Winning The Coding Interview: Background Chit-chat

Many interviewers like to precede the coding challenge with some chit-chat about your previous jobs or projects. They’re looking for:

  • Metacognition about coding. Do you think about how to code well?

  • Ownership/leadership. Do you see your work through to completion? Do you fix things that aren’t quite right, even if you don’t have to?

  • Communication. Would chatting with you about a technical problem be useful or painful?

The questions are often open-ended, so they can catch you off-guard. It’s helpful to have something in mind for each of these standard questions:

  • “Tell me about an interesting technical problem you solved.”

  • “Tell me about a time you used a ‘hack’ to save time implementing a feature.”

  • “Tell me about an interpersonal conflict you overcame.”

  • “If you could start $specifc_project over again, what would you do differently?”

  • “I see your favorite language is $programming_language. What’s something you really like about it? What’s something you’d change about it if you could?”

  • “Tell me about a time you showed leadership or ownership on a project.”

Later, after the coding challenges, when the interview is winding down and the interviewer asks if you have any questions, you have a chance to put some icing on the cake. I recommend asking a question about at least one of:

  1. The product or business. This shows you’re interested in the company and you’re the kind of person who cares about why they are doing things, which is an important part of ownership.

  2. The engineering strategy (testing, Scrum, etc). This shows that you think about how to write code well.

Here are some tips for these bits of chit-chat before and after the coding exercises:

You can gently steer the conversation towards your more interesting stories (provided they are relevant, of course). For example, your interviewer may point to a specific project or job on your resume and say “this sounds interesting–tell me about some of the technical challenges you dealt with.” It’s just fine to say “Hmm, nothing comes to mind immediately for that project, but I do have a story about a technical problem from another project.”

Speak precisely. Have you ever been asked to help debug an issue and been frustrated that the person asking for help couldn’t clearly explain what their code was supposed to do? Your interviewer wants to make sure you won’t be that person. When you’re describing something you built, especially a technical challenge you faced, be clear and precise. Practice helps a lot with this–try practicing with a friend or out loud to yourself. If you’re ever worried you’ve lost your interviewer just stop and ask, “Does that make sense?”

Be excited yet direct. Sometimes the interviewer hopes to get through chit-chat quickly. Try to keep your stories short by avoiding unnecessary details (again, practice helps). At the same time, let your excitement show through. When asking questions about the company, find something they’re doing that you can really get amped about. The stories you tell about ownership and conquering technical problems are stories about you doing great work–you should be proud of them!


Parker Phinney

About Parker Phinney

Parker founded Interview Cake, a study tool for software engineers preparing for coding interviews. He also  runs workshops at schools and coding boot camps in San Francisco.