After 100+ Interviews as a Hiring Manager in Engineering

Sanja Bonic

Resumes are really important and you should make a good first impression. That’s what I thought before I started hiring and working together with overloaded recruiters/talent acquisition specialists. In fact, I believed that resumes are the one deciding factor so much that I dedicated a whole Master’s thesis to visualized resumes. My assumptions back then were that resumes are inherently flawed (this I still believe) and that most companies use automated applicant systems anyway which means your resume is rarely even seen (somewhat true).

Meme with bad advice mallard telling you to throw away half of the resumes because you would not want to hire unlucky people

Now that we know there is an element of bad luck involved in any hiring process, let’s assume you’ve been in the lucky group of people whose profile was noticed by recruiters or hiring managers. Good job!

You haven’t done much so far, but you either have an interesting name, or you’re in a region that wasn’t automatically dismissed by the system, or you’ve used the keywords in your resume correctly. Half of the game is to not get thrown away by “the system”.

If the company is aware of bad choices made by systems, they will opt to show all applicants in the list. A human will then go through the exhausting exercise of looking at all the applicants manually. We did that at every company I have hired for so far.

In general, we had 300-500 applications per role. You only have a certain amount of hours in the day. Even though you want to treat everyone with respect and give good feedback, there comes a time when you, too, will just send out generic rejections — no matter whether you work in talent acquisition or are the hiring manager.

It’s a numbers game. Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

As a hiring manager, I’d take an extra 1-2 hours “after work” per day in heavy hiring seasons to go through each resume. When I say “go through each resume”, I really mean going through a random sample at the beginning, at the end, and somewhere in the middle of the list. For a regular engineering position, I’d look at maybe 20% of incoming applicants — remember, it’s not my main job, but I’m trying to help out the recruiter who’s also recruiting for 5 other hiring managers who get just about as many applications. Being the hiring manager means I’m on the lookout for someone I’d like to work with and who fits the team.

I would also interview candidates where I thought they would bring something unique to the table, even though they wouldn’t necessarily be my top choice of peer colleague. That’s why we always do more than one round. You are supposed to interview with at least 3 people as a bare minimum before you join a company because you’re also trying to figure out whether the company is a good fit for you.

This is not just random babbling — if you have the skills for a job in IT, you should have a choice of jobs. Pick the role that suits you. If you are in urgent need of money and intend to keep looking, take a job that is not going to consume all your time and energy and look to get out fast.

Stage 1: Applications

One thing to remember is that we’re talking about entry level to senior management jobs here. Anything above that is pure networking. Nobody will hire you as a VP if you don’t know people and haven’t made a name for yourself in your field. Also, you wouldn’t normally be looking at a post like this in that case.

Let’s get into what (not) do if you want that entry level to senior management job.

Don’t contact the CEO

If you do, don’t contact the CEO more than once. This has happened before in companies where I worked. It’s always going to end up in a rejection and your name will be remembered. In jobs, you either want your name to be forgotten or remembered positively. Seriously, don’t contact the CEO unless you know them or have had a previous (pleasant) interaction with them.

Try to find out who posted the job

Some platforms have a job poster contact person. Contact them if your job will involve talking to people and have a friendly conversation introducing yourself and mention that you’ve submitted an application a week ago and would like to know whether there is anything else you can provide as additional information. Don’t do that if you know you’re awkward on the phone. Mostly, know yourself. If you’re impatiently waiting, apply for more jobs, call the job poster, or learn more which you can use for your next job.

Check out the people at the company and try to find out who your hiring manager could be. Often, they post their own and similar jobs on their personal social media profiles. Maybe you can even find a way to connect with them without being intrusive.

Wait longer

Have you applied for a big company or a small one? If it’s a small one, do you know someone there who can get your application through faster? If it’s one of the big ones, have you looked at all their resources online to figure out what the next steps are? If not, find out. If yes, and you’re still waiting, and you don’t have anyone on the inside who can poke, wait more and check your network of people again. Depending on the company, it can sometimes take months until you get feedback.

Network more

Start building your network and then continue doing that. If you want a fabulous job in IT, your network is what is going to always keep you supplied with job opportunities. In order to build a network, start helping first. Engage in communities for your chosen field. Be helpful and be supportive.

Check your social media accounts

If you link your social media accounts on your resume, anything on there is likely to get seen by the recruiter or hiring manager or anyone who is going to be interviewing you. Are you constantly mentioning companies, platforms, and people who annoy you or otherwise are “doing it wrong”, especially when you have no track record of having achieved anything similar? Consider stopping that - if you have nothing nice to say, sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all.

Here’s my own example: I specifically set up a Twitter account to get a job where I can work from home, many years ago. I was careful of what I posted as I had only one purpose for it: get that job somewhere in open source that lets me work from home. In my case, it worked.

But you know what one of the people in the hiring process also told me? They went through literally every one of my tweets and replies from 2 years to figure out who I am. They even asked about one or two tweets that were 1-2 years old. Those were experimental tweets where I had tested the response as opposed to the normal type of tweets I did. Those tweets helped me get the job! Naturally, I deleted my Twitter right after I landed that job because it had served its purpose.

Check your other accounts

Are you looking for a job in quality assurance? Show off the test cases you’ve built for an imaginary or real project on GitHub or another platform. Technical Writer? Increase the amount and quality of your writing samples. Engineer? Show off that code and the PRs to open source projects. You can be time-efficient here. There is no need to have 100 projects when one suffices. Just do your best.

It’s your first job? Show university or bootcamp tasks you’re especially proud of. You’ve only done proprietary work? Write an article or do a quick project using some of the same technologies.

Provide additional resources, but don’t overdo it

Often, applicant tracking systems will show GitHub/Twitter/other links as an additional column next to the candidate. That is helpful, because now I don’t even have to look at your resume, and your profile will automatically receive a premium boost. It almost guarantees that your resume won’t get thrown away but there are some pitfalls.

You need real content and quality material. Don’t plagiarize. It’s better to have your resume thrown away in one company and then chosen in another than to show that you can’t produce original content or that you jumbled things together in a hurry to look better. Slow and steady wins the race here. Build your portfolio over time and apply with your normal resume and no additional links in the meantime, if you don’t have anything original to show.

Final Tips

If you have a GitHub (or other public account) to show, that’s definitely a bonus that will get you noticed more. It’s one of the first things I look at when I hire Engineers. I generally look at the provided links and added material because most people will write some buzzword bingo in their list of skills and a very boring list of activities as their experience. None of that is interesting or engaging when I have hundreds of applications I could be going through.

A list of added links shows me that I can get some real information elsewhere. I can very quickly build an opinion from a blog that has one post and is clearly copied from another blog. It’s similar to a sentence in your resume throwing around vague terms like “supervised activities of engineers in a long-term innovative project using agile techniques with a young and dynamic team”.

If you include things like blockchain, Kubernetes, Machine Learning, or any other currently trending tech topics in your resume, I’m very likely going to ask you detailed questions to make sure you actually know them. Leave them out unless you have really worked with them and can give me something interesting to talk about during the interview.

Stage 2: Interviews

A picture of two monkeys having a “conversation”.
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash.

I have looked at plenty of applications that looked good on the surface from their linked GitHub profile. Naturally, that means I’ll randomly look at your repositories. Are there mostly forks? Are there mostly cheatsheet type of repositories with none of your own code/documentation/writing samples? Is it very basic HTML and CSS you’re regularly committing but applying for a Software Engineering job?

It’s better to not have a GitHub profile linked than to have none of your own code samples on there. It’s better to not link your social media accounts if all you’re posting about is how bad your donuts were and rage tweets about random topics. Being political is ok, being rude or aggressive is not. In general, the way I choose applicants for interviews is:

  • Via the recruiter who has forwarded your resume to me with a thumbs up.
  • I have looked at your resume myself and you have not included enough information for me to say yay or nay: I’ll flag you and have the recruiter take a closer look at you or put you through to the pre-screen or first interview stage directly.
  • Your profile was so interesting that I’ll want to interview you as soon as possible.
  • You were recommended, in which case, I have an obligation to at least take a very detailed look at your profile.

Once it comes to the interview stage, your resume is hereby mostly irrelevant. It’s now all about your skills and communication.

Make your interviewer want to work with you

When I hire someone, I look at whether I would want to work with that person or even want that person to manage me. You never know how the world will spin, and some day you might be in the hiring manager’s position while I will be looking for a job. Show me in the interview that I would want to work with you. Don’t exhibit rage. Don’t show indifference. Don’t make me feel like you’re treating others as inferior. Don’t talk just about yourself. Don’t talk just about money.

Listen to your interviewer carefully

I’m interviewing you as the manager for a remote team and tell you that flexibility is very important for the culture we want to cultivate. Furthermore, I explain to you how we do it right now, then ask you, “how would you continue that spirit of flexibility and intrinsic motivation?” Please don’t let your answer be, “I ensure flexibility by letting the people come to work at 8, 9, or even 10 am”. This is an actual answer I have received by someone who was so focused on looking good in the interview process and having their rehearsed answers ready that they simply did not listen to the interviewer.

Prepare well

If you really want that job, look at the company website, search more about what you can find, prepare some good questions (“what’s the team size?”, “how many experienced people are working on the team?”, “who would I learn the most from?”, “how will I know if I’ve done a good job?” — those type of questions that show your engagement and interest in your team members, not your benefits or salary only).

Depending on the role you are applying for, figure out the job specifics. For a support role, ask how many tickets there are daily. For a role with on call duties, ask more about playbooks and disaster recovery. For an engineering role, ask about how the project is structured, whether there are dedicated roles for agile practitioners, and product owners.

In general, you will be interested in how leadership and promotions work. It’s up to you whether you want to reveal any side gigs here. Are you a single parent and have to make sure you get time to bring your kid to school and pick them up? This might be important information to disclose here. It’s something I have usually done in the first interview. If the company can’t deal with it, I can’t deal with the company.

Yes, it’s a very privileged position to be in, but we’re talking about a job in IT here, which means you already are working from a privilege that many other people do not have. I have worked in various low-paying jobs and there are usually jobs, even when you’re very young or have very few skills, that let you keep some flexibility to take care of your kids, finish your education track, or follow your unpaid passions while you just keep the survival money flowing.

Don’t get defensive or aggressive

A picture of a wolf crying.
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

This is probably the most important advice. Does your face show that you’re really annoyed by a certain question? Practice making your face not do that if you want the job.

Ask the interviewer if they could repeat the question in case you misunderstood something. Don’t blame everyone else for failures from the past. Show that you can self-reflect and learn from mistakes, even if the mistake happens during the interview. If you misunderstand a question, mention it immediately, shake it off, and continue the path to the “right” answer.

If you were rejected, but the hiring manager or recruiter calls you up again, it means that there is a chance to still get the job.

I have had a situation where I called a rejected candidate and wanted to hear their stance on it. The top two engineers interviewing the candidate had a “feeling” the candidate might have received the answers from a previous candidate. I was getting really frustrated with the two engineers because they were rejecting a candidate who passed their technical round with flying colors simply because they had a “bad feeling” they couldn’t quite explain. The candidate had delivered a perfect technical round, so why did I have to reject the candidate?

I talked to the VP who said “it’s still your decision if you want to hire the candidate”. So I thought about it and decided to call the candidate and get their view on the perfect technical round. The candidate got furious and fumed, “I got rejected because I was perfect? I am just that good, how dare they assume I got the answers from someone else!” The candidate raged some more, I asked them what their stance now was. The answer? “I’d never work for this company anyway now!”

Phew, bullet dodged — after this call, I vowed to always listen to my top engineers because their feeling was clearly on point. From that moment onward, my own input counted less towards my decisions than the input of my panel of trusted engineers. Sure, they can sometimes err, and we can have a differing opinion — but that is usually cleared up quickly with one additional candidate call.

Get your setup right

Most interviews are remote nowadays. All of my interviews so far as hiring manager were remote, so I don’t even know what face to face interviews are like from a hiring manager’s perspective. I prefer a remote setting as it means I don’t have to worry about how I sit and can be more comfortable, no matter whether I’m the interviewer or interviewee. Make sure your internet and camera/microphone setup are working. If they are not, you won’t get more time to make a better first impression. It’s your job to sort these things out on time, similar to timing a commute right.

Be on time

I absolutely dislike it when someone is not on time and if they are late, I definitely want to hear a sincere apology and reason for it. My time is valuable and so is yours. I will apologize if I’m late, which can happen. I expect the same from you.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know if this post was helpful or what you’d like to change. Always remember: Be excellent to each other, during interviews and beyond!