Can you pretend to be normal for up to two hours?

Every company sucks at interviewing. Plenty of companies (and individuals at companies) think they’re really really good at interviewing, but mostly they’ve just gotten lucky.

You’re never going to learn in a 2 to 12 hour interview programme what it’ll be like to sit next to someone day to day, share large bodies of work with someone, or rely on someone in a professional context.

In fact, there’s very little you can learn about during an interview.

What you can learn about a candidate during an interview

Can they:

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  • Maintain a façade of normality for at least a few hours?
  • Have a technical discussion – while on their absolute best behaviour – where they respectfully listen to the other person’s opinion?
  • Answer questions about the skills they claim to have experience with?
  • Present some evidence of their experience with those same skills?

and … do you like them, basically?


And therefore, as a candidate, you have some very very simple and straightforward goals while being interviewed:

  • Provide evidence of having used those tools you claim experience with
  • Try and not be too weird for a few hours
  • Don’t shout at the interviewer
  • Make yourself appear likeable

Much of the content on this site is about providing evidence of your technical skills, and acing the technical part of an interview, so let’s quickly go over how to not appear to weird for a few hours.

Bad weird, good weird

I’ve been programming since I was 6, took time off from high school to speak at technical conferences, and have been commercially employed as a programmer since I was 18. Being a bit weird as a programmer goes with the territory, and everyone involved in the hiring process knows this. Weird is OK.

But there’s also bad weird, which is less OK. Bad weird is you cause messes that line management and HR need to clear up, and cause other people to do more work, less enjoyably, as a result of your being employed.

Wearing Vibram Toe Shoes and having a sub-dermal magnet are par-for-the-course weird, and may well endear you to future employers and coworkers. Turning up 40m late for the interview in shorts and a t-shirt and starting the interview with a small lecture about how you’re not going to accept payment in “unconstitutional fiat so-called money” is bad weird.

Signs that you might be bad weird

Unwillingness to put up with small amounts of corporate bullshit

The nature of companies includes small amounts of corporate bullshit. Sometimes large amounts of corporate bullshit, but generally small amounts. Examples of corporate bullshit at my last real job:

  • Marketing insisted on a photo of all employees on the website
  • HR insisted on using a terrible system for booking holidays
  • Finance insisted on a weekly timesheet for developers breaking down how many days were spent on each project

Some small companies do manage to do away with corporate bullshit entirely, and some larger companies try really hard to pretend they do (and then it leaks out in the form of structure-less management or unlimited holiday days that aren’t), but you’re going to face some degree of it almost everywhere.

And some employees will spend a lot of time and energy complaining to their immediate line manager — who’s usually empowered to do precisely nothing about it — about it. It’ll come up at every weekly review, it’ll come up in response to mandatory security training, it’ll come up at every team meeting. And it’s a huge waste of everyone’s time.

Side note: some things are absolutely worth shouting about over and over again to anyone who’ll listen: discrimination in the workplace, genuine health-and-safety issues, abusive relationships in the workplace / bullying. Notably not on that list is “the holiday booking system is cumbersome”

However technically gifted you are, it’s entirely possible to be a net negative to a team through constantly complaining and arguing about virtually everything. These people exist, and your interviewer does not want to hire them.

Employers won’t explicitly ask you if you recognize that there are rules in a workplace, and if you accept that you’ll have to put up with a small amount of corporate bullshit, but they will:

  • Make a note of if you’ve shown up to their interview looking like you’re going to a business meeting, rather than with baggy shorts and a ripped t-shirt
  • Be concerned if you’re late to the interview
  • Look unfavorably on your spending an hour complaining about how your last employer wouldn’t let you run a Tor relay in the data center

    Inability to avoid (technical) arguments even while on your best behaviour

    An interview is your opportunity to sell yourself to a potential employer. You’re expected to know this, and act accordingly. *Your behaviour in the interview is expected to be your best behaviour*. If you can’t last two hours without getting into a petty and pointless technical argument, being condescending to your interviewers or throwing your toys out the pram because you were asked an algorithms questions, that’s a bad sign that you’re going to be a real pain to work with and manage.

    I suspect the people who passed on this guy:

    … probably don’t regret it, having read the tweet.

    I’ve been asked some truly shockingly poor quality questions in interviews by some truly bizarre interviewers, but it’s a mistake to try and read too much into a company simply because one of the people the hiring manager picked to interview you has a favourite algorithms question he likes to ask to make himself feel intelligent.

    I was an interviewer once where a co-interviewer asked our candidate — in all seriousness — which the better band of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was, and was expecting a serious answer. No deeply meaningful information about the company, work environment, or role, was passed on in that moment. It was a misguided rephrase of a (more interesting) product management question.

    Looking a little confused and asking follow-up questions makes you look like you at least know what being a compassionate, understanding, and thoughtful coworker looks like, and can pretend to be one when you need to be. Getting defensive and asking aggressively what relevance that question has to the job — while you’re meant to be on your best behaviour — just makes you look like an ass.

    A skillful technical interviewer will ask your questions that are a matter of opinion, and then challenge you politely on your opinion. The correct answer is explaining how you came to your answer, and to show an ability to understand that other opinions can exist, and that most technical decisions have trade-offs.

    You will almost certainly also meet bad interviewers with poor quality questions, but you’ll still be judged on your ability to keep your cool, make the best of the situation, and not berate your interviewer for wasting your time…

    Deep-seated and poorly hidden anger about previous coworkers and employers

    I’ve worked places I didn’t enjoy, and I’ve worked with people I hope I’ll never see again. I’ve interviewed places because I was desperate to get out of the toxic environment I was working in.

    And you’ll often get asked about these in interviews:

    “Why are you moving on from your current employer?”

    “Describe a difficult situation with a coworker, and how you recovered from it”

    These are a great opportunity to show how you’re like Rocky, and how you’re on a journey that included overcoming adversity with an open heart, rather than how you’re like the guy from Silence of the Lambs, and will carry your employment trauma with you forever to the detriment of those around you.

    This bit’s really important, so it’s in bold: under no circumstances make disparaging comments about your current company, as the interviewer has no way to know that you’re not the problem you are describing. Plus, if you can’t show you have the social skills not to trash the last company you worked for, that’s a big red flag, and you’ll look like an HR liability.

    Safer answers are specific things that you’d like to see in a new role, couched with an understanding for why things were how they were in the old role, eg:

    Is the codebase of your last company literally a festering sore that’s burned into your retinas? How about:

    “Much of my last employer’s codebase was built to try and satisfy customers and get the product to market as quickly as possible, and obviously corners had to be cut in order to achieve that. However, for me the trade-off was a little too far, and I’d like to work somewhere that considered code quality to be an important attribute in its own right”

    Was your last boss a control-freak who’d check your commits out of source-control if he didn’t like the indenting? How about:

    “In my last role there was a very strong technical hierarchy, and there wasn’t always an opportunity to engage in technical discussions about the right way to solve problems. I appreciate that you can’t always do everything the way you want to, but I believe I’d enjoy a workplace where I had more freedom to bring my skills to bear”

    Your goals, in summary

    Interviews are not a good way to find out how good a coworker will be, but they can give you a pretty good read on some of the soft-skills. You are trying to not eliminate yourself by showing you at least understand those soft-skills exist, even if you’re not a master of them.

    In particular:

    • Try and not be too weird for a few hours
    • Don’t shout at the interviewer
    • Make yourself appear likeable

    Good luck with not being bad weird…

All done?

I'll email you once a fortnight with a summary of anything new I've written, and also send you the free How to write a developer resume that'll get you hired e-book.

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Peter is a former developer and CTO turned recruiter who wants to demystify the recruitment process so that developers can find jobs and get paid more.

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