“An ethically challenging situation?” I asked as the grouchy barista interviewing me to work at a certain coffee shop we all know flipped through a book of corporate interview questions.
I squinted up at her through my foggy 5am contact lenses and scoured my brain for something—ANYTHING—to say to her.
“Um…can you be more specific?”
She didn’t hire me.
I’m sure you’ve been there—sitting in an interview with sweat trickling down your back and feeling like everything you say is all wrong.
And if you’re new to an industry, job interviews can be even trickier to navigate. If you just learned to code, for example, and you’re applying for your first job in tech, you aren’t just dealing with run-of-the-mill interview jitters. Your brain is going through a hamster wheel of questions:
“What if they see right through me?”
“What do they want me to say?”
“What if I look ridiculous?”
All that stress makes it too easy to blurt out everything that comes into your mind. (I speak from experience. In that same interview, I told the coffee shop manager I’m not a natural morning person. ::facepalm::)
Even though it might seem like an insurmountable task, it is totally possible to nail your first job interview in tech and walk out feeling like you put your best foot forward.
The first step? Figuring out what NOT to say. Interviews are hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot every time you fill an awkward silence!
Here are the top 13 things you should never say in a tech job interview, and tips for what to say instead:
1. “What do you do here?”
Even though it might feel like harmless small talk to start off the interview by asking about the hiring manager’s role, if you want to start off on the right foot, you should do your research in advance.
Before you go into the interview, find out about the hiring manager’s role at the company and be prepared to ask her specific questions, like “Do you work primarily with X or Y?” and “Would I be working with you directly on projects?” Don’t be afraid to do a little “Google stalking”!
2. “I’ll do anything you want me to do!”
If the interviewer has done her research, at some point she’ll ask you about your personal goals. She’ll say something like, “What is your dream role at this company?” “What kind of work do you want to do for us?” or “Where do you see yourself this time next year?”
While saying you’ll “do anything” might show how you eager you are, it doesn’t make you seem very focused or committed. Show that you have personal goals and motivation and tell the TRUTH! Do you want to be working on Ruby code? Do you want to be managing a team of developers? Unless you want to be a tour guide in Rome next year, share your dreams! Companies want to hire employees who are self-motivated.
3. “I specialize in iterating through agile workflows on a lean product team with optimized scalability.”
Wha? You might as well have just said, “Jargony jargon jargons—jargon jargoned.” While you should definitely loop in important terms and mention real examples of software, code languages, and processes you’re familiar with, it’s more important to show that you understand how to communicate about technical concepts than to use them all in a sentence.
And remember: a hiring manager is interviewing you to do a job the company needs help with. They might need you to bring expertise to the team—you are the problem-solver. Be careful not to alienate the hiring manager with fancy words.
4. “I hated my work in ____.”
This one is particularly important if you’re coming into tech from another field. Even if working in HR sucked the life out of you, you shouldn’t necessarily share that with your interviewer. Instead, talk about all the things you’ve learned in your career, and how they give you that “special sauce” when it comes to working on a tech team. Maybe your history in customer service means you can keep a cool head when a client is stressed out. Or maybe your work as a nurse means you’re willing to put in long hours when you have to.
And rather than emphasizing why you’re leaving your old career, let your passion for tech shine through. Tell them why you’re so set on getting involved in the digital world.
5. “I know I’m a beginner, but…”
Often, the biggest difference between a brand new coder and one with a few years of experience under her belt is confidence. It makes sense. As a beginner, you’re convinced that you just don’t know enough. But once you’ve been in tech for a year or so, you start to realize something: everyone in tech is learning all the time! If you don’t know how to do something, you know exactly how to handle it—by practicing until you get it.
So don’t use your beginner status as an excuse in the interview. Instead, emphasize how excited you are to start working on those new skills, and showcase the projects you’ve already created with fresh new coding skills.
6. “I don’t know how to do that.”
Just like it’s best not to stress the fact that you’re a beginner, you also shouldn’t focus on what you don’t know how to do. Rather than saying, “I don’t know how to build jQuery plugins,” try, “I loved installing and customizing jQuery plugins on my personal website, and I would love to work on from-scratch plugins here at this company.”
7. “I’ll ask my boss.”
Just like that goofy question about “an ethically challenging situation” that I got at my coffee house interview, there are a couple standards you’re probably going to hear at a tech job interview, especially at medium- to large-sized companies. One of them is: “How do you deal with it when you don’t know how to do something?”
Working in tech requires a delicate balance of independence and a team spirit. But when it comes down to the wire, employers want to know that if you run into trouble, you can find a solution. As one of my coder friends likes to say, JFGI, or “just freaking Google it.” He might not have said “freaking.” -_-
The point is, you should show the hiring manager that you can search for solutions on your own before turning up your hands and waiting for a superior to fix it.
8. “Me, myself, and I.”
On the flipside, as much as working in tech requires self-reliance, that stereotype of the lone-developer munching on cheese puffs and coddling a guinea pig in the basement just doesn’t hold up. A good way to show that you’re ready to work on a dev team is to swap out “me” and “I” with “us” and “we.” Tech teams want to see that you can slide into the group and rely on the team as much as you support it. Mentioning work on open source projects is a great way to demonstrate your collaborative nature!
9. “My one flaw is being a perfectionist.”
Well, this one isn’t specific to tech—hiring managers can see right through it! And if you really are a perfectionist? In tech, that’s not a good thing. A common problem of beginners is the need to make code “perfect” before making it live. But “ship it” is Skillcrush CEO Adda Birnir’s motto for a reason. Being able to push code over the finish line is a more important skill than being able to write glistening, syntactically elegant code.
Instead of saying your one flaw is that “you’re just too committed to excellence” or “you’re just a perfectionist,” dig a little deeper. The key to divulging a weakness is following up immediately with your solution. Try something like, “I tend to want to do simple tasks first and more complex tasks later, but I know that the reverse is better for my productivity. That’s why I use a project manager and rank tasks so that I HAVE to do the more involved pieces of a project before diving into smaller, rote elements.”
10. “I’m not working on anything at the moment…”
Often in a tech interview, the hiring manager will ask you what you’re working on at the moment. Bottom line? You MUST be working on something. Even if that means trying out a new API or experimenting with Sass on your personal site a few days before the interview, being able to talk about current work shows 3 things: (1) you really do want to code all the time, (2) you’re motivated enough to finish projects without the boss breathing down your neck, and (3) you’re always working on new skills.
Check, check, and check!
Even if you don’t have a paid project in the works, let the hiring manager know what code you were writing, and what problems you were trying to solve, just hours before the interview.
11. “How much is the starting salary?”
While you should DEFINITELY ask about salary and negotiate for the pay you deserve, it’s often more appropriate to wait to bring it up until after you’ve been offered the job. Unless the manager brings up salary herself, talking money too early can make you seem excited about the wrong aspect of working in tech. Spend the first interview convincing the hiring manager that you’re a great investment, and iron out the details later.
Instead of asking about salary, ask about the work environment and the opportunity for moving up in the company. That conversation will show that you’re truly excited about working in tech, and that the company can expect you to grow and become even more valuable to the team over time.
12. “I can’t think of anything!”
Ruh-roh. You know what’s coming. At the end of most interviews, you’ll get the opportunity to ask any questions you still have about the company or the role. And I’ll tell you—you better have something to ask!
Most hiring managers see it as a red flag if you can’t think of anything else to ask about the position. Asking an intelligent question about the company, your role, or your teammates shows that you’re engaged and that you won’t be the kind of employee who waits to be told what to do.
While preparing answers can make you seem robotic, it is an EXCELLENT plan to prepare a few extra questions in advance so you don’t draw a blank on the spot. So make a mental (or even physical) list to reference when it comes time to ask your burning questions. This is a great time to squeeze in those queries about the opportunity to grow your role over time.
13. “I’m nervous.”
Sometimes when you’re really nervous, it feels better to clear the air. But in a job interview, it’s best to focus on the positive. The interviewer knows that you’re nervous—show her that you can perform under pressure.
Instead of harping on your jitters, do something to calm yourself before the interview. Associate Professor Amy J.C. Cuddy found that standing in a power pose (think: Superman) for 2 minutes can reduce stress levels in your blood and actually help you get hired. Check out her much loved TED talk on the subject, and sneak to the bathroom before your interview to give it a try!
The best way to make sure you don’t end up with your foot in your mouth? Prepare, prepare, prepare. (That could have saved me a WORLD of trouble in my coffee interview. For example, I, erm, would have discerned that I wasn’t a morning person, and half the shifts start at 5:15am!).
And if you’re not sure exactly how to prepare for the interview, not to worry. Download The Ultimate Guide to Your First Tech Job Interview, and learn everything from what vocabulary to learn before going into the interview to exactly what questions you’re most likely to get.