“Tell me about yourself” in Software Engineer Interviews

Written By John Sonmez

This is one behavioral question in developer interviews you must prepare for – because it’s asked in 99% of cases.

“Tell me about yourself”. The HORROR of a question. Open-ended, subjective, no official answer…

In this article, we’ll dive into how you can answer it in the most powerful way.

“Tell me about yourself” is your first opening into interviewers’ minds. Use it to your advantage.

If you do it right, you’ll be able to guide the rest of your interview based on your answer to this first question.

Let’s start with your self-introduction “Don’ts”

You don’t want to start off your interview as a rambling mess. So think about this question a bit before your interview.

Avoid these mistakes when answering, and maximize the chance you’ll be judged favorably.

  • Don’t rattle off buzzwords. For every adjective you use for yourself, be prepared with some real-life anecdotes.
  • Don’t ramble. This isn’t the time to talk about your entire life story or restate your resume. Don’t give unnecessary info. Don’t bore them to sleep.
  • Don’t self-deprecate. Yes, you should be human. But oversharing or harping on your weaknesses isn’t the way.
  • Don’t say your goals are “money” or “to move to that city.” They want to hire someone who is driven by something higher than that.

Use Your Answer to Make Yourself Memorable to the Interviewer

“Tell me about yourself” boils down to “What do you want the interviewer to remember about you?”

You’ll want to give a compelling answer that makes them buy in to you as a capable, interesting candidate, and see a positive potential future with you in front of their eyes.

But how do you do that?

Your 3-Chapter Software Engineering Backstory (& How to Tell it)

As we’ve said: We don’t want to bore the interviewer with our answer – we want to peak their curiosity and make them excited about where we come from & where we want to go.

For this, you can tell your life as a compelling story (because that’s what it is).

To give this kind of life to your answer, you can use a simple 3-part storytelling formula:

  1. The Beginning: How it all started – and what led you to take this path in the first place
  2. The Middle: Highlights and insights of your journey
  3. The End: How it all fits with the job you’re interviewing for

When crafting your answer, keep asking yourself this scriptwriting question:

“How does this progress the story?”

If it doesn’t progress the story, it’s not useful.

Just like a movie character, we have a story, too. And we’re trying to convey that story to an audience as persuasively as we can. 

1. Your Origin Story (setting the scene, introducing the characters, adding backstory)

This is where you paint a quick picture of your background, what defines you as a person, and how that led you to get your start in tech.

You don’t want to drag this part out for too long.

It’s “setting the stage” for the defining moment: The moment it was revealed to you that this is your calling, and you want to spend all your energy on it.

The defining moment

This moment is what triggered you to say:

“This is what I want to do with my life”.

It set the direction for your career. It’s where you consciously chose this path for yourself.

Nobody wants to hire someone without direction. But if you can illuminate this defining moment and decision for your interviewer, you’ll stick out as someone who’s determined, on the path, and set to achieve more great things in his life.

It’s a great quality to show off in an interview.

2. Your journey until this point in your career

After the defining moment, you can start going into some detail about:

  • What your career has been like so far: What have you been doing since that fire was created in you?
  • What important things you’ve learned
  • What you’ve achieved and created
  • Which individual strengths you were able to display
  • How you stayed inspired along the way
  • What the journey set you up to do (at their company, possibly?)

One interviewer put it this way:

“This part of the interview is me trying to give you an opportunity to sell yourself. Tell me about projects, lessons learned, goals within the field, real world examples of skills, anything that tells me you are right for the job.”

Having learned the employer’s pain points, it's easy to answer the question about yourself by describing (in detail) how you solved similar problems at your previous projects.

In short, you were born and trained all your life to solve those exact problems.

3. The culmination: Using everything you’ve learned to do big things at their company

This part of your story is all about painting a promising picture in their head: A picture of you being of service to their company.

The interviewer is asking: “help me understand who you are today, as it relates to this position.”

Your answers should be framed accordingly.

Alex Rogachevsky, CTO at LionStack, gave the following tip:

“Press the interviewer’s pleasure buttons, the most important of which is eliminating the “pain points”. You're being hired to solve some problem.”

And you’re uniquely qualified to be able to do that – because of everything that you’ve done so far on your journey. Remember to focus on experiences or skills that the interviewer will find relevant for the position you’re interviewing for.

If you can convincingly describe how it all led to this moment, and how your experience will help them solve important problems, you’ll have your interviewer intrigued, and bought in to your story.

When it comes time to judge your interview, he’ll remember how he felt about how you laid out this story.

Software Engineer Self introduction examples

To make it more practical, let's look at some examples of how people are using this framework to convey their career story in a way that's interesting and pulls the interviewer in.

Career Shifter Example – Jaclyn Ling, CEO of Hatchways

Let's say you studied Psychology, but are now interested in working at a tech startup. You've been programming for about a year.

“When I was growing up, I was always fascinated by human behavior, and learning about why people do what they do.

But during my studies and internships, I realized Psychology was a lot more theoretical, and not actually executionary.

And so I still really appreciated learning about people, but using it in order to build something that improves the lives of others.

So I wanted to look for something that was a lot more executionary. That’s when I discovered programming – I did it as one of my elective courses in school – and I absolutely fell in love with it.

The ability to build something and actually see the result right away was magical to me.

So over the last few years, I’ve been working on building up my web development skills. Something I love about it is I can build web projects that help people solve the problems they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.

What I’ve learned both from my Psychology degree, but also my time spent programming, is doing impactful work.”

Senior Developer Self Introduction – Pen Magnet, Programmer with 20+ years experience

“I chose to study Electronics because I was interested in circuits during my childhood. Also, I heard learning Electronics could enable one to program computers – they were a luxury in those days!

In company X as senior developer, I led a team of 4 developers who handled payment microservice of our retail website. We were in charge of CRUD operations for all transactions – checkouts, refunds, tax withholding.

I also optimized several functions and reduced average execution time / CPU utilization / memory utilization by 60%.”

Social Media Developer Example

“I got started programming because I wanted to build a social network for cats.

That didn’t take off, but the prototype helped me get a job at a small tech company in my home town.

Last month, I read an awesome article on Hacker News about the social network your company is building. The scaling challenges you face seem like they’ll help me grow faster and stronger than my current role will.”

Conclusion

I haven't been in any interview where this question was not asked. It’s pretty much guaranteed.

You might as well ace it.