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I was interviewing for a software engineering position, but one of the interviews was... off. The primary interviewer in one was:

  • Not prepared (didn't seem to have questions prepared)
  • Having a hard time asking even a trivial question clearly
    • I like to think, with my SE experience, I'm good at pulling the "core question" from someone. But it took a long time for me to to find out from changing requirements/explanations that he wanted me to implement the "for" part of a relatively basic for loop)
    • During the interview, I thought of Stack Exchange questions where there is an initial question followed by 10 comments asking clarification. That's exactly what it felt like. Voted to close: unclear what you're asking.

Never in that interview did a meaningful technical subject come up. I never had an opportunity to talk about any core development subjects (algorithms, data structures, version control, design patterns, testing methodology, etc).

Now normally I wouldn't care, but I ended up getting rejected explicitly because I apparently didn't communicate technical depth or programming/development experience to the interviewer. I am largely self taught, which means I do not have the "easy" (however invalid it might be) metric of a computer science degree, etc.

In my opinion the primary cause of this was the interviewer and the interview process did not ask questions which allowed me to demonstrate or even explain this. There was no coding exercise required as part of the process, either.

I am not sure what I could have done to guide the process. It feels like my main option would have been to interrupt with something like, "can we talk about a subject which allows me to display my technical expertise?" or "can I explain my software background [since you aren't asking about it]?" I didn't have time really summarize this either at the end since we ran to time.

What are more constructive ways to approach this situation?

  • 120
    Run..... run far away. Assuming this person was going to be part of your programming team, and they can't even formulate a decent programming question, makes you start to wonder what the rest of the team is like. Use the Joel test, if you've got any further worries, sounds like you dodged a bullet here. – JamesENL Nov 10 '15 at 14:06
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    As a software engineer, this is a legitimate job concern. We often have to deal with unclear expectations, undocumented requirements, and ambiguous questions. A good developer tries to extract the clear, simple truth and communicate it effectively. Just like an ambiguous interview question where the technical solution is simple, but unclear. – Brandon Nov 10 '15 at 20:13
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    I can totally sympathize with this. Having a bad interviewer is extremely awkward -- but in retrospect you will probably be very glad that you didn't get the job. You "getting the job" also means "they get you". Its a marriage, not an escort engagement. That is to say, you were interviewing them at the same time, whether you realized it or not; you asking this question here indicates that you understand this instinctively. On to the next one, and good hunting! :-) – zxq9 Nov 11 '15 at 11:08
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    @SuperBiasedMan - if nobody on the interview panel has a true understanding of the role, I'd be questioning why not. – Jon Story Nov 13 '15 at 16:15
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    To be fair, it isn't uncommon for a developer to be pulled into an interview with no prior knowledge or time to prepare. Hell, I've been sent into a room with people without being informed that I was interviewing them before. The guys that organize interviews aren't usually the ones you have to work with day to day, thankfully. – aaron Jan 1 '16 at 5:11

10 Answers 10

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Short Answer

You're going to have to do the interviewer's job for him. Handling these kinds of interviewers is all about (subtly) taking charge of the interview and leading the conversation so you can demonstrate your experience, skill and motivation.

Keep in mind that you should treat a bad interviewer as a red flag, especially if he'll be your direct manager. Be honest with yourself about how the behaviour will affect your working life. To quote Maya Angelou: "When people show you who they are, believe them."

How do I handle a bad interviewer?

So you've found yourself in an interview with an interviewer who is obviously unprepared, inept, bored or openly hostile. After marking this as the giant red flag that it is (more on that later), consider if you still want to make the interview a success. If you do, there are a few ways of "handling" the interviewer. The following is based on Alison Green's article How to Deal With a Bad Interviewer at US News. Titles, quotes and fragments in italics are direct quotes:

  1. The no-questions interviewer: steer the conversation back to the job opening and your qualifications.

    Would it be OK to take a minute and lead you through my professional background? I think it’ll tie in with what you were just saying about the job.

  2. The unprepared interviewer: you're going to have to jump-start the conversation. Open with a brief overview of your profile, why you applied and why you'd do well in the position. Then take it from there.

    I’d love to tell you about my background and talk about some of the ways I think this job might be a great fit.

  3. The distracted interviewer: let it go and assume good faith. If it gets to the point where your interviewer is not even listening, be upfront (but professional!) and ask if it would be best to reschedule. Be honest about whether you'd enjoy working with or for someone who's this disrespectful of your time.

    Is this still a good time for us to meet? I’d be glad to reschedule if it’s more convenient.

  4. The inept interviewer ("what animal would you be?"): answer the questions, but then steer the conversation back to what’s really important

  5. The law-averse interviewer (asking about marriage, family planning, religion etc.): realise that these questions can be legal1, they just can't discriminate against you based on your answers. Try to figure out why the interviewer is asking the question and answer those concerns instead. Don't dodge the question if it's going to be obvious that you are.

    There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed to get the job done.

  6. The hostile interviewer: stay calm and professional but chalk this interview up as a loss. Even if you somehow impress this interviewer, you don't want to work for someone who can't even be professional in an interview.2 If it gets really bad, remember that you can always walk away early, you're not being held hostage.

    I think we've both realised that this isn't the right fit. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to meet me, but I think it doesn't really make sense for us to continue talking.

Alison also has some more advice specifically for filling dead air in an interview:

I’d ask, “What else can I tell you about me to help you figure out if this is the right fit?” And if that still doesn’t get them asking reasonable questions, I’d follow it up with, “Tell me more about the role and what’s most important to you in the person you’re hiring.” And other things designed to help you both figure out if this is the right fit — “How will you measure the success of this person six months in?” and so forth.

In the end, handling these kinds of interviewers is all about (subtly) taking charge of the interview and leading the conversation so you can demonstrate your experience, skill and motivation.

What you shouldn't do

The one thing to keep in mind during any business contact, especially interviews, is: do not antagonize people. Even if your interviewer is a boorish lout, disrespectful or asking borderline illegal or unethical questions, you don't want to point it out.3 There is no faster way to destroy the rapport you've built up and torpedo your chances of being hired. To quote Alison Green again:

I’d say that you don't get anywhere by being angry in a job search. Take in all the information you’re receiving about [how] an employer treats people, but don’t get angry. Use that information to make good decisions for yourself.

Do you still want the job?

Remember that interviewing goes both ways: you're supposed to evaluate the company and your future manager/colleagues as much as they are evaluating you. If an interviewer demonstrates an inability to interview properly then odds are that he's not finding the best candidates. People are normally on their best behaviour during an interview so if they demonstrate a lack of basic decency, respect or common sense then it's a safe bet that these people act like that in the office as well.

Additionally, if the hiring manager himself has demonstrated that he can't interview well, it's unlikely that you're going to end up in an all-star team.

Of course, do remember that you're sometimes interviewed by future colleagues who have little impact on the process or you day-to-day work or by people with no previous interviewing experience who were just thrown into the process to get them some practice. It's worth distinguishing those from interviewers that are true red flags.


1 In the US, asking questions related to a protected class is legal but discriminating based on the answers is not.

2 Some interviews do this deliberately as a form of "stress interview". I'm not a fan of it and it doesn't really make sense when interviewing for a position that doesn't involve stress. The linked article goes into more detail on this.

3 One caveat here: if you no longer want the job and feel like you should speak your mind or point out unethical behaviour then that is your choice to make. I wouldn't do it lightly as it could well cause openly hostile behaviour, some form of retaliation or an (unjust) hit to your reputation and is unlikely to accomplish much. The only advice I can give in such situations is to follow your own moral compass.

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    "realise that these questions are legal, they just can't discriminate against you based on your answers"...just making a note that there are plenty of countries where this is strictly not legal, mine being one of them. So it's country specific. – eis Nov 10 '15 at 17:06
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    I agree with everything you said (+1), except the hostile part. If someone is truly hostile, yes, walk away. It won't get better when you work there. However, be careful to not confuse hostile with pushing to test your limits. I like to put people on the spot in interviews, sortof a "stress test" if you will. I want to see what they can do when they have to actually think for themselves after they've run out of canned answers. Those that can't handle that wouldn't be able to handle a real life design review either, or a unhappy customer, or someone demanding unreasonable specs, etc. – Olin Lathrop Nov 10 '15 at 22:04
  • @eis Yeah very good point, should have mentioned that that one is US-specific and not universal. – Lilienthal Nov 10 '15 at 22:19
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    @Lilienthal, You seem to be splitting hairs. In the US, these questions are inappropriate, since they could be used as possible evidence of discrimination. And it doesn't matter if you didn't discriminate, or didn't intend to discriminate, the appearance of discrimination is a worry for many companies in the US that have more than 14 employees. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 11 '15 at 4:29
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    @StephanBranczyk I only bring it up so people who face such a clueless interviewer don't go on the offensive by claiming that the question is illegal. As you say, the appearance of discrimination is bad and that's why experienced interviewers won't ask such questions, but this answer is intended for the interviewee's perspective. Even in places where asking is illegal, it's still a bad idea to point out bad/unethical questions in an interview as it can ruin any report you've built up. – Lilienthal Nov 11 '15 at 13:39
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A few things spring to mind here:

  • Perhaps the interviewer was drafted in at the last moment to fill in for someone who was unable to interview. I have had to do that myself and the feeling of vulnerability and unpreparedness is palpable. If they were aware they could not properly interview you then a good path (for the incompetent interviewer) is merely to reject you
  • They had already decided they didn't want you (or more accurately, already decided they wanted someone else) and were "going through the motions" with the interview, perhaps substituting a less busy interviewer as "practise" for them

If the cause was one of these, then don't beat yourself up, it happens and getting a knock-back from that kind of interview shambles should be viewed as a lucky escape! Unfortunately it is not always easy to figure out if this is the case or whether the fault lies with you and how you were unable to handle the interview and direct it to where you needed it to go.

In my experience it is fairly easy to take a question and use it as a springboard to say what I need to say. For example: "well the answer is [this thing] but I am aware that does not really give you much of an insight into how I would handle [that thing you want to talk about] so here's what I have done in the past and the techniques I use to get past issues like that...." and off you go. Another one might be "Would it help if I explained my specific experiences with [that thing they seem to be skirting around] and how I have solved [those kinds of] problems in the past?" Then listen to their reply- if they say "yes" then you can launch into your mini-script on that subject (carefully researched beforehand so you don't fumble), but if they say "no" then that tells you a lot too; mainly that they have no interest in that particular subject so perhaps the role is not for you... Keep using these kinds of conversational gambits to launch each new subject as you need to.

Obviously you have to be careful that the interviewer does not feel that:

a. You are behaving like a politician and never actually answering their questions and

b. You are openly and persistently manipulating them (even though you may be!)

This takes quick thinking- know what you need to say in advance, anticipate the issues they will want you to handle (through your experience, knowledge and research about the specific role) and watch for the cues when being asked questions. Essentially if they are not asking the questions that allow you to demonstrate your valid experience you need to move the conversations in those directions.

If I were in your shoes and found over the course of an interview that I was constantly not being asked the "right" questions alarm bells would be going off in my mind. Eventually I would probably feel the need to directly address it in order to force the issue and find out if we are both wasting our time. I would (and have in the past) use something like: "Sorry but I feel as if I am going in directions that are not what you want to hear, is that the case? I don't want us to have a misunderstanding and perhaps I have misunderstood the kind of role/person you are looking for, can I just ask you to reiterate exactly what you need?" - Then when they answer, either use their requirements as springboards to show exactly how you meet their explicit requirements, or be open about the fact that "you don't feel you meet their needs and would rather stop the interview than continue to waste both your time and theirs". In my experience interviewers are relieved with that kind of approach (where the interview is going off the rails) and have respect for your honesty. But even if they don't, if it stops you wasting any more of your time then it is worthwhile. Note though that such a gambit is a last resort and only to be used when you are sure there is nothing further to be salvaged from the interview. I have in the past reached that position but deliberately continued the interview in order to learn about things that might help me in future interviews!

  • My first thought on reading the question was they're out to disqualify everyone to justify hiring H1-Bs but then I realized this wasn't the only interview. I do agree it most likely means someone had already decided not to hire him. – Loren Pechtel Nov 12 '15 at 2:06
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In addition to taking control of the questions they ask, which I've done successfully when being hired as the first "X" in a company (so they didn't have an "X" to interview me), you can also use your questions to show your qualifications. When it gets to the point in the interview where they ask if you have any questions, ask questions about their technology and process instead of HR questions and culture questions. (You'll still need to get those answered, but save them for somebody else.) Here are a couple examples of what I mean:

How do you overcome (such-and-such) challenge with (whatever their software process is)? We tried (solution) to reasonably good effect, but we still had problems with (something). How do you handle that?"

You've demonstrated not only experience with their process but an understanding of how it works, what its challenges are, and what can be done about them. If this starts a conversation about that process and you never get to your next question, that's fine.

Your product has APIs for (language A) and (language B). There's a natural tension between sharing as much code as possible and ending up with APIs that aren't quite right for all languages, or forking the code so each API follows all of the conventions and idioms of its language. How do you go about deciding that?

This shows that you've thought about usability and code maintenance. During the conversation you might be able to ask a followup question about the hot new (language C). Or Android vs. iOS. Or web services. Or whatever.

What specific questions you ask is, of course, dependent on both your background and their company. But this approach has helped me push information to interviewers who didn't know to ask.

  • Love this answer +1 – Marv Mills Nov 12 '15 at 15:45
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It happens more often than you think - for many places the only reason they appear prepared is because you're the 3rd or 4th interviewee and they're going through the exact same questions and motions they asked the other guys!

Interviewers, especially technical ones, are busy with their day jobs. They're you, but asked to go interview a bunch of guys who are coming for interview as well. Oh and please get that code finished/server fixed/problem solved for the deadline. Even management have plenty of other things to do that do not involve getting an interview prepared.

So what you do is not to assume the company or interviewer is incompetent, instead engage with them. This is your future colleague after all, and if you give him as much help in the interview as you can, that is only going to look good for you.

I've done lots of interviewing so I like to think I know what I'm doing now, but my first time... my manager was out one day (disappeared off to a exhibition with the networks manager), and the receptionist turned up to our team and after asking where John was, said "OK so who's going to do his interview? The guy's in reception right now". (To make it worse, John had arranged 4 interviews that day...).

How prepared do you think I was :-) (myself and a colleague replayed interviews we'd been to so I think we did very well considering, and hence got all the future interview gigs from them on).

Interviews are not about being some perfect session of formal questioning, psychology and negotiation. There's 2 ordinary guys having a chat to see if you'd fit into their team and aren't a scammer trying to get a job with no relevant skills. That's it. So help the poor guy out, and help yourself in the process.

and no coding questions... man, you had it so easy, all you had to do was talk a bit and show what a great, friendly, helpful team guy you are!

  • Hard to say what happened at that interview, but your answer rings a few true notes for me. If the OP was disturbed enough that s/he did something like stare with disbelief or somehow act like "hey why aren't you prepared with REAL questions?" then that would explain the result. – Chan-Ho Suh Nov 11 '15 at 3:57
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I'm sorry to hear you didn't get the job. I'm a developed myself, and I can understand how you felt. Let's talk about your experience a little bit:

Non-Technical Interviewer

It absolutely sucks that you had a terrible interview(er). Unfortunately, it will happen more often than you think! You can keep expecting to run into interviewers who will have no technical expertise, and who don't know how to communicate with a developer. That's when YOU need to step up and express your experience in a way that a layman will understand.

Sometimes the company mistakenly trusts a person who is a terrible interviewer to perform the interview based on seniority, or because they will later need to interact with you if you're hired.

However, that person's presence in the room may also be a test: "We need this our new dev to be able to make himself understood to our customers/end users/managers. Jack over there barely knows how to turn on his PC, let's throw him in the room, and if enderland can make himself understood to him, then he's exactly what we need".

Changing the Subject

It feels like my main option would have been to interrupt with something like, >"can we talk about a subject which allows me to display my technical >expertise?" or "can I explain my software background [since you aren't asking >about it]?"

Quite frankly, technical expertise is not all that matters. Many times a company will be assessing how you will fit into the team, or into the company culture even before testing you on your technical skills. If they don't feel that you are a good fit then they won't bother spending the time finding out more about you.

You should always assume that an interviewer's question, no matter how silly, was asked for a good reason. Sometimes the reason might be to see how you handle being asked a silly question.

Showcasing Your Skills

While you have no control of what questions you are asked, you have to always maintain your cool. Don't answer right away if you're not sure what to say! Take a second or two to analyze the question and formulate the best answer you can come up with. You can use even the silliest question to gently nudge the interviewer back toward a more technical conversation, or to showcase your skills.

For example, if you're asked a seemingly innocuous question such as "What are some of your hobbies?" you don't want to answer "Uhm ... well ... you know ... I watch some shows and play video-games".

Spin it to your advantage (100% truthfulness need not come into play here):

"After a day at the office developing service architecture, or hunting down a bug in a few hundred lines of code, I will sometimes enjoy just crashing on the couch and doing something mindless like watching a show for a few hours. More often, however, I prefer to expand my knowledge by watching documentaries, or reading X (insert your own hobbies here)."

Notice that I did not lie about watching TV. However I threw in that bit about working hard the office. Answer every question in a similar manner, and you'll slowly build a certain image of yourself in the interviewer's subconscious.

Conclusion

There are a lot of reasons why the conversation might become non-technical, even when interviewing for a development role. Keep your cool and play along, but NEVER FAIL TO SHOWCASE YOUR QUALITIES. Always spin your experience and skills into the conversation - even if you leave out technical terms, or technologies. Try Googling "how to showcase technical skills in a casual conversation", or something along those lines. Best of luck!

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    technical expertise is not all that matters. I agree with this wholeheartedly, though I should point out this was given to me explicitly as the reason I did not advance in the interview process. – enderland Nov 10 '15 at 14:44
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    I would agree that non-technical interviewers are quite common. Rather than consider this a problem, Look at this as an opportunity to hone your ability to communicate to a broader audience. People who have the ability to explain technical things to a non-technical audience are very much sought after, because not only do they tend to understand their technical domain better, but the ability to interface with people outside of their technical group makes them excellent for training and presentation purposes. – Byron Jones Nov 10 '15 at 19:53
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Consider taking time at the end of the interview to highlight your experience and knowledge for items that weren't addressed by the interviewers questions. Of course, be brief, don't go on for too long; think of it like a slightly longer elevator pitch. If the interviewer hears something they like they may ask you to elaborate on it or simply note it for their consideration.

I've done this on multiple occasions (Canada and US) as well as had candidates do it when I was the interviewer and it was always well received.

  • What's wrong with the answer that got it down voted? The OP said he/she believes their poor interview performance was due to the lack of questions asked by the interviewer. My answer address what to do in such a situation. – AfterWorkGuinness Nov 10 '15 at 23:31
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    Your answer doesn't really give any reasons as to why it's perfectly acceptable. Can you expand on your points a little more to give your response more credibility? – Jane S Nov 10 '15 at 23:44
  • Given this question is soliciting opinions, I don't see how I can back it up with fact. I can reword it. – AfterWorkGuinness Nov 10 '15 at 23:46
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Have you ever rejected someone preemptively before they could reject you?

This may be what has happened in this case. Interviewers have egos too. If an interviewer felt embarrassed about his own lack of understanding, it's possible he may reject you and place the entire blame on you to get rid of the incident from his consciousness.

In such a case, the people he didn't interview at all, or the people he interviewed last, may be the ones selected for employment (because they may be the ones that saw him in the least embarrassing light).

There is no full proof way of dealing with someone like that, but knowing that the interviewer has an ego too is an important consideration to keep in mind.

In my own interviews for instance, I can usually predict what kind of questions are coming my way based on the linkedin profile of the person interviewing me. If the guy who is interviewing me wrote a music player during his personal time, I can assume he's going to ask me about how to write a music player. Or if the guy is into Augmented Reality, I bet he's going to ask me a question about implementing Augmented Reality.

After all, the interviewer is not always self-aware and the interview may become more about him and the perception you have of him than it is about you.

That being said, you can't always be that lucky. Sometimes the person interviewing you won't know what to say. And that's where your resume can become really handy, because he may use what is in your resume to generate questions from. And this too can also be predicted to some degree. There will be more interesting parts to your resume than others. Be prepared to talk about those interesting things. Be prepared to take charge of the interview yourself (especially if the interviewer is unwilling or unable to do it himself). That's the most you can do.

Again, that's not full-proof plan, but there is only so much you can control.

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While it's true that many SE questions are vague, and there are often lots of comments asking for clarification, many times there is an interpretation of the question that is more likely than others.

Perhaps in this sort of interview situation, particularly if you sense it's a pattern for the questions, instead of probing for the "one true interpretation" it would be better to state some assumptions, then start working through it.

If you're wrong about the question being asked, it gives a more concrete way to adjust the question, or even if they didn't have a well formed question you can let the interviewer "off the hook" by forming the rest of the question for them. As long as they don't cut you off, they get to see your approach to solving A problem even if it wasn't THE problem.

I would suggest, after a couple of requests for clarification, picking what you think is the most likely question and starting to talk through the solution to that.

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but I ended up getting rejected explicitly because I apparently didn't communicate technical depth or programming/development experience to the interviewer

Maybe that was the point. Maybe the interviewer knows that the business will come with some vague idea, and they need you to tie it down and clarify it. Maybe you should have raised the 10 comments to get to the bottom of the requirement to show you both understood the problem and how to solve it, and the interviewer was thinking about how you'll cope explaining the concept back to the business to say why their idea is really a major project and take 12 months to do.

Developers tend to be quite insular, many roles these days require ones who can go beyond that, and maybe if you had been able to get the rapor going you'd have got the job.

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Whatever you do, try to be likable. Keep saying that to yourself over and over. I realize this was supposed to be a technical interview, but you could find yourself in the same situation with a client that doesn't know what their doing. You don't want to come across as difficult to work with.

If a question is even remotely related to something you've done before, tell a quick story and let them know you've worked with something similar. This could prompt them to offer some clarification. Then you can go into a more detailed solution.

Ask about how they build stuff. Isn't this what you really want to know anyway? Get them talking about their projects and problems. Hopefully you can link this to similar situations you've experienced. Maybe it will prompt a technical question. "We use Framework A, but have performance problems." Now you have something to talk about.

Very few projects are so desperate for pure technical expertise that people are willing to work with someone who is really annoying. Focus more on the sales and marketing side. Did you even start the interview with an ice-breaker or some other form of casual conversation and try to make some connection? It can go a long way especially if you find this person doesn't really do many interviews and may not like it. This would be the time to try and make them as comfortable as possible and not focus too much on displaying your coding chops.

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