By Edmond Lau November 6, 2014

The #1 Interview-Killing Mistake to Avoid

Code Fellows develops the whole professional. We don’t just give someone a technical skill set, we also teach them how to highlight those skills when trying to get a job, like during an interview. This guest post identifies and offers a solution to a common interview mistake.

– Gina Luna, Business Development and Partner Relations Specialist

“What questions can I answer for you?” I asked the interview candidate. We had finished working through some technical problems, and I was ready to gauge his curiosity and passion toward the product, the team, and the mission.

“I don’t really have any,” he replied.

Apparently, he already knew all there was to know about the company after a couple of interviews, and there was nothing more I could add. It was the weakest reply he could’ve given if he wanted to show excitement for the job, and yet, he wasn’t the only smart person I’ve interviewed who’s given that response.

I’ve interviewed roughly 500 people in the past eight years, across Google, Ooyala, and Quora, mostly for engineering positions, but also for positions in management, data science, and product. In nearly every interview, I offer candidates a chance to turn the tables and grill me on questions.

The strongest candidates respond with curiosity. They want to know what the company culture is like, how teams go about shipping projects, what challenges the product faces in the marketplace, what aspects of the work environment can be improved, and what’s being done about them. They would fill the entire interview with questions if I let them. They’re not just looking for objective answers — they’re also curious about how my viewpoints differ from those of other interviewers.

The weaker candidates mistakenly assume that answering the technical questions correctly is all that matters in an interview. That’s important, but technical competence is just the table stakes. Interviewers adopt a much more holistic view of someone’s interview performance.

It’s not hard to understand why — if I’m going to be working with you for 40+ hours per week, whether you can figure out the correct answers to problems we might encounter is only one factor out of many. I’m also evaluating:

  • How well you handle feedback or criticism.

  • How quickly you can reason about a problem.

  • Whether you’d be a good culture fit for the team.

  • What gets you excited about the mission and the product.

  • How well you communicate.

  • Whether we can work through hard problems together.

  • Whether your skill set complements what we already have on the team.

When interviewing for a job, don’t think in terms of the fraction of questions you can answer correctly — that alone won’t differentiate you from the rest of the applicant pool. Instead, focus on all the various ways that you can add value to the team and how you can effectively communicate that value to your interviewers.

What to Ask Your Interviewer

So what questions should you ask your interviewer when it’s your turn to grill him or her on questions?

Shy away from questions that can be easily answered by a few minutes of Googling, reading the company’s website, or using the product (if it’s a consumer product). Those types of questions signal laziness. If the company builds a web or mobile consumer product, you should have done your homework and already tried out the product prior to the interview — it still surprises me how often I’ve interviewed candidates who never even tried out the product they’d be working on and yet expect that they’d be able to get the job.

Instead, focus on questions that the interviewer can uniquely help you to answer. For example, you might ask them to help paint the picture of what working at the company is like:

  • What’s your typical work day like?

  • What’s the process of taking an idea you have from an inception and shipping it to production?

  • What fraction of your time is spent building new things versus maintaining old ones?

  • How do product / business / engineering decisions get made at the company?

Or focus on the team culture:

  • What’s one thing you really like about working at the company and one thing you’d like to improve? What’s being done about the thing you’d like to improve?

  • What are the core values of the company, and what are some examples of how they’re reflected day-to-day?

  • How would you describe the culture of the company?

Or dive deeply into one aspect of the product that you’re curious about:

  • How did this particular product feature get designed and launched?

  • Why did you decide to launch this particular version instead of this other one?

  • How has the product evolved since launch based on user feedback?

Or ask about growth opportunities:

  • What’s the most unexpected lesson that you’ve learned on the job?

  • What is the onboarding or mentoring process like (if any) for new hires?

  • What opportunities have you had to work with different people and projects during your time at the company?

  • How is knowledge across projects documented and shared at the company?

Or learn about the challenges that the company is facing:

  • What are the biggest obstacles to this company becoming massively successful?

  • What are the current priorities and focus areas at the company?

  • Where would I be able to add the most value?

Given the endless array of questions, the next time someone asks you if you have any questions in an interview, be prepared with an answer other than “no.” Ask ones that can provide you with a lot of signal, as they’ll also signal to your interviewer that you’re thinking hard about the opportunity.


Edmond Lau is currently an engineer at Quip. You can find the full article on his site, The Effective Engineer.