5 Best Practices for Interviewing Developers

So you’ve decided you need to hire up. Now what?

The candidate search itself can be trying. But even when you’ve identified potential short-list applicants, you still have to interview them to truly discover who the right person is. And interviewing software engineers is a slightly different beast.

This kind of interviewing isn’t an art; it’s a process. Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to ensure you are discovering your developer candidates’ true skill sets, team applicability, and genuine character.

Here are a few proven techniques for getting past stock interview answers and getting to really know your candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

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Get Technical Help

Have a strong technical person (or multiple, if possible) do the interview. This may seem obvious, but for a non-technical company hiring their first engineers, this can be tricky. If there aren’t any technical folks internally, scour your network for someone to help you with the interviewing process. Ultimately, you need someone in the room who understands the position you’re hiring for on a deeper level, ideally because they’ve done it before.

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Write Real Code

At least an hour of your interview process should involve writing real code. People new at interviewing developers will often interview them like other positions, by asking about career goals, judging their overall polish, etc. All of those things are important, but they’re also unrelated to technical ability. You need to make sure to interview for that as well.

It’s possible you’ll discover weaknesses among even mid-to-senior developers, who may have rusty skills. If they seize up and fail to show that they can figure out how to solve a development problem you’ve put in front of them, even the applicants with the strongest resumes should be passed over.

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Prioritize Smarts Over Skills

Interview for overall attitude and learning ability first, and specific technical knowledge on your stack second. A developer who knows several languages already and is a quick study will come up to speed on your specific stack quickly anyway, so it’s much more important to get the overall fit right.

Also, watch out for any sign of an arrogant attitude. In spite of the pop culture around developers, it’s actually an extremely collaborative profession, and anyone who has an attitude or can’t work with other people will cause far more harm to your team than good.

Of all the points on this list, this is the one I personally consider most important. I firmly believe our commitment to hiring collaborators and quick-learners rather than the most experienced developers is one of the strongest aspects of our company.

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Be Flexible

Consider the candidate’s job duties when judging how well they interview. For example, if you’re interviewing for a sales position, you can assume (or at least hope) that the person you’re interviewing will do a good job on selling themselves as being great at the role. The practice of selling is what they do for a living.

Developers, as a sweeping generalization, are likely to be more pragmatic and more nervous during the interview process. If you’re not a developer yourself, you might think a person being nervous and not selling themselves well is a bad sign, but remember: their job isn’t selling their talents to a group of people. It’s writing quality code. So does that really matter?

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Trust Your Impression

Overall, as you narrow in on candidates, trust your instincts, but follow process to ensure you’re getting an accurate and genuine idea of the people you’re considering adding to your team. And though it can be difficult in a small startup, get a variety of impressions from other people on the candidate as well. Trusting your instincts is necessary, but it’s also where unconscious biases show up, so getting a mixture of opinions is important when possible.

There’s little in business as important as hiring the right people, so growing your developer dream team should be a top priority. Hopefully these tips help you build a long-lasting, effective company.

CTO at Devetry (www.devetry.com). I write about technology, software development, and entrepreneurship. I also play guitar and love whiskey.