From behavioral queries to the dreaded whiteboard test, tech interviews can be a veritable minefield. Fortunately, tech recruiter Jovena Whatmoor has advice that’ll turn your next one into a cakewalk.
Landing an interview at your dream tech company is only the first step toward winning the prize of a definitive offer. Whether it’s Facebook, Google or the hip startup next door, the interview process is bound to be rigorous and you’ll definitely have a few curveball questions thrown your way.
So what is a curveball question exactly? A curveball question is typically a logic problem you’ll be asked to solve that seems to have nothing to do with the job to which you just applied. And while the weirder curveball questions (“What would you do if you were the one survivor in a plane crash?”), may be going out of style, candidates should be prepared to tackle scenarios that force them to think outside the box.
That’s why we spoke to Jovena Whatmoor, the founder of Clutch Talent, a white glove technical recruitment firm that serves top startups and tech employers in New York City, to find out how you should handle tricky questions in the tech interview.
Q. If tech interviewers aren’t asking out-of-the-blue questions like, “Why are manhole covers round?” anymore, then what kinds of tricky curveballs are they throwing at job seekers?
A. The best practice in technical interviews is to present tough problems that directly relate to the work the company is doing, and then to build on those problems. For example, a streaming video service company might ask an engineer candidate, “How would you build a streaming video application?” Once the candidate has answered the baseline question and mapped out the architecture, they’ll start giving you scenarios that “break” the technology, such as, “What happens when we scale that to millions of users watching that same video at the same time?”
This interview style tests for a thought process directly related to the problems being solved, and it gives the candidate the opportunity to grasp the complexity of problems they’ll be working on once they join the team.
Q. When it comes to challenging questions, a common belief is that interviewers aren’t looking for you to necessarily have the right answer—they simply want to see how you articulate your thought process. Is that true? Is there anything they’re looking for applicants to demonstrate?
A. Technical hiring managers need to evaluate not only hard skills, but also a technologist’s ability to tackle novel problems. Some companies include questions in their interviews that they do not expect a candidate to be able to fully solve. Even problems that you can solve, they usually want to hear your thought process, not just see the answer.
The most common way of testing problem solving for engineers is the whiteboard interview. In a whiteboard interview, the interviewer is looking for the candidate to demonstrate communication skills, problem solving skills, breadth of knowledge, willingness to get in there and tackle a novel problem and—this is important—willingness to listen and take feedback.
One place candidates often stumble is when they are given feedback leading toward a new direction while in the midst of solving the problem. This is usually done genuinely as a way to guide the candidate to the preferred answer, rarely done to test the candidate’s personality. The important thing here is to stop, listen, ask clarifying questions and defer to the interviewer’s recommendation. Failure to do so sends a message that you think you’re always right, even when you are not.
Q. Is there something a candidate should never do or say in a tech job interview? Along those lines, what is the #1 mistake you see candidates making in tech job interviews?
A. The most common reason I’ve seen candidates declined for is expressing lack of interest in the job they are interviewing for. This can come about if you answer questions too literally. Instead, prepare by making notes on what you want to portray in the interview. And then, during the interview, think about not only what the question is, but also why it is being asked. Every interview question is evaluating your fit for that role at that company. It’s important not to stray off track.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add regarding the interview process for tech jobs?
A. Interview processes vary widely across roles and companies. For some they’ll be gauging practical skills as they apply to the job, while others will look for core computer science knowledge. Working with a recruiter who understands your strengths and can give you insight into where to brush up can ensure you don’t waste your time bombing interviews.