How to prepare for a remote technical interview


Lusen Mendel and Portia Kibble Smith answer remote technical interview and recruiting questions from NSBE software engineers

As organizations reevaluate hiring plans for the COVID-19 world, many job candidates are being left without resources. To support job seekers, the National Society of Black Engineers will be taking their annual career fair virtual for the first time next week, providing a vital lifeline for both software engineers seeking jobs, and for tech companies seeking candidates. But even with support from great organizations like NSBE, candidates are facing a dramatic shift in the way they need to prepare for things like job prospecting and nailing a remote technical interview.

Earlier this week, my colleague, Portia Kibble Smith, and I joined hundreds of NSBE software engineers for a webinar to share our candidate tips for remote technical interviews. I’m blown away and so appreciative of the time they took out of their evening to learn with us, so we’re following up with a mini-AMA blog edition to address the questions that we weren’t able to answer on the webinar. We’re also thrilled to be joined by Akissi C. Lewis, NSBE National Professionals Talent Development Chair, who helped answer the NSBE-specific questions we received. 

I’ve included timestamp links to specific questions in the responses below, and we’re happy to respond to any additional questions in comments should they arise. 

Q: Considering there are several companies participating in the NSBE career fair, how do you focus on a particular company?

We talked about how important it is to spend time researching companies before your interview on the webinar. This is most relevant once you’ve narrowed down your search to the interview phase because it can help guide how you prepare ahead of technical interviews or phone screens.  

With respect to career fairs, I recommend talking to as many companies and people as you can, especially if you are early in your career. You can make decisions later about who to invest time and research in once you see how many callbacks you get. 

Both your resume and the impression you make talking with the recruiter will contribute to whether you get a follow-up to enter the candidate pipeline. (It doesn’t hurt to also apply online and follow-up with the recruiter on LinkedIn, just in case your  resume gets lost in the pile).

Career fair conversations tend to be short. My main tip is to make it a conversation:

  1. Ask the recruiter what they are looking for in an outstanding candidate
  2. Highlight the parts of your experience, skills, and interests that are most relevant
  3. Follow your curiosity to learn more about the company and opportunity, and reflect back on the things that resonate with you. If you’re on the cusp of being qualified, and you’re really interested in the job, that can tip the scales for a follow-up.

Q: Are there any suggestions for showing your technical skill level even if you can’t solve the coding question partially or completely?

Yes!

  1. Try solving a simpler problem, for example using smaller input or relaxing one of the constraints. 
  2. Try breaking the problem down into steps, even if you don’t know exactly how to solve each step. Then tackle each step one at a time, getting the fastest, most straightforward ones out of the way first (shine a little and pick up momentum!)
  3. If you get stuck in the implementation, use magic functions to get the big picture completed end-to-end rather than getting lost and running out of time on minutiae. Ideally, you have time to then implement the magic function; or maybe the interviewer wants to move on because that detail wasn’t so important anyway.

With incomplete solutions, it’s even more important to communicate your thoughts:

  • Even if it seems obvious, repeat back what you know so that the interviewer doesn’t think you are completely lost and don’t understand anything.
  • Describe how you modeled the problem in your mind or on paper
  • Share what you have deduced to be true, and what you have ruled out — even if these are partial conclusions and you’re not sure (yet!) how this relates to the end goal.
  • Explain what you are going to try next, such as “I’m going to work through a few examples on a sheet of paper” or “I think this bug has to do with this loop, so I’m going to inspect what’s happening with some print statements”

The interviewer may see what you’re missing and, if you’re stuck, provide hints to help you make progress and demonstrate more skills. 

Depending on the job requirements, the interviewer might look favorably on a candidate who can work with an interviewer to make progress. Or they might want candidates who can solve problems like these on their own. Different companies have different work processes, and different roles require different skills — and it’s really hard to know as a candidate what they’re looking for! You can only do your best, and keep learning and practicing for future interviews.

Q: If you really messed up a technical interview does it ruin your chances with the company in the future?

Usually no.

The big, well-known companies, prevent candidates from re-applying too quickly (often once a year), largely because they are inundated with applications and have a very high bar.

However, there are plenty of other companies who don’t have rules like that, and in fact look favorably on candidates who (1) really want to work at their company, as shown by the motivated to try again, and (2) improve their skills, which demonstrates not only that they are qualified, but also that they are hard workers on an upward trajectory.

Here’s how I think about it: if you don’t solve a coding question in one interview (or assignment), and then you try again later and solve multiple problems, your abilities are not an average of the two performances: they’re the maximum! 

Even great engineers get stuck sometimes, and of course, great engineers started out as beginners and got better with experience. Recruiters rejoice when candidates improve, so don’t be afraid to re-apply.

That said: it takes a lot of work to improve. At Karat we offer candidates the chance to redo an interview if they feel that they didn’t do their best.  Most of the time, the outcome doesn’t change. Sometimes it does, and that is a wonderful thing that makes our redo very worthwhile. However, if the problem wasn’t a brain-freeze, but rather a mismatch of skills, a redo is not enough.

If you’re still reading, I know you’re committed to doing better.  Here are the three things I want you to do after every coding interview:

  1. Identify where you spent the most unproductive time. Was it going around in circles trying to fix a bug for 15 minutes? Was it having 20 bugs to fix in the first place? Was it coming up with an overly complicated solution or a solution at all?
  2. Take the time you need to solve that particular question correctly. Research data structures and algorithms that you need. Try solving it two or three ways. Spend an extra hour writing well-organized code and a full test suite.
  3. Finally, practice solving similar problems in “interview-like” conditions until you make steady progress coming up with an approach and implementing the code. Not as a race, but without getting lost or stuck.

Q: This is a great list for technical interviews thank you. How do you fight back your nerves to not skip any of those steps?

Note: I shared the programming-specific steps this question references in the webinar

My first 8 tips are to practice, do more practice, and then practice some more. Every time you solve problems, you strengthen your problem-solving muscles so that you can solve more problems correctly and quickly. 

Ideally, you will also get feedback and insights into how to solve problems better. This could be something like recognizing when a problem might have an elegant recursive solution and then applying the recursive solution template of identifying base cases and inductive steps. Keep learning new things, but know that until you practice that knowledge a dozen times, you haven’t finished learning.

But for more immediate and actionable advice you can use right now for reducing nerves in a remote interview:

  1. Pick your clothes the day before, and reduce triggers by moving chores that normally stress you out.
  2. Create an environment where you can calmly focus. Clear your desk and have a spill-proof drink on hand.
  3. If you get  “too anxious to be hungry” before interviews, try to eat a little snack 30 minutes before to keep your energy up. The brain consumes a bunch of calories when thinking, and you don’t want to get hangry!
  4. Join the meeting early, put on a smile, tell yourself that being nervous is normal and ok, and do your best. The stakes may feel high, but the river is a long meandering. Regardless of how the interview goes, it won’t be the last one you do.
  5. And once you’re in the interview, it may be helpful to write the steps down as soon as you hear the problem, and then check off each step one by one as you talk with the interviewer. This will help channel your nervous energy.

Q: How many questions is it ideal to ask? I interviewed with a company last year, and when I brought out my list of ten prepared questions, they were like, “Woah, just one question.”

Usually, there is only time for you to ask one or two questions at the end of an interview, or maybe even none at all. Remember, your primary goal is still to impress the interviewer. Until you have an offer, you’re not making a decision, they are. Once you have an offer, then you’ll have time to ask important questions.

That said, it’s still ok to have a list of 10 questions. Maybe you have different questions for different people or depending on what you learn in the interview.

If an interviewer made that comment to me, I’d laugh along with them: “Heh, I like to be prepared! Ok here’s the one question I’d like to ask you…”

Q: The eyeglasses solution is awesome. I love it. Simple and practical.

Thanks! Solution linked here?

Q: If you have a double major or two degrees and the job is listed for one of your degrees, is it a good idea to mention your second degree? Both degrees are in engineering.

Yes!

Q: Would you ask an interviewer questions about themself? I.e.: How they joined the company? What they like best about the company? Etc.

Yes, people love talking about themselves. Just keep it professional. More details in the webinar.

Q: How to prepare for a roundtable virtual interview and display confidence?

Multiple tips from Portia and Lusen here.

Q: What do you do when having an interview virtually when the job will be virtually and you don’t know what the job will look like when in-person starts?

Answered live

Q: Would you ever suggest delaying a coding interview, where if you don’t get the job, the next time you may be able to reapply is one year later?

Answered live.  

Q: What is the best approach to guess the questions I would be getting at a virtual technical interview?

Answered live.

In addition to the technical interview questions, we also received a number of questions about job seeking and recruiting that Portia took some time to address.

Technical Interview and Recruiting Q&A from Portia

Q: What have been some of your personal go-to questions at the end of an interview?

  • What is your most challenging part of your job? 
  • What is your favorite part of your job
  • What do you like most about this organization and its culture? 
  • What’s the one thing you would change if you could?

Q: What if you do not have much experience? Do you still have a chance?

Absolutely! You have experience being on teams in school, sports teams, at church, and in your community. Using some of those examples of leadership are perfectly fine. 

Q: How can you minimize racial, sexual, and age bias on a Skype type interview?

It shouldn’t be the responsibility of job seekers to fix systemic bias. It’s something we are constantly working to improve with Karat technical interviews. But bias does exist. You can prepare yourself for the realities of an interview by reviewing company feedback on places like Glassdoor or Blind.

Once you’ve done your research and have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into, focus on selling yourself for the job. Highlight what you can do to add value to the team. That is what’s going to help you land a position. And if they are not interested in you because of your race, sexuality or age, I say move on…there are too many firms that will want you just the way you are! 

Q: How do you deal with interviewers that are not interested in having a conversation and strictly making an assessment?

Answer their questions politely, and hope that someone in the interview link will be great at conversations. Remember, not everyone who interviews you is good at interviewing. 

Q: For international students, how wise is it to ask about sponsorship?

I like to ask about sponsorship upfront. Check with your recruiter before you spend too much time in the interview process.

That way you don’t spin your wheels thinking there’s an opportunity when there isn’t. Feel free to ask them, “if you don’t accept international students, do you know which of your competitors or colleagues do?”

There are many international companies that are open to sponsoring you. No reason to waste your time with an organization that isn’t!

Q: What if interviewers judge me based on the way I speak English or the way I present myself instead of what I can do?

If you find an interviewer/company who is not open to English being your second language, they probably are only fluent in English! Time to move on to a more international or forward-thinking company that values having bilingual employees. There are plenty of them out there! 

Q: Would you advise someone who is graduating with an associate’s degree in Physics and transferring to a four-year university in fall to attend the virtual career fair?

Absolutely! You will need an internship whether it’s this summer, fall, or next summer. Getting the experience of attending career fairs is priceless especially early in your career. The more you do, the better you get! Test the water – you may surprise yourself!

Q: I have an interview coming up soon and I am required to give an informal chalk talk. Could you give me some tips on how to do that?

Here’s a link that will help you outline and develop your Chalk Talk for the interview: https://blog.addgene.org/designing-your-chalk-talk-for-the-academic-job-interview

Update: Responses from Akissi about the NSBE Virtual Career Fair

Q:  NSBE 46 Virtual Career Fair (VCF) Questions?  

Find your answers here in the FAQ:  http://convention.nsbe.org/virtual-career-fair-faqs/
If the answer to your question is still not found, please email nebfinance@nsbe.org.

Q:  NSBE VCF – When would we have the opportunity to upload our resumes for the virtual career fair?

You will receive an email from 6Connex with instructions on how to upload your resume and navigate the platform. The information will be sent during the week of April 27, so it’s important that you have an updated resume ready to upload.

Q: NSBE VCF – How far in advance will we know what companies are going to participate in the Virtual Career Fair? Will we have training on how to navigate through the Virtual Career fair?

A list of companies that are participating is listed on the convention webpage, here: http://convention.nsbe.org/participating-companies/

Q: NSBE VCF – If we had already registered for the NSBE National Conference in San Antonio, Texas, do we have to register for the Virtual Career Fair?

No. An email went out to the registrants today with next steps in the virtual career fair process.

Thank you again to everyone who participated. And as Lus mentioned up above, we’re happy to respond to any follow-up questions as needed. Good luck with the job hunts!

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