Towards Better Interviews

November 26, 2014

I recently went through a career transition and had the opportunity to interview with some great engineering teams and was able to land the job I wanted. Reflecting on what went right and what went wrong, I observed a few things that are mostly not mentioned in interview preparation guides. Though I have personally applied these tips in my engineering interviews, they should equally apply well to job interviews in most fields. So let’s get to it!

Know the people

For most of us, our day-to-day activities do not involve having 5 to 6 intense conversations with strangers back to back on the same day. If you are an engineer in a good team which values your ability to create things, it is possible that you mainly interact with a small group of people on a regular basis and spend most of your time writing code.

Given this, imagine how weird it is to suddenly have to talk to a steady stream of new people from morning to evening. Outside of interviews, we rarely ever get to do this. No one talks about how strange a feeling this is and how much cognitive overload you will face purely as a result of it. Now, add to it the fact that these conversations are pretty intense and the interviewers’ feedback will directly impact your chances of landing a new job. Forget solving programming problems - in this type of situation, even talking about a mundane topic like the weather becomes hard!

But, no one talks about this. They talk about how difficult it is to code on the white-board but not this.

Interviewers are aware of this difficulty. That’s why most of them begin the conversation with the specific goal of putting you at ease and making you feel comfortable. No matter how careful they are, you are simply not equipped to handle this alien situation effectively.

Now that we have a handle on the problem, you can think of solutions to mitigate the impact. Going to conferences and meetups will make you more experienced in talking to new people but we can do more.

Usually, most professional companies will plan out the logistics of your interview in advance so that the interview loop flows smoothly. This helps the company better achieve its goal of evaluating the candidate’s fit for the job. Taking it a step further, most companies also let you know in advance the list of people you will be talking to, the order in which you will talk to them, and their roles. In this day and age, it is easy to look up your interviewers online with this information - usually a LinkedIn or Twitter profile will turn up. Now, you can get some idea of how they look from their profile picture. How does this even help in relation to a technical interview? Putting a face to the name automatically reduces some cognitive load of meeting someone new. Your brain already has some idea of who you will be meeting, which lessens the impediment of talking to a stranger. Knowing how the interviewer looks like makes them less of a stranger to you and the comfort that comes as a result of that helps you focus more on the conversation.

Also, when you meet anyone new, especially if you are going to spend the next half hour or more talking to them, it is only natural that you are going to be curious about them. You might wonder about how experienced they are, what technologies they know and like, what cool things they have built, where they went to school etc., After all, if you get the job, you will most probably work with them closely and perhaps see them as much as your family! It is normal to ask some of these questions to your interviewer but mainly, the interview is about you and your fitness for the job. There is only a limited amount of time (if any) for such questions, but their LinkedIn profile or Twitter feed will help you make a better mental model of the person you will be talking too. Again, this benefits you cognitively by lessening the distraction that comes from your natural, human curiosity.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that your interview is primarily a conversation and knowing more about the person you are talking to helps you have a great, relevant conversation with the interviewer. For example, I ended up watching this amazing talk by one of my interviewers about a topic I cared a lot about (interviewing!). I ended up having a quick chat about that talk which was very insightful for me and it also helped me connect better with the interviewer. This is much better than some generic, impersonal chit-chat that usually happens when the interviewer wraps up the interview with a few minutes left for questions from you.

Remember that the aim is to eliminate as much cognitive overload as possible by making the interview conversation feel less strange. The result is a more meaningful conversation with your interviewer. Just don’t overdo this because that might get weird and creepy, which is not good :)

Know the product

Your work will roll-up towards delivering a great product or service that your users will care about. Given that, you should know (a) what you will be working on and (b) who your end users will be. I interviewed for a team which was primarily focused on internal business users, and the team’s work was highly independent of the external facing product. That does not make the role any less impactful but very different from working on the external facing product because of how different internal users and their requirements are compared to users of the product. So, knowing your end users will help you best evaluate how passionate you are about working in that team.

Even if you don’t know the exact team/end users in advance, it is imperative that you have a strong grasp on the external facing product or service. Going to an interview without this knowledge puts you in a very disadvantageous position. In one of my interviews, I was told about the different teams that I could potentially be working in and was asked for my feedback on what interests me. Without product knowledge, I would have had no idea on how the teams related to the product and could not have given genuine feedback on what excites me.

Knowing the product also helps you give feedback about it and show your passion for the job and the company. It might help you delve deeper into why things are the way things are at the company currently and weather and how it might change in the future. You can get insight into the inner details of how things were built, which reveals some history about the company and the team. This gives you a sense of where they are heading, and how you will be involved in that effort. Ultimately, this helps you decide if you want to be a part of the effort or not, instead of regretting your decision later.

The other stuff

None of the above matters if you don’t have the fundamentals right, which is outside the scope of this post. This includes stuff like choosing the right companies and teams to interview with, having strong competence in the technical skills your interviewers will look for, etc.,

The above tips and advice is to help you interview effectively and to help you give it your best shot. None of this is about gaming the system (though I wonder if there is any system to game in the first place). A ‘gaming the system’ attitude will definitely fall apart either when you meet an experienced interviewer or worse, after you start your new job.

Discussion, links, and tweets

by Venkat Mahalingam

Always be coding.