Some of the experiences that reside most vividly in my memory are job interviews. In fact, I clearly remember my first “serious” interview when I was sixteen years old; I also remember my first “professional” interview, where I had to prove I had the knowledge acquired during my university years; and I naturally remember my first “project” interview, where, just like before, I had to prove I was the right person for the team. I remember all of these vividly because they were good experiences. As a matter of fact, it’s due to this success that the topic of tackling interviews caught my interest, so much so that I’ve dedicated myself to researching the emotional as well as the technical aspects of an interview experience. This has led me to help some of my colleagues when it comes to preparing for interviews with the aim of obtaining better results.
Little by little, the aspects that needed improvement or strengthening became clearer, so I decided to create a document that may help us be more successful.
What to Expect
When it comes to interviews, Avantica endorses the technical skills of each of its candidates. However, scenarios are always diverse and depend on the needs of the client as well as on their evaluation technique. In most cases, the central part of an interview will cover technical know-how and knowledge about the topics the client is interested in. But increasingly, more emphasis is being given to communication skills and/or stress or frustration management, to such an extent that technical aspects can sometimes become secondary.
It’s also possible for an interview to consist of several sessions; this means “soft skills” and technical/practical knowledge can be evaluated in greater detail. Another possibility, one that tends to put pressure on candidates, is a cross-examination given by several interviewers, where the topic changes between questions or where just one special subject is discussed.
You have to remember that interviewers may have different backgrounds, some may have careers related to software development while others come from human resources.
Applicable knowledge: in this first scenario, it’s easier for interviewers to tell if a candidate has experience with a particular aspect even if their theoretical understanding isn’t that good or if the candidate knows the answers to the questions but has never applied them; all this based on their own experience as developers.
Technical questions: it’s possible for interviewers to have a questionnaire that has already been answered and for them to use it as a base, expecting similar answers from the candidate.
Understanding/communicating in a second language: last but not least is the ability to communicate in English. It’s highly probable for the candidate to be fluent while speaking but have difficulties when it comes to understanding the diverse accents and pronunciation of those who do not speak English as a first language or from those who do speak it but use lots of local/colloquial expressions.
Outline: How to Prepare
Due to this great variety of scenarios, I think the best way to prepare is to go over our skills individually. This way we can have a greater grasp of what we can combine according to the situation we encounter.
On several occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to interview candidates that could not answer basic questions; most of them had not approached these topics since university and more than once, they expressed their ability to solve these problems despite them not remembering the theory. At other times, the answers were correct but when asking about something particular they had included in their answer (such as a concept or technique they had mentioned), it was evident they had memorized their replies and had not delved deeper.
Personally, I like to use online questionnaires as a base, focusing on the aspects I want to highlight or on the technology that’s required. I work through the answers and develop each sub-topic, such as programming languages; or if I come across terms like ‘opcode’, ‘JIT compilation’ or others, I study them separately and prepare for any related questions.
- Back up your theory with practice. In many cases, while studying we’ll realize that we have already applied a technique or concept although we did not know what it was called. When helping colleagues get ready for interviews and asking them questions, I’ve come across the answer “I don’t know”; but when inquiring about specific cases or practical examples, it turns out they’d already applied the technique they believed they knew nothing about, they just didn’t know its name. In other words, we have to integrate what we’ve learned from past experiences and think about if what we’re reading applies to something we’ve done before.
- Back up your practice with theory. Generally, we’re asked to solve a quick exercise in the middle of an interview. Even though the solution we provide is correct, we may be asked to explain our answer; for example, if we’re asked why we included “event.preventDefault()” in a JS function, the worst answer you can give is “because you always do so.” Generally, we use different types of tutorials to learn a language or technology, we know that what we’re doing works and we get used to applying it but, on occasion, we don’t know why we’ve included a library or why there is a parenthesis in a particular place. It’s important for us to be prepared so that when we provide a solution to a problem, we know why we are using a certain technique or why we included certain words. Namely, we can justify our answers.
- Delve deeper into what we know. There is no requisite for you to use a minimum amount of words when providing an answer. In fact, since interviewers want to know how much we know about the required technology for a project, they are likely interested in the experiences we’ve had in relation to the question they are asking. For example, if we’re asked about triggers, we can reply by telling them what we know and giving them an account of how we’ve used them to solve problems in previous projects and how useful those solutions proved. If we delve deeper into what we know best, we may be providing answers to questions ahead of time, which will save time and will convey how well prepared we are.
- Know the environment of the project’s required technologies. During several interviews I have been asked (or I have asked) about Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) with the purpose of knowing more about the work environment and if it’s compatible with what’s required. For example, a developer specialized in Java tends to use Eclipse or a more complete IDE that enables the integration of robust tools while a JS developer will mention VSC or Sublime due to their lightness; if the answers were the opposite, then it’s possible the candidate will prefer to work on another type of project.
This is a very important aspect. It can make the difference between success and failure in an interview as well as in a project. I’ve had colleagues who have made mistakes when performing a task because they did not have a clear understanding of what it was they needed to do. Therefore, this is a decisive aspect in an interview. Even though we may have taken courses or may have certifications, there are things we need to prepare for on our own, like understanding different access, for example. A practical and useful way to go about this is to watch videos, preferably tutorials created by people with difficult accents; fortunately, tutorials are made by people from all over the world, which will provide all the accent variety we need.
- If we focus on our diction, it will be easier for others to understand us even if our accent isn’t the best.
- Another important part is that the vocabulary we use can link us to a particular social background. It’s essential to increase the scope of our reading to include non-technical areas. In English-speaking countries, pronunciation and vocabulary are linked to education, mainly university level.
A few decades ago in France, several companies performed a series of studies with the goal of improving their sales team. They came across a very interesting result: the probability of making a sale via telephone increased when the seller smiled. Somehow, smiling changes the tone of our voice. Something similar and more obvious happens when we are bored or nervous, our voice gives us away. Our body posture and facial expression are also important, even when in a phone interview. Thanks to the field of self-defense, we know that our mind is influenced by our posture; if we assume a firm and courageous pose, our mind prepares for defense and the fear dissolves. If we are nervous but plant our feet on the ground, our back straightens and we hold our head high; after a moment we’ll notice that our self-assurance surges because our mood aligns with our body posture.
Keeping Our Nerve
This can be an Achilles heel for many people, it’s just that some are better at hiding it than others. For some people, feeling nervous can be so overwhelming that it ruins an interview. Even though extreme cases may need professional help, several tips can help most of us. The most important (and recommended) suggestion that is often overlooked is to breathe. I’m referring to letting your shoulders drop, keeping quiet for a few seconds, inhaling deeply, and letting your breath out slowly. Apart from being a great way of sending oxygen to your brain, it’s the pause that makes all the difference. Focusing fully on breathing distracts your mind from the questions and once you get back to them, you can do so from a renewed perspective. The same applies when drinking water, which also helps to keep us hydrated (stress can dehydrate us).
During university and while sitting for an exam, my head seemed to be running at a thousand kilometers per hour. I was thinking so much about so many things it was really difficult to concentrate; in my struggle to do so, my stress levels increased and the result was a downward spiral of even more stress and confusion. This continued until I learned a technique, a sort of mini-ritual, one I still apply today: I take 3 sheets of paper and slowly write my name on them, focusing on the writing, on the page’s position, and the sequence. Learning this technique was a breakthrough moment because I found that by focusing on something other than the questions, even if it was just for a short time, they were easier to tackle when I returned to them. At the same time, this lowered my stress levels and put a stop to the downward spiral. When I finished the exam, I was relaxed and sure of myself. To this day, I still apply this technique for interviews.
Any kind of ritual can have the same effect since even the best surgeons apply this kind of technique; and if there ever was a stressful situation, it’s a surgery.
What happens when our best answers aren’t well received and it seems like others don’t understand us? Or worse still, when our interviewer’s attitude frustrates us? Although motives may vary, we can deal with this situation by considering our interviewer’s objective; it’s possible they may be evaluating how we react under this kind of pressure. This may not always be the case but our own attitude will change if we consider it part of the process and not take it personally.
Closing the Interview
Yes, just like a sale, you have to close an interview. In some occasions, the only thing that’s missing is for our interviewers to tell us that we’re already part of the project. Even though we may be tired by the end of the interview, we have to show ENTHUSIASM; if we are allowed to ask questions, it’s convenient to relate them to the project, to the technology or the work team. In any event, we must always show interest in being part of the project and that we’re looking forward to working on it.
What Should be Avoided
Once, a really well-prepared candidate I interviewed did something very peculiar throughout an entire interview. We talked via Skype, without video, but there was a constant sound (similar to typing on a keyboard) in the background the whole time. At the end of the interview, I asked what the sound was because I suspected he was looking up the answers to the questions I was asking on the internet. However, it turned out to be a sort of stress-relief toy, a small cube with buttons that he showed me when he turned on his camera. Other interviewers would not have asked and might have assumed he was cheating, ruining a marvelous interview. Some of our attitudes can backfire on us. In some cases, an ill-used word or the tone of our voice can give a wrong impression of ourselves.
For example, if our interviewer makes a mistake, we have to be very careful with our reaction. On the one hand, it can be a real mistake, but on the other, it’s possible they’re doing it on purpose to see if we correct them. We also have to remember that we don’t know everything and it’s possible the interviewer is privy to information we don’t have. In any event, DO NOT CONFRONT THEM. Personally, what I prefer to do is ask a question about the supposed mistake. If necessary, this will give them the chance to rectify themselves. As an example, right in the middle of a series of questions, an interviewer once told me that recursive functions consume less memory. Instead of keeping quiet and admitting that this was so or confronting him directly, I asked about this memory consumption, letting him know I had understood the opposite; effectively, he replied that these functions consume more memory, just like I had understood. In this way, if the interviewer makes a mistake, we give them a way out without making them feel uncomfortable and if they are privy to more information, we can thank them for teaching us something new. In this manner, we’ll make it clear that we can be part of a team without causing friction.
The most important thing is to remember that an interview is an opportunity to show, beyond our technical skills, what a valuable asset we can be for a team. Two of my current co-workers, whom I interviewed, didn’t do so well at first but they left an impression that they would be valuable team members. Both of them were the first choice when projects that better aligned with their profiles came up and they were a great addition to the team. Our interview preparation process improves our technical levels, betters our communication, and mainly, lets us learn more about ourselves. I think it’s one of the most beneficial processes of our professional life.