Three Questions to Answer In Every Interview, Even When They Aren’t Asked
There are many questions that job seekers are urged to ask during an interview with a potential employer. However, there are three questions you need to answer during a technical interview regardless of whether they’re actually asked.
Interviewers are ostensibly evaluating how effective a candidate can be on whatever the company tech stack is. The challenge is that even tech stacks based on the same technology could vary wildly from company to company when layers of process, configuration, and experience are applied on top of technical choices. Therefore, though they’re interested if you have relevant experience with a particular tech stack, interviewers must turn to a secondary set of criteria when evaluating a candidate.
Good interviewers have an entirely different set of questions they’ll ask to drive out an answer. These questions will attempt to qualify how you came into the knowledge you possess today. How best do you learn new things? Are you consciously aware of the way you learn most effectively? How long does it take you to feel comfortable in a new language or framework?
Bad interviewers won’t attempt to discern any of this; they’ll ask you a question drawn from their current tech stack and dutifully note whether you answer it correctly or incorrectly.
Therefore, as a candidate you should offer this information even if not asked, because it provides a whole lot of context for the interviewer to make a leap to how readily you’d come into that technical environment.
Answer these three questions, even if you’re not asked them:
- Where are you at NOW?
- Where are you going NEXT?
- HOW will you get there?
To a greater extent, describing where you’re at NOW is about summarizing your familiarity with a variety of languages, technologies and frameworks that are used in the industry today. It’s also about describing what’s important to you when it comes to your values, a potential employer’s values, code you write, code you review or how you work with cross-functional teams.
To a lesser extent, it could also mean describing how you arrived at where you are now. Describing relevant events or experiences give context to the interviewer around your learning process, and coupled with a strong plan around where you’re going NEXT it provides a great story that displays to them how you’d onboard to their team.
Answering, “Where are you going NEXT?” is all about establishing your short-term goals, which could be focused on technology or your career but is hopefully some combination of the two. It’s also helpful if your answer to this question has a strong relationship to what the company you’re interviewing with does. For example: describe how and why you’re learning a new programming language, why you were drawn to it, and what gaps in your toolbox you think it fills. If you’re interested in developing, say, leadership skills, then it would be great to describe why you want to do that (“I always admired the way a former manager made it look effortless to get everyone going in the same direction!”) and what steps you’re currently taking (“I’ve started a technical recruiting meetup to reinforce leadership behavior!”).
And finally, the best way to demonstrate how you would integrate into the team is to convey how you’ll get from where you’re at NOW to where you want to go NEXT. By describing two distinct points in your career journey and then connecting those dots with actionable steps, you’ll provide a great indication to the interviewer on how you tackle problems and grow as a developer. If your technical skills are in the ballpark, this can seal the deal.
As a candidate, this should be your high-level plan during an interview: find a way in your conversation to describe two points in your career journey (NOW and NEXT) and then connect them (HOW). This fills the blanks in how you would take what you know now and then apply it to their particular environment, team culture and technical stack.
Finding that hook to tell your story can admittedly be difficult. You’d like to avoid the appearance of wildly diverging from the conversation or question at hand to tell an unrelated story. Here’s an example of a good use of a (tired-ass) question as a jumping off point:
INTERVIEWER: “So tell me about a time that there was a disagreement on your team? How did you handle it?”
CANDIDATE: “Hmm, well that would also relate to me learning to work with product managers better. When I was younger and right out of school, I would tend to get the minimum specifications to get a feature done and then go heads-down, which worked for me when we had really well-understood work. But there was a time when our roadmap had some really fuzzy items on it, and so the requirements kept changing and the product manager would come into our stand-up every morning with another change, then another. The team (myself included) started to get really annoyed with the product manager even though we knew it wasn’t his fault, and it came to a head when there were some snippy comments thrown back and forth in Slack. Luckily, our development manager had some experience with these situations and was totally the calmest voice in the room. I learned a valuable lesson as we talked things out: that fuzzy requirements can be a reality, and — although we, as developers, can push for specs to be worked out in advance — it’s better that we can work effectively with the PM to smooth out the churn in those cases. I now take that attitude into all my planning and estimation meetings with product managers: what’s known now and what is still fuzzy? Is it possible to delay the implementation of things based on the fuzziness? In fact, I’m interested in doing a short rotation as a product manager to get even more context around how they do their jobs, so I can more effectively collaborate during the rough spots.”
Thus, in the context of answering an old-as-dirt behavioral question, you give the interviewer a bit of background on how you collaborate in teams and how you’re looking to improve in that area as well.
Hopefully your interviewer is asking you questions that easily allow you describe where you’re at NOW, where you’re going NEXT, and HOW you’ll get there, but, even if they don’t, it’s in your best interest to find opportunities to answer the questions they didn’t ask and better illustrate how you’d fit into the company. Go forth and interview!