I've recently been coaching one of my best friends to prepare for an interview at a tech company. Seeing my friends succeed in their careers is one of my favorite things, so I find myself thinking a lot about growth-oriented mindset, telling great stories, and demonstrating technical depth. Here are some random themes I often share that have helped friends get jobs in tech.
I'm often asked if I'd take a look at a resume, run a mock interview, or edit a cover letter to help friends on their job hunt. But I always end up starting by taking a few big steps back and asking a lot of "why" questions. Why do you want this job? Why do you you want to work at all? Why are you here? As an ENFP, I think (or rather feel) that everything in life stems from these big questions, and my biggest successes have tended to coincide when I have clarity of purpose. Purpose is much bigger than what you wear, how you answer the behavioral questions, or how you negotiate salary. And when you have a clear sense of what you're here to do, it permeates all of your tactical decisions.
So I challenge my friends to take a step back and think about who they are, what they're about, and how a job should align with their life's values. Oftentimes, I coach people who are super focused on getting the tactics right, saying the right things, answering the right questions, looking like a strong hire. But it's not until we really get down into what really drives them that a lightbulb flicks on, they come alive, and their entire framing of the interview changes.
One of the most compelling interview questions I've been asked and often ask candidates is, "what would you be doing if you weren't working here, assuming living expenses were completely taken care of?" Sure, lying on the beach is a perfectly acceptable first thought, but what would you start doing when you got bored? Why? And then why would you do that? And why is that? Why is that important to you? Why is that? (I usually find that asking myself "why" five times like a child leads to some of the greatest revelations.) Start there, and bring that into the way you approach the interview.
As a product manager, I think a good 2/3s of my job is storytelling. The story of how virtual reality is going to change the way people compute. The story of how this feature is going to move this metric. The story of this team is going to change this organization. We've been telling each other stories since we crawled out of the caves, and the ability to take people on emotional, logical journeys has been one of our most important skills ever since.
In interviews, I coach my friends to master the STAR storytelling method. It goes like this:
Every story starts with a situation. It sets context and describes the circumstances in which you (the protagonist) must act. It establishes the stakes, the reason why the story matters from a personal and business context. It's succinct and "sets the table" quickly. "Our team was growing fast, with several people having never met in person because of remote work. As culture champions across our org, I knew that our ability to collaborate would set the tone for other disciplines, so getting my peers to work more effectively together was essential to our sustainability"
The story then establishes a task. It very directly states the goal I needed to accomplish to make for a happy ending. "I needed to plan a virtual teambuilding event for the product management team that would establish a foundation of trust so we and our peers could engage in deeper long-term collaboration."
Next, the story enters the action chapter. It lays out the steps I took to accomplish the task, using specific examples of how I worked to achieve success. "I recruited a small team of volunteers to plan and coordinate the event. We took a risk at holding the event in VR itself so it would be more memorable and let us 'eat our own dogfood'. That turned out to be a bit too ambitious and on the day of the event, several people ran into technical issues. But we rolled with the punches, brought some of them back into video chats, and continued with the experience. At the end of the event, we reconvened to wrap up and transitioned into a social hour to continue getting to know each other."
Finally, the story ends with results. It circles back to the task to address whether and how the goal was accomplished. It also reflects on what I learned from the experience and how I might improve in the future. "The event turned out to be a great success, and our org's leadership and several peers gave me great feedback on how it brought us closer together and would make collaboration more effective going forward. For me, it was a lesson in leadership without authority given that it was a voluntary project. I wish I'd delegated managing the tech setup more effectively rather than trying to do everything myself, but I'm glad we swung for the fences at making the experience unique for our team."
The STAR method is a great way for me to tell stories in a structured, emotionally vibrant, growth-oriented way. The trick is to come up with a few stories beforehand on a range of topics that you can tell with the STAR method in a compelling, succinct way. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect.
Technical Problem Solving
Every discipline has its own flavor of technical interview, but there are a few commonalities I find across roles. In no particular order...
- Establish a mental model: Judging the content of what someone can come up with in 30-45 minutes is error-prone and situational. It certainly matters, but what I look for more is a candidate's ability to talk me through their mental model that's leading their thinking. That means taking a few seconds to think about how to structure an answer, communicating that structure, then following it, checking in for feedback along the way.
- Creative taste: The interview is also a chance to demonstrate a sense of creativity. This can be pretty anxiety-inducing because creativity can feel so hit-or-miss. But use your mental model as framing to let your creative mind run free a little bit. Think broadly about possibilities, generating several potential ideas, and then narrow them down through your mental model.
- Critical thinking: Technical interviews are also a chance to demonstrate your ability to go deep. Don't be afraid to dive into the details a bit. Weigh the pros and cons. Evaluate the risks. Prioritize based on a framework. Here, it's even more important to check in with the interviewer for a sense of how deep they want to take the question. Ask them your own clarifying questions to drive toward a solution. Reflect on what assumptions you're making and where they could go wrong.
At the end of the day, an interview is just as much of an evaluation of the company as an evaluation of the candidate. I encourage my friends to treat it like dating where they're asking thoughtful questions about whether it's the right place for them to be. Going back to mindset, this is likely to be one of several hops along their career journey, and they should all be leading toward that purpose they're here to achieve.
If you're still reading and applying for a tech job yourself, good luck in the process. Give yourself a break, no matter the outcome. And remember that your best career days are still yet to come.