Taking Back the Job Interview
You’d think that we’d have this gender equality thing sorted out in the 21st century. After all, women have made so many gains in the last hundred years or so. Women have the right to vote. Women work outside the home. There are woman CEOs, woman startup founders (shoutout to Charity Majors’ continuous badassery), and even woman Prime Ministers (like super bad-ass New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern). And let’s not forget that we have a whole day dedicated to women in International Women's Day.
The truth is, we ladies still have a looooong way to go before true gender equality. I could go on and on about all the different ways in which women are screwed over in various aspects of society. Hello, Vice-Presidential debate in which Kamala Harris expertly bitch-slapped Mike Pence multiple times? (Kamala, I bow down to your awesomeness.) But today, I will be focusing on the technical job interview, how some (not all, thank goodness!!!) men looooove to try to assert their superiority over us techie women and try to make us feel like shit, and how we can turn things around and leave an interview feeling more in control.
PS: Applies whether you’re male, female, or non-binary. We all deserve to have non-shitty tech interviews, amirite?
As a woman in tech, it is no surprise that I am often outnumbered by my male colleagues. Naturally, this means that most interviewers in my field tend to be men. Not all men are asshole interviewers, but unfortunately, I’ve encountered more asshole male interviewers than I’d care to know.
I’ve been out of school doing this tech thing for almost 20 years now. More, if you count my 10-year-old self first learning to code in QBasic (thanks, dad!), and my university summer jobs and undergrad thesis work.
My 1st year university summer job in tech was as sub-contractor at the Canadian Space Agency through Larus Technologies, resulting in two published papers (one of which won an award). My 3rd year university tech summer job working in Munich, Germany, at (what at the time was called) Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace. For my fourth-year university thesis (2000–2001), I worked on mobile application development before it was even a thing. Back when it was WAP, with J2EE serving WML pages, and Blackberry was just getting its start. Post-university, I focused mostly on server-side Java development and DB development and performance tuning. More recently, I pivoted my tech career, by focusing on improving software delivery, first by diving into DevOps practices and standards, and now, with SRE, digging into Python and Kubernetes. I ran a program for three years to scale DevOps at a large organization, and co-wrote and co-designed an application to create a pipeline of pipelines. This application proved to bring in an estimated savings of 98% in software delivery costs. In short, I. Know. My. Shit.
The question is, how can a kick-ass techie convey their awesome skills at an interview, without being sabotaged by an asshole interviewer?
It’s so irritating to be in a technical interview for a senior position, whether it’s as an Individual Contributor or Manager, to get stuck with a male interviewer who feels the need to assert his superiority over the interviewee, and to try to embarrass them by asking stupid-ass questions like:
- “What’s the difference between containerization and virtualization?”
- “What’s a PVC in Kubernetes?”
- “Do you know what serverless is?”
- “What does an Ansible Handler do?”
Hey, let me Google that for you, buddy. I’ve talked about being in this situation before.
Personally, I don’t want to regurgitate definitions. I want to showcase my industry knowledge and experience. I want to talk to a potential employer about problems that I’ve solved before. I want to talk to them about some of their technical challenges.
But you know what’s left me super-pissed about these interviews? How I handled myself in these situations. Perhaps this has happened to you too!
I myself have been so taken aback by these types of questions, that I’ve just sat there, dumbfounded. I fumbled. I felt like the world’s dumbest person. I’d love to say that I’ve only experienced this type of interview once, but unfortunately, that was not the case. And each time, I. Just. Froze.
Taking Back the Interview
I won’t lie. After these types of shitty male peacocking interviews, I was left feeling like a total impostor. A hack. A loser. Why would they want to hire me? I can’t answer these stupid questions!! I would slump on my couch afterwards and cry, feeling sorry for myself. “Why can’t the world just see how awesome I am?”
Then, a very good (male) friend of mine reminded me that:
- I am smart, and good at what I do, and I am an exceptional problem-solver
- Interviews are a two-way street — interviewer and interviewee are both assessing each other for fit
- There’s no reason for me to not be in control of my narrative in the interview
So, with my friend’s help, we put together a plan to take control of the interview process. Below are four rules that I started following in order to stay in control of interviews, and to leave my interviews feeling great about myself, regardless of whether or not I was offered the job. Rules that I’d like to share with you, so that you too, can have a more pleasant technical interview experience, and leave with your dignity intact!
1- Tell them what work interests you, and where you like to work
Many interviewers ask you to talk about your past experience. If you’re like (past) me, you’ll do a rundown of your most recent job experiences, elaborating on your résumé.
I’ve since changed my narrative. Nobody gives two squirts about your job chronology, and they’ll probably be bored out of their mind to hear about it.
Instead, focus on the fact that working at a company is a give-and-take relationship. You need to talk about how your skills can contribute to their success, but also talk about what you hope to learn while you’re on the job. I personally get bored easily. I feel most alive when I’m picking up new skills and solving an interesting problem. Likewise, a potential employer should be able to answer what’s in for them (i.e. why they want to hire you), and how they can help make you successful.
2- Keep shifting attention to what’s important
Don’t care for the shitty, let-me-Google-that-for-you questions? Tell them right off the bat. I’ve straight up told interviewers the following:
“Asking me to define programming concepts, or to tell you the difference between SOAP and REST, or the difference between containerization and virtualization is juvenile. I’ve had these types of ‘technical interviews’ in the recent past, and these types of employers are not a fit for me.”
Or, if you’re feeling bold and have a bit of extra time, send your interviewer(s) a note about your expectations about the interview process and the types of questions being covered. While it’s understandable that a tech manager needs to know their tech shit, as a tech manager candidate, being asked a bunch of junior dev questions is not the best use your time or theirs.
FYI – Even after telling previous interviewer(s) about my expectations, they have, on occasion, still tried to ask these stupid questions. Feel free to keep re-calibrating their questions to what matters to you and to the organization. Nobody’s forcing you to answer questions that aren’t meaningful to the conversation.
3- Ask meaningful questions
Remember — you need to make sure that the company is a fit for you, as much as they need to make sure that you’re a fit for them. After you’ve highlighted why you’re awesome and have established the rules of engagement, start asking questions. Right. Away. Even before your interviewers launch into theirs, if you can. That way, you can keep a chill conversational tone, which makes it a much more enjoyable experience. For an SRE role, you might want to ask things like:
- What’s your team’s definition of SRE? If they have a different view on SRE work than yours, that can be a red flag.
- What’s the team’s on-call policy?
- How often does the team get woken up in the middle of the night because of infrastructure or application failures?
- How does the organization feel about Developers being on-call for their own code?
- What’s the team’s view around proactive vs reactive work?
- Ask about the last couple of people who left the team, and why they left (credit to Charity Majors for coming up with this gem).
4- Stay in Control
This is perhaps the most important rule of all. Stay in control of the interview and of your narrative. You never want someone to tell your story for you. That is simply unacceptable.
I would highly suggest writing down a little script. In these Covid days of Zoom interviews, prop up your phone (or piece of paper/notebook) with your narrative text on a stand next to your computer monitor. It can serve as a little teleprompter while you give your spiel. 😊
Some interviewers might not like this take-control-approach, especially if you’re a woman being interviewed by men with peacocking tendencies, but oh well…you can’t make ’em all love you, can you? It also means that you probably wouldn’t want to work with them anyway. I know I wouldn’t.
At the end of the day, for me, at least, leaving the interview not feeling like a shitty loser, with my dignity intact, and knowing that I am good at what I do, regardless of whether or not I get the job, is what matters most to me. Happy interviewing!