How to succeed at a software interview

Software interviews vary from organisation to organisation but they all have very similar traits. In this guide I want to share with you some of the insider tips I put together over the 10+ years I recruited software engineers. In many ways it follows the same format as a night out and a hearty three course meal.

Starter — Back story about the company

I won’t deny it, this is the boring bit. You’ll go through it every time and have to look interested as your interviewer drones on about the history of the company, what they do and where the department fits.

Your goal at this stage is not to blow it before you’ve been asked a question. Sit up and pay attention. If they think you’re not interested you’ll have a long, hard uphill struggle trying to convince them otherwise.

If you’ve done your background research (and I sincerely hope you have) you should have a couple of questions ready to ask. It’s a great way to break the ice, perfect for getting rid of the nerves and makes the session much more interactive and interesting for both parties.

Use this part of the interview to make your assessment of the company. Your interview is just as much about you choosing them as it is them choosing you…

  • How do you feel about the technology?
  • Would the company and/or techonogy benefit your CV?
  • Could you work for the person sitting in front of you?
  • Are they excited and enthusiastic about the company?
  • What is the office environment like?
  • If you took this job, what’s your next career step?

True story — In 1998 I was interviewed by a software house in Worthing. We were in a meeting room next to the MD’s office and for most of the 2 hours I was there all I could hear was him shouting as he gave several members of staff a very loud and very abusive ticking off. It’s probably no surprise that I turned them down the same day. That was definitely not the kind of environment I’d feel comfortable working in.

 Main Course — Soft skills aka HR Interview

Having given the company overview, many interviewers will change course and move into what we call the ‘Soft Skills’ section or HR interview. This section of your interview is all about you as a person, not your technical prowess (although that will come up during the conversation).

Their purpose is to learn more about you…

  • Who you are
  • What you’ve done in your career up to this point
  • Why you want to leave
  • etc.

They’re not just listening to what you say but also how you say it. They’re looking to see if your body language is congruent with the conversation you’re having. Any anomalies ring alarm bells in the mind of the interviewer but rather than say anything, they’re just going make notes and let you talk yourself out of the role.

Put yourself in the position of the interviewer for one moment. You know how your team works and you’re looking for someone with both the capability to deliver, technical skills to the job and the ability to fit in.

Attitude and work ethic are equally import and (if not more so) than technical prowess. It’s easy to teach someone the skills to do the job but asking them to change their personality is never going to happen.

That’s what you’re being assessed on here: your attitude and your work ethic. If either of these doesn’t fit in to the person-shaped hole in the interviewer’s mind, you’re not going to be getting an offer.

True Story — In 1998 I was made redundant along with 7 of my colleagues, one of whom, Adrian, was a close friend at the time. We both put pour CVs out through the agencies and within a month I was working as a Principal Engineer at another company. I’d managed to secure both a pay rise and a promotion as a result.

For Adrian it was a different story. He took the redundancy personally and this came across in every interview he had. Once the interviewers got the scent they drove the conversation in that direction. Adrian was the victim yet it presented itself as a bad attitude. If he’d looked on the episode with a different mindset his loyalty and dedication to his former company would count as a strength, underpinning his incredible work ethic. Adrian took over a year to secure another position.

Dessert — Technical interview

Software, like most engineering disciplines, lends itself to a quantitative assessment of the candidate. In other words, it’s easy to test an individuals knowledge and skills with some form of test. It’s nothing to worry about — it’s your opportunity to show them how good you are — but you need to be a bit savvy about it.

Most technical tests suffer from the same flaw: they’re written in-house and don’t really do much other than demonstrate the author’s knowledge (or lack of it!). Nevertheless that’s the measuring stick they’re going to judge you by so if you’re serious about the role you’ll have to play by their rules.

I always enjoyed this part of the interview, both as the interviewer and the candidate. They’re usually fairly straightforward and a fantastic opportunity for you to shine. Just be careful in case there are a few trick questions.

What kind of questions can you expect?

  • Programming language questions
  • Code analysis and fixing
  • Fundamentals (e.g. Bit manipulation, operators)
  • Software engineering principles (memory leaks, linked lists)
  • Object oriented principles such as IS-A and HAS-A
  • …and any one of a million other things they may think of

If you know your stuff, the technical test should be easy.

If you don’t know something, tell them and try to work out the solution. You’ll make much more of a positive impression if you’re honest and they can see how you’re trying to solve the problem. The worst thing you can do in this situation is try to blag it or lie. Most good interviewers can smell bullshit a mile away and you’re not helping your case if you start along this route. You’re more likely to talk yourself out of rather than into the role.

True story — I once interviewed a candidate who completely failed at the technical test. I’d previously screened him with a telephone interview so out of curiosity I asked him some of the same questions he answered on the phone. Shockingly, he got them all wrong. To this day I still believe the person sat in front of me at the time was not the same person I spoke to in the phone. Needless to say he didn’t get an offer.

The best advice for the technical skills section is to be yourself, relax and have fun with it. It’s your chance to impress but you need to be open, honest and confident. Arrogance, dishonesty and trying to ‘wing it’ will all count against you.

Coffee and Mints — Wrapping it up…

By now you’re either feeling exhilarated or punch drunk depending on how things have gone but you’re not done yet. Almost, but not quite.

The wrapping up stage is perhaps less formal than the earlier part of the conversation but you’re still in your interview and will be until you’ve left the building and disappeared from sight.

In wrapping up, your interviewer will probably have a few last questions. One of my favourites was particularly cunning and went like this:

“Is there anything else you feel we should have asked you about today?”

It offers a last opportunity for you to bring up anything important that hasn’t already been covered but be careful what you say. You want to leave a strong, positive impression so don’t say anything that might damage your chances.

As the candidate you need to have questions prepared too. Good, boilerplate examples are things like

  • What salary are you offering?
  • When will I hear?
  • When do you need someone to start?

You could also try something more creative such as

  • Why do you like working here?
  • What would you say is the best thing about the company?

On the subject of salary…

As a candidate you absolutely must make sure salary is discussed at the interview. You’re never going to get a number there and then but you need a ball park figure to work on.

Asking your interviewer to cover the entire package is equally important and may reveal a few hidden surprises too. For example when I was interviewed by Symbian Software in 2004 I discovered I could pay up to 14% of my salary into the pension and Symbian would match that too.

The 39 steps to the lift…

…is a time for making small talk. Avoid the deafening silence at all cost by asking them about the office space or anything else that comes to mind.

Use this time to look at the other employees too, some of them may be your future work buddies! Are they happy? Do they look stressed? How are they dressed? How old are their desks/PCs/monitors/laptops? Is the air fresh or stale?


The final handshake…

…should be firm with good, strong eye contact and a polite smile (you wouldn’t believe how important all this is!).

Thank your interviewer for their time return your visitor’s pass if you have one and leave.

On your way out don’t forget to look at the cars in the car park! Collectively they’ll reveal a lot about the company.

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