Saturday, July 12, 2014

Thoughts on Software Development Job Interviews

TL;DR I interview people for programming jobs. I'm turned off by a lack of confidence, by an inability to talk tech with me, by profanity, and by an unwillingness to try when facing something new. I'm impressed by energy, enthusiasm, and competence.

My dream career is one in which I work for myself, creating software that people enjoy and find useful, and earning enough to provide a comfortable lifestyle for my family.  For me, this will be a work in progress as I've already tried the "cut all ties on Friday and start a new career on Monday" thing.  It didn't work for me, largely because I jumped into something I was unprepared to do, and lacked any real passion for.  (For the curious, I lived in poverty for five years trying to start a financial advising practice working for Edward Jones.)  When that little side trip ended, I ran back, wholeheartedly to the software development world, and yes, the passion had returned.  My next shot at setting my own priorities and timelines will be aligned with what I have energy to do every day.  I like creating things and I like writing (although I hate writer's block).  But I digress...

In my current day job I work as a senior software engineer at a small company to which larger companies outsource development jobs.  There are a lot of benefits to working at this company.  Foremost, I don't have to switch jobs in order to do something different.  As a contract company, we get lots of new opportunities every year, most of them are interesting, and a lot of them are fun.  We've got a great culture, and lots of people want to come work for us.  As a team leader, I have the privilege of interviewing candidates on a regular basis.  I've interviewed new grads and people with much more experience than I have, some arrogant jerks and some humble giants.  I am actually easy to impress -- show me you're a nice person, you're willing to work, and that you're competent in the types of work we will be expecting you to do.

Here is a short list of things that can make or break you in a job interview.

Please don't apologize for taking our time

Everyone feels a little inadequate sitting on that side of the table.  One candidate prefaced (and closed) the interview with a polite...
I know I'm not the most qualified candidate, but thank you for taking time to interview me anyway.
If you didn't think you had a shot, why did you apply? Without revealing too much about this case in particular, it was a person who had been out of the business for a while (for a good reason), and was trying to get back into it.  They had skills and knowledge that were still relevant, but their complete lack of confidence was a deflater.  Now, several months later, that's pretty much all I remember from the interview.

My recommendation

When interviewing for a job for which you feel underqualifed, there are two things that would impress me.
  1. Spend some of your spare time getting up to speed on the skills you're going to need.  Get a book.  Play around.  Make something.  Anything.
  2. Address your perceived lack of skill early by saying something like, "My skills are a little rusty, but I've been tinkering with things in my spare time, and I'm anxious to dive into it full time."

Please try to give a good answer

We work in a profession that is geared toward solving problems. It should be expected that there would be a problem solving question at some point during the interview.  If we do ask you to solve a problem,  please try.  One candidate simply said...
I have no idea how to do that.
Understandable, it may be something you've never considered before.  Fair enough. We offered to let them think about it for a minute before replying.  They wouldn't.  They simply replied the same.
I wouldn't even know where to start.  I'm sorry.
At that point, the interview essentially was over.  The rest was just being polite.  If I'm going to have to work with you on a daily basis, I want to know you're going to try to do your share of the work.


I personally don't fault someone for not knowing how to solve a problem they've never considered.  The following responses impress me.
  1. Can I think about this for just a minute?
  2. Are there any tools available that could accomplish a specific part of a potential solution?  This question shows you've started to think about a possible solution, but may not be aware of everything in your tool chest.
  3. Can I make a few assumptions? Sure. This shows you're still trying to wrap your head around the problem.  It shows you're trying.

Don't say you know something you do not know

Résumés are great sales pieces.  Good ones give us a good sense of the work you've done.  When listing skills, please be sure you have at least some level of competency with them.  If you say you've been a C programmer, for example, please be prepared to answer questions about pointers, stack and heap, integer overflow, and so forth. This is basic stuff.


If you mention it in your résumé, please be prepared to talk about it in depth.

Show energy and passion

Some folks (myself included) get passionate about things like text editors and operating systems.  That's not necessarily the kind of passion I'm talking about (although I would love to have a candidate talk about those things with me for a few minutes).

I recall one interview where we asked the candidate about jobs he listed in his résumé. He spoke in great detail and with fondness about a project he had worked in over 10 years ago.  It impressed me that he remembered the details and spoke of them energetically.  He was proud of the work he had done.  I liked that.

Avoid profanity

Disclosure: I don't like the use of profanity. To me, it seems like a lazy way to express strong feelings.

There's a little dance that is done in the workplace when you meet someone new.  For the first little while, everything is clean and sober.  Then one of the parties will lob a soft one over to see how it's received.  A "D" or an "H", maybe even an "S".  If it's well received (or at least not acknowledged as inappropriate), they'll quickly move to dropping an F-bomb. To me, it just seems so unprofessional.  Shockingly, this dance has even been done in job interviews.  Sadly, it's often initiated by our side of the table.  For that, I can't really blame someone who would naturally assume it was an invitation to relax.  Just know this, it won't impress me in any way, other than to think you should probably work harder at broadening your ability to communicate effectively.


Keep it clean, even when "invited" to relax by the interviewer.  It's  likely nobody will ever remember that you didn't use foul language in a job interview.  But someone will probably remember if you did.

Wrap up

This post simply sums up some of the things that I have seen strengthen or weaken a candidate during an interview.  All of this is my opinion. Others will definitely have different opinions.  Feel free to add them at the bottom.

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