Interviewing

08 Aug 2015. comments

Interviewing is hard for both candidates and interviewers but some of the difficulty can be avoided if we’d just learn from the experience. I recently went through the process again and I want to share some things.

For many people the process of interviewing for a software developer role is stressful. But it can be less stressful if you re-frame the situation a bit. Many people view an interview as being on the receiving end of an interrogation. When you view it that way the experience is one where you’re primarily concerned with how to defend/sell yourself and your abilities, to see if you measure up. And if you feel you don’t that’s where the stress comes in. It’s partially confidence, but it’s also perspective.

An interview is about determining fit from both the company’s perspective as well as yours. If you interview for a role that isn’t a good match for you from the company’s perspective then it wouldn’t have been a good experience if you had landed it. The same goes for the other way round; You need to determine if the company is somewhere you should work as well and ask enough questions to ensure that it is.

So if you think of the interview process as much more of a 2-way street where both you are interviewing with the company and the company is also interviewing with you then you may find the experience far less stressful.

Preparation can also help immensely with keeping your stress levels down. If you don’t prepare for an interview you may not do well and that can harm your confidence. Interviewing is unfortunately usually done in a way that’s very unlike a day-to-day software development job. This is unfortunately common in our field but we have to be able to deal with it since most companies still haven’t figured out the best way to do interviews. So you need to practice your interviewing ability. Brush up a bit and exercise those CS muscles that you haven’t used in a while.

Some things you can do are:

If you have a software developer friend it can also sometimes help to have them perform a mock interview on you. How you prepare depends a lot on where you plan on interviewing; For example some places use whiteboarding while others have you code on an actual machine. Do some research and prepare; who knows maybe the way a company interviews is also a signal about what kind of place they will be to work for?

Software development interviewing is all over the board in terms of quality and style. We’re extremely bad at interviewing in this industry. This is well known but for many companies it has simply been accepted as un-fixable. Some companies have learned and have made improvements that seem to be yielding better results, but its very hit-and-miss.

Whiteboard

When people think of software development interviews they naturally think of whiteboards since they’ve been the staple for many decades. From an outsiders perspective this might seem a bit odd since writing code by hand on a whiteboard has very little in common with the day to day software development activities at a job. It’s true that whiteboards are used for hallway discussions, diagrams, etc, but when it comes to code a text editor is used. So whiteboards are very controversial.

Pair Programming

In my opinion the highest signal-to-noise ratio for an interview can be achieved by pair programming between interviewer and candidate. The benefits are numerous:

  1. The interviewer gets to see the candidate write actual for-reals code.
  2. You can do TDD exercises that actually run and show you how the interviewer/candidate tests.
  3. Sitting with the candidate can reveal to the interviewer how well they work with others, take feedback, allow for give-and-take, etc.
  4. It’s generally lower stress than a whiteboard since it’s more familiar to type than scrawl with a marker.

A few months ago I was the candidate in such a situation and I can tell you of a 5th and possibly more important benefit of this style of interview and one that’s harder to quantify: I had fun. I think the reason was that I felt like I could more accurately represent myself and my abilities in this mode. Maybe thats just me, I’m not sure.

Refactor

Another option is to give the candidate some really bad code and see what they do with it to clean it up. You can gauge whether they break down things into smaller things, standardize the code to a style-guide, make iterative step-by-step improvements guided by tests, etc. There’s a lot to learn about a candidate from this style and it can also be as open-ended as you need or as specific as you need. When doing this or the pair-programming style it’s a good idea to constrain the exercise to a relatively small amount of code; perhaps a class or two or maybe a handful of methods. You can also mix this style with pair-programming for a pair-refactoring of sorts.

Show-and-Tell

What has the candidate done? It’s pretty common to ask this question in terms of what projects the candidate has worked on at past jobs/university but why not have them show you? If they have a GitHub account you can give them a machine and a projector and have them point you at some code they are proud of and walk you through it. If they don’t have a GitHub you can have them show you a product that they either built or supported and talk about that. The point here is that you can gauge whether they are proud of work they’ve done, can explain to another human at the appropriate level of abstraction (not too in-the-weeds and not too high-level), and whether they can get excited about the product/service that they work on. This can be as open ended as it needs to be and you can guide it however you feel is best for what you’re looking for in a candidate.

Let Them Ask

Interviewers sometimes act like a noble gas. What I mean by that is that some interviewers make the mistake of pelting a candidate with enough questions and discussion to fill the space available. This doesn’t let the candidate gauge you as a company very well because they don’t get a chance to ask you things. Let them have some time to ask you about your company. And if they don’t ask you anything that might be a red flag, which is an indicator you need to know about. Good candidates will be very curious about how your team works, how you develop software, etc.

We’re Getting Better

I’ve seen a dramatic shift over the past 5 years which seems to indicate that interviews in this industry are getting better. We still have a long way to go but maybe you can help by taking some of these strategies to your company or your interviews with companies.

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Tagged: interviews interviewing software engineering soft skills

2017 Ben Lakey

The words here do not reflect those of my employer.