Striking a balance between under/over representing your skills in an interview

2020-02-28 Nick Larsen

Dear Nick

I think not knowing the rules of interviewing is a substantial part of my anxiety, along with not feeling like I know enough yet. I think I struggle with finding the balance between not under-representing or over-representing my skills as well, but I'm working on it. I like the wording you wrote too- "Based on the evidence, I would say...".

As far as position levels- does that mean to not pay too much attention to years of experience either? I imagine so, that just feels... so bold. I like it though, I like bold.

What are some of the best questions you've heard from interviewees, or what would you ask about when you are getting interviewed? I'd love to try to suss out some of the things you mentioned in your first paragraph, but I'm not really sure how to go about it. Maybe asking about team structure, or even more point blank, "How do you support your team members?" "What sort of mentorship opportunities are available?"

So, knowing myself, I do much better with video interviews- something about being able to see people's reactions calms me. I actually asked the interviewer if it'd be possible to use Skype or Zoom instead of a phone call. Do you think this is an okay thing to ask? I explained that the connection is usually better than my phone, and that it added a helpful layer of communication that I appreciated.

I thought I had another question but it's slipped my mind, and I wanted to go ahead and send this during my lunch break... Ah well, I'll remember it later.

Thanks! Cameron


Dear Cameron

It's extremely difficult to under-represent your skills in an interview. The general structure of an interview from the employers perspective is "we're going to ask this question to figure out if they know/can do XYZ, if they can, they will pass, if they can't they will fail". At least that's how good interviews go. Bad interviews are more like "we're going to ask this question and we're either going to be wow-ed, or we're going to pass". In the first case, they know what they are looking for, in the second case they do not. That's the entire difference between a good interview and a bad interview, either they know what they are looking for or they dont. In the case that they do, it's fairly binary whether or not you'll pass, you could boil it down almost to a simple equation. In the bad interview scenario, you are almost always being judged against the person interviewing you, which is wildly inconsistent and riddled with bias from the first frame of video in your remote interview. That doesn't mean bad interviews don't lead to good jobs, your mileage may vary.

Back to the point though, in a good interview you essentially cannot under represent yourself unless you completely freeze up and lose focus and don't answer the questions. If you couldn't solve it in the first place, you didn't under represent, you just couldn't solve it. If you can solve it, then you normally do as long as you keep your focus. In the bad interviews, you cannot under represent yourself because you have no indication what it is that they are looking for, the best you can do is jump all over all the place until their faces light up. And there are tricks to that as well, start all your stories by giving the punch line, if they dont bite on the punchline, move to the next story. Only when they light up should you expand.

Yea you don't really need to pay attention to years of experience. What's the value of 10 years of experience if the only thing you ever did with the language was stick to a simple web framework versus someone who has only been using it 2 years but uncovered numerous edge cases in the language and knows the debugging tools and can give you a dissertation on the value of each of the 3 most popular editors for that language? Highlight your knowledge of the language and you can get past any years of experience requirement. The only one that's really hard to get past is years of industry experience, because there they are looking for how well you work with other people, your breadth of knowledge in the whole of the software development lifecycle, etc. (although most 4 year colleges explicitly have a class on lifecycles now)

I wish you all the best in your interview! If you'd like, I'm happy to do a practice interview for you. In addition to my day job, I do contract interviewing through a company called Karat so I'm current on the kinds of questions you'll be asked and all parts of the interview.

My suggestion is always to ask the things that would make or break your decision to work somewhere. That's your time to find out what it's really like to work there. Most people when looking for their second or third job do this naturally because they immediately ask about the thing they dislike most about their current or last job. It's uncanny how much you can learn about someone from the very first question they ask you. As an interviewee one of my first questions is always "describe to me what my first few weeks/months will be like at XYZ". You'll know right off the bat what kind of cadence they use for standups, whether they have an onboarding program, whether you'll have a mentor, and what the early expectations will be of you. After that I always ask about how the people interviewing me feel about the work they are doing, whether or not they enjoy it, if it's just a paycheck or whatever. I'm trying to understand their motivations for working their, which is complicated, we should talk about that sometime when you think you've figured out what you want.

There are legal reasons why HR might want to do a phone screen versus a video call, but it's definitely not out of bounds to ask. HR at larger companies has a serious CYA policy for just about everything so if they refuse to do a video call, don't take it personally.

If you are currently looking for a mentor I'd be happy to help! Please reach out to me by email with your specific questions and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!