Tech Career Insights: How to Win at Your Next Interview

How to Win at Your Next Interview

By Luke Cadden

As a Talent Advisor at OfferZen, I see hundreds of talented software makers find their dream jobs. I also see many job-seekers make avoidable mistakes that lead to rejection, because they believe their success depends entirely on their technical fit and expertise. While this is a big factor, the importance of interviewing skills is often overlooked and some very technically capable makers do not get job offers because of it. In this article, I’ll cover some unexpected, yet crucial, skills that can have a big impact on whether or not you secure your ideal job.

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When it comes to the interview process, there is slight variation in the steps that each company takes. Regardless, every job-seeking maker can expect a phone call, survey or even a brief face-to-face interview as their first contact with a company. If this first interaction is positive, it is usually followed by an on-site or off-site technical assessment. Later, you can expect a final face-to-face interview, culture fit day or executive interview that is either followed by an offer or rejection.

There’s a lot to say about strengthening the technical abilities of software makers, but we don’t pay much attention to why failure occurs at other stages of the interview process. This has to do with the narrow perception that competency only includes technical abilities. As a result, this maintains the idea that software makers don’t need soft skills to succeed at interviews - which could not be further from the truth.

Let’s talk about a software maker I worked with, who I will refer to as Astrosloth, a highly-experienced, programming language polyglot:

Together, we carefully built his profile so that the companies he was interested in would reach out to him. Unsurprisingly, Astrosloth ended up being very popular and soon accepted ten invitations to interviews at different companies. Not long into the process, he began to receive a spate of rejections. Seeing as Astrosloth was technically strong, with experience at some reputable companies, I decided to figure out why this happened and chatted about his interview on the phone. He mentioned that he had several issues, from answering general questions about the company’s culture to following up after an interview and missing an assessment deadline. So I set out to find the key components that would help Astrosloth and other job-seekers prepare better next time.

I found that these were most important:

  1. Active communication
  2. Targeted research
  3. Interview etiquette
  4. Engagement in the interview

These are key areas that all software makers looking for jobs should think about. So, let’s unpack them.

1. Active communication

Let’s start with something that is commonly underestimated: communication. This is a necessary event that happens in all stages of the job search and exists in both verbal and written forms, whether it’s the details outlined in your CV or answering questions in the interview. Other examples of opportunities for communication include:

  • Message threads,
  • Communication over the phone,
  • In-person or face-to-face interviews,
  • Discussing your technical assessments,
  • Rescheduling an interview, and
  • Following up on feedback given.

While the early stages of the interview process are instrumental in making a good impression, communication should not dip between interview steps. There are several reasons why software makers don’t keep companies in the loop. You might even recognise some of the reasons below in your own experiences.

Check in when feedback is due

“I don’t want them to think I’m needy.”

For starters, people are scared of being perceived as ‘needy’ if they follow-up shortly after a meeting. Unless you’re messaging a hiring manager daily (don’t do that!), there is no harm in checking in after feedback was promised. Understand that companies will respond differently depending on their culture. For example, a bank which has more processes and systems in place will be slower to respond than a hip startup.

Remind them you’re still there

“The hiring manager isn’t interested in me.”

In contrast, some people mistakenly believe that a company’s hiring process is free of mistakes. But, actually, hiring managers are busy and forget commitments too. One company I know of forgot to schedule a round of screening calls for junior software makers because they were under pressure to fill a vacant senior post. This means that a follow-up may be enough to jolt their memory and place you back in the running for your dream job.

Maintain healthy confidence levels

“I am in demand, I should not have to chase the company.”

Although confidence is important and you are likely to have other options, this attitude can signal an unhealthy ego or even disinterest in a company. It signals that you might not be a cultural fit and companies will assume that you are difficult to work with or likely to leave the role without provocation. Some makers that I have worked have snubbed companies only to have to restart communication when other options don’t work out. So, be careful because this is a really awkward position that you don’t want to be in!

Provide updates on your progress

“I can’t handle all of these assessments, so I am going to remain silent.”

It is common for software makers, especially on OfferZen, to juggle multiple tech assessments. But when the demands of modern life get in the way of completing your tests, it is crucial to say something to the company. I see opportunities lost on a daily basis because of avoidable communication breakdowns.

For example, a junior developer, let’s call her Pandalf, felt compelled to do assessments for each of her eight choices. When it became overwhelming, she did not know if it was appropriate to ask for an extension and instead chose to remain silent. Pandalf ultimately lost out on promising opportunities with companies because of this. In reality, companies are willing to give you an extension because they are as invested in the process as you are.

Tips:

Check-in and follow up: Ask companies how long it will take to receive feedback from them or, if you’re unsure, allow for 5 - 6 business days before following up. A simple check-in with a company could catapult you straight into their hiring radar. Keep in mind that companies are probably also reviewing other candidates’ assessments and may be holding off on feedback until they have looked at all of them.

Review your schedule frequently: Don’t become overwhelmed by assessments. Prioritise the most important ones and allow yourself to assess your capacity.

If necessary, ask for deadline extensions: Don’t suffer in silence. Ask for more information or an extension on your assessment if needed. Rather complete an assessment later than the original date and pass it, than submit a poorly attempted or rushed assessment. If you decide to ask for an extension, remember to:

  • Provide some context behind why you are asking for more time, then
  • Suggest a new submission date and stick to it.

2. Targeted research

If we step outside of the world of interviews for a moment and think about our consumer habits, we will find that it is information-driven. To find the most useful information, we tend to do a little digging on the shops or restaurants that we go to. Why should the interview process with a company be any different? If in-depth information is hard to find, you can pay attention to other available information like:

The job spec

This is important because it outlines the competencies that a company expects from you. It is a valuable reference for asking questions that can help them see whether or not you’re a good fit for technical and project requirements. You can also use this to determine the level of seniority that the company expects for the position, which can empower you during salary negotiation later.

Company website

A company’s website can help you get information on the product, the office, team size and possibly even the dress code. If the role involves working on the site (i.e. a front-end developer or UI designer), they might even ask you about it - so keep that in mind too!

The hiring manager’s LinkedIn profile

The people who already work at the company can also be a source of information on the company culture and the talent that they value. This information is useful because you can prepare more impactful and directed questions that help you find out about anything from cultural fit to career development. For example, a software maker, who was looking for more stability in her next role, asked “I’ve noticed a lot people at this company have also worked for startups like I have. How does the company culture differ from a traditional startup?”

Early research is also valuable because it can help you move on from a role that is not a good fit. This can save both you and the company time, which in turn leaves extra time for interviews that you are passionate about. If you are unprepared, gaps in your knowledge and understanding can negatively impact your confidence in the interview. If you haven’t done research, you will most likely have to rely on generic questions that will lead to a dull, and potentially unsuccessful, interview.

Tips:

Get background information on your hiring managers: You may find information in their educational background or industry experience, which you can use later to build rapport with them.

Be ready to explain the product and company mission: It will be easier to answer questions if you know what the company stands for. It also helps you prepare your answers so that they reflect who you are, your goals and your alignment with the role.

Think of how your goals align with the company: Hiring managers may have a candidate with similar experience in their hiring pipeline. Mentioning your personal goals and outlook can set you apart from the competition.

3. Interview etiquette

Let’s say that you are now solid on communication skills and have done a comfortable amount of research. Now it’s time to examine the etiquette of the interview process which includes, but is not limited to, time management, dress code, listening skills and your behaviour. It’s important to consider how all of these factors will impact the first impression that you make on the hiring managers. Despite the casual nature of most tech companies, good interview etiquette ingredients just don’t seem to change:

Plan ahead of time

Arrive earlier for the interview to avoid any unexpected delays that could make you late. Have crucial contact details written down and readily available in case you are running late or need help with directions.

Dress code

When you’re doing your research on the company, figure out what to wear so that you’re not worried about this on the day. If it is a corporate culture, it will be formal. If there is no dress code, or if this isn’t clear, ask the hiring manager to explain the common types of clothing that people usually wear around their office. For example, is it jeans and t-shirts or chinos, skirts and shirts? If you’re unsure or can’t speak to someone who works there, rather dress formally. This will make it easier to be appropriate at companies with a dress code, and those without a dress code are unlikely to care about it.

Active listening

Being able to remember parts of the conversation will go a long way towards creating a good impression. It shows the hiring manager that you’re a good listener who can engage with company members on a social and technical level. Showing that you’re actively listening can mean recalling details mentioned earlier and adapting it to the conversation. It also helps to begin with a headliner, like “you mentioned something earlier about…”. These skills are crucial for leadership positions, and companies that experience high growth will take this into consideration.

Personability

To create a lasting, positive impression, you should greet and remember the names of the hiring managers. Try to sit in an upright position, make eye-contact with the speaker and avoid crossing your arms. No matter how many times arrogant job seekers succeed in the movies, it’s best not to bring that attitude to your interview. In the context of the South African labour market, boldness is often misinterpreted when a company hasn’t had the chance to get to know you.

4. Engagement in the interview

You may be the person who has sailed through the preliminary call, aced the technical assessment and then arrived punctually in the right outfit. But, to your disappointment, the company still rejected your application. Why? It’s likely because you didn’t fully engage in the interview.

There’s a misconception that companies should lead the entire interview process. This is partly connected to the idea that companies hold all the power and you’re the guest. This is not true because, in actual fact, you’re also ‘interviewing’ the company to see if they’re the right fit for you. Examples of not engaging during an interview include avoiding questions, not asking enough questions or showing any disinterest in the process.

People working in tech aren’t famous for their social skills, but the best companies out there are looking for well-rounded employees. These potential employees are technically and socially equipped to meet the demands of collaborative work in a globalised economy. So don’t be afraid to speak up, ask questions, express interest and share your personal findings. You don’t want to get this far, having invested time and effort into every step, only to be rejected!

Interview prep checklist

I’ve covered tons of insights around the four key skills that you will need during the interviewing process. This guide, together with your technical skills, should boost your chances of turning interviews into actual job offers!

To help you prepare for interviews before and after they take place, check out this handy checklist.

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Luke Cadden is a Talent Advisor at OfferZen, and is animated by conversations with the wider Tech community. He is fascinated by the nature of digital work and the skills necessary to prepare people, and companies for a rapidly changing future.

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