by Sharon Florentine

6 ways to blow your technical job interview

Sep 16, 2015
CareersIT Jobs

If you're looking for a job in IT, it's a safe bet a technical interview, a coding test or other skills assessment will be part of the job search process. Here's what not to do.

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How to avoid the pitfalls of a technical interview

If you’re looking for a job as a software developer, information systems manager, network engineer or any other hands-on role in IT these days, chances are you’ll have to pass a technical screening as part of the interview process. While soft skills and the experience you’ve listed on your resume are a great starting point for landing an interview, don’t assume it will be enough to land you a new role. Competition is fierce for most IT roles these days, and companies want to be certain you’ve got the technical chops to get up to speed quickly if you’re hired. A technical interview is a great opportunity to prove what you can do, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. Here’s what not to do.

Don’t: Rest on your laurels

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One of the quickest ways to ensure you’re out of the running is to assume you’re too good to require testing in the first place. “Whether it’s a whiteboard test, a personality test, a coding challenge or another type of tech skills assessment, take it. Candidates who refuse come across as closed-minded, unwilling to learn and arrogant, or it’s assumed they don’t actually know the technology,” says Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm that focuses on technical recruiting. Writers, artists, graphic designers, even marketing and public relations professionals all show up to job interviews with portfolios of their work — think of this as a way to show off your portfolio, he says.

Unlike a physical portfolio, however, you always should use fresh, new examples when completing these tests; cutting and pasting old work, even from another coding test on the same subject, is a definite no-no. “You have to treat these challenges and tests with the utmost respect. Many times these aren’t just gauging your coding ability, but your thought processes and logic and reasoning skills. There might not be a right answer, the interviewer just wants to see how you approach solving a problem. So, pretend this is your full-time job and you’ve been asked to address this issue in a real life situation,” says Stephen Zafarino, technical recruiting manager for recruiting, staffing and advisory firm Mondo. If you’re asked to do a take-home test, be sure you ask for a firm deadline and an estimate of how long such a test should take you. You can also ask general questions about what kind of methods, processes and approaches they’re looking for to get a better handle on the exercise.

Don’t: Assume your resume speaks volumes

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Another no-no is relying on your resume to tell your story for you. Yes, a recruiter, hiring manager or HR professional should have read your resume, but the document doesn’t speak for itself — nor should it.

“Don’t get annoyed when you’re asked about certain parts of your resume. And, whatever you do, don’t respond to a question about your skills or experience with, ‘Well, it’s on my resume’ without explaining,” says Gimbel. Not everyone knows the effort, the challenges and the hard work that went into building your career. Part of the hiring process is to talk through that.

The reasoning behind this question is to uncover your communication skills, your critical thinking skills and your thought processes, says Zafarino. Recruiters, hiring managers and HR pros all want to hear about your past experiences in your own words, including what went right, what went wrong, and areas where you were challenged to think differently. “Yes, you were brought in for an interview based on your resume, but that only tells them so much. You need to elaborate on that and help them understand why you’re unique,” says Gimbel.

This is also a great time to play up your individual contributions to past projects and solutions, even if you worked as part of a team. If you’re asked about a project, explain your role and what you accomplished, as well as what you learned and how you’d apply that knowledge and experience in the future.

Don’t: Let your ego get in the way

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Don’t be overly confident, or arrogant about your skills either; that can come across as inflexible, closed-minded and make an interviewer think you lack empathy and good communication skills. In other words, keep your ego in check and be humble, even if you find the idea of technical screenings beneath you.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that there’s only one way of doing things. “Instead of saying, ‘The only way to do this is …’, you should phrase it as, ‘What I believe would work is …’ or ‘Were I writing this code, based on this architecture or using these APIs, I would …’ If someone says ‘only,’ that throws me. It makes me think they’re not willing to listen to new ideas or different approaches, and that doesn’t make a good employee or a good leader,” says Gimbel.

And whatever you do, don’t make fun of a company’s outdated or poorly performing software — at least not in the interview. Sure, you should ask what languages, platforms and versions they’re using, but don’t make value judgments about that information. “Asking these kinds of questions are fine — you want to be knowledgeable, and you want to make sure you can handle what’ll be on your tech screen, but don’t point out how outdated or obsolete the technology is. There’s a really good chance the company knows they’re behind, or knows they made a bad technology choice — that may be why they’re talking to you, in hopes you can help them fix it,” says Zafarino.

Of course, don’t be so humble that you forget to let your passion for technology shine through. You shouldn’t be afraid to express your opinions about tech, especially in the context of why you prefer using certain platforms, languages or other proprietary systems, but make sure you’re framing your beliefs as opinions. “Being asked, ‘Why do you want this job?’ is a fairly soft-ball question. What’s harder is, ‘Why do you want to use this certain technology?’ This is when your passion and your expertise should shine through. If you’re a Ruby developer, you can talk about why you feel and think Ruby is the best language, what it can do that others can’t, and how you have contributed to the Ruby community,” says Zafarino.

This is also a great way to bring up information about your participation in the technology community outside of work, says Zafarino. If you mentor kids or teach coding classes, if you contribute to open-source projects or have a portfolio on GitHub – this is the opportunity to bring it up. “Our clients are looking for passion, for someone who’s passionate about what they do and the tools they use, not just someone doing a job. If you’re not involved, try and get started, and stay informed about the culture of technology so you know what’s happening in the world outside work,” he says.

Don’t: Skip the background research

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In addition to knowing technology and the general culture, you should also spend some time researching the company, the hiring manager with whom you’ll be speaking and the general responsibilities of the role. You can also do research on sites like Glassdoor and TopTal to get insider insight on what the interview process and the technical screenings are like, including what to expect on coding tests and challenges.

“People want to hire a candidate with whom they feel a personal connection. This speaks to the ‘culture’ piece of the hiring equation. If you’re doing your homework on the company, can ask insightful questions about how technology is used there and why, and how you can help make it better, they’re going to believe you’re in the same boat as them, you want to come on and make the company succeed, together,” says Zafarino.

Don’t: Embellish your resume

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You should make sure your resume includes the technology, systems and platforms you’ve worked with — nothing more, nothing less — and be able to speak to how you used those in your day-to-day work. While this is a pretty basic assumption, it’s something many candidates forget or deliberately try to fudge because they feel it makes them look better.

“Know what you did, where and when you did it, and for how long. If you worked with Angular JS, be prepared to speak to that skill and about that experience, even if it’s older technology,” says Zafarino.

It’s fine if you don’t have every skill, know every language or aren’t familiar with some of the technology stack listed in the job description. Many hiring managers, recruiters and HR pros will throw everything and the kitchen sink into their job description in the hopes they’ll land someone with every imaginable skill. You can and should ask what core skills are absolutely essential to the job, though, to make sure you’re right for the job.

If you’ve had minimal experience with a technology, go ahead and include it, but be prepared to explain exactly how you interacted with it, says Gimbel. If you were exposed to a technology through work on a team, make that clear, but also be sure to emphasize that you see any omissions as opportunities for growth.

“If they’re looking for someone with iOS experience and you don’t have much, well, own up to that, but you can frame it as — ‘I’m malleable and very willing and excited to learn this new skill. In fact, I bet I could come up to speed quickly if you set me up with your best developer and we worked through the learning curve,'” says Gimbel. Address the issue up front, show that you’re eager to learn, and propose a solution.

Don’t: Ignore soft skills

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Yes, technology positions are about having great tech skills and experience, however, most companies are also looking for candidates that possess excellent soft skills and leadership ability. “If you take the technical interview seriously, remain humble, ask thoughtful questions about their technology and company, and offer workable solutions in areas you might be lacking, it’ll be clear to interviewers and hiring managers that you have the soft skills to get the job done,” says Gimbel.