May 2017

Volume 32 Number 5


Acing Interviews: Displaying Technical Skill Is Only Half the Battle

By Krishnan Rangachari | May 2017

I recently got a question from a reader: “What are the skills required to crack the software engineering interview, other than technical skills?”

This is a perceptive question, because it recognizes that technical skills alone aren’t enough to get an offer. Even if you’re great technically, excellent behavioral performance can boost your offer, your bonus and the level at which you’re hired. Here are the five major skills to succeed in behavioral interviews as an engineer:

Skill #1: Dynamic Story Shifting

This is the ability to perceive mid-answer how the interviewer is responding—frowning, eye-rolling, smiling, laughing or looking confused.

When you answer questions—whether technical or not—your goal isn’t to make your point in the fastest time possible. It’s to take the interviewer along on your journey to the offer, for as long as you can.

Sometimes, this means you go against your preparation.

For example, once you start answering a question on a “greatest challenge,” you may quickly realize from an interviewer’s skeptical frown that she’s just not buying that your project was challenging. In such a case, you can start adding gory details to make the story seem more challenging, play up the actions you took and identify every positive result.

Skill #2: Active Questioning

This means you ask questions that are strategic and guide the interviewer toward the topics about which you’re most passionate.

As an example, consider the “Tell me about yourself” question. A big mistake candidates make with this question: When they finish the answer, they leave it to the interviewer to ask yet another question!

The “Tell me about yourself” question is an opportunity for you to control the flow of the interview itself. After your answer, you can ask the interviewer a strategic question, such as: “I’ve read the recent posts on the company blog. It looks like you just revamped your entire product. How did that affect the area you work on?”

This relieves pressure from the interviewer (so they don’t feel like they have to keep asking all of the questions). It also buys you time, gives you some additional intelligence about the job, and builds rapport.

Skill #3: Perspective Recalibrating

You can reorient, rephrase and restructure your answers depending on if you’re talking to a manager, a vice president, a product manager, a fresh new engineer, a senior engineer or an architect.

You can ask yourself questions like:

  • How technical does she seem to be?
  • What characteristics would she most likely judge me on, considering her line of questioning and her title?
  • Is he even trying to question me, or is he now trying to sell me on this position or company?
  • From his perspective based on his role, what would make him feel the most comfortable and secure?

With this perspective, you can intuitively answer with either technical depth or strategic breadth. You could describe a project with deep technical details to a senior engineer. But you’d describe the same project—emphasizing different details, telling a different story—to a vice president of engineering.

Skill #4: Power Ceding

Cultivate a spirit of surrender throughout the interview, no matter how much better you may feel than the interviewer.

Sometimes, you might intuitively know that the people you’re talking to are not as smart, or not as qualified or not as perceptive as you are. If you feel entitled, you’ll subconsciously assume power in the interview, and start to treat them with condescension or haughtiness without even meaning to.

In such moments, remember that you don’t have a job offer from this company yet. Even if you don’t want to work there, a job offer will make you more confident with other companies.

Skill #5: Consciously Dissociating

Nurture an attitude of detachment to the results, by focusing primarily on what you can do best. Full effort is full victory, regardless of whether you get an offer.

If you succeed in an interview, it’s not a grand accomplishment. An interview isn’t something you’ll remember on your deathbed. It just means that you’re at a stage of development and growth where you could succeed in this interview. It’s the beginning of another step in your life’s journey.

Similarly, if you don’t succeed in an interview, that’s OK, too—you’ve done your best, knowing what you know now. Even if you’re rejected, it’s merely an opening for something else.

I don’t tell people, “It’ll all work out,” because I don’t know what “working out” looks like for everyone. I can only say that in my own case, there’s a magical beauty to the course of my life. When interviews haven’t worked out, they’ve laid the foundation for a grander purpose. I wouldn’t be a career coach today if I hadn’t failed at so many interviews and learned through my own personal experience.

Krishnan Rangachari is a career coach for software engineers. Be sure to visit for his career secrets.

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