How I prepare for a tech job interview

Posted by on January 5, 2022

You’ve updated your CV, applied for a job in tech and been offered an interview. Fantastic! But what next?

Preparing for interviews is time consuming and can feel daunting, particularly in the earlier stages of your career. I’ve found that having a regimented process for this preparation can reduce stress and save valuable time. In this post I’m going to outline my own process and provide some examples of what each step might look like for you.

In some cases the examples I use are related to my own field of data analysis. However, the process I follow could be useful in preparing for any job interview in a tech-related field, and possibly beyond!

In Summary

Let’s assume you’ve already updated your CV and perhaps written a cover letter too. By this point, have both of these saved in a new folder (e.g. Jobs > 2022 > FreeAgent) so that you can refer back to them. From here, your preparation process is to put together two further documents:

  1. A list of key projects you’ve worked on (the Project List) and the skills/competencies that they demonstrate
  2. A Rolesheet about the organisation and role that you’re applying for, and why you’d be the right fit

The Project List

At every stage in an interview you’ll be expected to demonstrate particular skills or competencies. Some interviewers might be looking for interpersonal skills, such as handling disagreements or working under pressure, and other interviewers might be looking for technical skills, such as working with bad data or using a particular statistical technique. While you may be able to demonstrate these skills in the interview itself, it’s important that you can also give examples of where you’ve demonstrated these skills in the past.

Regardless of whether you’re a fresh graduate or a seasoned veteran, it’s likely that you’ve demonstrated most of these skills at some point or another in your life. However, it’s often difficult to recall these quickly in an interview. A well-prepared Project List can work wonders here. Although it’s quite time consuming to put together, it can help you prepare for interviews for multiple jobs – both now and in the future.

Step 1: Chuck some projects down

Open a blank document and make a bullet point list of projects you’ve worked on. Don’t worry too much about adding too much detail. Don’t worry if it was a really small piece of work. Going through your previous job history or education in chronological order can help ensure you don’t miss any out, and adding rough dates in front of each one keeps that organised.

It might look something like this:

  • 2019-08 Masters dissertation
  • 2020-01 Blog post on pivot tables
  • 2020-06 Ran a half marathon
  • 2020-06 Kaggle challenge – Titanic survival analysis
  • 2021-02 AB test – adding new homepage banner
  • 2021-05 Survey data text analysis
  • 2021-06 Ran SQL training

The term ‘project’ here doesn’t have to relate to something you’ve done in a job. If you’re applying for your first job, you might want to think of this as a list of personal achievements or academic assignments.

Nobody else is going to read this, so use whatever language feels most natural to you!

Step 2: Identify some skills

Go through each project and think about what skills you feel it demonstrated. Don’t worry about stating the obvious. Don’t worry if it was only a minor example of that skill. Don’t worry if you think somebody else might disagree with you. Do try to use consistent language: if you’re talking about the same skill across different projects, give it the same name.

Your list might expand into something like this:

  • 2019-08 Masters dissertation
    • Time constraints
    • Written communication
  • 2020-01 Blog post on pivot tables
    • Self-motivated
    • Written communication
  • 2020-06 Ran a half marathon
    • Self-motivated
    • Overcoming adversity
  • 2020-06 Kaggle challenge – Titanic survival analysis
    • Self-motivated
    • Python
    • Cleaning data
    • Statistical modelling
  • 2021-02 AB test – adding new homepage banner
    • Liaising with stakeholders
    • Tableau
    • Delivering bad news to somebody senior
  • 2021-05 Survey data text analysis
    • Python
    • Learning a new skill
  • 2021-06 Ran SQL training
    • Explaining a difficult concept
    • Presenting

Step 3: Cross-check against common competency questions

There are lots of resources online listing common interview questions designed to give you the opportunity to highlight your skills. This list from prospects is a nice starting point and it explains the STAR (situation/task/action/result) response structure really well.

Go through each competency question in order and find a project of your own that would fit your response. You may need to add the skill to your list to help you remember that link, or you may need to think of another project and add that to your list. Again, don’t worry if you feel you’re giving a really tenuous example of that competency! Here are some examples.

Tell me about a time when you showed integrity and professionalism.

I haven’t explicitly called out integrity as a skill under any of my projects, but I do remember being challenged on that AB test when somebody asked me if we could stop the test early. I said no and that the test needed to run for longer to reach statistical significance, which is an example of my integrity, so I’m going to add integrity to that list:

  • 2021-02 AB test – adding new homepage banner
    • Liaising with stakeholders
    • Tableau
    • Delivering bad news to somebody senior
    • Integrity

Give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way.

Again, I haven’t explicitly called it out, but I think that my text-mining in Python was a creative way to gauge our customers’ response to a new feature. I’ll add that to the list.

  • 2021-05 Survey data text analysis
    • Python
    • Learning a new skill
    • Creative problem-solving

How do you maintain good working relationships with your colleagues?

I don’t think any of the projects listed here are the best examples for this, but I can think of things I do to support good working relationships. There was that time I tried out a colleague’s suggestion even though I didn’t think it was likely to be suitable. It may feel like overkill to create a whole new project just to list this, but I find this project-oriented approach helps me to remember all of these small examples more easily. I’ll add that as a project to my list. 

  • 2020-06 Moving tools from Basecamp to Trello
    • Listening to others’ suggestions to support good working relationships

And so on. Ideally, you want your project list to be the one-stop-shop for answering any competency question that might be thrown at you. This sounds excessive – how can you be prepared to answer any possible question?! The trick is to find ways to frame your projects in the right way, and this step should help with that.

Step 4: Practise, practise, practise

It’s all well and good having a colossal list of things you’ve done and the skills they demonstrate, but it’s unlikely you’ll have this to hand at an interview. You need to practise recalling these as examples in order to embed them in your head.

Ask a friend to chuck some competency questions at you and try to answer them using the STAR structure and your examples above. If you’re embarrassed about asking a friend, create some flashcards and go through them in a random order. If you’re doing it by yourself, I’d still encourage practising your responses out loud.

To begin with, have your list in front of you. Once you’ve used a particular example in response to a question, highlight it. Challenge yourself by trying not to use the same project more than once. If, at the end, there are whole projects left untouched, see if you can think of ways you could’ve worked that project into a response – especially if it’s a project you’re particularly proud of.

Once you’re feeling a bit more confident, try it without the list in front of you and see how that goes. If you need to reach for your list at any point, do that!

Remember that one interview might only cover 20% of the examples in your list, and that’s fine. You’re over-preparing here. If you can find ways to mention other skills (“…and I was also particularly pleased with that project because of how I handled the conflict between Bill and Ben”) then you can mention those in passing too.

No interview is going to be perfect, and as such you’re not expected to think of the most appropriate example for any given question. However, having this list will help minimise the chance of having nothing to say, which is what you want to avoid.

The Rolesheet

In addition to questions about your skills, interviewers will also be asking questions to understand your motivations for applying for this role at this organisation. Your responses should show that you really want to work at this organisation, in this particular role. This is where the Rolesheet comes in.

While the Project List is generally transferable between different interviews, the Rolesheet should be heavily tailored to the organisation and role that you’re applying for. 

Step 1: Make notes on the organisation

Nobody expects you to recite an organisation’s Wikipedia entry in your interview, but it’s important to know a bit about the organisation’s background and the wider context it sits in. Do some desk research and make a bullet point list of what you find out. 

Some things you might want to consider:

  • When was the organisation founded?
  • How many employees does it have? 
  • How many customers/users does it have? Does it have different types of customer?
  • Do its customers pay? If so, how much?
  • Who owns the organisation? Has it ever changed hands?
  • What’s the organisation’s mission, or purpose?
  • Does the organisation have any competitors?
  • Has the organisation been in the news recently?
  • Does the organisation have its own blog or newsfeed?
  • How is the organisation perceived by its customers? Does it have reviews?

The job advert will probably contain a paragraph outlining some of this, but don’t forget other sources of information, such as:

  • The organisation’s website
  • Google (and the News section)
  • The organisation’s social media pages (Linkedin? Twitter? Facebook?)
  • Trustpilot
  • Glassdoor
  • Wikipedia

Step 2: Outline why you want to work for the organisation

You can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be asked “why do you want to work here?” in an interview. This is where your research above comes into play. What do you like about the organisation? What drives you, and how does that match up with the organisation? 

Try to prepare a rough outline of how you’ll answer this question with 3-5 key reasons as bullet points. Being able to mention specific things you’ve learnt about the company (“…and I liked what I read about your approach to prioritisation in your CEO’s blog post”) shows you’re really interested.

It might look something like this:

  • Market-leading product
  • Mission indicates that they genuinely want to make a difference for users
  • Size of business is perfect place to have an impact
  • Blog posts by previous interns indicate positive place to work

Step 3: Outline why you want to work in the specific role

Following on from the above, you’ll want to mention why this role appeals to you. If you’ve been in this field for a while, what led you into it? If you’re moving from a current role, what is it you like about this one? Try to frame this in a positive light. “This role looks really exciting because…” is much better than “I want to leave my current role because…” even though it might make the same point.

Again, try to make a 3-5 bullet point list. This is another opportunity to show you’ve done some research by mentioning specific elements of the role description if you can. You might not be asked explicitly why you want to work in this role, so be prepared to offer these points up in your response to the “why do you want to work here?” question.

It might look something like this:

  • Team is growing – opportunity to shape the team’s direction
  • Opportunity to work with variety of teams across the business
  • Potential opportunity to mentor more junior team members

Step 4: Outline what you can offer

Again, you might not be directly asked “what can you bring to this role?” in an interview, but you want to make it clear that you feel you can offer something. Consider the skills you listed in your Project List. What stands out? What do you think your relative strengths are? This is your chance to freestyle. Get these down in another bullet list. 

Check the job description and see how your strengths match up with what the organisation is looking for. In a dream world you’d address every listed requirement at some point throughout the interview, so go through the requirement list and highlight the points you’ve already covered in your responses. If there’s anything you haven’t addressed, make a note of these and think about ways that you could weave them in.

For example:

  • Previous experience building data-first culture
  • Accurate and keen eye for detail – crucial in a small business where everybody’s role is important
  • Love presenting/talking to people – a major part of a role involving so many stakeholders

Step 5: Practise, practise, practise

You should now have 3 short lists: reasons why you want to work at this organisation, reasons why you want to work in this role, and what you can offer. This is your Rolesheet:  9-15 points that you want to get across at some point in your interview.

Take a look at some typical interview questions and practise some responses. Similar to the competency questions, begin with your Rolesheet in front of you and tick each point off as you make it. If, after a handful of questions, you’ve missed out any of your points, think about how you could have woven those in. 

While it’s good to have key points you want to get across in the why you want to work here questions, there will be other questions that haven’t been mentioned so far: what are your weaknesses? How do you prioritise your work? These other questions aren’t ones to over-prepare for. Your Project List and Rolesheet will have plenty of points to draw from. If you have to think up examples outside of the ones you’ve already listed, add them to your list!

Find another list of questions and repeat with those. Once you’re feeling more comfortable, try each question without your Rolesheet and check it afterwards to see how you did. 

Wrapping Up

So that’s my prep process: write two documents and use them to practise answering questions. As mentioned, the Project List is reusable and so worth investing the time into. On the other hand, the Rolesheet doesn’t take too long to put together and should be started from scratch for each interview. Here’s a very basic template for starting these two documents off, based on the examples above.

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