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How to Ace the Behavioural Interview

sanspanic profile image Sandra Spanik ・Updated on ・10 min read

As you might have already guessed, this article is not about technical interviews, coding challenges, let alone about (shudders) algorithms. I'm not qualified to give anyone advice on above, but having transitioned to tech from mental health, I do know a thing or two about human behaviour. By extension, I'm declaring myself qualified to dish out advice on behavioural interviews.

This article is about all aspects of the interview process that are NOT strictly coding-related, and will be particularly useful to those who are transitioning careers to tech from a different industry.

Let's go! πŸ€Έβ€β™€οΈ

The Tech Recruitment Process 🧭

Typically, interviews in the tech industry have at least 4 rounds, although of course the exact schedule will vary from company to company.

  1. The Application/Recruiter Email
  2. The Recruiter Screening Call
  3. The Technical Interview/The Takeaway Coding Challenge
  4. The Behavioural Interview

Rounds 1, 2 and 4 all have to do with who you are as a person, as much as they have to do with your skills. There is a 100% likelihood you will have to tell your interviewers about yourself and your background, and unless you come across as someone your interviewers would enjoy working with, no amount of skills will help you land your dream role. It's not easy to get an offer, especially if you're switching careers from a different industry, so being prepared to talk about yourself eloquently might well be what distinguishes you from your competition.

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Interviewing Well is a Skill. βŒ›

The good news is that interviewing, just like any other skill, is one you can improve with practice. It certainly took me a lot of practice to sound confident and convincing in interview situations - I'm still not amazing at it. The last in-person interview I went to pre-career-switch to tech ended in tears - not only did I come across as an idiot, I also knocked over a glass of water onto the interviewer sat across me.

Why was it such a nightmare? Because I hated the sound of the job, and, as a result, was woefully underprepared to talk about myself and my motivation for applying to it. Why did you apply for it, if you hated the sound of it, I hear you ask? Excellent question. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, I hear myself answer.

This brings me to my first piece of advice, which I'll kick the useful part of this article off with.

1. Make Sure You Like What You're Applying To. πŸ’«

If you don't show enthusiasm for the role or find yourself having to fake it, your interviewers will sense this and offer the role to a more motivated candidate. If you hate the way social media has contributed to the polarisation of society, try not to apply for a job at Facebook, unless you believe you can fix it (please... someone fix it. anyone..? ). If the sound of working for a local start-up that creates a productivity management tool sounds boring beyond belief to you, manage your own productivity better by saving yourself the hassle of an application.

2. Ten Applications A Day Keep the Salary At Bay. πŸ‘©β€πŸ’»

I see a lot of well-intentioned advice encouraging candidates to apply to ten positions a day. In my potentially controversial opinion, this is complete nonsense. In the best case scenario, you'll hear back from numerous companies, which will mean that you're now involved in too many recruitment processes at once. This won't give you enough time to do your due diligence and bring your best self to each interview. In the worst case scenario, you've spread yourself too thin and given each application so little thought that you barely hear back from anyone. I'd recommend you go for quality instead of quantity. One or two applications per day are plenty, especially if you're tailoring your CVs and cover letters uniquely to each position you apply to. Which is something you should really be doing!

3. Prepare Answers to Common Questions in Advance. πŸ“

The chance of you not hearing the following words from an interviewer at some point during the process is precisely zero: so, could you please tell us a bit about yourself... Knowing this gives you the power to absolutely ace this question. Below is a list of other guaranteed questions you might want to prepare for. The list should be particularly relevant to those who are transitioning careers, i.e. the target audience of this article.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
  2. What prompted you to start coding?
  3. What do you particularly like about front-end/back-end/data science/whatever-the-job-is?
  4. Tell me about a time in your life when you successfully worked as part of a team.
  5. Tell me about a time in your life when you successfully dealt with a challenging situation.
  6. What made you apply to this particular position, in our particular company?
  7. What are your favourite coding-related resources?
  8. Do you have any questions for us?

I can pretty much guarantee that most of above questions, or some permutations thereof, will be asked. There is no reason you should have to think about these on the spot and struggle with a coherent reply. Take your time to think about these questions beforehand, and write your answers out. Read them, tweak them for maximum impact, commit them to memory.

Every interview is slightly different so you will still get ample space to improvise, but pre-empting as many questions as you can will make you a better candidate. This seems like extremely obvious advice, but many still don't follow it - make sure you slot yourself into the category of those who do to capitalise on this opportunity. I'd argue that preparing replies to commonly asked questions is the one easiest and most impactful step any candidate can take to stand out.

4. Talk to Yourself. Out Loud. Seriously. πŸ“’

When preparing for your interview, don't do it in silence. Practice your replies out loud to get more familiar with how you want to convey your points. Interviews are by default a performative action, and like every performance, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some even go as far as to advise candidates to record themselves and analyse how they come across - I'd say that's a step too far, but there's nothing wrong with standing in front of a mirror (or a willing other) and rattling your script down until you're happy with your "act".

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5. Do Some Detective Work. πŸ”Ž

In this situation only, being a stalker is a perfectly acceptable way to be. Researching your interview panel is useful for two reasons. Firstly, you might get a better idea of what life at the company you're applying to is like, and what your job might entail. Having this knowledge will help you craft better answers during the interview. You might even pick up an impressive tidbit of information that you can impress the panel with during your interview. Secondly, you might get a better sense of the type of person the company hires. If you see any red flags here, run.

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6. Leverage Your Non-Tech Background. ✨

No CS degree? No problem! Whatever it is you've been doing with your life, you must have learned a thing or two. The trick is to tailor your story towards the job you want and make your diverse background sound like a benefit, rather than a drawback of hiring you.

Did you work in hospitality before? You must know how to deal with people and be able to spontaneously improvise solutions to tricky situations really effectively! Were you in customer service? Your communication skills must be off the charts. Were you an athlete or a musician? Wow, I bet you have tons of discipline and will code us all under the table in a couple of years. Did you spend a few years traveling? How resourceful and adaptive that must make you! Are you perhaps a parent? You win by default, you literally created a human being. You must be incredibly organised and excellent at time management to juggle all that AND change your career.

Soft skills are important in any environment, and software engineering is no exception. Make your background work for you!

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7. Bring Your Whole Self. ⭐

Don't hide your personality - display it proudly! Unless your personality sucks, in which case, definitely hide your personality. But seriously, your future employers are interested in who you are as a person as much as they are interested in your skills. You won't exist in a vacuum, on the contrary, you will constantly be interacting with others and contributing to a team, so being a person who's easy to get on with will go a long way.

You don't have to rely on solely professional examples to illustrate who you are - you are way more than just your previous jobs or studies. Feel free to draw on other areas of your life for examples of what makes you uniquely you. For example, I have a thing for acrobatics and enjoy balancing people on my shoulders. During my interview, I used the example of acrobatics to illustrate my approach to teamwork - in acrobatics, communication is just as important as skill and no human pyramid would ever go up would the entire team not be on the same page regarding effective communication.

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8. The Fear Won't Persevere. πŸ™€

There is an aspect of interviewing that is unique to the interview itself and cannot be replicated during solo practice in front of a mirror - I mean the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing, "this-is-a-live-situation-and-I-only-have-one-chance" part of it all. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much shaking before any interview. Even if on the surface I look calm and ready, there's vomit on my sweater already (mom's spaghetti). (I really hope this is a reference people get. I'm not that weird, I promise.)

Jokes aside, some adrenaline is helpful and leads you to think clearer, but too much of it can muddle your thoughts. I've found it helpful to internally reframe The Fearβ„’ as simply Extreme Excitementβ„’. I'm not dreading this and shaking out of fear, I just can't wait to seize this opportunity, that's all!

This, too, is a practicable skill. Even if you tend to get very unsettled by interviews at the moment, it doesn't mean you always will. The more interview processes you go through, the more practice you get with regulating your interview feelings, meaning you will interview better in the future.

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9. Normalise Rejection. β€οΈβ€πŸ©Ή

If you get rejected, you're just one interview closer to the interview that will result in a job offer. I know, this is easier said than done. But try to bear in mind that you're not alone. The struggle is real for all of us. Rejection is tough, but completely normal - just another day at the office, even for experienced developers. But equally importantly, don't beat yourself up over feeling down. We all have different emotional spans, and being someone who takes rejection to heart more significantly than others does not make you a worse (or better) candidate. Your feelings are valid, so accept them and let yourself experience them fully, prior to moving on.

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10. Always Ask For Feedback. πŸ™‹

If you've spent weeks of your life interviewing for a company and made it all the way through to the behavioural interview, the least the company can do after deciding to offer the job to someone else is provide you with useful feedback. If they don't do this, it means you likely dodged a bullet anyways. Frequently, the feedback you will receive will be useful and inform your next attempt. Other times, the feedback will be that you were this close to getting an offer, but someone else with the slightest bit of more directly relevant experience was in the end deemed a better choice. Whilst this type of feedback is not super useful, it should hopefully serve to raise your spirits and reassure you that you're very, very close. Either way, asking for feedback can only result in positive outcomes.

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11. Don't Lie. πŸ€₯

Last but not least, be honest - with yourself and with your interviewers. Pretending you are really into animations, when in reality you've barely ever encountered an SVG before, is unnecessary. At best, you might get offered the job and realise you've sold yourself as an expert when in reality you have no idea what you're doing, in which case you'll be found out immediately. At worst, faking expertise might lead to you coming across as cocky and never getting offered the job in the first place.

Nobody, I repeat, NOBODY, is an expert at everything. Senior devs get better at knowing exactly what it is they don't know, which makes it easier to ask the right questions and seek out answers in the right places. But even seniors would be lying if they claimed they're the absolute bee's knees at every single topic. If you're only just starting your tech career, it's much wiser to openly admit your technical gaps and frame them as areas of growth you are aware of and excited to explore.

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Still with me?

Wow, you must really want that job. Now go get it! πŸŽ‰πŸŽ‰

Let me know if I missed out on any techniques you might be aware of in the comments, and feel free to connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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