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How to Master the Technical Interview – Part I

How to Master the Technical Interview (Part 1 in our 2-part series)

In what may be one of the most stressful technical interviews on record, Lee Ballentine was interviewing for an applications engineer manager position with the CEO of a Silicon Valley company in the mid-1980’s when the room began to shake. As the shaking intensified and books started falling off the shelves, Lee watched people running by the room he was in towards the building exit. Seemingly content to ride out the earthquake, however, the CEO did not flinch and kept asking questions. Lee figured that if the CEO could handle the stress, so could he, and so the two kept right on talking until they were the only two left in the building. This unusual interview eventually concluded around the time everyone had calmed down and returned to work, and a few days later, Lee was offered the job.

While a technical interview can certainly be a very stressful experience, the good news is that it most likely won’t involve an earthquake. In addition, there are a number of things you can do to prepare that will reduce your stress levels, increase your chances of success, and hopefully land you that coveted position.

About the Technical Interview

Technical interviews are common amongst companies recruiting for IT, engineering or scientific positions. For many companies, technical Interviews are used only for the top candidates at the end of the process. Essentially, this type of interview is designed to determine your level of technical knowledge in an area that is specific to the position for which you are interviewing. You may be asked to give a presentation on previous work, projects, or success stories. Other times, you may be given a problem to solve in real time, requiring you to walk through the solution on-the-spot. If you are interviewing for a position requiring a scientific or engineering degree, you may be asked to work out a solution to a problem on a whiteboard in front of the interview team. Although assessing technical knowledge is obviously important for a technical position, the interviewer will also want to know how you think, problem-solve, communicate and interact with people.

In a technical interview, candidates may be asked questions that:

  • require candidates to solve actual technical problems that they would likely face once employed
  • demonstrate an understanding of the technical work that the job entails
  • relate to topics studied for the particular university degree that is part of job requirements
  • evaluate numerical reasoning skills
  • are brain-teasers (e.g., how many gas stations are there in the United States?)

Whether you are presenting your project history or working through difficult questions one-on-one,  the interviewing team is not so much looking for the “right” answers as they are trying to gain insight into how you think and problem-solve, and how you communicate your thinking.

Though facing a technical interview may at first appear daunting, there are ways to prepare. Preparation is, in fact, essential to mastering technical interviews – this is not the place to just wing it.

Preparing for the Big Day

Interview preparation allows you to go into an interview empowered to engage your interviewer(s) with questions and comments, as opposed to just passively submitting to an evaluation of your skills and knowledge. As early as possible before your interview, you should start preparing in a number of ways:

  • Brush up on knowledge and concepts likely to be asked about during a technical interview. Depending on the job, a quick review of the key concepts you studied during your university degree program may be in order. Obviously, you can’t study everything, but at minimum you should focus on understanding the technical requirements outlined in the job description, as most of the technical questions in the interview will likely relate directly to the job role. A simple internet search reveals numerous websites with lists of technical questions that are commonly asked in interviews, which you can use to practice. Some sites even reveal commonly asked interview questions for specific technical jobs. You can also look up the company you are interviewing with on Glassdoor to find interview questions that they are known to have asked in the past.
  • Be prepared to whiteboard. While problem-solving on a whiteboard isn’t a standard requirement for technical interviews, you should be ready for it. Practicing on a whiteboard at home with a friend before the interview can often make a big difference, particularly if you are not familiar or at ease with this kind of interaction.
  • Study the job description. The company put a lot of time, thought and energy into the job description. You should carefully study the job description and map out how your knowledge and skills can be best applied to solve the technical problems the company faces.
  • Research the company you are interviewing with. Demonstrating your knowledge of the company and its challenges during an interview shows that you are motivated, interested in the big picture, and thinking in terms of the team. In addition to browsing the company’s website, you can check out social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to learn more about both the company and its people. Websites like Indeed and Glassdoor may also be useful, as they contain company reviews that are submitted by current and past employees.
  • Prepare your own questions. As you research the organization and position, write down unanswered questions that arise for you and ask them during the interview.The interview team wants to hear your questions, as they demonstrate that you’re actively engaged in learning more about the company and the job you are interviewing for.

During the Technical Interview

Doing the homework described above can go a long way towards setting your mind at ease before a technical interview. Armed with the knowledge from your preparation, it may be helpful to think of the interview more as an opportunity to meet and interact with company employees in order to determine if this is the right fit for both you and the company. The experience is really what you make of it. Why not take advantage of this chance to meet with others knowledgeable in your field in order to learn something new, for example?

Here are some things to keep in mind in order to make your technical interview a success:

  • Talk.  Get used to thinking out loud as you answer questions and work out problem solutions. Strive to bring your interviewers along with you as you problem solve. A big piece of critical feedback employers often have is that candidates don’t talk enough in technical interviews. But of course, don’t talk incessantly.
  • Ask questions. You want to make sure you understand the problem you’re being asked to solve. If necessary, ask procedural questions to make sure you understand what your interviewer is looking for and what your constraints are. Avoid making assumptions. Think out loud so the interviewers can let you know if you are missing something. Once you feel that you understand the question being asked, don’t be afraid to take a minute to think and process before you start solving the problem. That said, don’t take several minutes to solve the problem in your head without saying anything.
  • If you don’t know the answer, admit it. It’s likely that you won’t know the answer to one or more of the questions you’re asked. That’s okay, as employers don’t expect you to know everything. Simply be truthful. Being upfront when you don’t know something is a quality the interviewer looks for. A graceful way to answer is, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll take some time to learn about it after this interview.” Then when you follow up after the interview, provide some kind of verification that you actually did go home and learn about that topic!
  • Be your most authentic self. Do your best to relax and be yourself. If you have to put on an act to get the job, then you’ll probably have to put on an act to do the job, and who wants that? Let your authentic self shine through so the hiring team sees and feels who you really are. The interaction that results will allow both you and the hiring team to assess your mutual compatibility.
  • Learn something. One thing that interviewees often miss is the chance to learn and grow during an interview. You may gain some insight into a new idea or tool, or discover interesting products and technology that you were not aware of. The more you think about your interviews as a learning opportunity, the more valuable the time spent will be to you in the long run, and the more relaxed and authentic you will be able to be in the interview.
  • Contribute something. Being ready and able to contribute is one of the most important qualities companies are looking for in an employee. If you’ve done your homework about the company and its challenges, you may be able to contribute a new thought, idea or insight during the back and forth of the interview process.

Someone who goes to an interview just to get the job and get out, will likely turn into a bored employee who just punches the clock and collects his or her paycheck. At an ideal job, you’re growing, communicating, learning and contributing every day. The above suggestions allow you to begin creating an ideal job for yourself by demonstrating the qualities during an interview that employers are looking for.

At the End of the Interview

You know an interview is coming to a close when your interviewer asks you, “Do you have any questions for me?” Never say “no” to this question, as it communicates that you are not interested or prepared. Instead, ask the questions that came up for you while you were researching the company and the job. Ask about the team you will be working with and the biggest challenge they face at this time, for example. Avoid questions about vacation time, salary, benefits, and other what’s-in-it-for-me questions  at this time – these questions are more appropriate for a human resources rep after you’ve been offered the position.

Finally, after you walk out of that room, don’t stop interviewing for the job. Send a short thank-you note or email as soon as possible that addresses specific and relevant issues you discussed during the interview.

In Closing

There are a number of different formats for technical interviewing. Not all technical interviews will be conducted face-to-face some might be telephone interviews, while others might be conducted over Skype or Google Hangouts. You may encounter one, some, or all of these formats during your interviewing journey. We’ll explore the nuances involved in the next piece, “How to Master the Technical Interview – Part II”.

About the Author

Rachel Hardecke is the Managing Director of the Western Staffing Region for Astrix Technology Group, where she leads a recruiting team focused on serving scientific and engineering firms. During her 7 years in the Scientific Staffing Industry, Ms. Hardecke has had extensive people and project management experience, as well as a highly successful track record in working with both customers and candidates to form succesful partnerships. 

Ms. Hardecke is an ISO 9001:2008 Certified Internal Auditor/Technician, and has a B.S. in Agricultural Business Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia.