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How important is the NON technical interview?

Nočnica Fee
Actually the pug from Dune (1984)
・3 min read

Cover image by ROVOLUTION FILM, available via CC Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

When applying for a programming job, the technical interview is probably forefront in your mind. However, at some point in almost any interview, you’ll be asked to “tell me about a time when…”. So: how important is it to study for that section of an interview, versus the technical? Why do employers care about “a time when”, as long as you can demonstrate that you know how to do the job now?

The obvious answer, of course, is that they have to figure out if they’ll be able to stand working with you. For better or for worse, employers now have their pick of qualified developers, and so soft skills matter in selling yourself as an employee. Any good hiring manager will want to know how you’d fit in with their team. While a strong behavioral interview won’t save you if your skills aren’t up to par, a bad behavioral interview could kill an otherwise promising candidate’s shot.

This might seem silly at first. After all, if you’re a high performer, isn’t it worth having you anyway? But consider that people’s performance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Being able to take criticism well, communicate clearly with others, and resolve conflicts affably can make the difference between high skill level in the abstract and real high performance. There are plenty of horror stories about the “high performing” employee whose bad behavior renders them virtually useless. So it’s worth paying attention to how your personality comes across to a potential employer.

The good news is that while the behavioral questions might sound abstract, they’re pretty much all getting at the same thing: what is it like to be your colleague, or your manager? The bad news is that there’s no one size fits all answer to behavioral questions--at least, not if your hiring manager is smart. Different teams have different work styles and personalities on them already, and a good hiring manager is looking not for some ideal candidate, but for someone who will gel well with the existing team.

With that in mind, it’s worth doing a few things to prepare for a behavioral interview. The first is to brush up on the typical questions, and variants on those questions, that you’re likely to be asked. There’s a number of useful guides to common behavioral interview questions online; this guide even offers a handy spreadsheet to fill with your anecdotes that relate to some of the most common ones.

The next thing to do is to figure out as much as you can about the position you’re applying for and the existing team. This serves two purposes: it helps you prepare to give answers that will make sense for that team, and it’ll also give you a sense of whether that team is one you actually want to work on. While the job market is certainly asymmetrical, it’s worth vetting a potential employer just as they’re vetting you. If you’re a detail oriented worker who likes to take your time, you might not feel at home on a team that moves fast and is judgy about more methodical approaches. On a team like that you might feel alienated, and your accomplishments might not carry the same weight, which can affect your overall career.

Finally, you should think about stories that illustrate what the benefits are of having you on the team. Just as your resume should reflect your accomplishments, so should your behavioral answers. They should show people what’s great about you specifically.

Finally: if you comb through your list of “times when” and start to suspect that you are a high-performing asshole, it’s certainly worth trying to make a change, especially if you want to pursue new job opportunities. Going to your manager and proactively laying out a plan for improving your soft skills would make a great anecdote for a behavioral interview.

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