How to Ace a Non-Technical Interview
In my experience, developers often overlook the non-technical interview.
I've been the company culture guy during quite a few interviews. The task is simply to answer one question: “Is this person a good fit for our team?” Some have been great, and others have flopped.
What do top developers do to ensure they’re hired?
Where the Typical Interview Process Goes Wrong
So I've been asked to give an interview and ended up with a technical genius. This person was brilliant and breezed through all our technical questions.
Whiteboarding? No problem! They even knew the company’s stack inside and out.
Basically, they Cracked The Coding Interview.
You would think we brought them on board ASAP, right?
Well, there was one big problem. They botched the non-technical interview. They were poorly dressed, arrogant, and didn’t answer questions directly.
We are starting to see a trend where developers spend so much time dreading the coding interview that they undervalue the need to be personable.
As a result, we must often send an offer to someone with less technical ability but better soft skills.
The vast majority of developers interviewed do not receive job offers. We want to make sure that non-technical interview questions don’t stop you from landing your dream job.
The Goal of a Non-Tech Interview
When you interview with a company, you're asking to be a part of their team.
Yes, we are all professional here, but teams work better when everyone gets along.
When it comes to predicting the success of a great team, the most important element is how well the team communicates during informal meetings.
Think about it from the company’s point of view. Hiring a great developer is extremely valuable, but a bad hire can cost the company even more money.
The right developer isn’t just someone who knows algorithms; it’s someone who communicates effectively and knows what it means to be part of a team.
So before a company sends out an offer letter, they’ll ask you some non-technical questions, too.
The point of a non-technical interview is to try and see if you fit in. It's an attempt to weed out bad apples and see if personalities mesh.
Simply from the fact that you read this blog, I'm going to assume that you have a personality and that it’s amazing. If not, having no personality can be your personality. Either way, seriously, just be yourself.
How you present yourself can be just as important as your skill set. In the end, if they don't like you for you, then maybe it just wasn't meant to be.
When to Expect a Non-Technical Interview and How to be Successful
Though your soft skills are always being judged, there are three common scenarios when behavioral questions will be the main focus.
1 – During the Recruiter Call:
This is normally your first contact with the company. I like to think of it as the “make sure this guy isn't crazy” interview.
The recruiter will attempt to understand whether or not your background aligns with the company's need. This is also a good time for you to feel out if the job is something you would enjoy doing.
Tip: Know your audience. Don't overwhelm the recruiter with technical detail. If this interview is done over the phone, stand up and smile as you talk. It makes a big difference in how you come across to the recruiter without the aid of visual cues.
2 – When Interviewing with the Hiring Manager:
This interview can happen before or after a round of technical-focused talks.
The hiring manager has problems, and is looking for someone to solve them. You want to show that you can be the person to help. They’ll also be your manager if you accept the job, so it’s important to make a good impression. The hiring manager knows the most about the job. This is a good opportunity to find out what would be expected from you if you accept.
Tip: It is important to emote a can-do attitude, even when you don't know the answer. Don't be afraid to say you don't know, and instead, outline how you would go about finding the answer.
3 – When Interviewing Someone from Another Team
Someone from another team could be a project manager, a tester, another developer, the hiring manager's boss, or even the CEO if the company's small enough.
This is a great time to indicate how you would get along with other team members. It’s also a good opportunity to show how you would be a good cultural fit.
Either way, you’ll be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, because this is typically one of the final interviews.
Tip: Be confident and ask questions. This shows interest in the company.
What Are Companies Looking for?
Getting an offer doesn’t just hinge on your coding skills. There are a few other things that your interviewer will be looking for.
I call these the 4 P’s:
- Problem-Solving Ability – You can bring up your problem-solving abilities by talking about the problems you’ve solved in the past. This doesn’t have to be a work-related problem. You can also talk about things you’ve done in side projects.
- Passion for the Company – You can show your passion by asking knowledgeable questions, or by showing enthusiasm for the business during the interview.
- Passion for Technology – You can show a passion for technology by explaining side projects you’ve worked on or talk about the things you’re learning on the side.
- Personable Presentation – This is not just about how you look, but is also seen through your attitude and demeanor. I’m not saying you have to be an extrovert—you just want to put your best foot forward.
At the end of the day, it boils down to how you can communicate the value you bring to the company.
How to Answer ANY Behavioral Interview Questions
The Internet is filled with content like “10 Non-Technical Interview Questions You Must Know,” or “Top 15 Must-Prepare Behavioral Questions.”
If you try to memorize answers to every possible question, you're setting yourself up for failure.
To succeed, you'll need a system for tackling any behavioral question that comes your way.
Enter the CAT!
I'm not telling you to bring a cat into your next interview, although that would be memorable.
CAT is an acronym that stands for Circumstance, Action, and Takeaway.
C – Circumstance
A – Actions
T – Takeaway
Whenever you’re asked a typical behavioral question, you should structure a response using CAT.
Start off by talking about a circumstance you were in, then explain the actions you took to solve the issue, and finally describe your takeaway from the whole experience.
This structure will help you avoid becoming a rambling mess when answering behavioral questions. It also helps an interviewer clearly see what you did in a certain situation and what the results were. With this information, they can determine if your skills fill a hole in the company culture and if you are suited to solving some of their problems.
How to Prepare
For the less technical aspects of an interview, you need to be able to do three things.
- Answer questions about your prior projects with examples.
- Understand the company so you can honestly express why you want the gig, and effectively explain why hiring you will add value.
- You need to have the ability to ask interesting questions that demonstrate your interest and passion.
Questions will typically be behavioral, which you can answer using the CAT model.
For CAT to work effectively, it helps to come prepared with a few circumstances in mind beforehand.
So take some time to think of a few challenges you’ve faced during other projects, how you handled them, and what you learned.
The One Question Everyone Will Ask You During an Interview
There’s one non-technical interview question that I recommend you memorize an answer for.
This is the “tell me about yourself” question.
It’s fair to say that you’ll likely be asked this question 100% of the time you go in an interview, but I’m just going to say 99% of the time to be safe.
You don’t want to start off your interview as a rambling mess, so come up with a few lines to say BEFORE the interview. This isn’t the time to talk about your entire life story or reread your resume. Instead, it’s a great time to talk about why you’re the right one for the job and how you can help the interviewer.
Another acronym I like to use is NFL, which stands for Now, Former, Later. First start off with the things you’re working on now. Then talk about something you’ve done at a former job or project. Finish up with goals you would like to accomplish later with this given opportunity. Just remember to focus on experiences or skills that the interviewer will find relevant for the position you’re interviewing for.
I have not been in any interview where this question was not asked. It’s pretty much guaranteed. You might as well ace it.
You May be Able to Avoid Interviews Altogether
Interviews normally start and end with soft skills. John Sonmez has literally written the book on soft skills for developers.
It’s possible to be offered a job by building connections with an interviewer and skipping the interview process altogether. Now that’s the ultimate non-technical interview hack. You can check it out here.
Can an Interviewer Truly Know You After a Short Conversation?
Probably not, but the non-technical interview is the best time to show that you can become a member of the team.
If you apply the methods I’ve suggested, you’ll be more prepared for any behavioral interview question that comes your way.
Remember to be confident, honest, and never be afraid to be yourself.
What is your non-technical interview strategy? Let me know in the comments below.
For the full lowdown on progressing your career, check out our Simple Programmer course: How to Market Yourself as a Software Developer.