Engineers: Are You Getting Rejected From Your Interviews?

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to experience the Hollywood magic of a full scale movie production?

And when I say full scale I’m talking about Star Wars production size with nuclear explosions, green googly-eyed aliens, and thousands of $7,000 cameras capturing every movement and every facial emotion.

Put me in coach. I can be help out on the set!

During these past 6 months I’ve had an incredible opportunity to be a part of Otto, a self-driving truck startup that broke a record and even won a Crunchie award for Hottest New Startup.

It’s been it’s own full scale production to say the least.

We’ve hired some really brilliant engineers but we’ve also had to say no to quite a few as well.

As a recruiter, it’s been fascinating to work behind the scenes and hear first hand from hiring managers and interviewers why certain engineers didn’t make the cut. Sure there’s a technical bar that we hold high or certain backgrounds that are a better fit for our roles but I started to wonder…

What other reasons are there? What tips can we pull together that might have turned that 3 into a perfect 4?

After carefully scouring through hundreds of phone and on-site feedback forms, there were 3 main reasons (outside of technical & role fit) that emerged amongst a score of others.

So stick around — maybe there’s a tip or two in here that might just be a difference maker.

Reason #1: Lack of Depth

“The candidate seemed to have a wide breadth of experience but not enough depth in any area. They struggled to explain some of the core details behind their recent projects.”

I can’t emphasize this one enough.

This was by far the most common set of feedback on why we didn’t move forward with candidates.

What do I mean by lack of depth?

Be ready to explain in depth about the projects you list on your resume. And by in depth I’m talking about getting at least 2–3 layers past the initial overview of your project.

Come ready to justify why you made the decisions you made in designing and coding your project this way instead of that.


Bob worked as game developer 5 years ago.

Layer 1 — Tell me about one of your most impressive projects you built when you were there? Let’s start with a high overview.

Layer 2 — I see that you listed OpenGL as one of the tools you used there. How did you use it to build the environments in your game?

Layer 3 — Let’s dig a little deeper. How would we create these 3D environments? I understand libraries are important but what can you tell me about the core concepts and theories that you used?

How often do engineers spend their day to day lives explaining the projects on their resume in granular detail?

Probably not a lot.

Unless you’re transitioning a project off to another team, writing a book, mentoring a jr engineer, etc. you’re probably spending your time coding and having discussions about architecture and design.

So what’s the point?

It takes intentional practice to rewire your brain to do something it normally doesn’t do. It takes some extra steps to sit down, think and if you’re really daring physically writing out all the How’s and Why’s in the past and recent projects that you’ve built.

Or if you’re feeling really risky like Felix Baumgartner…

…you can even record yourself doing a mock interview with a friend.

Try it. It works.

Reason #2: Lack of Research & Passion

“The candidate seemed disinterested in our mission. Didn’t come across as someone who was particularly excited about what they do as an engineer nor what the technologies we’re building here.”

What’s the first thing that came to mind when you saw the header?

I can tell you what I thought.

“Let’s take 0.86 seconds to Google [companyname] and read the first 3–5 articles that I see. And just to make sure I’m covering my bases let’s take 5–10min stalking my interviewers on Linkedin.”



And for 91% of us that’s the extent of the research we’ll do. And frankly, it’s probably enough given that a majority of the interview process is technically focused.

However, why leave even the smallest possibilities of rejection to something that would have taken only 15–20min to do?

Alright alright I get it. I can go the extra mile but why is it important?

I often see “Not passionate enough about our mission (or challenges, industry, vision, product, etc.) as a minor concern to consider.

Well how can we tell if someone is passionate? Maybe it depends on how loud they are? Or maybe how many facts they’ve memorized about our company’s history? Or how hard their hand shakes in the farewells?

Perhaps so.

But underneath all of that, I define passion (at least in the context of interviewing) as an emotional mix of genuine interest and fascination that comes from an overflow of how they feel about the opportunity.


How do we get to a point of overflow?

Let’s take the self driving space as an example. There are some folks who are already PUMPED about everything that has to do with self driving technology. They blog, attend meet ups and find themselves laying awake at night dreaming about it’s endless possibilities.

Then there are others who might need to do a little digging…a little research to ignite a few passionate sparks that could lead to something more.

And the more you dig the more curious you get. The more curious you get the more hungry you get to satisfy those cravings.

Then before you know it, hours have passed and you’ve watched endless Artificial Intelligence videos on Youtube, read Ph.D papers and learned more about the other players in the space then you ever thought you would.

You’re hooked!

Alright overflowing passion is important, I get it. Where can I start?

Taking Otto as an example, here are a list of places you can dig into.

You can…

  1. Read through Otto’s blog
  2. Use the “Forum” operator on Google (forum: Otto self driving)
  3. Browse through Reddit’s /r/selfdriving subreddit
  4. Search Youtube videos on our Founders, Anthony Levandowski & Lion Ron (this one is my favorite)
  5. Use the “Site” operator on Google to scrape tech focused sites like HackerNews / TechCrunch for news and opinions (site: self driving)
  6. Scrape Twitter using #selfdriving hashtags

Happy researching.

Reason #3: Making Assumptions

So you’re starting the first leg of the day. You’ve got a little too much caffeine swimming in your blood streams but you’re feeling good.

The interviewer asks a pretty vague question around reversing a link list.

You’re caught off guard but then you quickly remind yourself that you’ve spent hours preparing for this moment. You assume a few things that the interviewer might be asking and you dive right in.

It’s only on your drive home that afternoon that you realized that maaaaaaybe you should have clarified a thing or two before getting started.


Sound like a familiar story?

If the question is vague, ask for clarity. More often then not interviewers are expecting that you ask a few follow up questions.

In just 45min — 1 hr your main objective is to leave an impression for the interviewer and becoming a masterful and attentive communicator can go a long way.

For more tips take a look through this post here.

Speaking of impressions, there’s something called the recency effect which basically states that, “you remember best the items that come at the end of the list.” (source:

Interviewers typically leave 10–15min at the end to answer any questions you have to which I often hear,

“No questions at this time, thank you!”

I get it.

You’re probably exhausted from the technical portion and you might even feel a tinge of guilt that you’ve already taken 45min of precious engineering time from your interviewer. Maybe you just want to polite.

Throw that out.

That’s a freebie to push the envelope just a little further! Why not take advantage of it?

If you’ve really done your research you should be on the tips of toes eager to ask some really tough and targeted questions that naturally sprung up.

Using Otto as an example again one could ask a question like…

  • I understand safety is an incredibly important milestone that self driving companies like yourself is striving towards. What is the team doing to position themselves as the leader in this area?
  • If Perception is the key to winning this self driving game how does Otto stack up against the likes of Waymo who already have a 7–8 year head start?
  • What’s the short and long term go-to-market strategy for Otto?

Come with great questions, leave with an impression.


For most of us I’m sure these tips are elementary.

The key is in the prep.

Consider this: Work consumes over 30% of our lives and it has a direct financial correlation to our livelihoods and lifestyles. Opportunities like these only come around 10 or so times in 35–40 year working career. Every decision we make has a direct impact for each and every subsequent move in the future.

Why wouldn’t you go the extra mile for something so important?

Be intentional in your preparation!

Explain in detail, do your research and ask great questions.

What’s next? Put these tips into action.



Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below, let’s have a discussion on what you agree and/or disagree with!