June 17

Soft Skills Principles for a Technical Interview

The author is grateful to Jeffrey Coleman for reviewing a draft of this article.
His suggestions have made it more nuanced and more comprehensive. Check him out.


1. Strike while the iron is hot

You have just discovered a company that seems like a perfect fit for you. Perhaps you have attended a meetup they were hosting. Perhaps you have read their blog post. Perhaps you’ve gotten an insider introduction through a friend working there. Either way, you have reached out and they seem very open to interviewing you.

If you want to interview with them, do it NOW. 

It is common for job seeker to plan the interview as if they themselves were a big, bureaucratic corporation:

Can I do your interview next month? I am in the middle of my exams / I have an upcoming trip / My birthday is tomorrow.

Can I take your test over the Thanksgiving break, as then I will have ample time to concentrate on your problems and show myself at my best?

Can we talk about it after my graduation?

Unfortunately, the situation always changes. An opportunity that is available today won’t be available tomorrow. The position will get filled by someone else, or it will get canceled altogether, and the funds reallocated. There will always be other opportunities. But if you see one that you particularly like, or if you’ve suddenly landed an unexpected chance, it makes sense to jump at it. 

A common mistake in the tech industry is assuming that people are hired based on an objective evaluation of a person’s skillset. Within this paradigm it seems logical to wait until you are at your best, the way you would do with taking a standardized test such as GMAT. However, this ignores the issue of availability: people are hired only if both the person and the opportunity are available. Furthermore, the minimum skill level sufficient to get hired fluctuates over time. If the team really needs someone to get on board as soon as possible, they may overlook your weaknesses. Tomorrow the team may realize that, in fact, they have more time to deliver because of an email that came from a major client overnight, and they may decide to not rush but take their time interviewing to find the absolute best candidates — possibly killing your chances. There is no way to know if and when “life” will interfere, so if you have what looks like a good opportunity, do not wait.

It may be different for large, established and thus conversative companies. Microsoft Research and D.E.Shaw will still be hiring researchers five years from now, and Google will still be hiring software developers. So it is absolutely fine to take your time preparing for their interviews, unless you have a personal relationship with someone in the organization. If you get an informal invitation that bypasses the usual channels, do not postpone it even by a day.

2. Make scheduling easy. 

If you are a junior candidate and/or the opportunity is really amazing, treat it this way. Don’t just move forward as fast as you can; also get scheduling obstacles out of the way. “Any time next week” is a good attitude. “Any time next week; I’ll just have to check that I don’t have another interview scheduled” is good as well. Of course, if you have a current job, it is understandable that you have limited availability. You can also offer large chunks of time, such as “any time between 4-8 pm on Wednesday or Thursday is good.”

Conversely, if you can only do 11am-12pm on Wednesday and no other time, and if you really care about this interview opportunity, you may want to apologize for being unavailable or soften it otherwise. Simply stating that this is the only time you have can be seen as lack of interest or flexibility on your part, or lack of social skills.If that is truly the only slot, you can also suggest it yourself — “How about 11am on Wednesday” — without specifying that this is your only option; then at least you may get lucky.

 

Senior candidates have the luxury of being unavailable, to a point. This only means that the company may go through the trouble of trying to fit into your schedule and not have any negative feelings because of that. You still run the risk of the opportunity falling through due to the scheduling just not working out. Arguably if you are a senior data scientist or developer, the company should be chasing you — but only if they are paying you below the market or if the opportunity is otherwise “lower” than you might otherwise get, in terms of factors that are important to you. Put differently, if you are aiming for the absolute best opportunity that you can get as of today, in terms of responsibility, pay, company brand, or other factors, you should behave as if you were a junior. 

3. Do not play “hard to get”

There is mainstream advice saying that

  • You have to also “interview the company” to ensure it is a good fit
  • You have to try several companies, then pick the best one
  • You have to generally make sure that the arrangement is “fair” and that you are “treated well.”

As sensible as this advice may be, it often comes in stark contradiction with reality when the overwhelming majority of candidates jump at the first written offer that they can get — and the few that don’t are usually focused on salary negotiation, not on picking the right kind of company. 

The people who are truly hard to get — and this extends beyond the tech industry — are not playing “hard to get”. In other words, it is very difficult to fake value. If you focus too much on how much value you are bringing and how little you are getting in return, chances are, you will come across as a bitter loser. And for a good reason: in a free society, you should not be talking to a company that is so “below” your level. If you don’t want to work as a cashier at Mc’Donalds, that is your choice; it makes no sense, however, to come to an interview for this position, then demand a special treatment because you also have a Master’s degree in Computer Science. 

Whenever interviewing for a position, have a mindset of getting the position and starting ASAP. The only exceptions include visa restrictions and the need to finish your degree or your current work project. That is,

  • Don’t think that you “need to also interview the company, to see if it is a good fit for you”.
  • Don’t think that you will try several companies, then pick the best one.
  • Don’t think that you would like to have a 2-month vacation first, then start your new job.

And especially, don’t say any of those things. Not until you’ve got to the end of an interview and have gotten an offer. Then if you really hate the company or really need this 2-month vacation, you can reject it and adopt a more selective mindset afterwards. But don’t have a selective mindset until you truly can be selective. 

The goal should be to learn to get further along an interview process, to become comfortable with all stages, from solving puzzles online to an HR conversation to a phone screen to a take-home challenge to an on-site conversation with the management. However, if you come with a picky attitude, you may find yourself not getting too far in those interviews and not learning so that instead of a 2-month vacation you’d have a 2-month stretch of unsuccessful interviews.

Obviously, don’t lie to people that you can start tomorrow if you can’t. However, if you truly can — so long as the position is worth it — then by all means, say it. You can always try to negotiate later: “when I said I could start tomorrow, I was assuming the position has X vacation days. But since it only has Y, I would like to take two weeks and visit my relatives across the Globe first.” Now, the company may truly need you to start tomorrow in which case it would be non-negotiable; but until you can tell a negotiable condition from a non-negotiable one, your goal should be getting those experiences to elevate your level of awareness, which means staying in an interview process for as along as you can.

 

4. Have enthusiasm for the position

This is a controversial one. Many people argue that a job is a job, and while you often need one, you can’t truly feel enthusiasm for any company out there, and you may not have the luxury of choice.

That is true, however, if you are not enthusiastic, the company doesn’t have to hire you either. So what do you think is more unfair, you having to fake enthusiasm for a job you don’t want, or a company having to hire someone who doesn’t want to be there? 

If you do have passion for enough things, and if you do have the skills to get a job or otherwise make a living within the realm of your passion, by all means, be picky and choose the right company. Otherwise, fake passion while you have to. You can also adopt the attitude of “I am passionate about succeeding, so I will do whatever it takes that gets results.” That one is very healthy, delivers value to the employer and can get you good interview outcomes without compromising your values or integrity. 

5. If you don’t have to, never say things that reflect on yourself badly

Sometimes you have no choice, such as when you were fired from your previous job for a cause or you need to explain something appearing on your background check. In extreme cases, a solid  strategy — though unacceptable for some people — is expressing remorse for your past, and a commitment to improvement, if given a chance. The advantage for the employer here is that you will go above and beyond, if given a chance, as your employment opportunities are scarce, and will work much harder and produce a lot more value than another person with more options. Another approach is simply choosing a job where you would be creating enormous amounts of value so that your questionable past will pale in comparison. Famous con man Frank Abagnale Jr., whose story has inspired the movie Catch Me If You Can, is a case in point: a bank that he approached after his release may have felt uneasy about the prospect of them working together, but when it came to preventing bank fraud, Frank Abagnale’s expertise was just too valuable to not take him up on his offer.

That example notwithstanding, if you have something you don’t have to mention, such as that you were fired from a job, don’t mention it. There is a widely held opinion to the contrary, that directly confronting any issues will highlight your integrity and create a deeper trust between you and the interviewer. That sort of thing does happen, but the more likely outcome is that the interviewer will feel apprehensive, and therefore you will not progress in the interview process — while your goal is to get as far as possible, to get the learning experience.

Even if you are convinced that a particular piece of information will be a deal-breaker, get to the end of the interview and reveal it then. First, the experience of going through the rounds will increase your future chance, and second, the more senior a person you are interacting with, the more discretion they likely have. So while the HR person you are speaking to first will not have any hesitation in dismissing you for any reason (“expelled out of college for a prank”), the CEO of the company who had already invested 5 minutes and 5 hours of his subordinates’ time in getting to know you will be motivated to give you the benefit of the doubt. Either way, it makes good sense to practice, with a friend or a coach, how you would address questionable incidents from your past to comfortably avoid the subject, without leaving any doubt.

Sometimes you do have to be honest and completely upfront. This principle only says, if you don’t have to — including moral obligation — then avoid shooting yourself in the foot. Paint your past in a positive light.

 

Never say bad things about your past employer either.

This one is rather obvious. All the schools you have studied at have been amazing. All the jobs you’ve ever had you have loved. Your past bosses have taught you much.

If you start being critical, the interviewer will have to assume one of two things:

  • You’ve really had a terrible experience, or
  • You are just a difficult person who likes to complain.

More often than not it’s the latter. And even if you can “prove” it’s the former, the negative emotions you express in a conversation are still likely to hurt you. 

6. Forget about “being sincere”

Instead of merely not saying bad things about your past employer, say less about your past employers. Just as police can use anything you say against you, so can the interviewer. Feel free to talk at length about the substance of your work, but don’t touch upon your personal opinion.

Everything in life has a flip side, and if you always suppress your true feelings, you may find yourself down a career path that is making you miserable. You may lose the depth of human feeling that comes from being sincere and authentic. Still, this advice will help you get a job, and hopefully the salary will buy you time to examine yourself and make better choices in the future. That said, you absolutely can and should examine your true feelings, short- and long-term goals. Do it on your own time, and the time in between jobs may provide the perfect opportunity for such a reflection. Just make up your mind before an interview, then say what you have to say to get what you want.

This may sound harsh, and it is. However, disclosing all your sincere feelings at a job interview is not an effective way to get the kind of life that you want, just as you hopefully wouldn’t share your feelings with a police officer arresting you. Sometimes the person interviewing you is not even your future colleague. If you try to be too sincere with them, you will simply not get to meet the people you are going to work with. If you are too sincere with your future colleagues too early, you may lose what otherwise could have been a great opportunity for everyone involved. (On the contrary, it does happen that someone is not entirely sincere, gets hired, and then feels miserable for having accepted the job that they had no interest in. Avoid this fate by figuring out what you want — well in advance. The purpose of an interview is not to help you understand yourself.)

Remember: your typical company isn’t going to have an internal discussion along the lines of “WOW! This candidate was really honest and sincere and told us how he really felt. Because we care about integrity, this is the kind of person we really need!”

What you want is along the lines of “WOW! This candidate has the skills and the drive to deliver great value, and we don’t see any red flags!”

Admittedly, it is painting a rather grim picture, so a remark to restore your faith in humanity: sometimes you do get points for honesty. All the richness of human interactions cannot be captured in a single article. 

There is another reason to forget about “being sincere”. Sincerity requires focusing on how you feel. What you want is to focus on how the interviewer feels. And if hired, you are going to keep using those skills anyway: you won’t one day get up and sincerely tell your boss that you aren’t feeling like working today, would you? An employment arrangement includes by design a partial sacrifice of your identity to align you with the company’s interests — and so does marriage or friendship. 

An exception would be if the company has values that are incompatible with yours. E.g. if the company is using sleazy sales tactics, you don’t have to show passion for separating customers from their hard-earned cash. You still don’t have much to gain from expressing your criticism in an interview setting.

7. If asked a question during an interview, make sure you are answering that exact question

And don’t say more than you have to. Finish answering to the point, then stay quiet and resist the temptation to ramble. If you can elaborate, feel free to ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?”

What you want to avoid is the situation where the interviewer has to interrupt you to make sure all the agenda planned for the interview can be covered in the allocated period of time. You equally want to avoid not getting to some of the questions due to the interviewer not interrupting you, as the end conclusion will be the same: you are an inefficient worker.

It is equally important that while you are answering a question, you only say things that are directly answering that very question. Avoid this:

Interviewer: “...and how could we change this product to get more sales?

Interviewee:I think it’s a great product, and if we implemented X, Y and Z, it would become much cheaper to manufacture because of P and Q.”

Here the interviewer has not asked about reducing the manufacturing cost, nor was there an overall open-ended request for brainstorming helpful ideas. The perception of the interviewer in this example may well be that, first, you don’t know how to change a product to get more sales, and, second, you tried to cover your weaknesses by redirecting the conversation to another topic. 

If in doubt, ask for a clarification. Many interviewers aren’t very good at asking questions clearly, or they may be assuming you know more than you do. Either way, there is nothing to lose by confirming your understanding before answering. 

8. Keep good notes and analyze every interview experience

While job hunting can be aptly described as a “numbers game”, you can certainly improve your odds by learning from each experience. And in order to do it, you have to remember each experience, analyze it and extract those learning insights. For best results, your practice has to be deliberate.

Some things that are worth writing down:

  • Specific words that you or the interviewer have said at various moments.
  • Emotions that you noticed either in yourself or in the interviewer, especially after you gave an answer to a particular question.
  • Time length of various parts of the interview.
  • How you felt before, during, and after the interview. It can be a simple 1-10 score for “physically, emotionally, spiritually”. It can also be a 1-10 score as to how interested you are in the job, and another one for how high are your chances of getting it.
  • Write down before an interview if you think you’ll be invited to the next round/will be given an offer, and the basis for your belief. This will help you fine-tune your gut feeling; without writing it down it’s easy to backwards-rationalize that you had expected what has subsequently happened. 
  • An alternative technique to the above is to use visualization before an interview to imagine yourself getting the job, thus instilling the belief in yourself. If the deck is stacked against you or you have no confidence, visualizing success is the way to go! This is because then your gut feeling will be completely off. Getting a mentor may also be a good idea, if either you have never experienced interview success before or you are stretching far beyond your current level.

If this kind of written reflection does not come naturally to you, try discussing your interview experience with a friend or mentor, ideally on the same day, while the experience is still fresh in your mind.

It is hard to explain how best to analyze one’s written experience. However, the most important parts are

  • Have good notes so you have something to analyze, 
  • Actually take the time to do the analysis, and
  • Keep doing it for interview after interview, over the years. 

At the very least, ask yourself

  • What did I do well this time?
  • How can I do better next time?

9. What is one principle for interviewing that you have found most helpful?

Please, share in the comments!


Tags

career advice, communication skills, interview, soft skills


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