To Beat the Software Interview, Think Video Games

By Ben Weiss

I think we can all agree that interviewing for software development jobs could be a little more fun because as it currently stands, the whole process pretty much sucks.

Dice's Guest AppearanceFirst, you have to get noticed, which seems all but impossible with modern day applicant tracking systems. When you do get noticed, you then need to go through the formalities presented by Human Resources, undergo a technical assessment from senior development types, then endure a problem solving and cultural analysis from the department’s or company’s managers.

Here’s an idea: Instead of getting down about how convoluted technical hiring can be, gamify the whole thing.

The Quest

When you think about it, the interview trajectory is similar to the quests of video game avatars like Super Mario, Zelda or Duke Nukem, who deploy tailored strategies to defeat a number of “Bosses” in order to save the princess or accomplish whatever it is they’ve set out to do.

With that in mind, consider the tips below to be cheat codes that will help you get past the “Bosses” you’ll encounter and win the game – er, get the job for yourself.

Facing Off Against the HR Boss

Unique characteristics: Often non-technical, the gatekeeper to more gatekeepers, first to evaluate you on paper, seeking broad organizational fit.

  • Cheat Code 1: Don’t Send a Resume with Typos or That’s Incorrectly Tailored. Regardless of whether or not the opportunity you’re applying for is your dream job, the HR Boss will kill your quest before it even begins if you submit sloppy materials. This just means that you’ll want to triple check whatever you’re sending in and ensure that if you’re applying for, say, a .NET-centric role at a financial services firm that your cover letter doesn’t suggest you’re looking for a management role at a startup.
  • Cheat Code 2: Arrive Prepared and Early. So your application materials are pristine and relevant and you got called in to see the HR Boss. Remember he or she may not have printed out your materials, so it’s a good idea to bring extra resumes or work samples. Also, get to your destination 10 or 15 minutes early to make sure you don’t screw up their schedule, have time to fill out paperwork and also check out the company’s environment before the interview actually begins.
  • Cheat Code 3: Take Care of Hygiene. You don’t need to be wearing Armani head to toe, but HR is generally the boss most turned off by smelly or unkempt candidates. Think this is obvious to everybody? You’d be surprised…
  • Cheat Code 4: Define Your Terms. Remember that the HR Boss probably doesn’t have a technical background, so be sure to simply define industry-specific terms or acronyms that might go over his or her head.
  • Cheat Code 5: Prepare to Speak About Your Former Jobs/Employers. The HR Boss is the one tasked with discovering whether you have good reasons to look for a new job. With that in mind, consider constructive reasons as to why you’re seeking new employment. For example, explaining you were fired for cursing out your former colleagues won’t help your cause. Embarking on a quest to find work in a different industry will be far better received.

Facing the Senior Development Boss:

Unique Characteristics: Prodigious technical knowledge, looking for the best “technical” fit.

  • Cheat Code 1: Prepare to Answer Knowledge Questions. For example, what does the keyword sealed in C# do? These questions are either right or wrong, so studying terms, languages and frameworks beforehand is important. Reviewing resources like CareerCup (and the book ‘Cracking the Coding Interview’) and Glassdoor can be highly effective here.
  • Cheat Code 2: Prepare to Answer Coding/Algorithm Questions. These test your aptitude as much as your knowledge. They’re your chance to show some technical critical thinking by answering questions such as “Implement a program to check who, if anyone, has won a game of tic-tac-toe,” or, “Given an array of integers, return the number that is repeated the most.”

In order to succeed, consider these tips: First, ask questions to be sure you fully understand the problem. Second, talk out loud to show the Senior Development Boss how your thought processes work. Third, write out your code and be prepared to do so on a piece of paper/whiteboard. Finally, test your code.

  • Cheat Code 3: Prepare to Answer Architecture Questions. These questions are designed to test your ability to architect a system. In order to succeed in this part of your quest, be sure to first understand constraints (by asking questions) such as how many users there will be. Then you’ll want to describe the components needed to make your system function, such as servers and a database. You’ll also need to explain how those components will work together and how you’ll troubleshoot problems, like a server going down. All of these will help explain that you’re capable of higher-level tasks, not just executing a to-do list.
  • Cheat Code 4: Don’t Panic. Some of the Senior Developer’s questions are going to be really hard. Remember in those cases that everyone’s answer will be weaker on an absolute basis. Therefore, even if your answer wasn’t the best, you may be graded on a curve.

Facing Off Against the Software Leadership Boss

Unique Characteristics: In this case, there are two characters you may have to deal with: the Software Management Boss and the Chief Technology Boss. They’re looking for an informed development team and are interested in problem-solving skills, adaptability and cultural fit.

  • Cheat Code 1: Show Your Mental Agility. The Software Leadership Boss wants developers who can calmly address some of the organization’s most pressing technical issues with a clear strategy. Therefore, this boss may throw out a seemingly outrageous question like “How many pizzas were delivered in Manhattan last year” to see what you come up with. The wrong thing to do is allow your eyes to glaze over. The average candidate will just toss out a number. The best candidate will break down a rough square mileage of the island, a rough number of pizza joints per square mile and a rough number of pizzas delivered per day in order to estimate an educated guess.
  • Cheat Code 2: Show You’re Informed and Adaptable. Being a rock start developer requires constant work. Therefore, the best jobs will go to candidates who have their ear to the ground and can evolve with the industry. Take advantage of opportunities to show off how you follow industry blogs and resources, as well as your enthusiasm for becoming proficient in the latest and greatest versions of relevant technologies.
  • Cheat Code 3: Don’t Be Fooled. The Software Leadership boss is highly skilled in learning about your habits without asking about them specifically. With that in mind, don’t let your guard down. For example, a question about how you spend your free time could be a way to learn about your accessibility after hours. A question on what you liked most about past jobs could be intended to determine how you speak about former colleagues. Prepare accordingly.

Good luck.

Ben Weiss is the digital marketing strategist for Infusive Solutions, a New York employment agency that specializes in the placement of .NET developers, Windows engineers, SQL Server DBAs and technical support professionals. This piece is based on Beating the Technical Interview, a full-length resource with contributions from Gayle McDowell, author of Cracking the Coding Interview, and Jennifer Loftus, (former president of New York’s chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management). Download it here.

5 Responses to “To Beat the Software Interview, Think Video Games”

  1. Don’t be so sure that the guy interviewing you knows more than you do . If they ask a dumb question, show them why. I’ve had too many interviews ask me about the SOLID principals, for example. Any programmer with any true skill and knowledge knows that SOLID is one of the most ridiculed set of principals ever. If you act like you failed to memorize it, then you ARE the fool.

    This whole idea of the TOUGH interview at anything but Fortune 500 company is quite silly, especially since so many of those companies don’t verify degrees at all today (to save a few bucks).

    That’s just one example of why interviewers are becoming more and more likely to chase away true talent.

  2. Jim Backus

    If companies are able to put up these type of barriers to employment it is obvious the government does not need to raise increase the h1b visa quotas becuase there is more supply of IT workers than there is demand.

    • Rick Hammond

      This is why I do not support immagration reform that includes raising the h1b visa quota. It’s obvious the companies don’t need the extra workers if they are subjecting the current pool of applicants to unreasonable interviews.