Preparing for technical interviews as an interviewee takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. But what is it like to be an interviewer? As a 20 year software engineer, interview coach, and former interviewer at Google, I’ve spent plenty of time on the other side of the interviewing table assessing talent. Allow me to share some insight on the interviewer’s mindset that can help you better prepare as an interviewee. Here are nine things that you probably didn’t know (or haven’t considered) about your coding interviewer.
1) They are human
Many of you prepare for interviews forgetting your interviewer will be a human being. Not only will you need to collaborate with another human in the interview, but several other humans will also assess your work. Your job is to convince them you have qualities the organization is looking for.
If you’re only practicing alone (or against the CPU), you’re not doing it in a way that reflects the real experience. Understand that your interviewer is a human being. They can’t be inside your head figuring out what you’re thinking. Practice communicating well, articulating your thoughts out loud, and showing your work.
2) They might suffer from imposter syndrome
Here’s something that may surprise you. Most FAANG software engineers I’ve asked feel like they barely passed the interviews themselves. They aren’t completely sure they’d be able to survive the interviews if they had to do it all over again. And they attribute at least some of their success to luck.
I didn’t feel qualified to do coding interviews when I first started despite my training. I became comfortable over time as I got more interviews under my belt. Your interviewer might be very experienced or not very experienced at all. Don’t be surprised if they fumble the ball a bit.
In fact, that leads me to my next point.
3) They get nervous
The interview process can be very stressful for you as a candidate. But did you know that it can also be stressful for your interviewer?
Here are some reasons for that. For one, they are likely meeting you for the first time. You are as much of a stranger to them as they are to you. Also, any number of things can go wrong in the interview. Anxiety-inducing events include communication issues, technical malfunctions, or having to switch interview questions.
Nervousness is especially likely to occur for inexperienced interviewers. But introverted or socially awkward interviewers can also be prone to it as well.
As a candidate, there may not be much you can do about it. Strive to communicate clearly. Be patient with your interviewer if they don’t seem to have it all together.
4) They’re being judged too
Interviewers usually aren’t the ones who make hire/no hire decisions. Instead, they send detailed notes along with your code to a separate committee of peers. Those peers will not only assess your performance, but also assess how well the interviewer conducted your interview. They may send feedback to the interviewer to help them improve.
Your interviewer doesn’t want to be that one person who messed up by not providing enough signal to the committee. And they definitely don’t want to get flagged for bias. They also don’t want to look too easy on candidates as compared to their peers. They may feel that their own reputation is on the line.
The interview committee members aren’t the only ones judging your interviewer. You, the candidate, are judging them too. They know they are the face of the company, having a responsibility to represent the company well. Nobody wants to be accused of being a bad or unfair interviewer. And they certainly don’t want to be the subject of someone’s angry, mean spirited rant or tweet any more than you do.
5) They want you to succeed
You may think that your interviewer exists to murder your hopes and dreams. You might believe they’re out to prove how superior they are to you. And as much as I hate to say it, I’m sure that is true for some small and problematic segment of the population.
However, that has not been my experience. All the interviewers that I’ve known in tech want you to succeed in the interview for at least three reasons:
- A bad interview experience feels awful for the interviewer almost as much as it does for you. It’s frustrating when a candidate can’t seem to get out of a rut or fails to ask the right questions.
- The best interviews are ones filled with lively discussion from engaged candidates. Poor candidate performance makes for a boring and uninteresting interview.
- Your interviewer knows what it’s like to sit in your seat. They are sympathetic to the fact that you want to do your best. Interviewers meet way more people who won’t succeed in the interview than those who will. It’s refreshing when a great candidate comes along and performs well.
Remember, interviewers are being judged too. They can get dinged in feedback for not providing timely guidance or for giving you bad information. And unless they’re on a power trip, they gain nothing from seeing you fail. That is, unless you’re being a jerk. In that case, they are doing their colleagues a favor by exposing your bad behavior.
6) They might feel underappreciated or overworked
For most tech interviewers, interviewing is part of the job. However, they may not receive much recognition for the effort they pour into being decent. Your interviewer is an engineer like you. They are primarily rewarded for delivering impact to the business. That means spending more time building things and less time conducting interviews.
Interviewing is a time-consuming process. It can take two or three hours to prep, conduct, and write up feedback for an interview depending on how well they did. Many candidates end up being mediocre or near misses, and they take the longest time to assess.
This matters to you because you may run into a cranky interviewer who’d rather be coding than interviewing you. If you are combative, argumentative, discourteous, or late, then you will likely make the interview unpleasant for them and for you. This is not in your best interest.
A word to the wise. Do your best to show up on time, wear a smile, be respectful, and thank your interviewer for their time. Avoid doing anything that will distract your interviewer from fairly assessing your technical performance.
7) They can’t pull questions from LeetCode
I’ve never worked for a company that used coding questions from a public online repository like LeetCode. Instead, interviewers rely on proprietary question databases or make them up themselves. When a question appears on a public forum, it generally isn’t supposed to be used for a real interview.
This matters to you because no matter how many LeetCode questions you do, you are likely not going to get the exact same question in the interview. Granted, you may get something similar sounding. But there will likely be some element that you may not have encountered.
Trying to memorize as many solutions as possible isn’t going to cut it. It is more important to study the patterns across questions and solutions. Be aware of when certain tools should be used in certain situations. It is essential to understand Big-O so that you know how to apply the right algorithm or data structure to achieve the optimal solution.
8) They can tell if you already know the answer
But let’s say that your interviewer does ask you a question you’ve heard before. Should you pretend like you haven’t heard it and go with the flow? Not at all. Not only is this dishonest, but your interviewer can probably tell. They’ve likely asked that interview question plenty of times and can spot anomalies in performance that suggest prior knowledge of the question.
Unfortunately, I’ve sat on hiring committees and witnessed candidates getting the same question twice during an interview loop. In my experience, the candidate usually will have to take an additional interview to make up for the duplicate. Worst case, candidates get a no-hire decision. This is either because they outright lied or because they didn’t do better on the second attempt.
If you get a question you’ve heard before, tell your interviewer. Explain what you think the solution is and allow them to decide what to do. They may propose a more advanced version of the question or pivot to something different. You’ll be seen as honest and responsible, not to mention saving you time in the process as well.
9) They don’t know your previous performance
You may not know this, but your interviewer generally has no awareness of your past interview performance. At most, they may view your resume and previous questions that you’ve tackled in the past, but that’s about it. Whether you bomb your last interview or knocked it out of the park, you are starting from square one with them. They won’t know anything unless you tell them yourself.
What does that mean for you? “Be a goldfish” as Ted Lasso once said. Once you’re in the next interview, forget all about your performance in your previous ones. Don’t let past mistakes, failures, or successes distract you from focusing on the problem you’re solving in the moment.
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