I work with people in all stages of their careers, and it winds up that most people don’t give a lot of thought as to how the technical interviews they experience come to be. So I wanted to share a few things that I’ve observed over the years that help inform various tactics everyone can employ.
Your Interviewers Don’t Answer Their Own Questions
Most questions aren’t strongly related to the job someone will do but are questions that people believe indicate how much you know.
This means that you’re answering arbitrary questions to prove how clever you are.
What about those coding problems? I can assure you that almost no interviewer purposefully sits down in the same circumstances as you and tries to solve those problems or even can.
Almost without exception, when people are looking up questions to ask, they look at the question and guess if it is reasonable within that time frame. They don’t solve it even on their setup, much less the awkward thing they make a candidate use.
Bias is Real
Next up is the problem that almost nobody in tech is trained to interview people fairly or even legally. This means you have to treat every person you interview as a unique challenge and not as a representation of a cohesive company.
Ever have an interviewer who seemed uninterested or frustrated when they walked in the room? Well, because they are unaware of their own bias, they probably experienced everything through the lens of that frustration, and that killed your chances.
You might be wondering about the legal thing so let me quickly explain. There are federal and state laws in place to protect candidates from discrimination in interviews. Some states prohibit companies from asking for salary history. At a higher level, there are laws to protect what is considered a protected status. This means that when a woman gets asked about their plans related to family, they’re unwittingly asking the candidate to say if they’re planning to have kids.
If you think that many companies don’t want to hire someone who will go on maternity leave soon, you’d be right. If you also guessed that that isn’t ok, you’re right again.
How about all those companies with beer fridges and normalized alcohol? Now a candidate might say they don’t drink because of religious reasons or that they’re an alcoholic. That’s two more.
Why does this matter? Untrained interviewers are judging everything you say, even if it’s illegal for them to do it.
If this article does nothing else, it hopefully shines a light on the reality that most technical interviews are conducted by people winging it and having no idea what they’re doing.
This means, to an extent, that your coding ability isn’t really what is under the spotlight. You can have a valid solution or answer to everything, but because interviewers don’t know how to listen, they may assume your answer doesn’t work when they can’t answer it themselves.
So, when interviewing, as much as we want to demonstrate our technical ability, we want to turn the tables on these issues in the interview by convincing them that we’d be great to work with. Likability breaks bad technical questions and reverses bias into a different one called the halo effect. The halo effect is when you like someone for one thing and assume other aspects of their life must be as good as that one thing.
Two great ways to do this are to tell stories from your past and invite your untrained interviewers to do the same. Relationships build quickly on stories about relatable experiences.