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Interviewing Strategies to Land that Intelligence Job

By Erik Kleinsmith, Staff, Intelligence Studies, American Military University

The hunt for an intelligence job is different from other industries because of the unique aspects of our business. It’s a relatively closed market to job seekers and the jobs are defined with specific qualifications and security requirements. Because of this, the qualified labor pool that hiring managers draw from is relatively limited to those who have the experience, education, and clearance. While your resume is your written advocate for that new position, you as a person are responsible for shining during the interview process.

[Related: The 4 Core Abilities Needed for a Career in Intelligence]

While interviewing for an intelligence job has some similarities to interviewing for other jobs, there are some specific pitfalls that intelligence job seekers must be aware of. In a previous article, How to Write a Stand-Out Intelligence Resume, I outlined the important elements your resume needs to get noticed by hiring managers. The interview phase only comes after your resume has passed the first three steps of the job-selection process:

  1. Collection – Resumes are gathered through various sources
  2. Screening – First cursory look for key elements required for the position
  3. Evaluation – A more detailed look at your resume in direct comparison to others
  4. Interview – Verification that you are as competent as your resume says you are
  5. Negotiation – Includes salary, location, responsibilities, and work environment
  6. Award – Congratulations (sometimes contingent on contract award)

If you reach  interview phase, your resume has been successfully screened and evaluated and it’s been determined that you’re one of a few people worth calling. Only a few people will proceed to this step because – quite simply – hiring or program managers only have time to call people whom they would actually consider hiring.

Preparing for First Contact

Your first contact with a company may or may not be an interview – be prepared for one, but it’s unlikely a call out of the blue will be an interview. If you do receive an unscheduled call, it is more likely to make sure you’re still interested in the position or a request for additional pieces of information.

In many cases, people from the hiring team will reach out to verify or clarify some of the things on your resume prior to passing it to the hiring manager. Any questions about your resume probably indicate areas that you need to address or fix.

This initial call certainly won’t get you an intelligence job, but it can absolutely kill your chances if you present yourself with an attitude or seem apathetic. Most of these initial callers won’t be the final decision-makers, but they will be making note of their first impressions. Remember, during this call your resume still hasn’t made it out of the evaluation step, so if you don’t leave a good impression on the caller, your resume may be annotated as such or simply tossed out.

[Related: Is Intelligence an Art or a Science?]

Your aim is not necessarily to impress this caller. You just need to be friendly, polite, articulate, and helpful. If you’re not used to talking on the phone, start practicing now. Some of the least articulate people I’ve spoken with on the phone are younger folks who are used to communicating over text.

If your first contact is through text message, the same rules apply. Be polite and articulate in your responses. Just as you wouldn’t talk to a potential employer on the phone the same way you talk to your friends, don’t send text messages the same way either – stay away from emojis and abbreviations.

Tips for an Intelligence Job Interview

The interview itself could take three different paths. It could be conducted over the phone by one person, you could be dialed into a conference call or put on speaker phone with several people, or you could be asked to do the interview in-person. Be prepared for all three.

For this part, the generic job hunting rules apply. If the interview is done over the phone, be in a quiet location where you can talk. Don’t be driving. If it’s an in-person interview, wear smart clothes, don’t look at your phone while waiting for the interviewer, and no swearing (you’d think this one was a given, but trust me – it’s not).

During the interview, there are a couple of things to remember that will help you stand out from the other candidates. Some of these are still general tips for almost any job, but there are some that are specific to an intelligence job.

Use the STAR Technique

Almost all formal interviews that use any sort of grading system will specifically use the STAR format or something similar. STAR stands for: Situation, Task, Action, and Result. It is used to evaluate your answers to questions about your past experience. For example, “tell us about a previous situation where you ran into a problem related to your personnel or their security clearances.”

For these types of questions, make sure to format your answer in terms of:

  1. The Situation you were in
  2. The Task you had to accomplish
  3. What your Actions were
  4. The Results of your actions

The interview board will be listening for each STAR item as you talk and writing notes; possibly giving a letter or numeric grade to each item. After your interview is complete, the hiring panel will compare their answers with one another and against the interviews of other candidates. Your ability to articulate your responses using this method will help raise your score for each answer.

Be Prepared to Talk about Your Resume in More Detail

You can be confident that your resume shined during the screening and evaluation processes. Now the hiring team needs to make sure you are truly proficient at ArcGIS, Analyst Notebook, or DCGS-A data mining tools like your resume said you were. Your interviewers will be familiar with most tools and common intel databases, so listing yourself as proficient in a specific database or tool when you are not is a huge risk. Any deviance between your resume and what you say during your interview will knock your overall credibility down several steps.

Be Prepared to Talk about Prior Professional Relationships

The intel world is not that big. The folks interviewing you will most likely know a lot about your previous intelligence job and possibly some of the people you’ve worked with. Hiring teams won’t hesitate to reach out to ask your mutual contacts about you. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your past relationships. I’ve also seen several candidates get eliminated because someone on the hiring team had a bad interaction with them or a former colleague attested that they are nothing like how they portrayed themselves in an interview. I have personally vetoed several candidates I knew from previous intel jobs because I wouldn’t want to work with them again.

[Related: Teamwork that Protects the Nation]

Be Prepared to Talk about Classified Situations without Breaching Security Protocols

Similar to how you write it in your resume, you can discuss classified positions and duties in an unclassified manner. However, you must be continually cognizant about what you’re saying so you don’t violate any current security regulations. Remember that a majority of classified information involves specific technologies, operations, and tradecraft. These three items should remain red flags in the back of your mind so when you’re discussing a highly classified program, you don’t let yourself tread into these three areas.

Be Knowledgeable about the Current Status of Your Clearance

You should already have the date of your latest background investigation and adjudication listed high up on your resume. If there has been a change to your clearance since you submitted your resume, it’s your responsibility to make sure that it is known during the interview, no matter if it helps or hurts your chances of getting hired. Honesty and openness are the most important things when it comes to the status of your clearance. Any deceit or hidden problem with your clearance is enough to kill your candidacy for an intelligence job.

Be Prepared to Talk about Intelligence Fundamentals

In other words, be prepared to show that you know intelligence beyond your most recent job. Those who have been in one intelligence job for a long time or have worked at a certain level (tactical, operational or strategic) for a while will have a difficult time talking about things outside of this scope. For example, it’s tough to talk about interagency coordination and cooperation when you’ve come from some TAC ops center downrange.

[Related: What Will it Take to be Tomorrow’s Intelligence Leader?]

Get out the books, read up on different aspects of intelligence, and understand the baseline fundamentals of the intelligence disciplines. You should know about other agencies, the latest collection platforms and data mining tools, and intel oversight regulations. You may think this is not really important, but doing so will enable you to talk about different things and how you would tackle new types of problems. It will also help you relax because you’ll have more confidence in your ability to answer unexpected questions.

Ask Questions during the Interview

During every interview you’ll be given a chance to ask questions. Ask them. Remember you’re also deciding if you want to work for this organization. For all intelligence positions, including government, you’ll want to know four basic things:

  1. Where is the location of the work?
  2. What is the actual work?
  3. What is the salary range for the position?
  4. What is the work environment like?

A wise colleague once told me that if you’re happy with three or more of these things, you’ll be happy in the position. Your questions during the interview should help augment the research you have already done about the organization.

For contractor positions, there are additional things you need to ask. Most importantly are the details about the contract itself:

  • What is the contract’s current status?
  • How long until it comes up for recompete?
  • What are the company’s current chances for winning when it does?
  • Is this position ready now or is it contingent upon successful award of the contract?

Entering into a job without knowing these details is a huge and unacceptable risk.

A glaring example of this is when one of my past employees applied for a contractor position at one of the big defense companies within a certain three-letter agency. His interview went well and he was expecting an offer letter for immediate hire. When I reported his eminent departure to my boss who happened to work at that agency, he informed me that the contract was still up for competition. I let the employee know and he ended up turning down the offer after hearing their response.

It turned out that the hiring company had a habit of hiring people for work that had yet to be awarded to them by the government. They would essentially put their new hires in a holding cell while competition for the work was still ongoing. In doing so, they could say in their proposal that their employees were ready to start work “on day one” of the contract. If they didn’t win, they would simply fire all the people they hired. This is a horrible hiring practice and obviously unethical. Asking questions during your interview process will help you identify and avoid these types of traps.

Advice for the Negotiation Process

If you get through the interview successfully, answer questions in the right format, present yourself well, and ask your own questions, you will at some point reach the salary negotiation process. This is when you’ll be asked about your salary requirements.

While it’s highly dependent on your specific scenario, there are generally two ways to proceed and neither involves you stating a specific salary minimum. Don’t do it. Just like listing your salary requirements on your resume, if you’re above or below the range your employer is thinking, you may be turned down or vulnerable to be taken advantage of.

How you proceed depends on whether you already know the salary range for the position.  If you do not, ask for it or tell your prospective employer that you’re looking to meet or build upon your current salary. Doing this throws out a baseline start to the negotiation.

If you do know the range, let them know that and then indicate whether it’s acceptable or not. The bottom line is that you have to be able to live within what they can afford to pay you.

With these tips in mind, you will go into the interview process for an intelligence job better armed for the specific hurdles you will need to overcome. Your resume got you to the interview. Now you need to get yourself to the offer.

intelligence job About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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