Guerilla Guide to Developer Interviews

Over the course of my career I’ve done quite a number of technical interviews, and a pretty decent cross-section of them have ended in job offers or at least invitations to move on to the next step. That said, I am no expert and I am certainly no career coach, but I have developed some habits that seem pretty valuable for me in terms of approaching the interview process. Another important caveat here is that these are not tips to snag yourself an offer, but tips to ensure that you wind up at a company that’s as good a fit as possible. Sometimes that means declining an offer or even not getting one because you realize as you’re interviewing that it won’t be a good fit. On any of these, your mileage may vary.

So in no particular order, here are some things that you might find helpful if you’re throwing yourself out there on the market.

Avoid the Firehose

Programming jobs are becoming more and more plentiful, and, in response to that demand, and contrary to all conventional logic about markets, the supply of programmers is falling. If you work as a programmer, the several emails a week you get from recruiters stand in not-so-mute testimony to that fact. If you decide that it’s time to start looking and throw your resume up on Dice, Monster, and CareerBuilder, your voicemail will fill up, your home answering machine will stop working, and your email provider will probably throttle you or start sending everything to SPAM. You will be absolutely buried in attempts to contact you. Some of them will be for intern software tester; some of them will be for inside sales rep; some of them will be for super business opportunities with Amway; some of them won’t even be in your native language.

DrinkFirehose

Once you do filter out the ones (dozens) that are complete non-starters, you’ll be left with the companies that have those sites on some kind of RSS or other digital speed dial, meaning that they do a lot of hiring. Now, there are some decent reasons that companies may do a lot of hiring, but there are a lot of not-so-decent reasons, such as high turnover, reckless growth, a breadth-over-depth approach to initial selection, etc. To put it in more relatable terms, imagine if you posted a profile on some dating site and within seconds of you posting it, someone was really excited to meet you. It may be Providence, but it also may be a bit worrisome.

The long and short of my advice here is that you shouldn’t post your resume immediately to sites like these. Flex your networking muscle a bit, apply to some appealing local companies that you’d like to work at, contact a handful of recruiters that you trust, and see what percolates. You can always hit the big boards later if no fish are biting or you start blowing through your savings, but if you’re in a position to be selective, I’d favor depth over breadth, so to speak.

Don’t Be Fake

When it comes time to the do the actual interview, don’t adopt some kind of persona that you think the interviewers want to see. Be yourself. You’re looking to see whether this is going to be a fit or not, and while it makes sense to put your best foot forward, don’t put someone else’s best foot forward. If you’re a quiet, introverted thinker, don’t do your best brogrammer imitation because there’s a ping pong table in the other room and the interviewers are all 20-something males. You’re probably going to fail to fit in anyway, and even if you don’t, the cultural gulf is going to continue to exist once you start.

And above all, remember that “I don’t know” is the correct answer for questions to which you don’t know the answer. Don’t lie or try to fake it. The most likely outcome is that you look absurd and tank the interview when you could have saved yourself a bit of dignity with a simple, “I’m not familiar with that.” But even if this ruse somehow works, what’s the long-play here? Do you celebrate the snow-job you just pulled on the interviewer, even knowing that he must be an idiot (or an Expert Beginner) to have fallen for your shtick? Working for an organization that asks idiots to conduct interviews probably won’t be fun. Or perhaps the interviewer is perfectly competent and you just lucked out with a wild guess. In that case, do you want to hire on at a job where they think you’re able to handle work that you can’t? Think that’ll go well and you’ll make a good impression?

If you don’t know the answers to questions that they consider important, there’s a pretty decent chance you’d be setting yourself up for an unhappy stay even if you got the job. Be honest, be forthright, and answer to the best of your ability. If you feel confident enough to do so, you can always pivot slightly and, for instance, turn a question about the innards of a relational database to an answer about the importance of having a good DBA to help you while you’re doing your development work or something. But whatever you do, don’t fake it, guess, and pray.

Have the Right Attitude

One of the things I find personally unfortunate about the interview process is how it uniquely transports you back to waiting to hear whether or not you got into the college of your dreams. Were your SAT scores high enough? Did you play a varsity sport or join enough clubs? Did you have enough people edit your essays? Oh-gosh-oh-gee I hope they like me. Or, really, I hope I’m good enough.

Let me end the suspense for you. You are. The interview process isn’t about whether you’re good enough, no matter how many multiple choice questions you’re told to fill out or how much trivia an interviewer sends your way in rapid fire bursts of “would this compile!?” The interview process is ultimately about whether you and the company would be a good mutual fit. It isn’t just a process to help them determine if you’d be able to handle the work that they do. It’s also a chance for you to evaluate whether or not you’d like doing the work that they give you. Both parts are equally important.

So don’t look at it as you trying to prove yourself somehow. It’s more like going to a social event in an attempt to make friends than it is like hoping you’re ‘good’ enough for your favorite college. Do you want to hang out with the people you’re talking to for the next several years of your life? Do you have similar ideas to them as to what good software development entails? Do you think you’d enjoy the work? Do you like, respect, and understand the technologies they use? This attitude will give you more confidence (which will make you interview better), but it also sets the stage for the next point here.

Don’t Waste Your Questions

In nearly every interview that I’ve ever been a part of, there’s the time for the interviewer to assess your suitability as a candidate via asking you questions. Then there’s the “what questions do you have for me” section. Some people will say, “nothing — I’m good.” Those people, as any career site or recruiter will tell you, probably won’t get an offer. Others will take what I believe is fairly standard advice and use this time as an opportunity to showcase their good-question-asking ability or general sharpness. Maybe you ask impressive sounding things like, “what’s your five year plan,” or, “I have a passionate commitment to quality as I’m sure you do, so how do you express that?” (the “sharp question” and “question brag,” respectively).

I think it’s best to avoid either of those. You can really only ask a handful of questions before things start getting awkward or the interviewer has to go, so you need to make them count. And you’ll make them count most by asking things that you really want to know the answer to. Are you an ardent believer in TDD or agile methodologies? Ask about that! Don’t avoid it because you want it to be true and you want them to make an offer and you don’t want to offend them. Better to know now that you have fundamental disagreements with them than six months into the job when you’re miserable.

As an added bonus, your interviewer is likely to be a pretty successful, intelligent person. She’s probably got a fairly decent BS detector and would rather you ask questions to which you genuinely want to know the answers.

Forge your Questions in the Fires of Experience

So you’re going to ask real questions, but which questions to ask… My previous suggestion of “ones you want the answer to” is important, but it’s not very specific. The TDD/agile question previously mentioned is an example of one good kind of question to ask: a question which provokes an answer that interests you and gives you information about whether you’d like the job. But I’d take it further than this.

Make yourself a list of things you liked and didn’t like at previous jobs, and then start writing down questions that will help you ferret out whether the things you liked or didn’t will be true at the company where you’re interviewing. Did you like way your last company provided you with detailed code reviews because it helped you learn? Ask what kinds of policies and programs they have in place to keep developers current and sharp. Did you not like the mess of interconnected dependencies bogging down the architecture of the code at your last stop? Ask them what they think of Singleton as a design pattern. (I kid, but only kind of.)

You can use this line of thinking to get answers to tough-to-ask questions as well. For instance, you’re not going to saunter into an interview and say, “So, how long before I can push my hours to second shift and stroll in at 2 PM?” But knowing things about a company like dress code, availability of flex hours, work-from-home policy, etc. is pretty valuable. Strategize about a way to ask about these things without asking–even during casual conversation. If you say something like “rush hour on route 123 out there seems pretty bad, how do people usually avoid it,” the next thing you hear will probably be about their flex hours policy, if the company has one.

Negative Bad, Zero-Sum Fine

Another piece of iconic advice that you hear is “don’t talk badly about your former/current employer.” I think that’s great advice to be on the safe side. I mean, if I’m interviewing you, I don’t want to hear how all of your former bosses have been idiots who don’t appreciate your special genius, nor do I want to hear juicy gossip about the people at your office. Staying upbeat makes a good impression.

That said, there is a more nuanced route you can travel if you so choose, that I think makes you a pretty strong candidate. If I’m interviewing you, I also know that your former positions aren’t all smiles and sunshine or you wouldn’t be sitting in front of me. When talking about past experience, you can go negative, but first go positive to cancel it out.

My current employer has some really great training programs, and I’ve enjoyed working with every project manager that I’ve been paired with. That’s contributed to me enjoying the culture–and feeling a sense of camaraderie, too. Of course, there were some things I might have done differently in our main code base, from an architectural perspective. I’d have liked to see a more testable approach and an IoC container, perhaps, but I realize that some things take time to change, especially in a legacy code base.

Now you’ve communicated that you recognize that the architectural approach to your code base was sub-optimal, but that you maintain a positive attitude in spite of that. Instead of the interviewer hearing, “man, those guys over there are procedural-code-writing cretins,” he hears, “some things were less than ideal, and I’d like them to improve, but I grow where I’m planted.”

Gather your Thoughts

After you’re done, stop and write down what you thought. I mean it. Walk out of the building, and in your car or on a nearby bench, plop down and write your impressions while they’re fresh in your mind. What did you like, what worries you, what questions should you follow up with, what specifics can you cite? Things will be fuzzy later, and this information is solid gold now.

Your brain is going to play weird tricks on you as time goes by and you’re considering an offer or the next round of interviews. Something that struck you as a red flag might be smoothed over in your mind as you grow increasingly tired of your job hunt. I know they said that they’re as waterfall as Niagra and proud, but I think the tone of voice and non-verbal cues might have indicated a willingness to go agile. You’ll fool yourself. You’ll talk yourself into things. That is, unless you write them down and bring them up as concerns the next time you talk with the company or a representative thereof.

Maintain Perspective

Interviewing is an inherently reductionist activity, both for you and for the company. Imagine if marriage worked like job interviews. The proposition would be put to you and your potential mates this way:

Alright, so you have have about two or three cracks at this whole marriage thing before you’re too old for it, so take your time and make a good decision and all that, but do it really fast. You’re going to meet for lunch, a little Q&A, and then you’ll have just enough time to send a thank-you note before you hear thumbs up or thumbs down from your date. If it’s thumbs up, you have a few days to decide if the prenuptial agreement looks good, if you have similar opinions on when to have children and how many, yadda-yadda, and hurry up, and, “do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded, blah, blah, you may now kiss, etc., whatever, done.

Think a few important details might get missed in that exchange? Think you might be left after an inexplicable rejection, stammering, “b-b-but I know how to cook and I really have a lot to offer… why… I just don’t get it.” It’s pretty likely. There are going to be a lot of bad decisions and the divorce rate will be pretty high.

Back to the interview process, just remember to keep your chin up. You might have interviewed for a job that had already been filled except for the detail of technically having to interview a second person. Maybe the CEO’s son got the job instead of you. Maybe you wore a gray suit and the man interviewing you hates the color gray with a burning passion. Maybe you had a lapse when talking about your WPF skills and said WCF, and someone thinks that makes you a moron. The list goes on, and it often makes no sense. It makes no sense in the way that you’ll look at a company’s website and see a weirdly blinking graphic and think it looks unprofessional and decide not to apply there. You make snap judgments, and so do they. It’s the name of the game. Don’t take it personally.