The Interview Chronicles, Part III: Prepping for the Process

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As usual, this advice is aimed at developers, digital infrastructure specialists, and other in-demand technical contributors, but may be applicable to other high-demand careers and industries. YMMV!

When you reach the seniority level (and savings) where job opportunities come to you and you can be picky about your next job, it’s time to step back and evaluate what you actually want out of your next job.  Now, preferably, you’ve already done this before earlier in your career, but even if you have (or haven’t), this is the point in a career to do it again, especially now that as an experienced worker in a high-demand industry, you have choice and you interview from a position of power — it is very likely for all but the largest companies, you are needed more than you need them — especially if you have the savings to be picky.

So before opening up LinkedIn or checking your recruiter mail folder, open up a document or get out your notebook and pen, and answer these five questions:

What situations have I found myself the most successful and happiest in?
What is the minimum amount of compensation I need to take my dream job?
What are my core strengths?  Professional and personal apply.
What are my weaknesses?
What do I want to learn next?

What situations have I found myself the most successful and happiest in?

Success is highly situational!  The best employee in the world will fail if not given the proper support and positive motivation.  When considering your next role, consider what has made you successful:

Excitement about the product or company mission?
Excitement about the technology used?
Coworkers that you can stand, and vice versa?

As an autistic adult, my number one is definitely my direct manager.  In cases where they’ve gone the extra mile to limit exposure to my weaknesses and expose my strengths as often as possible, I’ve excelled, earned bonuses and company awards, and enjoyed going to work every day.

In cases where the direct manager has not been willing to work with me or has a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism does to communication for folk like me, I’ve been forced out, resigned in anger, been straight up fired for not meeting the company standard, and fell into major depressions.

Not only does answering this question for yourself help guide you on the path of where to interview, it also answers a question you’re going to get asked by every recruiter or hiring manager you speak with, and that is: What are you looking for in your next career move?

What is the minimum amount of compensation I need to take my dream job?

For many, taking a dream job may mean taking a pay cut.  For someone like me who has interest in the social activism and video game verticals, those tend to pay below market Games because every young programmer wants in, and social activism due to being a non-profit or it being difficult to monetize changing the world.  In addition to deciding the amount of compensation you want to make in your next role, consider how much you’re willing to give up to do what you really want.  If such a pay cut is fiscally viable and falls into the comp bands of your dream job, TAKE IT.

What are my core strengths?

There are tests like Gallup’s strengths finder that can give you your strong personality traits and the like, but for this, let’s focus on professional strengths — the sort of tasks that could be described as being in your wheelhouse.  These are your moneymakers — this is your coding ability, your infra chops, your product/project management/cat-herding skills.  Drill down on these as much as possible, and look for positions that are going to have a lot of work that hits these strengths.

What are my core weaknesses?

Is your communication not strong?  Do you need someone to help organize and prioritize your work?  Are you a high-empathy person that has trouble saying no when asked for help at the detriment to your own projects?

These are all relative weaknesses in the first place, even if things like high empathy are considered strengths for most employees.  Kindness is cool, but remember, you have more ability to be kind when your own ducks are in a row.  Be honest — as even strengths can come with weaknesses.  A highly analytical mind doesn’t always make for a good listener since they’re problem solvers.

Using another personal example, autism affects my interpersonal communication skills.  They tend to fall apart in situations I haven’t actively practiced on, or I get too deep into the theory of conversation and end up sounding like a robot trying to pass a captcha!  Therefore, as I’m looking for my next position, I’m looking for a spot where when communication is needed, the times I have to communicate are in my practiced wheelhouses: technical design and leadership, software and systems architecture, and so on, and that I heave team and management support to cover me where my communication is weaker, like interpersonal banter or on days where I am sensory overloaded and my brain-to-mouth filter is non-existent.

What do I want to learn next?

If you are still looking for new challenges in your career, decide what you want to learn next, and seek out employers that are leaders in using a new technology, a new process, or an industry standard you want to get better acquainted with.  As I’ve said before, interviewing is a great way to get intelligence on your field and to see which new technologies are rising within companies.

By answering these questions about yourself, you are more aware of your own wants and needs in your next position, and can narrow your focus down to positions that use your strengths, minimize your weakness, meet your compensation and professional education goals, and provide an optimal work situation for success.

5 Interview Smells To Watch Out For

As I’m going through the interviewing process again after leaving my last job, I’m finally doing it in a position where I have the savings to be very picky about my next position.  So rather than just taking what seems to be the best career option, I’ve started analyzing the things that make me, an autistic individual (so your mileage may vary), worried about working somewhere just from the interview steps.

I’m terming these “interview smells”, in the vein of a “code smell”, a bad coding practice that will cause more work down the line.  If I smell an interview smell, I’ve been very vocal about it, to the point of ending the interview process if the company remains adamant about letting that smell fly.  Thankfully, we’re in a labor shortage here in the tech industry, meaning that once you’re in, you can be picky, and you have real power.

While I’ve run into too many of these to count, here are my top five to watch out for, as a developer, DevOps engineer, SRE and the like:

1.  The skills test does not match the job description

If you’re asking to have your candidate do things that they won’t be doing in the job description as part of the interview process, we’re going to wonder why.  If I’m asked to build a linked list or a search tree or something like that from scratch, and my job isn’t “write a new programming language”, then you’re asking me to do something that is costly and should never be approved by management when libraries can be used instead.  Your interview process is the hello to the candidate that tells them what you find important.  If frivolous CS trivia is what you want to optimize for, then that’s what you’ll get.

Speaking of which…

2.  Whiteboard skills tests with no resources

There’s a good reason that this smell is thankfully falling out of favor with many companies.  Skills tests are great!  However, they need to be both relevant to the work and done in the closest thing to the work environment…which includes access to Google, StackExchange, documentation about the tools/language in question, and so on.

Not providing these resources to a candidate in an already stressful situation is, again, not going to optimize for what the day to day workflow is at your company, and instead optimizes for memorization and repetition rather than assessing how the employee actually works and whether their workflow is compatible with your company’s goals.

3.  Free dinner

Wait!  Isn’t this a perk?

Not really.  Companies don’t offer free dinner unless they expect you to be around working to eat it (or you’re Google/FB and can make it rain).  Having free dinner makes it clear that working late enough to take advantage of it happens enough to offer it as a “perk”.

This is different from free lunch, which is a perk for those of us who don’t want to break our concentration to go get something and instead can just take it back to our desk and finish out the task requiring concentration.  Yes, it benefits the employer, but it also benefits the employee.

4.  Stinginess on small salary differences

If I’ve asked for, let’s say, $190k/yr, and I get hemming and hawing and a counteroffer of something like $180k, that’s a HUGE smell.  This tells me the company is willing to let talent that generates or saves 7 figures a year walk away over 5 small figures.  And if this is happening to the recruitment budget, just think how badly the pennies get pinched elsewhere in the company.

To be clear, this is different from a situation where your expectation is way above the employer’s — frankly, I’d rather be countered with $160k than $180k on a $190k offer, because that’s enough of a gap that doesn’t indicate being cheap — so long as you’re a startup that has a good reason to pinch the pennies and is a good enough risk to take alternate compensation (a 4 day week, a relevant amount of options at a cheap strike price) in lieu of market rate, rather than a mature firm that spends over 10k to organize a large meeting.

Plus, now the cheapskate business has folk like me that have made a name for themselves in our professional communities telling others how cheap they are, and now that company just wasted the six figures their talent acquisition team spent on burnishing the company image.

5.  “Negging” during the salary negotiation process

Surprised to see this one?  It happens a ton during the salary negotiation portion, and it’s done by employers for the same reason pick up artists do it — to try to get the target to settle for less by pointing out the target’s flaws or insecurities.

So what counts as “negging” during the interview?

  • Being asked to “prove yourself” and take a lesser role than you are qualified for in hopes you get a “promotion” back to where you are now.
  • Pointing out weaknesses you may have told them about yourself in an attempt at honesty and using those to make you feel like they’re “giving you a chance.”  Nice Guy Managers love to do this to underrepresented genders and ethnicity in the field.  Hits us disabled folk pretty hard as well, especially if we don’t have a visible disability the company can show off.
  • Any other action made to devalue your previous accomplishments in the field, especially relevant work experiences and technologies.  They knew all of these from your profile or resume, and still brought you in the room.  Remind them of that as you leave the room.

In conclusion…

Companies are here to make money, and so are you.  How they treat you, as a candidate for an engineering role in a market where there’s not enough of us to go around, is them putting on their best face, just as we candidates put on our best face and behavior for an interview.  Any issues raised in the interview process will only be worse once you’re family instead of a guest.  So speak up for yourself, be opinionated about why you won’t interview somewhere or continue an interview when it goes awry.

The Interview Chronicles, Part 2: Always Be Interviewing

You’ve just started a cushy new gig.  Maybe you’ve even been there for a while and you’re still loving it.  All the perks are there.  The pay is there.  The tech stack your work on and the people you work with are both amazing.

Most people, at this point, stop looking at open positions and stop taking recruiter calls or LinkedIn messages.  After all, they’re content with the job they have.

This is the worst thing you can do.  Always be interviewing.  Even if you don’t want a new job.

Keeping up with the industry

When you’re interviewing with a company as a programmer or a systems admin, one of the ways a company will try to sell you on their position is to talk about their stack.  Some of this information may be public, but few companies will talk about the coolest stuff they’re working on without a signed non-disclosure agreement.  This is, by far, one of the best ways to keep up with trends in the industry.

If you start hearing about a technology a couple of times in a row during interviews, it’s a good sign that the technology in question is one to start brushing up on or looking for ways to use at your current job.  It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than attending conferences and such, especially if you’re a consultant that doesn’t have an employer to foot the bill for travel and attendance.

Practice, practice, practice!

Like any skill, you need to practice interviewing to get better at interviewing.  Going on interviews is a good way to test out different resume and cover letter combinations, get exposed to numerous different forms of the technical interview, and get yourself better at parts that nobody likes doing, such as salary negotiation.

Not only that, you’re going to eventually be asked to interview someone else as you move up the seniority and/or management ranks, and being exposed to many different interview styles can help you ensure that you’re doing both your company and a potential candidate a favor by coming into an interview without a bunch of frivolous questions and exercises that don’t tell you much about the candidate.

Wrapping it up

As programmers and sysadmins in a hot technology market, we are, by and large, blessed/lucky/what-have-you by the fact that jobs come to us.  Everyone has recruiter stories, and their favorite ways to get less calls rather than more.

Rather than treating them as an annoyance, use the demand to your advantage.  You get great intelligence on where the industry is headed, the opportunity to practice people skills that will positively affect your future earnings, and you’ll make yourself a better interview in the process.

Always be interviewing.

The Interview Chronicles, Part 1: Never Provide Your Salary History. NEVER.

Author’s note:  While this advice is mainly for those individuals undergoing the tech interview process for a programming or systems position, the advice within certainly applies to other positions as well.

Negotiating a salary with a company can be difficult.  Once you’ve gotten to this point in the interview process, an interesting social dance happens, whereby you, as the job candidate, decide how you’re deciding to sell 40+ hours of your week for without seeming greedy.  Congrats on getting this far!  There’s a ton of great guides out there on how to handle this part of the interview process…

…except you’ve probably already handicapped yourself, and you did it way, way earlier in the job search/interview process by disclosing what you currently make or previously have made.



There is absolutely nothing good that can happen by disclosing your salary history to a prospective employer or a recruiter.  Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.

Disclosing your salary history will only do one of two things — if you’re making an above market salary, it may scare off potential employers that you’re willing to take a pay cut or end a conversation before you have the opportunity to convince the company you’re worth the salary you’re commanding.  If you’re making a below-market salary, it allows the interviewing company to use that as a basis for (at best) a percentage raise over that, which will still likely leave you earning a below market rate while the company can push back against further demands by pointing at that reasonable-looking percentage raise.

In fact, because of that second point, Massachusetts is making the practice of requiring salary history illegal.

For those of us in the other parts of the country or world where it is legal to request or require a salary history as part of the interview process, however, there is a pretty darn good strategy to employ.

When asked for your salary history, simply reply that you’re looking to receive a market rate or a percentile salary (like top 10%) salary.  Most recruiters at this point will push back — you’ll get a story about how they just want to make sure that if you’re the right candidate, they can give you can offer you’ll accept.  What they’re doing here is making you negotiate against yourself, and no disclosure you can give here will help you.

Your job is to make sure that you get some information out of the recruiter at this point.  Is this due to the company being cheap/small?  Is the company impressed by your resume/any conversations up to this point and therefore is worried they can’t give you what they think you’re worth?

If a company or org is worried they can’t afford you, and you really want to work there anyway because it’s something you’re passionate about, reassure the recruiter that you can be flexible on base salary, and use this opportunity to get a fancier title, more time off, a (larger) piece of equity, flexible working hours, or some other arrangement that doesn’t cost the company cash directly out of pocket.  If it’s a larger company and there’s noises made about how they don’t do one-offs like that, they’re simply cheap.  If you don’t need the job, this is the time to bail out and thank your lucky stars you didn’t get trapped in corporate hell.

However, if the company is highly valuing your experience and/or the interview feedback they’ve received, this is the time to negotiate from power.  Ask for a little more than you want, and let yourself be talked back a bit to the number you’ll be satisfied with.  That leaves the employer feeling like they negotiated themselves a deal and starts a rock-solid relationship.

If you’ve let them know your salary history at any point before this, you’ve given away information for free and established a starting number for any salary negotiations going forward.

Never disclose your salary history.