6 Red Flags I Saw While Doing 60+ Technical Interviews in 30 Days
Gotchas to guide you in your next technical interview
What is the one thing you would look out for if you had to join a company?
Sometime between January and March 2020, I wanted to change jobs and was looking to join a new company. This, among other reasons, led me to embark on a marathon of technical interviews – 60+ technical interviews in 30 days .
Doing that many number of interviews in such a short time meant I had an interesting mix of experiences from the various companies I interviewed with, each with their unique culture and values that often reflected in the way their interviews were conducted, intentionally or not.
In this article, I will be sharing some of the red flags I observed while I was on this marathon of technical interviews. I will not be mentioning names of any companies because that’s not the intent behind this article.
The goal of this article is also not to make you paranoid and be on the hunt for red flags in your next interview, far from it. Rather the goal is to equip you with knowledge to help you immediately identify exactly the same or similar red flags in your next interview, and hopefully identifying them will set you up to better handle them.
Even though the stories I’ll be sharing come from my marathon of technical interviews, these red flags do not apply only to technical interviews. They apply to all kinds of interviews and so there’s a lot to learn here for everyone.
The Red Flags
1. Your interviewer is only open to solving the problem ONE way
In the world of computing and in life generally, for any given problem, there is typically more than one way to solve that problem. For example, given a sorting problem, you could solve it using a merge-sort algorithm or a heap sort algorithm.
Having this rich number of techniques to solve a problem makes it even more interesting and the general expectation in technical interviews is that you should have the flexibility to solve a problem using your preferred technique.
I had an interview where the interviewer asked me to solve an algorithmic problem. I had started solving the problem using a specific technique when the interviewer stopped me in my tracks and asked that I use another technique.
When I probed a bit further to know why, it appeared that the reason he asked that I used the second wasn’t to test my knowledge of that second technique; it was because he was more ‘comfortable’ with that approach.
It is different if the interviewer wants to test your knowledge of something very specific. For example, given a problem that can be solved using iteration and recursion, the interviewer may want to test your knowledge of recursion and can ask you to solve the problem recursively. That wasn’t the case here.
I ended up using both techniques and discussed the trade-offs but frankly that experience left a bad taste in my mouth especially because that interview was with the hiring manager — my would-be manager, who is someone that can significantly influence your career growth and trajectory.
2. Undue pressure to accept an offer letter
It’s very exciting and fulfilling when you go through all preliminary stages of a technical interview, through to the onsite interview (remote or in-person) and then you receive that “Congratulations , we are pleased to offer you…” email.
However, that excitement often becomes short-lived when there is some form of pressure from your soon-to-be employer to accept the offer. It’s a bit more manageable when the pressure comes from someone in HR or the recruiter, but when it’s from the hiring manager, that can be harder to manage.
That was the case for me when I interviewed with a startup based in Palo Alto. They were a small company in terms of staff strength. My onsite interview with them had gone quite well. I had a good conversation with the hiring manager and an even better conversation with the VP of Engineering, so much so that I could tell that I was going to be extended an offer. I asked to know how long I had to accept the offer letter and I was told seventy-two hours.
The offer letter arrived later that evening, and it looked great — a six-figure offer definitely didn’t seem like a bad start. I was also at the final stage of the interview process with other companies too and thankfully, I had enough time to negotiate and accept the offer, or so I thought.
Then the pressure started, incessant calls from the hiring manager and the VP of Engineering, back-to-back emails, all within the allotted time. So much was the pressure that it got to a point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to negotiate the offer anymore. I turned down the offer.
I turned down the offer because the experience got me thinking about the company’s work culture. Were the methods employed by the company to get me to accept the offer indicative of their work culture? If they needed to get something done, how far would they go?
Now don’t get me wrong, yes the company wants to employ you, yes the recruiting team wants to ‘close the deal’ however, it’s very important to pay attention to how the company does this. Do they remain professional about it?
A company’s values go beyond what they say, it shows in what they do and how they do it.
3. Not enough clarity about your role
Among the many reasons why you would join a company is your desire to be involved in valuable work. I had the opportunity to join a US company based in Boulder, Colorado. They had contracted a recruiting agency to help them find someone to fill a Software Engineer position in their firm.
The hiring process started with an exploratory interview with the recruiting agency closely followed by a second interview with a recruiter from the company. In both interviews, I couldn’t get a clear sense of the details of my specific role was — what team I would be on, what kinds of projects I’d be working on, what the career growth pathway was, etc.
I understand that sometimes companies can be going through restructuring, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. It seemed more like the company was focused on completing their headcount. Even though there’s nothing wrong with completing a headcount, I think there is everything wrong with not having a clear purpose for a role for a couple of reasons:
- It means the role may not be critical to the company’s core business.
- If the role isn’t that important, it may mean when a layoff comes, your position may be impacted.
On a more personal note, I don’t want to be just a number. I want to work at a place where I have the opportunity to contribute in an impactful way, and I like to believe you would too. So it’s important to get clarity about your role, for where you are today and for future career growth.
4. Consistent lack of interest or low morale from interviewers
When looking to join a company, one of the things you simply must care about is the team you will end up working on. At least 25% of your waking hours will be spent interacting with that team whether in-person or virtually.
Interviews offer you an opportunity to experience firsthand what it will look like to work with your prospective teammates, especially since, unless you’re interviewing at a huge company, your interviewers are likely to become your teammates.
If through all the different stages of the interview process, you experience a consistent lack of interest or low morale from your interviewers, you might want to pay attention .
When I experienced that during one of my interviews, I couldn’t exactly tell what the cause was, but I knew something just wasn’t right. After some internal tussle, I decided to trust my gut feelings and ended the interview process with the company.
Fast forward to two months after, two of my interviewers (would-be teammates) had left the company and joined another company (no I wasn’t stalking 🙄, I just checked on LinkedIn ).
Now I’m not saying that during the interview process, there won’t be one or two people, who because of their busy schedules, would have preferred to be doing something else rather than interviewing. Yet, when all of the interviewers don’t want to be there, you certainly want to pay attention to that.
A lack of interest or low morale could be pointers to a combination of any of the following:
- Your prospective team-mates may be experiencing burnout.
- Some internal dissatisfaction with company — culture, policies, something, anything.
- The team isn’t that interested in you (hard pill to swallow?), maybe they don’t see you as a long-term hire.
Or it could be for reasons that I have not included here, but I implore you to not ignore this red flag if you see it in your next interview.
5. Your interviewers aren’t prepared for the interview
Have you been in an interview before where the interviewer doesn’t seem to have any questions to ask you? Trust me it can get really awkward.
That was my experience during a technical phone-screen interview with an educational technology company based in California. The interviewer wasn’t prepared for our interview and didn’t have any questions at hand. He wasn’t even sure of who he was interviewing and what role I was interviewing for. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I understand that there are a myriad of reasons why interviewers may not be prepared for an interview. Some of which include:
- Lack of proper planning by the HR/recruiting team.
- Last-minute changes on the interviewee.
- Busy schedules for the interviewer.
- The interviewer just wasn’t prepared.
I typically won’t act on this red flag in isolation. I will be looking for other red flags in a bid to form a cluster of patterns before making any decision.
6. Lack of a clear direction on where the company is headed
It’s fulfilling to be a part of a company that is involved in meaningful work that creates value for its users. Joining such a company would mean you have the desire to contribute in helping the organization meet its goals. This invariably means the organization must have some goals right?
I was contacted by a startup based in San Francisco via AngelList. I had a first introductory call with a recruiter from the company, closely followed by a phone screen technical interview.
In both interviews, even though the interviewers shared some details about the company, there was a lot of vagueness and about the company’s direction and where the company was headed.
I particularly remember that one question I asked at the time, was about how the company would deal with its growing competition. Sadly, the answers I got didn’t seem convincing and the company later got acquired by the competition.
When you are interviewing to join a company, you are selling more than just your skills, but also yourself — your unique experience. While it’s important to do that, I think it’s equally important that the company should be able to sell you on its vision and what it hopes to achieve.
When I think of joining a company, I picture myself in that company for the next 2–5 years. If my vision for where I want to be in my career doesn’t align with the company’s vision, that is a mismatch that shouldn’t be ignored.
We sometimes focus more on securing the job which is important. But equally important or even more important than getting the job is staying fulfilled on the job. For me, fulfillment meant joining a company that had a clear vision of where they were headed, working in a role that was critical to the company’s business while being equipped with a lot of growth opportunities.
Hopefully, these red flags I have shared will equip you to make better decisions on what companies you choose to grow your career with. I would generally not advise making a decision based on one or two red flags, but if you see a cluster of red flags, you shouldn’t ignore them. I wish you the best in your career journey.
If you ever need someone to do a mock interview with you, feel free to schedule one here or you can reach out directly to me on Twitter @meekg33k .
I haven't done 60, but even in the small number of sessions I've done, I've experienced a lot of the same recently. I've been on both sides of the hiring table in my 20-year career and these have been some of the worst hiring experiences I've seen.
I've not found anything new yet, but from what I've seen:
Companies that said no to me: They are looking for something very specific and a 20-year spikey profile doesn't fit with their narrow vision. These ones also had the worst technical tests as part of the 1h session - they were either very low level ("build a system to store strings") or super-high level ("Explain how you'd build a plugin system") and expecting perfect technical expertise.
Companies I've said no to: Red flags all over the place - one company put me through a 3.5h interview process (I should have said no, but I was curious - I said no before they made an offer) and did 3 very technical tests during that time.
In one interview they said they had no documentation, and one had already gone through a re-org and the hiring person already said others were leaving so this was a role to replace people.
And in all cases - clarity of role is missing from a lot of the descriptions. They have generic "Senior Developer" roles that require skill sets that in some orgs require a team of people. When you ask about the role there's no distinction of management vs leadership, one org said it would take months to fully onboard (so what would I be doing in the time up to then?).
It's amazing how consistent this is over the industry and I suspect it's in part when you let the development team run the hiring process instead of the HR department.