Surviving the all-day tech interview
~ 04 April 2007 ~
UPDATE: Tips for employers can be found here.
If you haven’t endured one yet, you probably will sometime soon. The all-day tech interview is becoming increasingly common at companies large and small, and rightly so. Sussing out a candidate’s genuine qualifications, talent, and attitude solely in a phone screening or one-hour interview is difficult, at best. On the other hand, spend an entire day with a candidate, interviewed by most members of the team, and an employer has a much better shot at making the right hire, while applicants walk away with better knowledge for making an informed employment decision.
I’ve had the opportunity to endure three all-day interviews, the first two with Apple and MSNBC and the last with my current employer. I now sit on the opposite end of the table, participating in these full-day escapades interviewing applicants for design positions (you knew we’re hiring, right?). All things considered, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about them there interviews, and below are a few tips for y’all walking into your first.
Relax, relax, relax. This is by far the best advice I can offer. If you can stay relaxed, you’ll remain more focused, you’ll speak more clearly, you’ll present yourself more confidently. Fancy that, you might even enjoy the experience.
25% - Portfolio. As a creative director during the dotcom boom, I used to hire solely on strength of portfolio. I wanted team members who could knock out killer designs, period. At the time, I didn’t fully understand there was more to a successful user experience than “killer design.” Great design yields meaningful communication, a process which requires adeptness in not only visual aesthetics, but also in human computing principles, problem solving, copywriting, and the like. All of this in addition to the other 75% that follows.
Oh, and another thing: Ask in advance about how you’ll be asked to show portfolio work. In one of the interviews, I showed portfolio work strictly with printed screen grabs. In another, I showed live web samples broadcast on a projector. And in another, I showed no work at all, crazy as it sounds.
25% - Creative thinking. Brace yourself for this. In two of three interviews I was asked to stand and whiteboard wireframes, diagrams, and the like — all on the spot with no preparation beforehand. It was quite unnerving to be honest. But remain relaxed, inquire before diving into solutions, and you’ll probably do well. Probably.
In addition to whiteboarding, expect to be asked questions that test your mental acuity (i.e. brainteasers). You may be asked a question like this:
A light bulb is turned on by one of three switches. The light bulb is in an enclosed room with a single door and no windows. How do you determine which switch turns on the bulb if you can enter the room only once?
Or maybe something more mathematical:
Assuming infinite folding, how many times would you have to fold a phonebook in half to reach the moon?
The point here is not necessarily that you calculate an exact answer, but that you verbalize your process for understanding a problem, gathering information, and exploring possible solutions.
25% - Communication skills. Come prepared to explain how you articulate reasoning for the decisions you make, how you’ve engaged customers in conversation that exposes the needs and wants of their users, how you’ve interacted with team members on challenging projects, etc. Show that you possess not only artistic flair but the ability to foster great relationships.
25% - Team fit. I’ve seen “team fit” — how well you and the team jell — work both for and against applicants, irrespective of portfolio strength. Expect team members who interview you to be asking themselves, “Is this someone I can see myself working with? Someone I’d carpool with? Someone I’d hang with at SXSW?” Seeing the Happy Cog gang interact at AEA Boston was rather inspiring, as they exemplify a team that plays well together. There’s just something about team fit that fosters an environment conducive to getting stuff done. Best advice I can give here is to be yourself, have fun, and of course, relax.
Elevate your demeanor. Your attitude and engagement during the interview process is critical. Don’t feign enthusiasm, but rather remain positive and show interest in the persons interviewing you. Look directly at the eyes and remain confident as you deliver your responses. Ask direct questions. After all, you’re interviewing the company and its management as much as they’re interviewing you.
Good luck, friend. Knowing is half the battle. The other half, well… did I mention brainteasers?
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