Most Programmers Prepare for Interviews Backwards

by Jason Swett,

In my mind there’s one single key to interviewing successfully. Most job seekers are not only ignorant of the importance of this idea but they actually have it exactly backwards.

Most job seekers think they need to come to an interview prepared with answers. That’s true to an extent but it’s actually far more important to come prepared with questions. I’ll explain why.

Why It’s Smart to Ask Questions

Whoever is asking the questions in a conversation is the one who has the power in that conversation. If you’re controlling the conversation, you can steer it toward your strengths and the reasons why you’d be a good fit. If you let the interviewer control the conversation, you’re leaving it to chance.

Some companies really have their interview process down but from what I’ve seen, most companies don’t. It’s super common for an interviewer to sit down with an interviewee and not even have a single question prepared. They just ask whatever questions come to mind. Or even worse, they ask dumb questions like “What’s your proudest accomplishment?” because they presumably heard somebody else ask that question before and so figured it was a standard interview question. In my mind there’s no good reason to roll the dice by letting the other person ask all the questions when it’s totally possible to for you to take control.

Doing the Interviewer a Favor

By taking control, you’re actually doing your interviewer a favor. Often, the person interviewing you is a developer who sees your interview as a distraction from his or her regular priorities and for that reason has underprepared or not prepared at all. By taking control of the conversation, you’re lifting the burden of thinking of things to talk about from that person and putting it on yourself. You’re making the other person’s job easier. For this reason I pretty much never encounter resistance when I attempt to take control of the conversation.

How to Show Interest

There’s another reason it’s good to ask questions. Employers want to hire candidates who appear interested in the job. You might think “duh”, but you’d be surprised how many interview candidates don’t actually express strong interest in the job they’re being interviewed for. One way of showing interest is to actually say, “I’m really interested in working together.” I think that’s a good thing to say but I think asking thoughtful, intelligent questions is an even stronger way to express interest.

You might wonder what kinds of questions are good to ask.

Personal Questions

The best kinds of questions to ask in an interview are personal questions. This is because you don’t get interviewed by a company, you get interviewed by a person. It’s an individual person (or group of people) you have to win over in order to get hired.

Before the interview you should find out who will be interviewing you. (It’s totally normal to ask who will be interviewing you when you’re in the process of setting it up.) At best you’ll get a list of first and last names. At worst you’ll get nothing. Either way, there’s something you can do.

If you’re able to get the names of the people with whom you’re interviewing, google their names and see what comes up. You’ll also definitely want to check out their LinkedIn profiles. What are their roles? What are their work backgrounds? Where did they go to school? See if you can find anything interesting to comment on. See if you can find any commonalities. Take notes of all this stuff as you go.

If you can’t get actual names, you can make some guesses. You can try to go to the “About” page on the company’s website and see if there’s information listed there about their team. These links are often buried on the footer of the site. If you see some people there who might possibly be the people who are interviewing you, go through the research steps listed above.

How to be Interesting

I attended the Windy City Rails conference in, I believe, 2012. I was bored and antsy during one of the talks so I stepped out in the hall and started talking with the sponsors.

I met a guy named Mark who seemed pretty cool. I asked him question after question about himself and the company he worked for. After about 30 minutes into our conversation I had said almost nothing. I had only asked questions. Then Mark said, “You know, this is the most interesting conversation I’ve had at this conference.” The conversation was interesting to him because I allowed him to talk about the topic that interests him most: himself.

There’s a quote in How to Win Friends and Influence People that’s pretty relevant here: “To be interesting, be interested.”

There’s another relevant quote I’ll share here as well. Olivia Fox Cabane said in The Charisma Myth, “Don’t try to impress people. Let them impress you and they’ll love you for it.”

This is something else I think most interviewees have backwards. They go in thinking their goal should be to impress the people interviewing them. In reality your goal should be to make your interviewers like you, and one of the most effective ways I know of to get someone to like you is to show genuine interest in them.

So the takeaway here is to ask thoughtful, intelligent personal questions about the people interviewing you.

General Questions

Sometimes it’s too hard to come up with personal questions or the timing in the conversation isn’t right. In this case you can fall back on more general questions. Below are some of my go-tos.

Why do you want to hire a developer right now? What triggered this? This question is a good one not because it necessarily reveals some mind-blowing answer but it’s just a good question to lead with. It sounds natural to ask. “So, why are we talking right now?”

Can you tell me about your development team? Every company that hires developers of course has a development team. Or you’re their first developer. Either way, the question is relevant.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one thing happen right now, what would it be? This question reveals the biggest perceived problems and challenges in the organization right now.

Action Items

Make a list of questions you could ask at your next interview. And next time you have an interview actually scheduled, come up with a list of questions specifically for that interview.

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