Over the course of my career I have scheduled thousands of software engineering interviews with hundreds of hiring managers at a wide array of companies and organizations. I have learned that although no two managers look for the exact same set of technical skills or behaviors, there are recognizable patterns in the feedback I receive when a candidate is not presented with a job offer.
Obviously, if you are unable to demonstrate the basic fundamental skills for a position (for our purposes, software engineering expertise), anything else that happens during an interview is irrelevant. For that technical skills assessment, you are generally on your own, as recruiters should not provide candidates with specific technical questions that they will be asked in an interview.
It should be helpful for job seekers to know where others have stumbled in interviews where technical skill was not the sole or even primary reason provided for the candidate’s rejection. The examples of feedback below are things I have heard repeatedly over the years, and tend to be the leading non-technical causes of failed interviews in the software industry (IMO).
Candidate has wide technical breadth but little depth – The ‘jack of all trades’ response is not uncommon, particularly for folks that have perhaps bounced from job to job a little too much. Having experience working in diverse technical environments is almost always a positive, but only if you are there long enough to take some deeper skills and experience away with you. Companies will seek depth in at least some subset of your overall skill set.
Candidate displayed a superiority complex or sense of entitlement – This seems most common when a candidate will subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) express that they may be unwilling to do any tasks aside from new development, such as code maintenance, or when a candidate confesses an interest in exclusively working with a certain subset of technologies. Candidates that are perceived as team players may mention preferences, but will also be careful to acknowledge their willingness to perform any relevant tasks that need to be done.
Candidate showed a lack of passion – The lack of passion comment has various applications. Sometimes the candidate is perceived as apathetic about an opportunity or uninterested in the hiring company, or often it is described as what seems to be an overall apathy for the engineering profession (that software is not what they want to be doing). Regardless of the source of apathy, this perception is hard to overcome. If a candidate has no passion for the business, the technology, or the people, chances are the interview is a waste of time.
Candidate talked more about the accomplishments of co-workers – This piece of feedback seems to be going viral lately. Candidates apparently ramble on about other groups that built pieces of their software product, QA, the devops team’s role, and everyone else in the company, yet they fail to dig deep into what their own contribution was. This signifies to interviewers that perhaps this candidate is either the least productive member of the team or is simply unable to describe their own duties. Give credit where it is due to your peers, but be sure to focus on your own accomplishments first.
Candidate seems completely unaware of anything that happens beyond his/her desk – Repeatedly using answers such as “I don’t know who built that” or “I’m not sure how that worked” can be an indicator that the candidate is insulated in his/her role, or doesn’t have the curiosity to learn what others are doing in their company. As most engineering groups tend towards heavy collaboration these days, this lack of information will be a red flag for potential new employers.
Candidate more focused on the tools/technology than on the profession – Although rare, this often troubles managers a great deal, and it’s often a symptom of the ‘fanboy’ complex. I first experienced this phenomenon when EJB first arrived on the scene in the Java world, and many candidates only wanted to work for companies that were using EJB. When a technologist is more focused on becoming great at a specific tool than becoming a great overall engineer, companies may show some reluctance. This is a trend that I expect could grow as the number of language/platform choices expands, and as fanatical response and the overall level of polarization of the tech community around certain technologies increases.
Candidate’s claimed/résumé experience ? candidate’s actual experience – Embellishing the résumé is nothing new. A blatant lie on a résumé is obviously a serious no-no, but even some minor exaggerations or vague inaccuracies can come back and bite you. The most common example is when a candidate includes technologies or buzzwords on a résumé that they know nothing about. Including items in a skills matrix that are not representative of your current skill set is seen as dishonest by hiring managers.
Candidate’s experience is not ‘transferable’ – If your company is only using homegrown frameworks and proprietary software, or if you have worked in the same company for many years without any fundamental changes in the development environment, this could be you. The interviewer in this case feels that you may be productive in your current environment, but when given a different set of tools, methodologies, and team members, the candidate may encounter too steep a learning curve. This is often a response on candidates that have worked within development groups at very large companies for many years.