How to Ace a Developer Phone Screen With a Non-Technical Screener

How to Ace a Developer Phone Screen With a Non-Technical Screener
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Maybe you’ve made the decision to leave your job and are on an active search for your next gig. Or maybe you’re passively looking to see what’s out there. Either way, it’s very likely that your first interaction with your next potential company is going to be with a non-technical person. For smaller companies, you might talk directly with the CEO or founder. For bigger companies it’ll likely be a head of talent or technical recruiter.

Regardless, the first gate you have to get through is likely going to be with someone who doesn’t write code.

Take me, for example. I’ve been running tech companies for 20 years and at Stride I did the initial phone screens until we hired a Head of Talent. Now she does all the initial phone screens. Neither of us write code, yet here we are, making decisions on which developers to move into the next phase of our interview process.

So, how can you ace this initial screen with a non-developer? As someone who’s interviewed thousands upon thousands of developers, here are some things I look for. If you keep these five guidelines in mind, I guarantee you’ll increase your odds of acing this step in the hiring process:

  1. Know who you are talking to. Last week, a candidate responded one of Stride’s job postings from Stack Overflow. I liked what I saw and set up a phone call. After 15 minutes of me asking questions, I said, “Tell me what questions you have for me”. The first question this candidate asked was, “What’s your role at Stride”?  Wow. This developer emailed me and I responded with two sentences and my signature, which includes my title and a link to our site. The fact that this candidate didn’t know my role told me he didn’t really care too much about Stride and he obviously wasn’t someone I wanted on my team. Spend at least 15 minutes researching the person you will be talking to. What’s their role at the company? How long have they been there? Do you share any connections on LinkedIn? Maybe you both went to the same school or have something else in common.
  2. Know a few things about the company. I mean, really, this should go without saying, but I can’t tell you how many developers I’ve talked to have been very impressive technically and say “not much” when I ask them what they know about Stride. Really?  Same as #1. Take a few minutes and research the company; this is for your benefit. Why would you waste an opportunity to interview with a company that you know nothing about? Understand not only what the company does, but read a few recent press releases about them to see what the latest news is. It’s ok to write this stuff down -- you don’t have to memorize it.
  3. Have a handful of valuable, interesting questions prepared. Again, this is for your benefit as well as mine. I know you have questions. I know if I said, “I’ll hire you now, you start Monday”, you’d have a whole bunch of question then. Ask questions about the nature of the work. This tells you how you’ll spend many of your waking hours -- you should be intrigued by the answer! Will you be writing code, talking to business folks, contributing to a big team, travelling for work? Ask about the company; is it stable, growing, shrinking? What are the company goals for the next year? There are thousands of good questions. Pick a few that truly mean something to you and don’t be shy to ask them.
  4. Be prepared to answer one of two questions: “Why are you looking to leave your current job?” or, if you’re not employed, “Why did you most recent position end?” Everyone has a story. Tell yours and be honest. DON’T LIE about this, we’ll find out if you do.  
  5. Have an opinion on the technical practices you care about. When I ask, “Tell me about your philosophy and thoughts on test-driven development”, I’m looking for you to share your opinion. The worst answer you can give is: “Doesn’t matter to me, I do what the team does.” We all know that’s not true. If you were coding on a small team and you had control, what would your thoughts on TDD be then? Surely you’d have an opinion. Whatever questions a founder, head of talent, or tech recruiter asks you, answer them as though a coworker asked them. Tell a story and make it real. Give us a glimpse into your thought processes.

Of course, following the above guidelines is just the tip of the iceberg to ace a phone interview. More than anything, remember to be honest and candid with both the interviewer and yourself. It speaks volumes to your character and ability to work with people of myriad skill sets -- two of the qualities most valued by decision makers outside of the development sphere.

Debbie Madden

Debbie Madden

Founder & Chairwoman

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