Recently I’ve given one-on-one training sessions with college students aspiring to be a software engineer when they’re all grown up. I was pretty naive when I first interviewed and overall just lucky. I got my first internship through a friend of my dad and the second by having a 15-minute chat with a hiring manager at a job fair (I didn’t even know I was being interviewed!) As smart as I was, in hindsight, it’s pretty clear that white, male, upper-middle class privilege must have helped a little. So here are tips to help all college students ace a technical phone screen.
The first thing to do when preparing is to take a moment to get into the interviewer’s head. Phone screens are meant to screen out candidates; the interviewer assumes you’re smart because a recruiter decided you deserve a phone call. They’re primed to like you. Now they’re asking basic questions and looking for evidence that (1) you meet the basic qualification to get an interview and (2) there’s nothing that makes you a bad fit for the company culture. Also remember that the interviewer is busy and wants to get back to their cool project as soon as you’re done talking. With that in mind, let’s discuss how to be a great technical interviewee.
Be prepared – Do everything possible to ensure the call goes smoothly so the interviewer gets the positive evidence they need as quickly and efficiently as possible. This translates into a few specific actions you should take before and during the interview:
- Rehearse your intro and prepare your questions to ask ahead of time. You don’t want to waste their time fumbling over your words.
- Have your computer AND pencil and paper ready. Tech interviews always require coding. Be ready to use either medium.
- Take the call in a quiet place with good reception. Have backups of every thing to be prepared if something goes awry: extra headphones, extra power cords, extra pencils, etc. Don’t risk needing to pause during the interview because something breaks.
Be competent – Focus on doing the three Cs really well: communicate, code, and complete the solution. These things will prove your competence:
- Communicate your thought process. It’s hard for an interviewer to know whether you’re silent because you’re writing code, thinking deeply about their problem, or just plain stuck. It’s your job to discuss what you’re doing as you go, while periodically checking with the interviewer that they’re understanding along the way. It’s ok to only arrive at a close-to-correct or sub-optimal solution as long as you demonstrate sound logic and problem solving ability along the way.
- Code well and keep it simple. Phone screeners only need to know that you can write good code to implement your solution. Usually they don’t care about import statements and what not; they want you to just write a method. And you don’t need to wow them with esoteric knowledge of programming language features or cute tricks to write terse code. It’s more likely you’ll make a mistake that harms you than get bonus points for advanced knowledge.
- Completely implement your solution. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best possible answer to the problem. You just need to get one solution done from beginning to end. Manage your time early in the phone screen by being efficient, don’t ask too many questions that can derail the conversation, and don’t get stuck with analysis-paralysis. You must be able to complete a solution or else you’ve failed to demonstrate basic competency in coding.
Be safe – Keep the conversation specific to the subject at hand–evaluating your technical competence–and be safe by avoiding other topics.
- Don’t ask HR questions like what health insurance benefits are like. The interviewer isn’t qualified to answer them so you won’t get the answer you want. Even worse, they might awkwardly offer personal information like “I have the plan with the lowest deductible because my child is terminally ill.”
- Don’t ask too many questions. The interviewer has finished their job as far as they’re concerned. They’re not stoked to keep talking to you unless you crushed it. I recommend budgeting 2-3 minutes for your questions. If the interviewer is giving long answers then potentially they liked you so much that they want to sell you on the job early. It’s ok to go for a few more minutes after that, but never go over 5 total.
- Don’t, don’t, don’t offer any personal information! Don’t reveal anything yourself that’s part of a protected status such as your age, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Doing so puts the interviewer in an awkward position where they need to stop you and let you know that it won’t be used to make a decision. It’s illegal to discriminate against protected classes.
Follow these tips and you’ll be the best phone screen interviewee around!