Technical interview tips for graduates, by graduates
What should you expect at a technical interview for a graduate technology job? A graduate software engineer and analyst programmer share their advice.
Interviewers rarely look for walking reference books, and working logically to provide a partial answer is better than giving up altogether.
Kunal is a software engineer and Peter is an analyst programmer. Both tackled technical interviews and successfully secured their first graduate jobs in IT. To help you get ready, they explain what they came across and how they got their interview technique right.
What technical interviews did you do when applying for graduate jobs?
Kunal: Most of my applications involved only one stage of technical interview, and only in few selected cases, two rounds. These interviews were mostly conducted by senior technical people and occurred after initial screening exercises or on the same day as an assessment centre.
Peter: I had technical interviews for three employers, all of which were for software engineering positions. They typically followed a non-technical interview and were conducted by the people I would have worked with.
How did you demonstrate your technical knowledge and skills?
Kunal: The technical interviews always started with an analysis of the skills I had mentioned in my CV and included further questioning to find out about my level of experience and expertise related to a particular skill (eg C++ skills). This was typically followed by a test of basic logic and computing skills (eg write an algorithm to sort an array), and problem solving (eg finding errors in a program).
Peter: I was asked to do two types of task. The first involved responding to an open-ended problem, such as: ‘I want a piece of software to store a user’s appointments and display them in a diary. How would you go about it?’ I used a whiteboard to give an overview of how the system would work and to explain technical details such as data structures and class layouts. These tasks can seem simple, but they usually have hidden complexity.
The second type was more hands-on. For example, I had to create a piece of software following the specification of an imaginary client. My advice: read every part of the specification so that, unlike me, you don’t find that the last part requires a re-design of the entire system.
How did you prepare for graduate technical interviews?
Kunal: I concentrated on strengthening my concepts and foundations, since I believed these would be the key areas I would be tested on. I practised a few common programming paradigms and problems and also prepared for a few advanced programming scenarios.
Peter: I set myself an exercise to write a simple software application in the programming languages I was being assessed on, to refresh my memory on the basics.
How did you deal with tricky questions?
Kunal: The key to dealing with tricky questions is not to panic. You will almost certainly hit upon a tricky question during the interview, but more often than not, the solution lies in something rudimentary and basic. For example, at one interview I spent quite a while thinking of advanced object-oriented programming (OOP) concepts to find a solution to a question, but actually the solution was embarrassingly simple. The interviewer reassured me that I wasn’t the only candidate to falter on that question.
Peter: I learned to be disciplined and think about the task before speaking or coding, and to explain my thought processes. Interviewers rarely look for walking reference books, and working logically to provide a partial answer is better than giving up altogether. I also learned that finishing every part of an exercise is a bonus, but it’s rarely the main objective. A technical interview tests your technical abilities, but your ability to plan and analyse are equally important – skills that are hard to demonstrate on a CV or in a regular interview.
Kunal’s top tips for graduate technical interviews
- Remember that interviewers are assessing your knowledge and not aiming to demoralise you.
- Get a firm grasp on your basics and fundamentals.
- Try to relax and be yourself.
- Don’t pretend you know more than you do or act over smart.
- If you don’t know something, say so rather than make up an answer. Ask the interviewers for their solution; it not only helps you gain knowledge, but also shows your enthusiasm to learn.
- Confident yet friendly body language is important: your ability to solve problems under pressure is also under the microscope.
- Be friendly and polite and give the interview your best shot.
Peter’s top tips for graduate technical interviews
- When you are doing a software engineering task, ask yourself questions such as ‘does my software have a clear architecture?’ and ‘how can it be expanded in the future?’ Demonstrating these kinds of considerations can do as much for you as clever coding.
- Remember that the interviewer isn’t trying to catch you out. Show off what you know, be honest about the things you don’t and, if it’s the right job for you, you’ll do fine.
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