A Non-Technical Guide to Technical Interviews

Interviewing is one of my least favourite things to do. Only a handful of minutes determines whether you land your dream job or not. In those brief encounters, you can be asked anything from across the board.

The board is everything.

There’s no way you can know everything.

No matter how hard you work, how hard you prepare, in an industry so vast and constantly growing you’ll never be able to know about every framework and tool.

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

I’ve been on the other side of the table many times. I know what it’s like to be a nervous, sweating mess, and also what it’s like to judge that nervous, sweating mess. It honestly varies from day to day what interviewers are looking for, and your performance as an interviewee varies just as widely.

It’s also important to note that it’s not all about the tech.

If it was, then there would be no in person or phone interviews. It would all just be remote coding challenges.

No. People want to know about you. They want to get a feel for you. They want to understand who it is that they could be spending 40 hours a week with.

I’ve put together a few things to think about on the non-technical side for when I go into my technical interviews.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Dress your best.

It sounds stupid, but sometimes it’s that extra little boost that gives you the confidence boost to push you over the edge.

if (the company cares about dress code) {

Wear something that reflects the dress code. It’ll show that you understand what the employees look like, and that you can fit in easily to the culture.

} else {

Wear whatever makes you comfortable. Interviews make me nervous, and if I’m wearing something that makes me uncomfortable, I’m going to be distracted from the interview because of how uncomfortable I feel. I usually wear a t-shirt and blazer with some jeans. A little more casual, but still a put together kind of style that makes me feel like a boss.

But, my friend wore pyjamas to her interview and she got the job easy so, just go with whatever works for you.

}

Breathe

Before you walk into the room.

Before you answer a question.

Before you start writing on the whiteboard.

Take a second to just breathe, understand the question, and gather your thoughts. There’s nothing worse than giving in to the urge to just go and start talking. Your mind hasn’t fully computed the question, so whatever you barf out onto the table might just be absolute garbage.

It’s like when you create a new array, but there’s just garbage in there. Take the extra line to set everything to 0, and then begin.

In an interview I did a little while ago, I set myself up for failure. I picked the worst data structures, and then the question just kept continuing on, so I had to just keep working with those poorly selected data structures. It was an absolute mess, but it was far too late for me to switch the base of my code so I just kept throwing garbage out there.

As an interviewer, if you immediately start to answer my question, I question if you were even really listening.

I’m asking you questions that require thought because I want to see how you think through things. If your answer is just what’s coming off the top of your head, then there was no need to think. It was just an instinctive response. So either my question was too simple, or you didn’t put real brain power into working out the right solution.

Just breathe.

Admit that you don’t know what you don’t know.

My least favourite thing about interviewing someone is when they confidently spit out absolute bullshit.

I want to know what you do know, and I want to know what your strengths and weaknesses are.

If you’re telling me something you made up, then that tells me nothing of value about yourself.

Tell me you don’t know, and then try to give me a guess — explain to me your thought process and why you think this might be the answer.

Ask me questions to see if you’re on the right track, odds are if you are I’ll tell you, and if you aren’t I’ll try to point you in the right direction to see if you can get from point A to B with a map.

That shows me what else you know, and it shows me that you can infer and build on your previous knowledge.

Be interested.

There’s nothing people love more than talking about themselves.

Ask the interviewer questions like:

“What has your team worked on recently?”

“In your opinion, what do you think is the most exciting thing that is going on at the company right now?”

“What do you think is the coolest project that the company should take on next?”

“What kind of impact has a project you’ve worked on made?”

Show them that you care about prospectively working there, and that you really want to know about what your life would be like as a future employee.

It’s also important for you to get a grasp of what your life could look like if you were hired. You should know what to expect when you go in, what kind of things you might be pushed to work on, and what kind of life you’re dedicating your time to.

Thank your interviewer.

These people hold the fate of your employment in their hands. It absolutely cannot hurt to thank them for their time.

If you connected with them on a personal level, even better. Try to make the personal connection even stronger because at the end of the day, these people want to hire people that they want to work with. If they like you and want to work with you, you have something going in your favour.

A co-worker explained it to me like this:

Thousands of people will be able to solve your algorithm question. Hundreds of people will be able to solve your design question. Tens of people are people that you would want to see every day at work, and then grab a beer with at team events.

You want to pick people that you can work well with because collaboration and human interactions are a huge part about going to work. You might be spending 8+ hours a day with this person in the future, so if it came down to two equally qualified candidates, of course you would pick the one who doesn’t make you want to tear your hair out.

To summarize, it’s not all about the technology.

A lot of factors go into your performance at an interview, and whether or not you get hired. Some of these factors are small and happen subconsciously, but they all add up.

Interviews are about the person.

It’s about who you are as a whole. Skills, personality, and the million other things that make you unique.

It’s about who the interviewer is, and who they’re looking for that day. Some people are looking for different things, and sometimes those same people are just feeling more lenient on a different day.

Try not to freak out about a bad interview. A million things went into that interview that you could not control. Life will move on, and sometimes luck just wasn’t on your side. Keep moving, and keep breathing.

Good luck to all my peeps interviewing for fall internships! Wishing y’all the best, and hoping to see some of you in Seattle :)

Engineer-in-Training @ uWaterloo / Defender of the Summoner’s Rift / Navigating my Twenties

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