Last week I was in Danny Thompson's twitter space talking about tech interviews. One piece of advice I gave was about preparing for conversational interviews and the types of questions you get asked.
Apparently, people wanted to learn more! And as always, I'm happy to oblige.
You may be familiar with guides for studying and preparing to ace tech interviews. Oftentimes they focus on algorithms and data structures. You'll also find write-ups and websites on studying for systems design interviews and other abstract exercises. Prepping for these types of questions are great. However, they aren't the only type of interview rounds you're likely to encounter.
In most interview processes you'll have rounds that are very conversational in nature. They're typically a mix of technical and people skills questions. This post is about setting yourself up for success in these interviews.
The interviewer in conversational rounds can be anyone from a manager to a colleague to a skip level director. However, their goal is often the same. How do you collaborate? How do you communicate? What level of experience do you have handling challenges that are both technical and people-focused?
Examples of the types of questions they might ask are:
- Tell me about a time where you had to say no to a request?
- Have you ever had to give feedback to a more senior engineer? Can you tell me about that?
- What mistakes have you made in implementing a system? What would you do differently next time?
There are hundreds of these types of questions, but you get the idea.
Sometimes these answers explicitly ask for a story, e.g. "tell me about a time". Sometimes it's less overt and they say "how would you handle". In either case, having a real life example you can point to helps ground your answer and show the experience you have.
Stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should show a positive outcome or an outcome where you can point to the mistakes that were made and what you'd do differently. They also need to be clear, concise and effective. Most importantly, the story needs to clearly connect to the question being asked.
This sounds like a lot to ask on the spot! You have to think about the question, come up with an anecdote, package it well, and relay it back to the interviewer. All in 5 or so minutes, maybe less. Yikes!
This is where my original advice comes into play. You don't need to think of every question you might be asked. But you should think of some stories ahead of time.
Have 3-5 stories in your back pocket going into an interview. They should highlight different aspects of your collaboration and communication style so that they can fit the questions being asked.
- A story where you did everything right
- A story where you did something wrong and learned from it
- A story involving a peer
- A story involving management
- A story involving another team, company, or external player
This list isn't exhaustive, but it will help you start thinking about some good anecdotes. Once you've zeroed in on your stories you can start to practice talking about them.
When prepping a story consider an interview enviroment. You want to:
- Get to the point quickly - remove any extraneous or overly detailed pieces of information
- Be clear - beginning, middle and end, make sure that your point comes across
- Connect to the question - this takes some practice, but try and mention the keywords of the question as you're concluding the story and drive home how it connects
- Show off - this doesn't mean you should brag, but try and show yourself in a positive light, even when the story involves a misadventure
Thinking through all of this ahead of time will give you confidence going into these types of interviews. You won't be stuck trying to think of a good anecdote in live time.
There are a couple mistakes to avoid.
If they ask for a time you weren't successful, don't use a story where you were. Always have a story for when you messed up. Be able to analyze what you could have done differently, but don't avoid the point of the question.
You don't need to be an engineer to answer these questions well. If you are a career changer you can tell a story involving retail managers, your fellow line cook, the military. Whatever it is, this is a great opportunity to show how your current experience relates to the role and why you have more to offer than someone straight out of school.
For all the flaws with technical interviews, conversational interviews are different. You don't need to be the most outgoing person in the room or have studied a textbook worth of potential questions. A few focused areas of prep will help you show off your skills and experience.