Software engineers don’t need to sell themselves… right? Despite what you may think, companies don't hire every engineer that they find

As a software engineer in this market, you can land a job anywhere you please. Right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about hiring engineers lately. As I’m currently director of engineering at a medium-sized organization, I’m always on the lookout for good software engineers to woo and hire. Moreover, our company is planning to ramp up its hiring effort in the near future. It will be daunting, because the market for engineers is hot, and we’ll be facing a lot of competition from other companies that are also hiring. So that basically means that I’ll be hiring any decent engineer that comes my way, right?

Not a chance.

I’ve been on the other side on the equation, as an engineer. And I know the mentality. My skills are valuable… nay, they’re hot! Any company I’d decide to sign up with would be lucky to have me! I could walk into pretty much any company I pick and leave with a job offer!

As a hiring manager, I can tell you that that’s not true. I don’t know you. My team doesn’t know you. And during the interviewing process, we will have a limited time to get to know you. Everyone you’ve ever worked with might agree that you’re the best engineer they’ve ever come across, but you are–unfortunately–back to square one when it comes to me and my team.

Here’s another secret: with most hiring teams, when it comes to assessing your viability as a candidate, it’s not all about your technical skills. It’s not even mostly about your technical skills. Don’t believe me? The next time a candidate comes into your organization for an on-site, ask the interviewers what their main decision factors were, yay or nay. While there is generally a technical baseline that candidates must meet, the decisions almost always come down to things like:

  • Personality
  • Potential fit within the team
  • Ability to learn and adapt
  • Eagerness about the company and what it’s doing

In Building Great Software Engineering Teams, Josh Tyler describes asking his engineering team to outline their most important qualities in a candidate. While the answers varied across team members, among the top answers were that the candidate:

  • can teach the team something
  • loves programming and technology
  • is pleasant to be around

Nowhere at the top of the list was anything about being able to write out algorithms on a whiteboard.

Why should you care?

You’ve been to plenty of interviews in your career, and you’ve landed good jobs. If you were to lose your job in today (particularly if you’re living in one of the many hot engineering markets), you could probably land a job within a week or two. You’re doing fine in your interviews, so why change anything?

Well, let me let you in on another secret: hiring is not binary. Candidates are not simply grouped into yes‘s and no‘s. There are, of course, candidates that we don’t outright want to hire. Other candidates that aren’t quite at the moment, but we might consider in the future. There are of course candidates that we would like to hire.

And then there are the candidates that we need to hire.

You, of course, want to be in that last category. Because here’s yet another secret: once you’ve landed in that category, you’re in control of the hiring process. You’re much more likely to command whatever it is that you’re looking for. A higher salary. More equity. A signing bonus. Lenience in your starting date. Extra vacation. Even a higher role within the organization (which presumably, would carry higher financial incentives).

Once you’ve landed in that category, you’re in control of the hiring process.

In other words, there is a huge difference between a team’s grudging agreement to make you an offer, and a team’s insistence that it must do whatever it takes to get you onboard.

Also, consider your career trajectory. Many engineers enjoy good, comfortable careers having never risen about the level of Senior Engineer. But to get much beyond that level, non-technical skills become much more important. Competition becomes tighter, and we hiring managers become more picky.

So what should you do?

In preparing for interviews, most candidates focus on honing their technical skills. That is, of course, not a bad idea. After all, you will be assessed on them… in part. But you should focus equal time, if not more, on being able to sell yourself as a person to the interviewing team. You might have memorized how to reversed a linked list. But will you be able to convey your enthusiasm for programming? Are you prepared to demonstrate your ability to learn? Will you be able to teach your interviewers something?

Your interviewing preparation should start with one premise: You are interviewing the company just as much as they are interviewing you.

We place too much emphasis on the notion that interviews are all about the candidate attempting to prove him or herself to the interviewers, in hopes of receiving a job offer. But the inverse is also true. If you’re worth your salt as a software engineer, then you should be just as picky as they are. You should insist that the company sell itself to you.

If you adopt that mindset, everything else will start falling into place.

Be choosy about whom you interview with

In fact, this mindset should come into play before you begin talking to any companies. It should guide your decision as to which companies you’re even willing to talk to. Look for companies that are doing things that excite you. If you’re contacted by a recruiter, do some research on the company that they’re pitching. Does their work sound interesting to you? Is it an industry you know anything about, or care about, at all? Find out what technologies the company is using. Do you have any special expertise or interest in those technologies? 

In other words, how much of an intersection is there between the company and what you want to be doing?

If there is little intersection, then you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage in talking with these companies. They also, clearly, might not be the right companies for you to join in the first place. Conversely, if there is a lot of overlap, you’ve potentially found a company that you would enjoy working at, and for which you’d be better positioned to prove yourself.

Think of phone screens as conversations

You’ve found a company that is doing things that excite you. You’ve set up your first interview. More than likely this will be a so-called phone screen, maybe with a recruiter or perhaps with an hiring manager. 

What usually happens in these screens? The interviewer asks you questions, and you answer them, right? What if, instead, you asked them the questions? Not for the whole conversation, of course; certainly the interviewers have things that they want to know of you. But your answers should segue into questions for them. 

For example, if you’re a Java programmer, you might be asked the latest version of Java you’ve used. Your answer should go beyond simply stating the version number. Talk about some of the features introduced in that version. If you were involved with moving standardizing your organization on that version, tell them about that. Moreover, ask them what version they are on. If it’s not the latest version, why haven’t they upgraded? If it is the latest version, why did they upgrade?  

Ask your interviewers meaningful questions

Most interviewers will reserve some time–usually at the beginning of the session or at the end–for questions. This time is is generally very short, so you should ensure two things:

  1. you don’t squander the time asking trite questions, and
  2. you ask questions throughout the session

Don’t ask trite questions

I can’t tell you how many candidates have asked me “what’s your tech stack?” This question tells me a couple of things about the candidate.

First, that they’re not willing to apply much thought or creativity when it comes to solving a problem (the problem, in this case, being what question to ask me). Second, that they couldn’t be bothered to do the minimal amount of research that it would’ve taken to answer that question on their own.

It may be that you truly want to talk about the company’s tech stack, if there is something noteworthy that ties to your own experience or interests. Here are some better ways to broach the subject:

  • “I noticed that you use Go as well as Node.js. I’ve mixed both of them in projects as well. What are the use cases here for each of them?”

or

  • “I’ve heard that RxJava is used here. That’s exciting to me, since I’ve been using it on some of my own projects at home. Why was it adopted here?”

Remember, this is your chance to convey your overall love of technology and excitement at the prospect of working for the company. 

Ask questions throughout the session

Interviewing sessions are usually short. With any given interviewer, you’ll likely have somewhere between thirty to ninety minutes to make an impression. During this time, the interviewer will, naturally, do most of the question-asking. And of course, you should answer all of the questions directly and fully. Ducking questions and avoiding what they’re asking never comes across well.

But remember, you are also learning about them during that period of time. So after answering a question, consider pivoting to ask them a similar question. For example, if you’re asked about your experience with building microservices, you might end your answer by asking things like, “How did this company get started building microservices?” or “How are you handling errors that occur during event consumption?”

This is an effective way to show that you are interested in what the company is doing, and to tie your interests and experience to what the company needs in a candidate.

Learn something

Most interviewers also want to be sure that you’re willing and able to learn things. This starts with asking good questions, and continues with attentive listening to the answers to those questions. Repeat back to your interviewers what you’ve been told, paraphrased, to show that you’ve understood.

I took an improv comedy class once. Comedians that perform improv sketches (so I was told, anyway) rely on the notion of “Yes, and”. This refers to how the comedians interact with each other. One comedian will start acting out a certain topic. The next comedian will join in and say (figuratively if not literally) “yes, and…” and continue the first comedians line of thought.

While I wouldn’t suggest breaking into comedy during an interview, I highly recommend adopting this mentality. Listen to what your interviewer has to say, demonstrate that you’ve heard them, and then build on what they’ve said.

For example…

Them: “Our company has been deploying ReST services for awhile, but we’ve started running into problems when we need to modify our APIs.”

You: “Yes, it’s easy to run into issues when making API changes to services that are out in production. I’ve found that the ‘expand and contract’ pattern  can help with this…”

In this way, you’ve learned a bit about the company (don’t forget, you’re there to interview them too!), you’ve shown that you’ve listened and learned, and you’ve set yourself up for your next objective…

Teach them something

Most interviewers are also looking for candidates that they themselves, in turn, can learn from. So make it a point to teach something to each of your interviewers. 

This can happen as a natural extension of asking intelligent questions. Per the example in the previous question, you might ask your interviewer how its company handles errors during event consumption between microservices. Depending on your interviewer’s answer, you’ve got a pretty good opportunity to tell them how you have solved the problem in the past, and make suggestions as to how they might approach the problem.

Of course, a typical engineering interview session will involve the interviewer asking a technical question, handing you a dry-erase marker, and pointing you to a whiteboard. Often you’ll hear advice that you should keep talking through your solution. This is sound advice. But if you’re focused on merely talking, it’s easy to digress into muttering to yourself.

Instead, picture yourself as the teacher–you are, after all, standing at a whiteboard with a pen and an attentive audience! Talk to your interviewer as if you’re explaining to them how to solve the problem. This shift in attitude will ensure that you’re talking to them, and will help you project a level of confidence and authority.

It’s a different mindset, and takes practice

Thinking of an interview as a conversation that you help steer… well, that takes a while to get used to. But it’s the mindset that will help convey that you’re the engineer that companies not just want–but need–to hire.

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