Top 6 Mistakes in Technical Interviews

In the past few weeks I’ve had the luxury of being able to sit in on (and participate in) many technical interviews for various positions. I’ve learned that many people do and say things that are never acceptable in an interview, at least not if they business is worth the time and effort of interviewing at in the first place.

 I’ve come to realize that maybe these things aren’t always obvious, but at the very least maybe someone’ll get a kick out of them. Names have been removed and I probably don’t remember them anyway, but these are all based on real experiences, details removed.

1) Never say you’ve worked for 8 years when you’ve actually worked for 1

Generally, it’s never a good idea to lie on a resume or at an interview. Many people do tell small white lies, or exaggerate, and that’s probably alright, at least sometimes. But never overestimate your abilities by this large of an amount. It will be blatantly obvious to everyone in the room.

If you say you have 8 years of Javascript experience, you’d better damned well know some “common uses of Javascript” and not just stare at me blankly. If you say you’re got 10 years of web development experience, you’d better know some various methods (any methods) of transferring data from one page to another. These are two sample questions and their accompanying responses.

Pure insanity. This isn’t just a “know your shit” lesson. It’s a “if you claim to be an expert, know the basics” lesson.

2) Know the terminology

Sort of tying in to the first point, if you claim to be a member of a group, say, a web developer, you’d  better be familiar with web development terms. Sure you may not have worked with CSS for a variety of reasons, but any web developer who’s never HEARD of CSS is in for a surprise. If you don’t know what a form is, or what a web part is, then you probably haven’t actually worked for long as a web developer, and there will probably be a large amount of ramp up time for you. Then it’s a gamble, are you likeable enough for the company to want to spend the upfront time and money to invest in your education?

Probably not. Be familiar with your field. It seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who are clueless about simple aspects of their field.

3) Don’t assume the jobs “in the bag” because you’re female

Yes, we really want to hire female developers. This means that yes, female candidates can sometimes have an “edge”, intentionally or not. We’ve seen our share of female candidates come in and have a great personality and attitude, act like they’ve already been hired, then completely bomb on the technical portion. Not even close to any kind of technical expertise.

We’ve got 0 female developers at my workplace, and this is not due to any kind of prejudice. It’s because everytime we get a female candidate she seems to fit in great, but is clearly not a developer of any kind, despite (again, back to #1) a resume full of references and “experience”.

4) If you bomb the technical questions, don’t ask if the questions were for a higher position

We had a candidate use this line the other day. Finished the technical questions and he did poorly. Very poorly. Then he asked when we were going to start the technical interview, because all those questions were way too hard for midlevel and were clearly “architect level” questions. Most of the questions were our entry-level questions which were intended as a ramp up to the harder stuff.

This made the guy look like an idiot. Immediately out of the running. Way down the list. One of the aforementioned female candidates very classily failed the technical aspect of the interview, asking “I didn’t do very well, did I?” and then sending an apology followup, saying she was sorry she was so unprepared and thanks for humoring her.

Classy, but won’t win you a job, either.

5) Don’t bottle yourself up

This is a very common thing I’ve personally witnessed with technological positions, especially. Applicants show up and completely bottle themselves up. No joking. No personal information. No small talk. Many people forget that people who are hiring want people they can work with every day. If you get hired you will have to deal with these people for a very long time, maybe even the majority of your waking life for the next few months, or years. They don’t want someone who has no personal life, no interests, and is a complete bore.

Work is boring enough already, don’t add to it. One of my favorite questions to ask at an interview is “Do you have any hobbies?” The responses I’ve gotten are very interesting. One guy we asked seemed really glad that he could talk freely about things he was interested in, and he was obviously passionate about what he did. Music, sports, reading, doesn’t matter what your answer is. His was actually a combination of things, and guess what? We hired him. Not based on his hobbies, obviously, but that was definitely a factor.

If you care about things that you do outside of work, odds are you will care about what you do at work as well.

One candidate answered the hobby question with “Nothing. Well, I installed hardwood flooring in my apartment once. But I don’t really have hobbies”. We didn’t like this answer. We did not hire this person. It was not solely due to hobbies, obviously, because that’s never grounds for dismissal. However, it is a factor, and for good reason.

6) Remember to be yourself, but on your best behavior

Interviews are where interviewers and interviewees both see each other on their best behavior. Everyone knows this. So be yourself, just on your best behavior. If you’re a passionate person, let it show a little. Don’t ever make assumptions about what kind of person a company is looking for. If you assume that, since they are hiring for technology positions, they want a robot with no sense of humor, then you’re probably wrong. If you assume that they want a class clown who will make them laugh at every opportunity, you’re probably wrong again.

Being yourself will help everyone. You’re not pretending to be someone else, so you’re not hired or fired under false pretenses. The interviewer gets to see who you are as well, and it makes the decision-making process smoother.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to leave a comment, or email me, James Martin.

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