Interview advice for software engineer candidates from Talent Inc.’s CTO, Michael Henderson.

Interviewing for an engineering position can be a nerve-wracking experience. However, with the right preparation, you can boost your confidence, as well as increase your odds for success.

Recently, I sat down with Michael Henderson, the Chief Technology Officer for TopInterview’s parent company, Talent Inc., to learn how he conducts job interviews for software engineers and also reveal what interview advice he offers those looking to score a spot on his team.

Q. What is your favorite interview question to ask candidates? How does this question help you assess a developer's skills?

A. Interviews can be stressful situations, so I go out of my way to make candidates feel comfortable. When candidates are more relaxed, it’s easier to get a good understanding of their skills and assess their fit within the team.

I like to ask candidates to walk me through a complicated program on which they've previously worked that’s specific to them. By allowing them to pick the system, I expect them to be able to talk about and describe it with confidence. I want to see if they can clearly explain the system, provide the right amount of information, and field follow-up questions.

Candidates get bonus points when they ask to use a whiteboard to diagram their current and past projects. I need my engineers to effectively communicate their ideas, and a whiteboard can be a great way to accomplish this visually.

Also, I want to hear about the technical challenges they’ve faced, what they found interesting about a certain project, what they were trying to solve, and if they were successful. I want to know if they are able to connect their work to higher business goals.

Additionally, I find it really interesting to hear about failed projects. Engineers can perhaps learn more from failed projects than successful ones. I like to try and uncover — if the developer could do the same project again — what would be done differently and why. In fact, there are still projects I think about from time to time that I wish I could approach differently now that new techniques and tools have been developed.

Q. Beyond the right technical chops, are there any soft skills you consider to be important for your team members to possess?

A. I’m always trying to gauge how well an individual will work within a team. It’s definitely one of the hardest things to assess during the interview process, but incredibly important to my team’s success. There are really smart people out there that have the right technical skills, but if they believe that their ‘kung fu’ always has to be the best — that all the answers have to come from them — then they won’t be a good fit.

Engineering is a team sport. I believe that the best and most productive teams are composed of diverse groups of people who approach problems from different perspectives. When people from varying backgrounds work together as a team, they have more “tools” available to review a problem and create a better solution.

Scott E. Page wrote a great book on this topic, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies,” that I keep in mind when hiring and managing my engineering teams.

Q. Are there any specific questions you expect a candidate to ask during the interview?

A. I want to know that they’re curious about where they’re going to work and what is they will be doing. I expect them to have specific questions about how we approach the work, without coming across as overbearing. They should want to know what the work will be like. I consider it a red flag when any candidate doesn’t seem to want to know what the job will entail.

Asking questions is a great way to break through the routine and stand out to the interviewer. If you're not good at asking questions on-the-fly or under pressure, prepare several questions ahead of time and look for appropriate places to inject them into the conversation.

Q. Any thoughts on interview attire?

A. Of all the things during the interview process that are out of your control, this is one area where you have complete control. Take the industry and the company culture into account when choosing your interview outfit. For instance, companies like Apple and Google may be large, but they’ve maintained casual work environments. Regardless of a company’s culture, always be professional and put your best foot forward.

If a candidate shows up to an interview dressed inappropriately, it leads me to believe that he or she might not be sensitive to the social norms this role will require. While it’s not a deal breaker, it will give me pause if the candidate seems to be oblivious to the situation.

Q. Any other parting words of wisdom?

A. If you tend to get pre-interview jitters, try exercising the morning of the interview to burn off some of that nervous energy. Even a long walk to collect your thoughts and mentally prepare for your upcoming interview can make a world of difference. Oh, and we’re hiring, so send us your resume!

Looking to brush up on your interview skills, but don’t know where to start? Try our interview-coaching services today!  

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