you make starts with arriving on time and well-prepared. Showing up late or rushing in the door at the last minute doesn't bode well for your ability to complete projects on time. Map out directions to the office and give yourself an ample time cushion in case something goes wrong. This strategy also allows you a few minutes to collect yourself before the meeting. From the moment you meet your interviewer, project enthusiasm, professionalism and confidence, both in your appearance and demeanor. Extend a firm handshake, make eye contact and interact in an engaged but relaxed manner. Because the opening minutes are so influential in hiring decisions, be especially aware of your initial comments and actions. Know the employer Lack of knowledge about the organization is another common deal-breaker. You can bet your competition has researched the firm, even if you haven't. In another Robert Half survey, nearly eight out of 10 (79 percent) executives said the job candidates they meet display at least some knowledge of the company or its industry - up from 59 percent in 1997. Gain a leg up on your competition by thoroughly researching the organization's history, products and services. Find recent news by visiting its website, reading industry publications and talking to members of your network. Doing so will help you address the company's needs during the interview and enable you to ask genuine questions about the firm that convey your interest in the job. Practice your responses Carefully plan how you're going to answer questions that are commonly asked during the interview, such as "So, tell me about yourself" and "What is your most significant professional accomplishment?" Make sure you also can respond articulately to queries about the firm, why you want to work there and why you're looking to leave your current position. As you may have discovered during recent interviews, you also may be asked less predictable questions designed to catch you off guard. Practice responding to tricky or strange interview queries ahead of time. Hiring managers might ask about your greatest weakness, for example. Ideally, you will be able to highlight steps you have taken to overcome the flaw. For example, if understanding IT projects in the context of larger business goals has not been your strong suit in the past, you might describe a business course you have taken to develop those skills. Tell a compelling story Remember that the interview is your opportunity to convince the employer that you are a strong candidate for the position. Don't approach it as just another chance to recite your technical abilities. Come to the interview with three career achievements in mind that demonstrate hard-to-measure qualities - like judgment, initiative, teamwork or leadership - that aren't readily apparent on your resume. Be careful not to rely on terminology the interviewer may not understand. Instead, try to demonstrate that you can communicate clearly with someone who may not share your technical background - a highly valued skill for today's IT job candidates. Close on a positive note Express your appreciation for the interviewer's time and consideration. Also, send a thank-you note to reinforce your interest. A carefully crafted message will advance your candidacy and leave a positive, lasting impression with the hiring manager long after you've left. Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.