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Job interview killers for software engineers

Job interview killer

She can cop an attitude and be high maintenance.

As candidates, we can not.

Job interview killer for engineers

A few weeks ago, I delivered a presentation to a group of software engineers who were graduating from a Ruby on Rails class and preparing for their job search.  The topic was specifically geared to what a software engineer should be thinking about when conducting a job search. In other words, “interview killers” for software engineers.  How should an engineer prepare for an interview, and what job interview killers were out there?  

The session was a lot of fun as the group was full of energy and the session was very interactive.  This group had a lot of great questions and I thought that it might help if I shared the questions and our discussion notes here.

I tried to set a casual and “interactive” tone during the presentation by conducting a quick exercise to generate some group participation.  The goal of the exercise was to try to figure out what the top 10 interview questions would be in any standard interview developer interview.  The set up for this exercise was that a standard interview will probably be only 40 minutes of questions and I break down the logic behind a 40 min interview on slide number 9 of this deck.    

I asked the class to give me the top 10 questions that they thought would be asked in a 40-minute interview.  In quick succession, we had two scribes capture the generated answers.  After we had the first 10 interview questions from the class documented, I then unveiled a prepared slide listing questions I personally will ask as a gatekeeper for technical interviews.  The answers the class gave and my top 10 interview questions on slide #11 were an uncanny match.   The point of this exercise was to show that everyone in the class ABSOLUTELY KNOWS what questions are going to be asked in an interview.  To maximize the use of a 40-minute interview and appear articulate, it is best to practice the answers beforehand and out loud.

Questions from the class and my responses

Q: “What are some “trick” interview questions”

HRNasty:  Every question is a trick question.  Make no mistake, they are all trick questions.  The trick is to respond to every question in a positive manner.  Most candidates take themselves out of the interview loop, not through a lack of technical skill but because the answers to the most innocent of questions are bitter or negative in tone.  In an interview, remember you loved your last job, you loved your last manager and you loved your long commute.  Keep your answers positive.  The trick in every interview question is to find a positive way to answer the question while still getting your point across.  You might not have liked your last boss, but surely there is “something” that you liked about them.  That is what you talk about.  No need for you as the candidate to take the initiative and expose your dirty laundry.  Dirty laundry is an interview killer.    

Q:  “When negotiating for salary, I have heard that the person that gives their number first loses.  Is this true?”

HRNasty:  I hear that on a regular basis as well.  I personally like to interview candidates and conduct the interviews with complete transparency.  I realize that not everyone operates like this, but let me give you a couple of reasons why the candidate WANTS to give their salary requirements and not avoid the question.

  • You are going to show a lot more maturity and confidence if you let the company know what you are looking for financially. 
  • When I am interviewing a candidate, I want to make sure that both the company and the candidate are in the same ballpark when it comes to the salary.  I don’t want to bring a candidate into the office 2 or three times to interview with a number of employees and then the VP of the department only to find we are $10K apart when we offer the position. 
  • With the above in mind, if I do not have your salary, I am setting myself up for failure and this is an interview killer.  Why would I set myself up to look stupid in front of a VP when I can find 10 other candidates that will answer this question?  Remember, this isn’t just about the candidate.  
  • When you are asked this question, just give your number and let the company know that you don’t want to lose this opportunity over a 5K difference.   

Q: “What do you look for in a candidate?”

HRNasty:  “You would be surprised how often a company will hire a candidate that doesn’t have all the technical skills but shows they can work with the team, get along with anyone, and wants to learn.  I think most companies would much rather hire someone who may not be as qualified but has a great attitude over the candidate that is a technical genius but an arrogant ass who cops an attitude and will be high maintenance.  You can teach someone who wants to learn a skill set.  It is tough to teach manners to someone who thinks they know everything.  Don’t be a dick in the interview.”    

Q:  “I have a friend that has a rule where they won’t work for a place unless they are offered 6 weeks of vacation.  What is your feeling on this?”

HRNasty:  (In my mind I was thinking, this is F’in crazy)  What I said:  “Remember, we are taking an introductory class here.  This is a boot camp.  This isn’t an advanced class.  I can respect anyone having a high bar, but a couple of thoughts around this”

  • As an HR person, I don’t want to give something to one employee that is so visible that other employees are not going to receive.  Most offers include 2-3 weeks.  When someone is gone for 6 weeks a year on vacation, you are setting YOURSELF up for resentment within your peers.  This is not something I can usually budge from a company perspective and especially for a junior position.   
  • My goal here with this presentation is to help you increase your odds of landing a job offer.  I believe that this statement is cutting your odds of landing a position.
  • Most companies are looking for employees that WANT to work.  Asking for 6 weeks is a pretty strong statement that you are looking for time off and would be considered an interview killer. 
  • I am pretty sure I can find someone who will take the same amount of money or even MORE money and significantly less vacation time. 
  • If you want to work and then take time off, my advice would be to look for shorter-term contractor positions and then you can take time off in between gigs. 

Q:  “I am essentially an entry-level candidate, which is why I am taking this class.  I don’t have any experience and that is all I am really looking for.  You talk a lot about showing an interest in the position, the industry or the company because the company wants to hire employees that are digging what they are working on.  What if I really “just want to get some experience”?  I really don’t care where I work, I just want to work and I really don’t care where that is.”

HRNasty:  I think that there is always something we can find exciting about anything if we put our mind to it.  Without some interest in what the company is doing, I think it will be tough to land a position.  No company wants to be a stepping-stone for your career.  I realize that this is will be the case for most candidates, but we don’t want to start the relationship this way.  I don’t like it when a girl is only hanging out with me just so she can get an introduction to my taller, richer better-looking friends.

The company you work for doesn’t have to be working in your number 1 passion, hobby or interest but if you can convey that you can relate to the company and convince them that they are a company you can believe in for a personal reason, your case will be listened to with a lot more interest.  Going to the About page on the company’s website should give you a lot of insight.  You might just want experience, but if all I hear is: “I just want to use your company so I can put some experience on my resume and then go out and get the job I really want” you interview will be killed.

Q: “What if my prior experience is unrelated to the position/industry?  How can I show related experience on my resume?  The only experience I have with software development in this class.”   (On further clarification, the student had been in roles that were very different and unrelated to computer science)

HRNasty:   As long as you can relate parts of your prior positions to what you are looking to do, I think this can work.  If you were an office manager, maybe there are some things you did with Excel or other computer programs.  If you were an office manager, I wouldn’t list accomplishments as they relate to ordering office supplies, I would list projects that used a computer.   Keeping spreadsheets in Excel, experience with accounting programs, working on the company website can all show a link to technology.  Remember, you are not going to be hired for what you did years ago, more than likely, you will be hired for your most recent experience.  Just make it relevant.  

The position you are looking for is not going to require advanced computer science skills, it is requiring entry-level skills.  You will be competing for these positions with other candidates with little or no real experience and all interested candidates are looking for about the same amount of money.  If you are applying for an entry-level position, your competition will probably be a recent graduate with little experience as well, so don’t sweat the “lack of experience”. 

I had an absolutely great time with this group and flattered to be included.  I also heard that a number of folks already landed jobs.  Congrats to the inaugural CodeFellows class.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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