Rookie Mistake! Tips for cracking a cultural tech interview, from the cover letter to the questioning.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a mock cultural interview with my career coach. I scheduled this because as I moved forward in my job search it became more difficult to hone in on reasons why I wanted to work for certain companies. Also, while I am always confident in my ability to talk to people, I realized that I hadn’t talked about code to anyone outside of my former cohort, and wanted to refocus my mind towards an interview setting.

After our interview, I realized that I had gotten a lot more out of it than originally planned. There were some pretty obvious flaws in my interviewing strategy, but luckily, a simple shift in approach can fix these rookie mistakes. As you read on, I want you to keep these things in mind.

  1. This interview is just as much about the company you’re applying to as it is about you (more so, even).

Part I — Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter is sometimes the first thing that a recruiter will look at and we all know how important a first impression can be. It’s easy to forget that the cover letter isn’t just an introduction about you, but also a showcase of whether or not you “get” the company’s message.

**The rookie mistake here is how you organize your cover letter.**

Personally, I haven’t updated how I format cover letters since my teaching days. I remember feeling as though I wrote the perfect cover letter for any situation, and while it did save me time on many of my applications, it still didn’t give me the bites I was looking for.

For starters, the opening of my cover letter was more of an introduction to me than my understanding of the job I was applying to/why I’m a great fit at the company. Thinking back to the three things I asked you to remember, I’m pretty sure my cover letter, in its current state, violates all three of those things. When we write mainly about ourselves, we toe the line of showing confidence over passion. This gives our readers a great opinion about our own egos, but doesn’t quite give the recruiter a reason to move us on to the next round.

Recruiters want to know that you get what you’re applying for from the get-go. The opening of your cover letter is to tick that box, not to show off. Once you’ve established why you’re so interested in working at that company, then you can move onto the specifics of what makes you so great. In short, the opening of our cover letter is simply bait to get recruiters to want to know more about us on a personal/professional level.

Part II — You got the interview, now what?

Let’s say that your cover letter wows the recruiters and you’re promptly asked to prepare for a cultural interview. The next part needs to be taken pretty seriously, as now you’re at the first really meaningful part of the application process. Echoing the three things that I mentioned earlier, it’s important for you to research the following:

  1. Your cover letter.

If you’re applying to 10 jobs a week and are fortunate enough to have many interviews going on around the same time, or if you haven’t had many interviews at all, it’s a good idea to review your cover letter. Since your cover letter is what potentially got you the interview in the first place, it’s a solid idea to remember why you wanted the job, and to bring that passion into the interview.

The job description holds a lot more useful information that one would think at first glance. For example, if you see a job description that often mentions independently working as a cornerstone of their pipeline, you should make sure that your answers to company questions reflect that. After-all, if they say that they want someone who can work independently and you don’t mention that, why should they put you through to the next round? In addition, be prepared to know the technical aspects of the job from front to back, not just the parts of the job description that you currently know. It reiterates to the interviewer that you not only know X, but that you’ve understood that the job will go outside of your current comfort zone.

Take a look at this example interview question. Without scrolling further, I want you to write down what the question is asking and what to include in your answer.

The question: “You and two other developers have been given two hours to come up with a solution to automate a manual process. Files are coming into Box, which are manually fed into a Windows Forms application that populates records into a database through the click of a button. You have the source code of the app. How do you approach automating this process from end-to-end in the tight timeframe allotted?”

What were the first things that jumped out at you in this question? Depending on how you thought about this might be the key to whether or not you’ve made it to the next round of interviews. The first time I saw this question, my mind highlighted the following:

“You and two other developers have been given two hours to come up with a solution to automate a manual process. Files are coming into Box, which are manually fed into a Windows Forms application that populates records into a database through the click of a button. You have the source code of the app. How do you approach automating this process from end-to-end in the tight timeframe allotted?

I really felt like I had a handle on this question and gave a technical answer of how I would have the forms populate the records upon a re-rendering of the page. I did everything that I thought would be correct. I took apart the question, found out how to tie my technical knowledge in, and gave an answer that satisfies the question.

**The rookie mistake here was forgetting about the job description and not seeing how it connected to the question.**

While my answer was fine in my own eyes, an interviewer wouldn’t pass me with that sort of response. The real question happens in the opening sentence.

“You and two other developers have been given two hours to come up with a solution to automate a manual process.”

After reviewing the job description again, I saw that there was an extreme emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. Now you can see how much answers can change based on an understanding of the question. While changing my answer to include a focus on teamwork, I could also show my knowledge of how teamwork can be approached in an office using whiteboards, testing, and group conversation.

Part III — The Value of the Company Website.

A company website is a treasure trove of information regarding a company’s direction, future plans, and general ethos. While crafting answers to questions or even tailoring your cover letter to a specific company, it’s important to highlight that you actually know the company pretty well.

The easiest way to do this is to simply apply to jobs that you’re interested in. In my experience, I’ve researched companies that I’ve wanted to work for just for fun. When you see a position open at a place that you know you’d love, this part becomes super easy. Limiting yourself to only jobs where you would like to work might increase the amount of time you’re spending job hunting, but you will find yourself retaining more company specific information and your excitement will come through in both your cover letter and interview.

Viewing the company website is especially important if you’re not just applying to places you love, but also places that just simply fit what you can do at the moment. To these sorts of employers, they need to know that you’re not just showing up for a paycheck. Backing up your answers and what you’ve written in your cover letter by knowing hard facts about the company will help you immensely.

Part IV — The Final Question

As most interviews come to a close, you will almost always be given a chance to ask your interviewer questions. It’s important to remember the first thing from the top of this article here.

“This interview is just as much about the company you’re applying to as it is about you.”

In my teaching years, the golden question I would ask during interviews was always about professional development. It was typically the first one I asked, and I thought that it showed that I not only am interested in working there, but also growing there, too.

**The rookie mistake here is focusing too much on your own development than using this opportunity to get some insider information about the company.**

It turns out that putting my best question forward might have put my resume in the trash. To recruiters, this might show them that you’re more interested in your own growth than the growth of the company. Save a question like this for later on, and focus on more company oriented questions now.

To help, here’s a few good questions to keep in your back pocket for the end of an interview.

  1. What is the single largest problem facing your staff and would I be in a position to help you solve this problem?

It seems like praxis that you always want to put your best foot forward during an interview, but it’s important that we sometimes reign ourselves back and search for what a particular company is looking for. When you carefully analyze what’s being asked and what they truly want in a new employee, you’ll find that there are changes you can make to almost every part of how you’ve done cultural interviews in the past. I hope these rookie mistakes are ones that you’ve avoided and if not, I hope this blog helped bring some of your mistakes to the surface.

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Kevin Gleeson

Software Engineering Graduate from Flatiron School. Former expatriate and music teacher.