What Happens in a Technical Interview? Your Technical Interview Questions Answered

By: Justina Hwang

Category: Blog

If you’re looking for a job in software development or a related field, you’ve likely spent some time and energy learning the technical skills to get hired. But if you want a new job, you’ll also need to know how to show off your skills in a job interview.

And you might have questions like: What does the interview process look like? What types of interview questions might hiring managers ask to test my problem-solving skills? What technical interview questions will they ask me?

In this post, we’ll talk about the dreaded tech interview, especially the portion where you have to prove your technical knowledge — also known as a code test or whiteboard test.

We’ll walk you through common questions asked during technical interviews, talk about what to expect in a technical interview, and share tips and resources to help you ace it and land the job.

Let’s get to work!

Table of Contents

  1. What should I expect in a technical interview?
  2. 3 Common types of whiteboard tests, code tests, and technical tests
  3. How to approach a technical interview
  4. Technical interview resources
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What should I expect in a technical interview?

While learning the technical skills you need qualify you to do a job in tech, all of your hardwon technical knowledge doesn’t always come into play during the actual technical interview. In fact, interviewing (and job searching in general) is a whole separate skillset.

All the more so for technical interviews, where you might be asked to problem-solve or even code right there in person (or via video call).

📌 Psst! That’s why we created our Get Hired Track — a job search training curriculum and personalized career coaching program available to our Break Into Tech students, and all about learning the job search skills it takes to get hired. It even includes our first job guarantee.

In Get Hired, we have a whole unit on interviewing, and even give students the opportunity to do mock interviews to test their skills and work out their nerves, and debrief and compare notes with other students after doing real technical interviews.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways we have for our students out there navigating the tech job market.

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Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are the standard questions you might expect in an interview. An open-ended question might be something like, “Why do you want to work for us?” or “What coding language are you most comfortable with?”

These types of interview questions are more common and expected, and therefore easier to prepare for.

For open-ended questions, you want to try to focus your answers so that they relate to the skills and experiences the interview is looking for in the job description.

These questions give you free reign to talk about yourself, so you want to take the opportunity to very concisely sell yourself and put your best foot forward.

While there’s no guarantee a specific question will be asked, you can prepare for open-ended interview questions by pre-writing your responses, practicing them, and polishing your answers until you’ve perfected your elevator pitch.

Per The Balance Careers, here is an example of an open-ended question and answer:

Question: What are your greatest strengths?

Answer: My greatest strength is my ability to work effectively with many different people. My strong communication skills have made me an effective project manager on dozens of projects over the past five years. Because this job involves a lot of team projects, I know that my communication and interpersonal skills make me an ideal fit for the position.

Why it Works: This response relates the candidate’s prior work experience to the skills the job requires, showing the employer why they are a good fit for the position.

📌 Looking for more advice on preparing for open-ended interview questions that come up in interviews for tech jobs? Check out our post: The Most Important Technical Interview Questions You Need To Prepare For

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Behavioral questions

Open-ended questions are likely not the ones you’re most concerned about if you’re hitting the tech job market for the first time. So let’s take a look at some of the other types of questions you can expect in technical interviews.

Your interviewer might ask behavioral interview questions to see if you’re a fit when it comes to their development process.

There’s a lot of teamwork on technical teams, so it’s often high-priority for interviewers to get an idea of your work style and processes.

Examples of behavioral interview questions include “Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle that?” and “Describe a time when you were the resident technical expert. What did you do to make sure everyone was able to understand you?”

For these types of questions, one common approach is to structure your answer using the STAR method. STAR is an acronym that stands for:

  • Situation: Set the scene and give details of your example.
  • Task: Describe your responsibility and what happened in the situation. /li>
  • Action: Explain the exact steps you took to address it.
  • Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved.*

*Spoiler alert: the information you’re about to see next comes from our Get Hired Track curriculum*

Here is one way you might answer the question, “Tell me about a time you received critical feedback.”

Situation: In my previous role as a sales associate, it was my responsibility to ensure customers had all their questions answered about the current phone plans and models.

Task: One time, my manager gave feedback that I wasn’t attending to customers fast enough and that I should walk up to them to see if they had questions.

Action: It was hard initially to hear that feedback, but I was also grateful because it made me shift my behavior and improved my customer service skills. I started to proactively approach customers right when they walked into the store.

Result: Implementing my manager’s feedback increased my comfort in communication and my sales. Overall, I learned that it’s helpful to accept feedback because it can help make me better at my job.

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Questions about culture fit

Behavioral questions, which tackle how you’ve handled certain situations in the past, can give interviewers and hiring managers context regarding how well you might work within their existing team, but some of the questions you get might fall more under the umbrella of “culture fit.”

When a company is hiring for a new team member, there are often a lot of stakeholders involved — including recruiters, hiring managers, and even future coworkers for smaller tech companies. And they all want to know if you’ll be a productive contributor with a skill set that will benefit the team (of course!)…and also whether or not you’re someone they want to work with.

The problem with “culture fit”

Although a test for culture fit may seem innocent on the surface, it can be more complicated than whether you and your prospective coworkers want to go hang out during or after work.

Culture fit can often be a way for companies to be racist or anti inclusive for women and people of color without overtly invoking race or gender.

In an article in The Verge, a Black woman who interviewed at Facebook was told the company was “looking for a culture fit” before being rejected — she’s one of four people who’ve recently complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about allegedly racist hiring and promotion practices at Facebook.

The unnamed Black woman’s complaint alleges that the company’s discrimination against Black applicants is partly predicated on its “strong consideration of ‘culture fit’ in hiring, without providing sufficient objective guidance to managers and other employees on how to determine which applicants and employees will be a good ‘culture fit’ at Facebook,” The Intercept reports.

Unfortunately, inclusion continues to be a huge problem in tech (which is one of the reasons Skillcrush exists). If a company asks about culture fit or seems to be testing for that, you can try to gauge their motivations and use the opportunity to test how well the company stacks up on your end.

Because interviewing is a two-way street, Stephanie Ciccone Nascimento, Head of Career Coaching at Skillcrush, suggests that “Candidates [should] ask each stakeholder strong questions that can help uncover and give insight into how the team works together, what the management style is like, what the role’s success metrics are and what the overall team/company culture is like.”

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Technical testing, aka whiteboard tests, aka code tests

Up until this point, we’ve been talking about interview questions — the standard back and forth you can expect in job interviews across many different fields.

And just like how another job might require you to prove your skill set in some way, many technical jobs require you to show your design or development work. These are known as technical tests, whiteboard tests, or code tests.

Code tests are often the most dreaded portion of the technical interview, especially for beginners in the field. But just like the rest of the technical interview, there is plenty you can do to prepare, and you’re not expected to execute flawless code live in an interview. It’s all about how you work through it.

Technical interviewers might ask you to do one of these types of tests to show them how well you know your stuff: project-based tests, logic tests, or live problem-solving tests.

Lately, project-based tests are more common than live tests, likely due to the pandemic and the turn to remote work.

In a Dice article in 2020, Nick Kolakowski found that with COVID, project-based assignments were replacing live problem-solving tests because interviews as a whole were being conducted virtually.

While it’s possible to code live on a Zoom call, it might not be ideal, and some companies may throw out that portion of the interview altogether if the interview is remote.

Although it remains to be seen whether companies will continue to remain remote or interview remotely post-COVID, it’s important to remember that while the whiteboard test is important, it’s not the make or break point in your job search journey.

While the idea of a coding test might freak you out, Elizabeth Gunn, a Break Into Tech alumna and front end developer at Asics, advises, “For developers, think of the coding challenges as practice. Don’t put them on a pedestal, like, ‘I have to pass this to get this job.’ You’ll find the right job even if you’re not perfecting these coding tests.”

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3 Common types of whiteboard tests, code tests, and technical tests

Let’s take a closer look at these three types of code tests and how to handle them. Like I mentioned, you may be asked to do one of these three types of technical tests:

  1. Project-based tests
  2. Logic tests
  3. Live problem-solving tests (aka whiteboard tests)

Logic-based tests and curveball questions

For logic-based tests, the interviewee is asked questions that they might not know the answer to but is supposed to reason out on the fly.

For example, you could be asked a brain teaser like “how many golf balls fit in a Boeing 747?” or “What are the degrees of the hand on an analog clock?” to test your logic skills.

While nobody knows the answer right off the top of their head, your interviewer wants to see how you would arrive at the answer given what you know about the size of golf balls relative to the size of a Boeing 747.

Whatever you do, don’t let these kinds of questions scare you off the job market. The reality is that very few people could answer these kinds of questions with any accuracy, and candidates are not actually expected to.

Surprise brain teaser questions like this are all about your thought process, not your answer. Stephanie suggests that you “talk out loud about how you would go about solving the problem and the steps you would take to find the answer.”

The logic-based test lets you demonstrate your ability to think through problems and find solutions given the limited information you have.

Most of the time, there is no wrong answer because you’re not expected to know the answer. The point of this exercise really is to let the interviewer see your thought process and reasoning skills.

If you find yourself face-to-face with one of these curveball technical interview questions, take a breath and talk the interviewer through your thinking — because that’s all they want from you.

These questions are designed to provide a window into how you process challenges, how you work through problems, and whether that would be a good fit on their team.

For the Boeing 747 question, you might say something like 7,257,600 golf balls. Per a Vault article on acing guesstimates, if you consider that a Boeing 747 can hold about 400 people and cargo, that’s roughly 31,104,000 cubic inches available space, plus 3 cubic inches per ball, that’s about 10,368,000 balls.

However, because spheres don’t fit perfectly together, you want to “eliminate a certain percentage — spheres cover only about 70 percent of a cube when packed — and cut your answer to 7,257,600 balls.”

Another approach, especially if mental math on the fly is not your bag, is to simply talk through how you might go about solving that.

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Live problem solving, aka whiteboard testing

One last potential test type is live problem solving. As its name implies, for this test, you’ll be asked to solve a problem during the interview itself, often in the form of a whiteboard test. Many new developers are the most nervous about this kind of test, and that’s understandable.

If you’re new to a field, it makes sense that having to prove your readiness could be scary. Just like other technical tests, live problem-solving tests aren’t about getting it right so much as showing your work and how you approach problem solving.

While the logic based test is more often a test of your theoretical reasoning skills, the whiteboard test tackles your practical coding skills and knowledge base. It asks you to solve a problem based on what you know about the theory and practice behind programming.

One example of a problem solving test is to return the indices of two numbers given an array of integers so that they add up to a specific target — with the assumption that each input would have exactly one solution and the same element cannot be used twice.

Another real world example is the palindrome challenge. A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backward as forward, like “Hannah” or “taco cat.” The problem you’re given can be to return true if a given string is a palindrome and return false if it’s not.

Per Sitepoint, this challenge revolves around the concept of string reversal. If the reversed string is the same as the original input string, then you have a palindrome and your function should return true.

Conversely, if the reversed string isn’t the same as the original input string, the latter is not a palindrome and your function is expected to return false.

Below is Sitepoint’s solution to this challenge:

const palindrome = str => {
// turn the string to lowercase
str = str.toLowerCase()
// reverse input string and return the result of the
// comparisong
return str === str.split('').reverse().join('')
}

Whiteboarding tests your web development skills and your reactive skills. It also shows the interviewer your understanding of core programming concepts you might be working with, your ability to understand what problem you’re being asked to solve, and how you approach problem solving in general.

Even if you don’t get the problem exactly right, or even finish it, it’s more important that you convey your knowledge and ability to problem-solve.

Showing your interviewer that, given more time or resources (if it wasn’t an open book test), you could’ve solved the problem is as important as actually solving the problem.

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How to approach a technical interview

We asked Elizabeth about her technical interview, and this is what she had to say: “We did a shared screen, and a coding exercise. It was open book, so I was allowed to Google stuff. It was only 30 minutes so I actually didn’t end up finishing. But I talked through it the entire time and [the software engineer emailing me] basically was like, “Yeah, you know what you’re doing and you would have gotten it if we just had a little more time.”

She then moved on to a 30-minute problem-solving exercise with the technical lead. She continues, “He shared his screen and gave me another problem to do… and I didn’t finish. This was more something I hadn’t really seen before — it was a web scraping exercise with JavaScript, so I was really unfamiliar with it. I just kept talking the entire time to let him know what my thought process was.”

Elizabeth noted that the whole experience was really positive and that “everyone I met with was super welcoming.”

While Elizabeth is definitely a superstar, one of the most important things she did was not panic, and show her thought process so that her interview could see what she did know — something that you can do too!

She says, “Even though I didn’t complete the coding challenges — at first I was like, ‘I’m not gonna get it, because I didn’t finish’ — they still ended up offering me a job… they thought, overall, I’d be a really good fit.”

Even though for most people, the coding test is the scariest — and it’s okay to be scared! — she recounts, “But definitely, the [test] that I felt most comfortable with were the ones that were the live programming challenges, which kind of surprised me. [I] think [in those I] felt like [the interviewers] wanted me to be successful.”

Elizabeth left us with some final thoughts about approaching the technical interview process:

“I felt like, as I went on, I realized perfecting those coding challenges wasn’t what was going to get me the job, especially because there are different ones. I felt like it was just a losing game to keep chasing how to do it the best.”

Her advice? “Don’t focus too much on coding challenges… some people might not be able to even prioritize completing those challenges — and that’s okay.”

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Play to your strengths

During the software engineer technical interview, you’re often allowed to choose what programming languages you’d like to answer in, so pick your strongest language — if you’re a Python developer, answer in Python rather than try to impress your interviewer with Java or JavaScript if that’s not your forte.

You’re not a human Stack Overflow

It’s okay not to know all of the answers — you can add a follow-up to your responses with your thought process and reasoning. For example, as a front end developer, you may not be well-versed in algorithms, but you could share how you might find the answer to incorporating a particular algorithm into your code.

One alumna, Elizabeth Gunn, said of her technical interview, “They said they liked that I was honest about what I didn’t know [because] that shows a willingness to ask questions when you’re on the job and not be afraid to look stupid.”

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Be a problem solver

One of your goals during the technical interview is to give your interviewer more insight as to how you approach problems that they might not get to see during the questions and answers part of the interview.

Sometimes interviewers will ask for something that they know is beyond a candidate’s skill level to see how they react when they are challenged. Remember, you can be self-aware of your limitations but confident in your ability to find the answers you need to solve problems.

Elizabeth adds, “I showed my willingness to learn and to keep learning different technologies — it worked out really well. My takeaway is: even if you don’t know something, just stay really calm. You don’t want to freak out, but at the same time, it’s okay to tell them what you don’t know.”

What happens if you don’t do well?

Sometimes, even though we try our best, things don’t always go as planned during a technical interview.

Whether it’s not being able to finish the project or not knowing how to answer the whiteboard question, it’s not always possible to win them all.

Even if you didn’t feel like you passed every test with flying colors, it’s important to stay confident and to keep trying.

Coding tests are meant to be challenging, so that interviewers can see how you react in potentially stressful situations and how you think — even very experienced developers don’t always perform well.

Stephanie says, “There are a lot of technical interview coding tests and people have the impression that they need to ace every one. However, not being able to complete a coding test or “failing” one doesn’t mean you’re not ready to be job searching. It just means that that wasn’t the job for you.”

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Technical interview resources

Looking for more practice? Here are some resources to check out to prepare for your technical interview:

Sites to get practice with coding assessments

Books/Articles/Resources

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Justina Hwang

Justina is a Content Manager at Skillcrush. When she's not learning how to code or having deep conversations about life with her cat, she can be found dreaming up travel adventures on a comfortable sofa somewhere around the world.