After interviewing over 100 people remotely, here's what I've learned.
I enjoy meeting new people, which is an odd disposition given my technical background. Because of that, I've naturally found myself taking part in the interview process frequently. I've had the opportunity to interview many people, from developers to QA, IT, and security. I've done technical interviews to cultural interviews for junior positions to high-level managers. I've seen people glow and others hang up in a panic partway through. So what makes the difference?
Recently, I volunteered some time to give mock interviews to a great group of grads out of inceptionU, which got me thinking about this topic a lot more. I found some similar patterns in the feedback I was giving and started noticing them in many of the other remote interviews I was also doing. You may disagree, but I'll lay it all out and let you decide what's valuable. So, here's what I've discovered:
🎣 Spearfishing vs. casting a wide net
Part of getting hired is chance; however, chance always favors the prepared. To be prepared is a significant amount of work. You can only spare time for a few companies rather than hit dozens of companies at once.
Find the types of companies and roles suitable to your goals and lifestyle — I think this might be overly obvious, but I'd like to stress that now, as the applicant, you have the upper hand in this current hiring landscape.
When I've been a candidate, I've found my success dramatically increases when I focus fire my efforts. Your results may vary, but it's much more fun to spearfish!
🧩 Where to find interview cheat codes and how to use them
One part of getting prepared is researching the team you're interviewing with. Most companies will have stated core values somewhere on their website. It might be on the Careers page or the About us page. Here's why I call these interview cheat codes:
A common practice is to create interview questions based on core values. For example, if one of the core values is Integrity, then a possible question might be:
“Tell us about a time you screwed up? How did you handle it?”
Another example is Trust, where a possible question might be:
“How do you deal with disagreements about what solutions to implement for a problem you are trying to solve?”
Based on those core values, game out some of the possible questions asked. Build out examples from your experience that exemplify those values. Going through this exercise will give you a solid edge in the interview and help you feel better prepared.
Additionally, you'll be able to judge if the questions asked by the interviewer match the values you've observed. A big red flag is if there is a mismatch between the questions and the values stated by the company (technical questions notwithstanding).
One time, when I was the candidate, I noticed this mismatch. I asked the interviewer:
“Which one of your team’s core values do you most identify with?”
The interviewer didn't know they had core values listed on their site, and alarm bells immediately went off in my head. I dug further and quickly discovered that this company's culture had several issues.
Asking this question helped me avoid getting more entangled, joining their team, and coming to that conclusion after months of hard experience.
Feel free to use that question yourself when vetting companies you might want to work for☝️
📖 Knowing your audience
Find out who your interviewers are ahead of time. It doesn't hurt to ask who you'll be talking to, but try to frame it in a positive light.
“May I ask who I’ll be chatting with? I’d like to prepare my best stuff and if I know what their specialty is, then I can make it more memorable for them.”
In addition to knowing a bit of their background, it gives you a sense of how you might want to go about answering their questions. Let's take this question as an example:
“Tell us about a time you solved a really challenging problem?”
Your answer should differ depending on who you are talking to.
You're likely chatting to developers or engineering managers if you're at a technical interview. If you're at a cultural interview, you could have someone from sales or customer success. Use this knowledge as a heuristic when deciding what example or story to tell and how you go about telling it.
In a technical setting, dive into the specifics of the problem.
Tell them the glorious details of that missing semi-colon and how it broke the build.
Tell them how you wrote that special function that you refactored three times just because you wanted to see how concise you could make it and use a new coding pattern you wanted to try out.
In a cultural interview setting, focus more on the events and people involved. Describe how everyone felt and build characters with names (certainly replace people's real names with fake ones).
Tell them about how you helped Carl, who struggled to get his performance module into production.
Tell them how you then roped in Blake and Jessica to break the problem down into chunks and how it felt like you were at that scene at Rivendell in the Fellowship of the Ring. "… you have my bow." "And my axe!"
Tell them the crushing defeat you had in the Mines of Moria, where Blake fell off the cliff's edge because he needed to help solve another problem.
Tell them about the simple moments where you found out that you all enjoyed some friendly competition of who could slay the most enemies (or bugs in this case). "Certainty Of Death? Small Chance Of Success? What Are We Waitin' For?"
And finally, tell them about that moment when you stood side-by-side with Carl and Jessica at the gates of Mordor, battling as the one ring was cast into the flames of Mount Doom (our hard work on the performance module was deployed to production). You all felt that relief and most profound joy seeing the performance issue break away. Middle Earth was at peace again.
The point is to create a narrative that captures your audience.
🔍 Specific answers vs. general answers
This tip is another one that sounds obvious, but the vast majority of people I've interviewed tend to give lots of general answers. Let's take this question for example:
“Tell us about a time you started something from scratch?”
Using all the previous points I've made, what do you think the spirit of the question is? One common mistake is to start listing a bunch of things:
"I started a dog walking app, created a group to teach kids how to tie their shoelaces, coach a sports team, build open-source projects frequently, …."
These all have the potential to be interesting topics, but you have to decide which to pick.
Time is limited, and if everything is highlighted, nothing is.
If you did your homework, choosing which one to talk about should be easier based on your audience and the company's core values. Let's say we pick teaching kids how to tie their shoelaces. Here's another common issue:
"A bunch of us got together and went to schools. We bought a bunch of laces and tied them. The kids were happy."
Most people will meander a bit more, but that's about it; they give just the gist. Nothing overly captivating or specific.
What kind of schools? Elementary? High school? Penitentiary?
Were there issues getting the laces? Waxed? Did you all stick to tying bows? or did someone try some fancy drip?
Was there a particularly rambunctious kid that was hard to teach? Did any kids refuse to part with their velcro kicks? Any kids you had to send home for wearing socks and sandals?
Now I have several questions that need answers, dammit!
As discussed above, build a narrative to answer those questions. You don't need to do a long oration, but don't shy away from the details. You need to gauge if your interviewers are interested in your story by asking them questions as well.
Asking your interviewers some questions will allow you some wiggle room to pivot if you sense they are losing interest. Look where their eyes are pointing. Does it look like they are typing away and less present in the moment?
🔧 Ask what is at your disposal, and use it
Great potential goes unused during a remote interview—namely, the humble screen share. At the beginning of an interview, ask if you can share your screen at any point to describe your thoughts (this is especially handy if English is not your first language). Ask if you can pull up a code editor. Heck, ask if you can use Google!
People often get stuck trying to explain a complex topic with just their words, and we lose understanding and time to ask more questions. Sometimes a quick sketch or a bit of written pseudo-code will do more in 30 seconds than a 5-minute homily.
Additionally, If you don't know the answer to a question, be upfront about it, then try to turn it to your advantage.
“Hmm… I don’t know that one, but here’s how I would go about finding out!”
If you don't get shut down immediately, proceed to wow them with your research skills. Show them what sites you like to use and what follow-up questions you might have based on your findings.
Pull an Uno reverse and ask them what they think about your choice of forums. Ask them what they use and if they have any new questions. See if you can get them to show you how they do their research and turn it into a discussion. Now you can take this wherever you want; the universe is your oyster!
If you're lucky, your interviewers might even forget you didn't know the answer in the first place. As a frequent interviewer, I'd be forgiving with a solid display of fact-finding and discovery — it's how you'd be doing it on the job if you didn't know something anyways.
🤝 Treat it more like a chat or friendly discussion…
…but remember to be professional. It's a fine line to walk, but remember that your interviewers are humans with interests and likes.
I talked about this with another teammate also doing lots of interviews; we discovered we both enjoyed some banter with the candidate during the interview.
Discussing a bit about your hobbies and favorite shows/movies/books can cut the tension. If you find yourself nervous, this should help relax you.
As a general mindset, you'll find that this puts you in relationship-building mode instead of being on the defensive. Experienced interviewers will notice this.