How to Interview

A couple weeks ago I wrote about resumes. The obvious follow up is about interviews. Again, this post reflects my own experiences and opinions, not any official policies or procedures of my company.

I’ve done more technical interviews in the last few years than I could count. But I’m not going to talk about technical interviews here. What I’ve been doing for the past month or so is the initial screening calls, where I just have a conversation with the person, do introductions, ask some general questions about background, skills, likes, dislikes, experience, etc. It’s been a really nice break from the tech interviews. And I’ve learned so much from doing these.

Like resumes, there’s no real magic in passing these interviews. But there are all kinds of things that you can do really easy to mess it up and ruin any chance of going further in the process. We go into interviews with the principle of “start with yes.” We start with the idea that we’re going to hire you, and it’s up to you to convince us not to do so. Sadly, people are really good at convincing people not to hire them.

The way I do these screening interviews is I give a quick introduction to myself, my background and what I do now. 30-45 seconds max. Then I invite the person to do the same. I figure they’ll kind of mirror what I did and give a brief intro. It’s probably more important for them to tell me about themselves than vice versa, so they usually go a bit longer than I do – maybe a minute or two. But some people go on and on and on, giving me a life history, every job they had, everything they did and every technology they used in every job. Some people just take control of the interview. I don’t encourage them to do so, but I don’t try too hard to stop them either. How they relate with me in the interview is probably how they’re going to relate to their coworkers on the job. It tells me a lot.

Generally though, people don’t screw that part up too badly. They might talk a bit much, but I’ll attribute that to nerves. No problem.

Then I get to my first question.

What interested you in this position?

It might sound harsh, but 10-20% of candidates blow the interview right then and there. Some of the worst answers I’ve had, but which I hear surprisingly often:

  • I’m just applying to every front end job I see.
  • I don’t remember.
  • I just need a job.

If that’s how someone answers my first question, and they just leave it at that, I’m done. I’ll go through the rest of the interview, but unless they do something amazing, I’m totally checked out and my mind is made up. If that’s the level of effort someone puts into getting a job, I have no interest in finding out how much effort they’ll put into doing that job if they get it.

Table stakes for this kind of question is something how it’s a great match for your skill set, the tech stack, etc. You haven’t particularly impressed me with that, but you haven’t annoyed either.

Even better is, “I really like the idea of your business and what you’re doing…” or a personal anecdote that shows some connection with you and the business.

Then there’s the really good ones. “Well, I was reading on your site about how recently you…” or “I was doing some research and read about your partnership with…” Yes! This person spent a few minutes reading our site, or did a Google search and read something and remembered it. You’re interested in us. Now I’m interested in you.

Tell me about your current or most recent job.

And what you do / did there. What you liked / didn’t like there. Interesting things you worked on, etc.

It’s hard to screw this part of the interview up. I think the only way you can really destroy this part is by being totally bored. “I built some apps,” kind of answer. Or you could totally trash your previous company. Surprisingly few people actually do that though.

This part of the interview is a good place to make some points though. Talk about a really cool project you got to work on and tell me how interesting it was and what the challenges were and what you learned doing it. As you are talking about your last company in the past, I’m envisioning you working at our company in the future. What are you going to be like? Are you going to be into your job and get excited about challenges? Or are you going to be bored and lifeless?

What are your strengths (and weaknesses)?

To be honest, this part is like a well choreographed dance. You’re going to state some strengths whether they’re true or not. Then when I ask about you’re weaknesses, you’ll reiterate those strengths as “weaknesses”.

“It’s a double edged sword…”

“Attention to detail, but I sometimes get too caught up in making things perfect.”

Or a million variations.

If you have less experience, you’re going to tell me that you’re a fast learner.

Of course not everyone plays along. Someone recently told me that one of their weaknesses was that they were a slow learner. I was stunned. Nobody ever said that in an interview, ever. Everyone says they’re a fast learner in an interview.

Sometimes more senior developers have just gotten beyond that game and will just flat out tell me what they are good at and what they are not so good at. It’s refreshing.

Usually, I don’t get too much out of this question anyway. So play along or be honest. But not too honest. 🙂

What are you looking for in your next job?

Worst answer: parrot back the job title you are interviewing for, or the tech stack.

What are you looking for? A front end React position.

No kidding. I want to know what you are hoping for, what you are envisioning.

Less experienced developers will very often talk about learning, mentorship, growth, etc. More senior candidates will talk about taking on more responsibility, new challenges, and also growth.

I think the learning and mentorship answer from newer candidates is fine. But way too many candidates go too deep on this theme, mentioning it several times throughout the interview. Again, it’s not horrible. If you’re junior, we’ll definitely be mentoring you, and helping you learn and grow. But even if you’re junior, I want to know what you are going to bring to the table. You could earn some points here by talking about how you want to take on responsibility, contribute to the team, mentor people with less experience than you, or whatever value you think you can offer.

What questions do you have for me?

This question forms a pair of bookends with the first question. If you really don’t want the job, just say, “none.” You won’t get the job. If you want the job, ask at least 3-4 good questions. The more, the better, but don’t go over schedule. Like the first question, it shows that you are interested and prepared. One good example a few people have asked:

“I saw that your competitors are companies X, Y, and Z. How do you differentiate yourself from them?” Great again because it shows you prepared and have an interest in the company.

Almost everyone asks about the tech stack we use. But some follow that up by asking why we chose that tech stack, are we happy with it, do we think we’ll be changing it, and why / why not? That shows interest.

Sometimes I get quirky questions like, “tell me one fact about the company that I couldn’t find on Google.” I actually had fun answering that one, but it didn’t particularly do anything about my feelings for the candidate. It was just a gimmicky question and it felt like it came from some article like “10 quirky questions to ask to nail that job interview.”

I won’t give any more examples, as this is not a list of questions to ask article.

Summary

A huge part of passing a screening interview is showing interest in the company, interest in the job, interest in your career, interest in your previous work. The more interest you show, the more the interviewer is going to be interested in you. Well, maybe it’s better to say that the less interest you show, the less interest the interviewer will be interested in you. Hopefully they are starting from yes. Don’t push them towards no.

Skill and experience don’t have much of a part at this stage. I’ve already seen your resume. We’ll do some technical interviews later to see if you actually know how to do what you say you know how to do. Of course, sometimes the resume is inflated and that becomes obvious on the screen, but that is not very common.

Do some research, show some interest. If you aren’t interested, why are you applying for this job anyway?

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