How to Ace a Technical Interview

Aug 28, 2021

8 Min Read

The technical interview goes beyond a typical job interview: it’s a specialized and rigorous process that tests your coding skills, problem-solving ability, and personality.

Although interviewing for technology roles is intimidating (with whiteboard challenges, remote coding challenges, and even entire days of on-site interviews sometimes), it’s much easier when you are prepared and know what to expect.

StackCache will let you know how to be a star in a technical interview, even if it’s your very first one.

First, we’ll lay out the basics of what a technical interview is. Next, we’ll cover what you can expect during a technical interview and how to ace each step.

What is a technical interview?

Unlike other types of interviews, technology interviews involve challenges and assignments. As a result, they’re more like an exam than a typical question-and-answer interview.

Like the phrase “Show, Don’t Say,” you should prove that you have the skills you need to do the job, rather than just listing qualifications.

Although technical interviews may seem like they’re meant to deceive you with charades, puzzles, or impossible questions, it’s actually to see how you deal with real-world issues.

Technology Interview Basics

So what happens in a technical interview? Of course, each company is different, but let’s look at the everyday situations you might face.

Stages of Technical Interviews

Phone Screen

The first round covers the basics. This interview phase is designed to see if you’re qualified and excited enough to proceed to the next stage.

Interview/Remote Encoding Assignment

Some companies will want to test their coding skills with a preliminary test before you enter. These tests can be done in real-time over a video call or a homework assignment.

On-site interview/whiteboard challenge 

This is the stage most people call an actual “technical interview.” It involves a personal interview with coding challenges that you should complete on a whiteboard in front of the interviewer.

Every company’s tech interview process is different, and here are some of how the most popular tech firms out there conduct their interviews.

  • Google: Phone screen or Google Meets interview (30-60 min); onsite (4 hours of interviews with four different people)
  • Facebook: Technical screen interview (30-50 min); onsite (1 full day)
  • Uber: Phone screen (30-60 min); in-person interview (1 full day made up of 6 back-to-back interviews with different people)

Who Will Interview You

Of course, this is another factor that differs from company to company, but you will generally face one of these options for any coding interview.

  • At a startup: member(s) of the engineering team, a senior developer, or even the CTO. All interviewers typically have technical experience and maybe their future bosses or co-workers.
  • In a larger company: recruiter, HR team, or a member of the engineering team. Some interviewers may have little knowledge of technology and may not be people you will work with directly if hired.

You can even have multiple interviews with different people — a technical whiteboard interview with the technology team, a cultural interview with HR, an executive interview with the CTO, etc.

Whatever the case, a good tip for preparing for a job interview is to try to search your interviewers first on LinkedIn. Putting a face on a name can ease your interview anxiety, and you can also find something to connect to (you studied at the same university, have similar interests, or something to break the ice).

Attire for Technical Interviews

Many job seekers ask what they should wear for a coding interview. While most tech companies have a relaxed and casual workplace, it’s still important to dress up to show that you’re serious about the job. The rule of thumb is to dress up a level above the company’s dress code (for example, if the company allows jeans and t-shirts, you should dress up in casual workwear).

To find the dress code, search the company on social media platforms like Facebook/ Instagram, see the careers page, or consider asking the recruiter/HR team.

What to Bring to a Coding Interview

There’s nothing in particular that you would need for a technical interview other than what you would bring to a regular interview. First, however, ensure you have these basics.

  • Notebook and pen
  • Printed copies of your resume
  • Don’t worry about bringing a laptop or code samples (unless interviewers specifically request you bring these items).

What to Expect When You’re Interviewing

Let’s analyze each stage of the typical technical interview process, with quick tips to do the best in each one.

Phone screen

Congratulations, you’ve already overcome one of the most challenging stages: your technology resume has caught the attention of the hiring manager or recruiter. This is where you bring your personality and try to hook the person on the other end of the line.

You can demonstrate your technology experience here, but some technical phone interviews will focus less on technology than others. More importantly, focus on conveying your skills (enthusiasm, communication, teamwork, etc.).

During the Technical Phone Interview

Check out our suggestions on how to prepare for a technical telephone interview:

  • Do your research and be authentic in what you’re interested in that this company can provide — this positivity will appear in the interview.
  • Get to know your audience. For example, if you’re interviewing a recruiter (with no programming knowledge), use your skills and don’t be too technical. However, if the interviewer is a software developer, show your technical proficiency!
  • Be honest: tell the interviewer what interests you most about a job and what types of projects you would like to work on.
  • Answer behavioral questions by showing, not saying. Tell a story by sharing examples of how you work, think, and solve problems.

How to Ace a Phone Screen

In addition to pure technology skills, which they have already read about on their resume, interviewers on the phone screen want to see:

  • Passion for technology/coding
  • Excitement
  • Communication Skills

Even if you applied for hundreds of jobs, adapt your answers to the one you’re being interviewed for. For example, jot down keywords from the job description or what you found during your research. That way, the company will know you are specifically interested in them.

Remote Coding Challenge

Coding challenges are usually not as tricky as whiteboard challenges. However, this doesn’t mean you can ignore or apply less effort, as you will often be asked to justify your choices.

This part of the process has some flexibility in how companies deal with it. So first, let’s review some of the common questions or challenges from remote programming interviews.

  • Some companies will present a real-time monitored challenge to see how you code. This is often done through a video interview and a web-based code editor like CoderPad, Collabedit, or even a Google Doc.
  • Other companies (usually early-stage start-ups) may simply require you to complete a task at home, rather than within a deadline that is usually between two days to a week.
  • Very resource-constrained start-ups may not require homework at all — instead, they’d bring it to an on-site interview immediately after the phone interview — but larger companies usually do. (General rule: the larger the company, the more structured the hiring process.)

How to Ace a Remote Coding Challenge

As you tackle a real-time coding challenge, make sure you share your thoughts with the interviewer. Use words like “we” to show that you think of yourself as a member of a larger team. And remember to slow down. These real-time challenges are usually not timed, so don’t hurry, think about it and see if the interviewer offers any guidance.

During a take-home coding task, take the time to plan your code before writing it. Be sure to understand the instructions and requirements thoroughly. Reread them several times before you start and once again after finishing the challenge to make sure you have marked all the boxes.

Things to Highlight during the Coding Challenge

  • Coding Skills
  • Testing the Code While You Write It
  • Problem Solving 
  • Collaboration 

One way to excel in your remote coding challenge is to go further. Go beyond the bare minimum that is requested in the coding challenge. In addition, there are often “bonus” questions like extra credit. Complete these requirements to impress your interviewers.

Don’t cheat or ask other people’s help to improve your appearance. “During live follow-up interviews, it’s common for employers to investigate the candidate to explain why certain choices have been made,” says Chris (Launch School). “That’s why you mustn’t get help with the code challenge; if you do, you’ll be exposed during the follow-up conversation.”

On-site interview and whiteboard challenge

Now we’ve reached the most intimidating part of the entire technology interview process. In small startups, on-site technical interviews can be much less formal than in larger companies. Damn, there may not even be a whiteboard to do a coding exercise! Still, it’s never too much to prepare for the coding interview so you’re ready for any situation that may arise whatever the company’s size. (More information on how to prepare for technical interviews later!)

Tips for Onsite/Whiteboard Challenge

1. Ask thoughtful questions before you even start writing the code.

By doing so, you can get tips from the interviewer and want to make sure you fully understand the challenge/question before diving. This also shows that you can think beyond the task at hand and consider a bigger picture perspective.

2. Speak through your code (think aloud) to give the interviewer a window to your thoughts.

What happens in a technical interview has to do with both the journey and the destination. Interviewers want to see if you understood the question correctly. They also are trying to see if you can clearly articulate your thoughts and communicate past your code. 

Certain types of questions in the programming interview shouldn’t have easy answers, making them even more about the thinking process. For example, is it an algorithm design problem? In that case, sometimes you shouldn’t know the answer right away. Instead, you should try some ideas and think creatively and maybe even take some pictures that your interviewer feeds for you and execute them.

3. Talk clearly and accurately.

Being in a stressful situation can make you a little confused, but you need to overcome it. Stay in control and keep calm by speaking at a slower pace. Since developers work with abstract concepts, communicating effectively with others is a critical skill to have.

4. If you’re locked, be calm, think out loud, and try new ideas

Not sure about the answer to some questions from the coding interview? Start with what you know. It’s possible to still get partial credit even if you can’t find the entire solution. If you can show your thinking process, the interviewer can still find highlights to consider you for the job. Whatever you do, don’t try to just bluff your way out of it. Good interviewers know their stuff and will be able to detect the BS immediately.

Things to Highlight for Onsite/Whiteboard Challenges

  • Coding Skills
  • Troubleshooting Ability
  • Ability to think creatively
  • Communication Skills
  • Analytical thinking skills
  • Appropriate culture
  • Reaction to feedback

After the Final Round

You’ve made it through! All that is left to do is wait. This may be one of the most painful parts, but it could all be worth it.

Send thank-you notes to the team members you spoke to during the interviews. It doesn’t matter if you want to send a group to thank you or individual letters, but it helps include something you learned or took away from experience.

After a week from your coding interview or last round with the company, send a short note to the tech recruiter or hiring manager to convey continued interest in the role and ask for an update.

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