Anatomy of Julie's Job Search: Interviewing
This post is part of a series. See the introduction for additional context and disclaimers.
Many steps of the job search involve interviewing. I wrote about some of them in my post about the screening phase of my job search. This post is focused on the heavier set of core interviews that are often referred to as an "onsite" because historically they involved coming into the office for a single, grueling day of interviewing. Nowadays, these are more often given remotely and spread across multiple days. I've heard several companies refer to this new variation as "virtual onsites."
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This is the most stressful part of the job search for me. It often involves long days of nerve-wracking interviews that leave you completely exhausted. By the time I get here, I am really interested in the potential jobs. This makes it a lot harder to follow my advice from earlier stages about staying calm by not getting overly invested. I try to get a little of that calm back through preparation and organization.
When these were truly on site interviews, you usually had to do a long, grueling day of interviewing, often after a flight and a poor night's sleep in a hotel. Even lunch is often part of the interview, so you don't get any down time to relax. I hate this approach because it does not set people up for success.
One of the very few benefits of the pandemic is that more companies are willing to do these interviews remotely, which provides more flexibility for a lot of people. For example, it makes it easier to spread the interviews across multiple days, so you can fit it into a busy schedule and get a breather between interviews. You can get a proper night's rest in your own bed!
One of the tricky bits about interviewing remotely is that it is easier for schedulers to accidentally make mistakes around time zones like forgetting to leave you a break for meals. I make sure to review schedules for these sorts of things and advocate for myself when I need adjustments. Nobody benefits from me attempting to live code while I'm hangry and need to pee because I had back-to-back interviews that didn't allow me to eat lunch or take a bio break.
I try to get as much information as I can about the panel of interviews, what they involve, and who I will be talking to while figuring out the schedule. This information may come from the recruiter, the hiring manager, the scheduler, or some combination thereof. This information enables me to prepare ahead of time, which helps me reduce stress and perform better during my interviews.
See my post about preparing for interviews for more detailed information about the kinds of interviews I often experience and how I prepare for them. In my recent experiences, the onsites included 4-8 hours of interviewing comprised of some combination of the following:
- Behavioral or discussion-based interview with the hiring manager or a stand-in for them (e.g. a peer engineering manager, a skip level).
- Technical interviews including a combination of:
interviews with people in a variety of roles, often including:
- Engineers I might work with
- People in partner roles (e.g. design, product, support)
- People in management that are not the hiring manager
- The day often ends with a more informal chat with the recruiter to talk about how things went, timeline, etc.
I use the template I created in the preparing stage to set up a place for taking notes during the interviews. This helps me keep track of all the people I will be talking to and the questions I want answered. I often tag specific questions for specific people in the interview panel based on who would be best to answer them (e.g. a designer might be best suited to tell me about collaboration between frontend devs and designers).
I will often look up a teeny bit of information about people I'm interviewing with, especially if I wasn't given much context. Usually just the basics you can get from LinkedIn like their role and title, so I have context for who they are and what we might discuss in an interview.
I do my best to get a good night's sleep before an interview. Sleep deprived Julie is not the best version of Julie, and interviews are stressful enough as it is. This is so much easier with virtual onsites where I can sleep in my own bed and avoid jet lag.
I make sure I have a relatively quiet space available with decent internet, headphones, and a microphone, so I can focus and communicate well with my interviewers. I regret the time I did not use headphones and my deaf, elderly cat screamed throughout an entire difficult coding interview like a terrible banshee who did not want me to have a job, so I could afford her vet care.
I set up my laptop to be in a good state to share my screen and collaborate if needed. I have a two screen setup, so I can keep notes and other information I do not want to share on my secondary screen. I make sure I have any necessary development environments set up for interviewing. Sometimes this means loading up the results of a technical take home. Sometimes it means setting up a skeleton project to work in during a live coding exercise.
I make sure I have a few beverages on hand to stay hydrated and caffeinated. Taking a sip of a drink gives you an opportunity to briefly pause to collect yourself, if you need it. I do my best to make sure I have space for bio breaks, so I do not suffer any bladder-related consequences for over-hydrating.
I usually let the interviewer know I have a second monitor I'm taking notes on, so it is clear why I am typing or looking to the right during our time together. If there are any risks of interruptions (e.g. there was some risk of a power outage in Oregon this week because of wildfires), I will warn the interviewers ahead of time.
I do my best to stay calm and keep my cool during interviews. I am not always successful at this (see prior story about the screaming cat). This is one of those areas where I don't have a lot of helpful insight into how I do this because it's a skill I've slowly built over decades. I suspect the work I did around public speaking is a big factor because it also requires keeping your calm while performing for an audience. At the end of the day, that's really what interviews are. A performance to prove that you're telling the truth on your resume and will be good at your job.
One of my weaknesses in interviewing is talking a lot, so I do my best to keep an eye on time, try not to ramble too much, and give interviewers a chance to move on to another question. My interviews often run long, so I think there's still work I could do to improve here.
One of my mixed features in interviewing is a bit of meta-interviewing because I have experience on the other side. This often looks like me asking if someone got the signal they needed or digging into the question behind a question before answering. Some interviewers love this because I'm helping them get what they need. Other interviewers find this annoying because it can feel like I'm trying to game the interview. I get more positive than negative responses to it, so I think it's mostly a useful thing. I do my best to get a read on the interviewer and scale it back if they don't like it.
I take a lot of notes during interviews, especially when learning anything about the company, team, role, etc. that might impact my interest in working there. This helps me ensure I have all the information I need when making decisions at the end of my process without relying on the fallibility of human memory.
I try to spend a little time debriefing shortly after interviews while everything is still fresh in my mind. This usually involves a combination of reviewing the notes I took during interviews, cleaning them up, and adding any additional context that I think is useful. I will also summarize my general sentiment about the job based on what I learned.
I will evaluate if there are any important questions about the role that were not answered. If so, I will reach out to the recruiter or hiring manager to see if they can be answered via email or in a follow-up discussion.
In the past, you were expected to send "thank you" cards/emails/whatever, but this has largely fallen out of favor in our field, so I don't tend to do it anymore. However, if I am super excited about the role, I will send a brief email to the hiring manager or recruiter communicating how excited I am about the team and that I look forward to hearing back from them. In most cases, I will wait to hear from the recruiter to hear how things went and if they want to move forward with an offer.
Why it works for me
This is probably the part of the process where I have the most in common with everyone else. Interviews stress me out and make me anxious just like many other people. They are easier than they were earlier in my career because of practice and experience, but I still do not like doing them. The biggest benefit I have is the scale I keep referencing. My anxiety is reduced a little bit knowing that if I mess up this interview, I have other options.
Interviewing while unemployed gives me a lot more flexibility in my schedule for interviewing. I don't have to worry about burning vacation days or cramming them in between meetings at work.
I am lucky enough to have a relatively quiet space in my apartment where I can do interviews largely uninterrupted (screaming cats notwithstanding). Our bedroom doubles as my office, so it isn't ideal, but it's a better setup than many people have. It does force me to be extra mindful of making the bed and keeping laundry neat because they're in the background of my calls.
Takeaways for job searchers
You are not alone in finding interviews stressful. They suck. If I had to pick a single takeaway from this entire set of posts, it would probably be "job searching sucks," and interviews are a huge part of that.
Identify things that help you focus and reduce stress during interviews. This will look different for everyone. For me, even small things like having a cool drink to sip on and something to fidget with can help me keep my cool a little bit. This isn't magic, and it doesn't make me not anxious, but even taking things down a few notches really does help.
Be prepared. It looks good to the interviewers and can help you feel more confident and reduce stress.
Takeaways for employers
Be thoughtful when scheduling interviews for candidates. Are you giving them enough time to do things like go to the bathroom, eat lunch, take medications, and attend to other personal needs? Some candidates may be anxious about pushing back on schedules that do not account for these things and will not be able to perform their best during interviews as a result.
Be respectful of the time of both the candidates and your team members. Long, full day interviews are A LOT for everyone. Focus on what you really need signal on to make a good hire, and try to get it in half a day.
Be clear with candidates ahead of time about the interview schedule, including who they will be meeting with, when, and what the interview topics will be. This helps candidates know what they're going into and prepare ahead of time. This is critical if you expect them to have anything set up ahead of time for technical interviews.
Takeaways for people who want to hire me
Expect me to take notes on a second screen during the interview process. This is what is happening if you can hear me typing on my mechanical keyboard (I have silent reds, so hopefully you can't hear it too much) or see me looking to the right at my second screen.
Expect me to dig a little into what you want signal on in an interview. I'm not trying to cheat and game the interview. I'm trying to understand what information is important to you, so that I can provide it to help you make a decision about hiring.
Leave me time to ask questions. Interviewing goes both ways, and I want to learn what I am signing up for, so I can evaluate the job against what I am looking for.