by John Cobb
Interview tips that will give you confidence and help you land a dev job
Landing those first few developer roles in your career can be hard.
How do you convince someone to hire you when you have limited experience? What things are critical to know? What if you get asked a question you don’t know the answer to?
Do you really need to know how to write a <link> tag from scratch?
(Spoiler: you don’t).
I’ve been working as a web developer for about a decade. I’ve held various roles in companies of all shapes and sizes — from global tech companies to small local agencies. I’ve been interviewed more times than I can count, and I’ve had more rejections than successes. As I have progressed to more senior positions, I increasingly find myself on the other side of the table.
I’m going to share some things that I look for when I’m interviewing new candidates. Perhaps more importantly, they are things that have helped me feel more confident when I’m the one being interviewed.
The technical requirements of any given role will vary, so I won’t be giving you any suggestions about addressing those. There are plenty of articles with titles like “10 Things Every Modern Web Developer Must Know”. You can use those to guide (or more likely, overwhelm) you.
What I am going to suggest, overall, is that you shouldn’t fret about the things you don’t know.
1. Be comfortable with your experience and abilities
Talking about your experience is usually the starting point for an interview. It’s also usually the first thing on your CV. Showing your experience and how you’ve applied your skills and abilities is a fundamental part of any interview process.
It’s normal to feel the pressure of making a good first impression. As such, it can be tempting to oversell yourself and your abilities, or to exaggerate the importance of a project you have worked on.
But you must remember — you’re not expected to have a wealth of experience or technical ability when starting out. Exaggerating or overselling your experience will create a less than ideal first impression, even if you’re otherwise well-suited for the role. This is something that is true at any point in your career, but it’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re starting out.
It’s much better to simply be factual about your experience and ability. Talk about the projects you’ve worked on and your specific role within those projects. Highlight the skills you used and technology you’ve been exposed to while working on them.
Show, don’t tell.
This is a principle in story-telling that I think also applies to job interviews.
Don’t tell your audience what is happening, show them with actions and allow them to interpret it and arrive at a conclusion themselves.
For example, if the interviewer can arrive at this conclusion by themselves:
“This candidate is experienced with Y, and is clearly passionate about X”.
That is much more valuable than you telling them:
“I’m highly experienced with Y, and very passionate about X”.
Equally as important as not overselling your skills and experience is being able to admit you don’t know something.
2. Don’t be afraid to be say “I don’t know”
It’s easy to feel pressured to answer a question you don’t know the answer to. If you do, this is what is likely to happen:
You’ll copy/paste together snippets of information you’ve heard or read and regurgitate whatever comes to mind first. You’ll hope to hit on the right combination of words to answer the question. You’ll stumble, sound incoherent, and get flustered.
Let me be as unambiguous about this as possible. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know the answer to something is always the best answer. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t.
If you’re made to feel uncomfortable for saying “I don’t know” in an interview, you should treat that as a red flag. It’s usually a sign of a toxic workplace. You don’t want to work at a company that doesn’t encourage vulnerability.
If you don’t know something, always be upfront and admit it. You can always follow up with what you think the answer might be. Even better, you can follow up with a question.
I don’t know much about X, but I think it’s related to Y. Can you give me some more detail? Are you using X in your projects?
Often, the answer to your follow up questions will allow you to give a secondary response. Even though you didn’t know the answer, you can show that you understand the context.
3. Ask questions. Lots of them.
Asking follow up questions is also a great way to make an interview feel less formal and more like a discussion.
Interviewers are often more than happy to talk about their experience with a particular technology, or the challenges they’ve faced on a particular project. This can also help give you insight into why they consider a certain skill or technology to be important for the role.
Also remember that an interview is also about you evaluating your potential employer. You can’t properly evaluate them without asking questions.
What project will I be working on? What are some projects this company has recently completed? How large is the team I will be working in? What resources will be available to me for training and personal development?
This isn’t only something that is valuable for the interview. Making an objective evaluation of your options is a daily task for a developer. To do that, you need to gather the right information — and to do that, you need to ask questions. Lots of them.
The candidate with the best technical skills isn’t always the one that gets hired.
My intention here isn’t to sound authoritative about what you should or shouldn’t do in an interview. Nor is it to proclaim that technical skills don’t matter.
But, what I am trying to make clear is that learning isn’t linear. You can’t, and won’t, know everything required for a role. We all take different paths to get to where we are, and you should be comfortable with that fact.
Every role is different, and every organization will have different expectations for their candidates. But, regardless of your skill level, or the expectations of the role, you should:
- Be comfortable with your current skill level and experience.
- Know that it’s acceptable to say “I don’t know”.
- Feel confident asking questions about things you don’t understand.
I believe these principles are not only essential for doing well in interviews, but can help you succeed in every role you will ever have, at every level.
I hope there is something you can take away from this article or perhaps you have had success with different strategies. I’d love to hear any suggestions or feedback in the comments.
Thanks for reading!