How To Prepare For A Tech Job Interview

  The “How To Prepare For An Interview” series is supported by Gillette.

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Photo: totalAldo via Flickr

As a web developer or software engineer, you are often the person who can actually turn ideas and projects into reality for a company.

Therefore, employers look for someone who has solid technical skills in programming and coding, but, most importantly, who has an ability to solve problems. Persistence, patience and creativity are main qualities seeked in a tech person.

Big companies like Microsoft might ask you to perform some coding during the interview, so be prepared and practice beforehand.

Don’t panic if you don’t know a technical answer: most recruiters are more interested in how your brain works than in the actual answer.

However, not only stupendous technicals skills will help you convince the employer. Depending on the company, the recruiter will prefer someone who likes to create new things and has a ton of ideas to someone who just knows his algorithms. One good reason to research the company and the job position you’re applying for, so you know what they want.

If you have experience, think of projects that were particularly interesting or innovative and that show your potential and abilities. And, last but not least, don’t be afraid of saying what you are interested in. Show your passion, as this makes you different from other potential candidates.

Know as much as possible about the company

The key here is solid research. It always helps to know more about the structure, history and goals of the company you are applying to. This is especially important if the company is a startup. Try to find out more about the founders and about what drives them, as this will influence the way to approach the interview.

'You have to understand the marketplace and you have to show interest in the company's products,' says Evan Korth, Clinical Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science of NYU. Many interviewers want to make sure the potential employee will appreciate his or her position. The best way to make that clear is to show you've done your homework and feel comfortable with the specific work environment.

Feel comfortable

Don't overdress, but don't be a slob either. Business casual is what works best: a button-down shirt and trousers (or a skirt for women) is fine for most companies, sometimes even jeans will do. However, Niniane Wang, former interviewer at Google and Microsoft, says in an online tutorial that she would recommend finding out how employees dress every day and then put on something just slightly more formal.

Practice your coding

Not all companies let you do algorithms during the interview, but some, like Microsoft, often do. If your recruiter doesn't tell you how the interview will be structured, you should check to make sure there are no bad surprises. Some companies, like Quora, put programming challenges online for applicants.

The best way to prepare for this technical part is simply practicing. Niniane Wang advises at least 10 hours of practice before an interview. Join a programming team, find coding questions online or in specialised books. 'Practice also on creative problems,' says Evan Korth, 'and focus on problem-solving.' Sources from our tech team tell us you sometimes also get codes to fix.

Be prepared for potential brain teasers. These are puzzle games, similar to the classic 'river crossing puzzle', where a farmer has to cross a river with a goat, a wolf and a cabbage, but can only take one of the items at a time (and can't leave the wolf with the goat alone etc.).

Train your problem-solving skills

What is most important for recruiters is to see how you solve problems, be it in coding questions or in other challenges. So, if you have to solve a maths problem in your interview, take a deep breath and don't panic. If you see a mistake, point it out to the interviewers and keep on talking about your approach to the problem. Most recruiters are interested in how you think. Are you creative, do you give up easily or do you follow one idea?

You can train this by solving maths problems in front of someone else, and explaining your steps out loud. This will put you in the right mindset and get you used to make mistakes and tackle them while another person is watching. Ask for feedback.

Same thing for brainstorming questions: the recruiter can give you examples of problems that occured or might occur in the company and ask you how you would solve them. Try to find as many different potential solutions as you can, and detail how you would approach them. It's not about immediately solving the problem, it's about how you would try to do it.

Build on your experience

Talk about your experience, but target events that show off your skills. Before the interview, go through your CV and choose from each professional or academic experience one or two challenges that you faced and overcame, or projects on which you worked. That way, you will look more confident when asked about one item on your CV.

'I always try to choose projects that I thought were cool or different, that I am particularly proud of,' tells us a source from our tech team.

However, don't get lost in details. Keep it short and relevant: say a sentence about your general role and then focus on one challenge or problem that you solved. Elaborate in details if the interviewer asks you.

One piece of advice from someone who's in the business: never put something on your resume that you have barely worked on or that you don't know too much about. Recruiters will ask about it.

Be agreeable

You want to show the recruiters that you're an awesome person to work with, so be friendly and polite, even when challenged during an interview. While the intellect is extremely important, how you present yourself shouldn't be neglected. Remember that you'll probably be working in a team. Don't brag, but focus on facts when talking about your experience.

'People sometimes get defensive or argue too much if something doesn't quite work out during the interview. It leaves a bad impression on the recruiter,' says a source from our tech team.

Get rid of practical obstacles

Remember to prepare yourself well for the physical conditions of the interview. It makes a difference if you're asked to write formulas on a white board, on paper or into a computer. Don't let yourself be disoriented by these details and try to train in the interview conditions beforehand.

Also, if you tend towards stage fright or nervousness, find out what would make you comfortable and ask for it at the beginning of the interview, for example if you prefer to stand. 'I'm a scribbler, I like to visualise things, so when I'm stuck, I like to have a piece of paper where I can write something down. I'd ask if I can use a paper during the interview,' tells us a source who passed through multiple interviews.

Communicate your passion

If you're excited about a project that you worked on or you want to start, don't hesitate. Without exaggerating, let the interviewers know how passionate you are about your work. Tell them how you would love to work for their company and why. It gives them also an idea of your commitment and your interests.

Put samples of your work online

No need for a complete Web site, if you don't have time, but this is quick and easy. On Github.com, recommended by Professor Evan Korth, you can upload your open source project and share it with chosen people. It's useful if the recruiters ask to see a sample of your work during the interview. You can also send the link in an e-mail beforehand, so they can look at it and perhaps ask you about it in the interview.

Ask the right questions

At the end of the interview, you may be asked if you have any questions. You should always prepare a list of questions for exactly that purpose. Be careful: don't ask something that you could easily look up on the company's Web site. For example, a good question to ask could be related to future projects the company is working on.

Follow up, but be relevant

As in any other interview, it is recommended to write a follow-up e-mail or letter.

In the case of a tech interview, a follow-up e-mail becomes very interesting if you send something that is relevant to what was discussed in the interview. Niniane Wang says it's a good idea for example to send a code element or the link to a project that you talked about with the recruiters.

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