Your Job Search: Crushing The Technical Interview
It is important to learn the process that most technical interviews generally follow, especially when interviewing for a technical position for the first time — in much the same way as knowing how to take a test always improves the test taker’s chances for success. Learning how to best practice for technical assessments will save time and increase success.
Know The Process
While interview processes may vary slightly from company to company, it is generally known what to expect of the interview process.
These common stages are:
- Phone Screen
- Technical Screen
- Technical Evaluation
- In-Person Interviews
- Final Round Interview
Just about all medium- to large-sized companies utilize an Automated Tracking Software (ATS) to manage their job postings, collect and organize candidate information, and track candidates as they progress through the evaluation process.
The content from a candidate’s job application materials are extracted from documents and placed in a database with all other applicants. From this database, the recruiting team will select candidates to be interviewed based on predetermined job and company requirements. Access to the candidate profile is given to the hiring team. The hiring team will have access to resumes, and will be prompted to answer a few survey questions about candidate interview performance after each step. Only the hiring manager and recruiter will likely see all of the notes, to keep the process as objective as possible. Depending on company policy, unanimous approval might be required by each member of the hiring team to progress to the next round of the interview, or the hiring manager may have authority to make the final decision (this is usually dependent on the volume of their candidate pipeline — the more candidates, the more likely unanimous approval is required). Interviewee progress is tracked via the ATS.
Typically conducted by an in-house recruiter (sometimes the hiring manager if the company is smaller in size), the phone screen is the first live contact candidates will likely have with the company. On average, the phone screen lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes. The recruiter will help candidates understand the job requirements, introduce candidates to the company, and check for interest on both sides. It is common for the recruiter to review resumes and ask general questions about prior and current work experience.
Especially for high demand technical jobs the recruiter’s purpose is to:
- Align candidate interests with the company’s
- Screen candidates by asking a few qualifying questions
- Explain the interview process
- Introduce their technical screen, or “take home”
- Understand candidate salary expectations
All candidates should be prepared for most screener/qualifying questions — this should be the easiest part of the interview. You can review a list of questions that recruiters commonly ask here. Many companies will ask if candidates require sponsorship to start employment. If candidates require sponsorship (work visa) to be eligible for employment, it is important to establish a relationship with an immigration attorney so that candidates understand their options and how to best navigate the process.
Recruiters take this opportunity to explain their entire interview process, and give candidates general information to help candidates understand their process. Because they want to fill the position and move to the next open one, they have some incentive to help candidates succeed. Ask clarifying questions if any part of the process is unclear.
By the time the phone screen has ended, candidates should have a good understanding of:
- How many steps are involved in the process, and what each step consists of specifically
- What is the expected timeline to offer to understand the sense of urgency
- Number of candidates in competition for the same position
- Nuances, particular emphasis, or requirements not included in the original job description
- Insight into where past candidates have been successful and not successful
- Where to focus study efforts, helpful resources and tips (some may not give candidates this information, but it is worth asking)
The tech screen is designed to evaluate the basic technical skills of its candidates. Using their existing technical staff to evaluate candidate skill at scale is costly and requires time that development teams typically do not have. To streamline this process, many companies use an assessment that automatically tabulates candidate scores. The assessments are typically scored using a simple 1-5 scoring system, or pass/fail. Not all companies will administer a technical assessment — they may opt to skip this step and send candidates a take home exercise, described next.
It is common for companies to outsource a technical assessment to a company such as HackerRank, TripleByte, or Codesignal. These 3rd party assessment companies help advise companies where to set pass/fail criteria, based on industry hiring standards. Practice assessments and learning resources are typically made available to engineers by the 3rd party assessment companies. SQL is the most common technology found on technical screens. The technical assessments typically range from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Especially if technical assessments are new to candidates, candidates will find doing practice runs will be helpful.
Technical evaluations differ from tech screens, in that they require a deeper understanding of multiple technologies and skills, require more time to complete, and often require candidates to apply skills in a problem solving exercise.
“Take Homes” are typically given to candidates after the phone screen, and may be timed or not. The timed take home (sent via email), gives candidates a predetermined amount of time to complete the assessment. Candidates click on the link, which opens a coding environment and coding challenges to complete. The window closes once the allotted time is reached. It assesses coding skills under time pressure.
Another type of take home presents a complex problem, which requires the candidate to use the information given to evaluate and solve the problem. Typically more common in data science related job interviews, it can take up to a week to submit, and requires the candidate to demonstrate technical, analytical, and communication skills. Many of these take homes ask the candidate to create a slide deck presentation of their solution. Candidates are asked to present their submission to the hiring team panel during the in-person interview.
Virtual Coding 1:1 evaluations are common in software development roles and in data science roles that prioritize development skills. Typically lasting 30-60 minutes, a member of the hiring team will invite candidates to a virtual coding environment. The candidate will be asked to provide code for a particular problem in the environment while the interviewer watches interviewee progress along the way. This gives the company more insight into the candidate’s thought process and how clean their code is on the first pass. The interviewer may or may not make themselves available for help or hints during the evaluation.
If candidates are new to this interview process, practicing these types of technical evaluations are essential. Candidates often fail in their first couple of attempts, and so it is preferable to address the interview learning curve while practicing.
If candidates pass the technical evaluations, the company will bring candidates onsite to interview with the team. The company will continue to evaluate the candidate’s technical skills, but the onsite is an opportunity for candidates to meet the team, take a tour of the facilities, and ask more questions about the job and company.
The interviewing team will likely spend more time evaluating soft skills. It is likely that candidates will meet members from teams that interface with the open position, which includes development teams, data teams, product people, hiring managers, HR/recruiting, marketing, sales, and potentially executives. Learn more about the onsite interview in our previous post: Your Job Search: How to Crush the Behavioral Interview.
Whiteboarding is an evaluation similar to the 1:1 virtual coding interview in that candidates will write code for a given prompt with one or two people observing participant progress. Nonetheless, there are noteworthy differences.
Candidates are almost certainly writing code on a white board instead of in a coding environment. This is significant because candidates no longer have the ability to have the environment to help candidates check and run code. In addition to not having the support of a coding environment, first timers often are surprised by the cognitive difference of writing code on a while board versus typing on a laptop.
Candidates are also expected to interact with the interviewers while coding. Coding is often a collaborative effort, and whiteboarding tests the candidate’s ability to work with others to write code and solve problems. Interviewers almost always make themselves available for clarifying questions. The interview may intentionally provide insufficient information to solve the problem, requiring the interviewee to pull the necessary information from them. Seasoned interviewers will also be able to talk their way through their code to explain their thought process.
Final Round Interview
Not every company will request that candidates return to their site a second time. If they do, it means that those candidates have made the final cut, and that they are one of the finalists.
Typically they might bring 2 or 3 candidates back for the final round. This round will likely assess mostly for culture fit rather than technical skills and aptitude. Because executives’ time is limited, companies might reserve this step of the interview for executives to meet promising candidates, and provide their final stamp of approval. Candidates should be prepared to talk about their motivation to work at this company doing the offered job.
Recruiters will also use this time to do any final soft skills evaluation, and also gather as much salary information from candidates in order to prepare for a potential job offer. Recruiters will often revisit salary requirement questions, and also get updates on the candidate’s overall job search to assess their potential competition, should candidates receive multiple job offers.
In most cases, it is a good strategy to let them know that candidates are in process with more than one company. This will help create more urgency, and they will likely come in with a stronger initial offer. We will cover negotiating a higher salary in a subsequent article.
Technical Assessment Sites
Technical Interview Practice & Resource Sites:
- Interview Cake
Case Study Interview Resources (Required For Data Science Job Interviews)
- Cracking The Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell
- Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng