Cracking a Startup Interview

A Job at SV

(Photo by Ken Banks)

A startup job interview isn’t too different from that of a bigger company, so a lot of the tips you’ll find around the Internet apply without reservations. Startups however have a different culture, and focus on the combo of individual productivity and team fit a lot more than on processes and guidelines. Here’s a few pointers I’ve noted in candidates who have aced interviews at MobME:

Be comfortably dressed & not too formal. Inspired by the Google formula of “You don’t have to wear a suit to be serious”, most startups dress down. Wear a comfortable shirt, and perhaps put on some pants or a dress skirt, but even a jeans and T-Shirt is A-OK. This is not a license to come unwashed, unkempt or in mini-skirts though: most great startups ask their employees to look smart.

Open the conversation with smiles, be affable and open in your responses. Most good startups have a Don’t be an Asshole policy & tools to detect this early and often. When working in a close-knit team, it’s better to be around positive people who contribute than around energy drainers. Note that when I explain this to some people, they take it as an insult & a bias against introverts. Introverts are some of the best people on earth (and some of the greatest programmers), but you can be quiet and unassuming, and yet pleasant and positive.

Be confident. A better word would be assertive. Talk in short, brisk sentences. Communicate precisely. Try not to uhm and aah instead think a bit before speaking. Ask for clarifications when you don’t understand the question. When you don’t know stuff, just say that you don’t. Don’t ramble & distract the attention of the questioner away into areas that you have expertise in. If you have confidence in your skills, that really comes across, and it’s the biggest “gut factor” when I hire folks.

Brush up on what they seem to be looking for. This is a no-brainer, but most often even when you are good, you don’t get hired because it’s been a long while since you worked with the stack. It’s okay to explain that you’ll need a few weeks on the job to get up-to-speed, but it’s better to brush up before going in. Most startups hire immediately and don’t have scheduled yearly hiring rounds.

Stress that you are a generalist. Ideally, you should be. Startups value specialists when they are consultants. When you’re on the team, you are expected to pitch in everywhere required. A small team that follows an Agile development model like SCRUM always will have slack for non-core contributors to pitch in. Show them a broad spectrum of expertise.

Show them code that you’ve written. For a programming interview, this is a must. Ideally you have some uploaded to GitHub already.  If not, start contributing to open source today. It isn’t as hard as you think and there are events dedicated to lesser-represented groups.

Understand the question before answering. This is such a common problem that I’ve put it in a separate bullet point. Wait for the interviewer to complete the question before starting up. When needed, ask for clarifications, and make sure you understand the question properly. Don’t shoot from the hip.

Don’t appear too eager to get the job. Be interested and earnest but don’t compromise too much for e.g if you have a target salary.

Show an interest in their business. This is last, but this is perhaps the most overlooked and most important bit. Ask them questions about how the company is run, what the team size will be, ask if you can meet the team, et. al. Remember that an interview always goes both ways. At MobME, we’ve asked a few people who were interested but didn’t seem qualified enough to apply for an internship.

This was adapted from a mail I sent to a past colleague who is looking for a new job. Pitch in below if you have more tips!

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