Why Startups Aren’t Hiring You

As a fresh college grad searching for a software engineering role, I quickly became disheartened with all the rejection I was receiving interviewing at tons of companies while all my peers already received offers from “top” firms in Silicon Valley.

I probably applied to 100+ companies: Most I received no response from, some had phone screens which went nowhere, and some had coding challenges that I failed.

I wish I knew then what I know now about how job applications and interviews work at these small companies.

Over the last six months, I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for engineering roles at lvl5. In this article, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from being on the other side of the interviewing table. I will also reveal what happens behind the scenes at a small company when you submit a resume (and sometimes never hear back). After reading this post you will know what it takes to nail the interview process at most tech companies in Silicon Valley.

The Application Process

Most interviews start with a phone screen or a small coding challenge. At lvl5, we require all candidates to take a fairly lightweight coding challenge. This saves both the candidate and us time because candidates who cannot solve our “fizzbuzz”-type coding challenge simply aren’t qualified for the much harder technical problems we have to solve on a daily basis.

If you are struggling to pass these timed coding challenges, the only remedy is more experience. Take up projects outside of work/class and find a forgiving language, like Python, that you can master. This post won’t help you improve technically.

The next step in the application process is typically a short conversation on the phone — a “phone screen.” I’m generally a pretty easy-going guy so I thought I was naturally an ace and obviously didn’t need to prepare.

Don’t fall into this trap like I did! At lvl5 we weed out the most candidates at this stage. Typically only 1 in 4 candidates pass the phone screen.

The Phone Screen

The interviewer in a phone screen typically has 15 minutes to decide whether or not you’d be a fit at the company. Even though it’s such a short call, you need to spend time preparing — for each company.

Here are the three most-common mistakes I see candidates making during phone screens.

1. Not knowing what the company does
2. Not being excited about joining the team
3. Failing to craft a compelling pitch demonstrating how you would help achieve the company’s mission.

The first mistake isn’t as obvious as it may seem. For example, most candidates know that lvl5 “builds maps for self-driving cars,” but don’t know why or what these maps are used for. You should know everything you can about the product. Who buys it? Why do they buy it? How is it made? What competition exists? How is it different from the competition’s offering? What is it typically used for? What technologies are likely used to build it? What other products could the company build next?

Don’t just read about the company on their website; look at press coverage, talk to people in the industry, read about the company mission, try out the product… I promise it won’t take that long.

The second mistake, not being excited about joining the team, isn’t something you can fake. After interviewing hundreds of candidates, most professional interviewers realize that everybody has a different communication style. Some people are vivacious and energetic, while others are just naturally monotonic. We can see through this to understand real excitement about our vision and team.

When I ask most people why they want to work at lvl5, they say, “idk, I think the self-driving industry is really cool.” Great, but who doesn’t!? Also there are plenty of companies working on different parts of the self-driving stack, so what in particular compels you to work on our team?

Consider this — do you want the role so badly that you would actually take a pay cut to join? Don’t waste time spraying hundreds of applications to many companies that you don’t care about; find a few that you’re really passionate about and persist.

The third mistake you can fix by spending a little time preparing. A phone screen isn’t just an opportunity for the company to hear you restate what’s already on your resume. You need to spend time crafting your pitch (which should be semi-bespoke for each company to which you apply). Here’s why:

As pitiless as it sounds, the boolean condition determining whether or not you get (and stay) hired is: Accounting for all risks and costs, will this candidate make the company money?

“Risks” come in different forms — for example, if your prior experience isn’t totally relevant to what the company is currently working on, what is the risk that you won’t be effective or qualified to getting your work done on time. Or, given your employment history, how likely are you to bounce from the company during a critical moment?

Your job during the phone screen is to convince the interviewer that you have the skills necessary to build a product that makes (or saves) the company money. The most surefire way to do this is to talk about relevant skills you’ve gained by experience on previous projects.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is already working there. What challenges does this company have? How are you equipped to fix them? What relevant problems have you solved before that would help solve these?

Find a way to answer these three questions and the conversation will drive itself naturally.

These aren’t gimmicks guaranteed to land you a dream job — just tips to differentiate yourself, especially at the top of the hiring funnel. I hope they help you find a great career.