I’ve been interviewing a lot of software engineers lately. I typically start my screen with a question like “Give me a two minute overview of your career.” The goal is to give the candidate some time to settle their nerves and learn something interesting about them at the same time.
I’m surprised how rare it is for candidates to stick to that “two minute overview” instruction. Five minutes isn’t uncommon, at which point I cut them off and move on to the next question, while writing down something in my notes about “doesn’t follow directions.”
I’m also surprised the way candidates interpret the question. Maybe it’s just nerves, but even experienced candidates don’t take advantage of the open-ended nature of the question. The typical answer is a historical recap. “I graduated with a degree in CS. My first job was at Amazing, Inc, where I worked on algorithms for efficient cargo ship loading. Then I moved on to ….”
I saw all of this on your resume already. This is your opportunity to go deeper. Here’s what I really want to know:
- What 3-4 skills do you have that I most care about?
- What are you really, really good at?
- What gets you up in the morning excited to come to work?
- What makes you special or even unique among candidates?
The best candidates will talk about their gaps, too. Examples:
- “I’ve always wanted to work on machine learning, but I haven’t had the chance yet. I’ve been reading all the research.”
- “I led a team, but what I learned is that I’m better at writing code.”
- “I listed C# on my resume, but I haven’t used it three years. My best programming language is C.”
The next time you’re interviewing and you hear anything like “tell me about yourself” or “what’s your background” or “give me an overview of your career,” the interviewer is giving you chance to go much deeper than surface level. Take advantage.