3 things to avoid at your next coding interview

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I have interviewed a fair number of potential programmers during my years and have turned many of them down for various reasons. There are quite a number of reasons to be honest. And after some thought, I can summarize those down to 3 main pain points. Note there are many reasons as to why you might get passed up for a job and much of this will depend on where you are trying to work and your current skill level.

I'll say this, I myself have been guilty of these things particularly early on in my job searching career. You don't know what you don't know. But I personally used each 'no' as a chance to better improve my overall skill. Because you only need one 'yes' in the larger picture.

So follow along, take notes, and do your best to avoid the following during your next coding interview.

1. Not bringing your work

It is a rare blue moon when someone brings me something tangible to look at in terms of their work portfolio. On average most of my interviews with potential candidates last around 20-30 minutes. This is not up to me. Most companies have interview procedures in place that the interviewers must follow. And roughly a 20-30 minute time limit seems to be the sweet spot at most companies that I have worked for. And while that may seem like an eternity to you, it is but a blink of an eye when considering that you are not the first candidate that has been interviewed more than likely.

After those 20-30 minutes, I will do my best to paint a picture of your overall skills and to summarize why you either are a fit, or why you are a pass. This is why bringing your work is so important. I can bombard you with questions on college-level algorithms for the entire duration of the interview, such as Bubble Sorts and Binary Search Tree's, in which case you either nail it, or you miss the mark and look unqualified. Or we can talk about your past work, which is tangible and which showcases what you actually do in fact know.

I've written about this in the past, and how some of my best interviews have mainly come from me bringing a printed copy of my work portfolio to share with interviewers. And even going as far as to putting it in a relatively "fancy" folder and letting them keep it for reference. It's difficult to throw away a nice folder and so more than likely it will sit on someone's desk for some time. How do I know? because people brought me killer portfolios in the past and it stayed on my desk gathering dust for some time.

And if you want to really impress, bring a laptop, a hotspot connection and a pre-loaded tab of your work and make it a point to show it. It's 2020. Bring your laptop. Cut the person off early on and let them know that you brought samples of your work that you wish to share with them.

2. Don't say "I don't know"

It is perfectly fine (and human) to not know the answer to every question man has known. But saying "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" has a negative connotation to it, implying that your skill isn't up to par with the level of question being asked. And while most people will forgive 1 or 2 "I don't know's", any more than that and your chances of working at this particular company are relatively low.

Instead of answering in such negative terms, try answering in a way that implies that you haven't encountered that type of issue just yet. Or be honest and give a further explanation as to why that particular topic is out of your understanding. This is also mainly out of courtesy to the person that is interviewing you. They want to like you. They really do. It makes their job alot easier. So for every "I don't know" you will probably hear a "Oh, that's quite alright, no worries".

I was once asked to explain what a bizarre acronym that I had never encountered meant. I asked the person to repeat it, just to reiterate the fact that indeed, this was brand new to my vocabulary. After the 3rd time of them repeating it, I gave in and admitted that I had never heard of this acronym. But instead of letting it go, I inquired what it was referring to.

"Can I ask what that stands for actually, very curious now?"

And low and behold the person answered my question. They actually read the answer from their sheet of questions. Turns out they had no idea either.Sometimes these questions get pushed to interviewers by the companies that they work for and they have as much limited knowledge on these topics as anybody else.

We laughed at the fact and continue on amicably. It was a solid rest of the interview for the most part. I didn't get an offer at this particular job, but I also didn't stress out or have any type of anxiety either.

3. Not standing out

If you really want the job, and I mean really want it, you need to stand out somehow. You might be the best candidate that I have seen all day. Until that next candidate shows up, tells me a joke and vanquishes you from my memory. This happens all the time. I still remember people that I interviewed years ago because of some specific thing that they did to stand out. And there's a giant list of people that have vanished from my memory. More have vanished than have stayed.

How do you stand out, you might be thinking? Don't start to fight yourself in the middle of the room, ala Fight Club style. Or wear a colorful tie with cats on it. I would hope you wouldn't anyhow. Stand out in a positive way that showcases your overall strength. I mean your personal strength, not the expected "I get the job done always" spiel that many folks bring.

One of the best methods that I have found to be remembered and to stand out is to tell a story worth remembering. Historically, this is how humans have flourished throughout the generations. You never hear the story of the person that sat on thy couch and ate of potatoes. But you remember the warrior that lifted the majestic hammer that toppled armies with a single swing. Tell that kind of story.

You might be thinking that you have no such story to tell. And I can assure you right now, that if you were to look back at your own tale being told so far, you have plentiful stories to share. Some you might never have told to anyone because you found them to be irrelevant or too personal. Well, it is time to dust off those tales and to give new life to them. Let them be the catalyst that will launch your new career. Tell the story with vigor, as if you were reliving it. And I assure you, that you won't be forgotten or at a minimum, you will sit on someone's desk for a few extra days.

Here is a tale worth telling of how I landed my very first programming job for your reading pleasure.

And there you have it. 3 things that you can improve upon during your next coding interview in order to land that next job.

Happy interviewing!

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