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Ten “Soft Skill” Job Interview Mistakes

Reading time10 min
Original author: Artem Golovachev

The Russian IT labour market has revived once again. I regularly have to interview candidates for the Innotech team. After hundreds of interviews, I have compiled a list of common hard and soft skill mistakes, which are most often made by candidates for lead positions. Eliminating these mistakes will improve your chances of getting the job you want.

1. No answer to a specific question

This is undoubtedly a top mistake at job interviews. A candidate does not have to know answers to every question. Moreover, it is almost impossible to have every answer. But one way or another, the ability to listen to and hear other people is crucial for efficient work with other people.

Let’s look at a real example of a question to a system analyst.

Question: Let me ask you, which classes of tasks, in your opinion, should asynchronous communications and message brokers be used for?

Answer: Asynchronous operations prevent the need to wait for the result of the integration request within the main stream. We actively used RabbitMQ queues in one of our projects, so we could perform the tasks – back testing of trading strategies – for hours or even days.

At first glance, this answer is not so bad. The theory is described, and practical experience is given as well. Clearly, the person has knowledge of the matter, and you want to ask more questions. But there was no answer to the actual question – the classes of tasks were not given, so you have to ask additional questions that will lead to the answer.

Most teams of experts in the “What? When? Where?” intellectual TV game show have a person responsible for the wording of the question. At any stage during the discussion of the answer, this person must clearly remember the wording of the question to avoid the situation where the experts guess the answer, but because the wording of the question was forgotten, their answer was incorrect. What a shame! 

Conclusion: Without the skill to ask clear questions and give clear answers, it will be difficult to build efficient communication with other team members.

2. How about speculating?

Of course, there are questions when we ask a candidate to speculate instead of giving a short answer. Otherwise, we won’t give them a chance to show themselves as a thinking person who can build a logical chain and convincingly defend their position. That’s why it is always necessary for us to touch upon topics which do not suggest clear opinions, but rather controversial views of the situation and different practices. Whatever the candidate’s opinion regarding the question, it is critical to have the ability to clearly communicate it.

Let’s look at this question: Do you think a system analyst should design an API of their service, or is it better to leave it entirely to developers?

The question is really controversial; there is no single correct answer. I think a system analyst should do this, but there are individual cases where it is not reasonable. Most often, a candidate relies on their previous experience, and that is rational. Based on their experience, a candidate can provide arguments why a particular option works better.

More experienced specialists are certainly expected to give clear arguments for each point and be ready to defend each of the points. Well, level 80 is reached when a candidate can defend several points of view, distinguishing them by specific classes of tasks and processes.

Conclusion: Do not neglect the opportunity to demonstrate both logical thinking skills and the ability to reasonably defend your position. Before the interview, you can practice debating with your peers or in front of the mirror. By the way, Innotech has already held debates around the theme “Role separation between the product owner and the analyst makes sense”.

3. No clear positioning

We believe that is a good practice to ask a candidate at the beginning of the interview what level they consider themselves. It helps understand the adequacy of their salary expectations, and their answers can be used to compare expectations and reality.

Here is an example of a good answer: I’ve spent the last five years working for telecom as a lead specialist, so in that field I definitely expect to be in a senior position, however, in reference to banking where I have no previous experience, it will probably be a middle/middle+ position.

Why is this answer good? First, the candidate unobtrusively emphasized the strengths of their past career. Second, the candidate is not embarrassed to talk openly about their lack of relevant experience in the proposed position, which means that you can expect the same sincerity and straightforwardness from the candidate if hired, which is a huge plus. Third, the candidate answers on the basis of a particular job posting, which means that they have at least read the job description and understand what they should do at work. After all, we work with financial and technical products. Finally, the interviewer can clearly see which questions may reveal the candidate’s strengths based on their previous experience, and which questions they most probably will not be able to answer, so it is not worth wasting time on them.

Conclusion: It is important to think about positioning before the interview, to align your salary expectations with the market, and to consider the specifics of the company’s activity and the project.

4. Stereotypical motivation

Motivation to work is one of the key “soft” criteria on which decisions about a candidate is based. We all work for money, and that’s normal. Of course, it is possible that a candidate is not interested in anything but financial factors, but more often in our sphere, that’s not entirely true.

During the interview, it is really important for the company to understand what motivates a candidate to change jobs, and how much their expectations of future work (company, processes, project, etc.) align with the company’s vacancies. For this reason, I strongly recommend that before the job interview, you clarify for yourself what kind of job you are looking for, what you consider acceptable and unacceptable, and what will drive you in this job and make you love it.

This is an example of a bad answer to a question about motivation: I like interesting tasks; I want to grow professionally, and to work in a solid and friendly team, and so on.

Why is it bad? Because it is quite vague and too general. This answer will require some clarifying questions such as what kind of tasks you find interesting, or how the candidate wants to grow as a professional. Answers to these questions are often given on the go, and they are almost always not good.

Here is an example of a good answer: I would like to join a new project at the startup stage, as I have grown very tired of legacy in the last few years. It is always more exciting to be at the beginning of something big and promising, and I also see this as an opportunity to take a lead position in the future.

This answer has both value and reasoning, and most importantly, specifics. Of course, after this we would not offer a candidate positions in projects with a long history, but try to find the right project in the company that matches their request, which means we are more likely to meet their expectations and build long-term relationships.

Conclusion: While preparing for interviews, it could be useful to think about your own motivation and capture it not only for an interview, but also for yourself.

5. Abundance of negativity

This mistake also relates to motivation. In particular, how a candidate tells about their previous experience. If you hear only negative things in the story, there is a 99 out of 100 chance that the story will repeat itself. Most times, the reasons for changing jobs in IT are connected with unhappiness at work. It is normal to be unhappy with something and talk calmly about it, but an attitude when everything is bad all at once makes you think.

Examples of a healthy expression of negativity: Immature processes, constant changes in priorities and product development vectors, an abundance of high-pressure bureaucracy and politics, an outdated technology stack.

For senior/lead positions, make sure to ask questions such as: “What did you do to correct the situation?”, “Did you discuss the problem with your management?”, "Did you offer your own solutions?” If the answers are vague, it is very likely that an employee will accumulate the same negative feelings at a new job, and sooner or later will “explode” and leave.

 Conclusion: If you think it would be appropriate to share past negative experiences at a job interview, consider the impression this might give about you, choose your wording carefully, and avoid emotional and expressive judgements.

6. Jargon and spoken language

Every professional work environment has its own jargon. The control of and correct use of jargon demonstrates knowledge and practical experience. But moderation is the key. There are two extremes, each representing a candidate in a very poor light.

Example: By using the second-level cache, we saw productivity gains of 30–40% in database query.

It’s hard to imagine how this could be explained without using the term “cache”. In the professional environment of developers, architects, and analysts, no one would confuse "cache" with "cash". Examples like this at an interview will make you want to ask a candidate to talk about their case in more detail.

If jargon is not used even though it would be very appropriate, it means that a candidate has no knowledge of it, or does not know how to use it. However, there is another extreme.

Example of an answer to the question (followed by citations from the article on wiki): REST is a software architectural style that describes an interface between components of the distributed application across the Internet... REST defines a consistent set of constraints to consider when designing a distributed hypermedia system...

Such vocabulary in spoken language suggests that the answer has been memorized or read from the article itself on the screen. Moreover, the term “hypermedia system” just indicates avoidance of using “hypermedia” in spoken language.

Conclusion: It is great to know and use jargon, but it is equally important to be able to speak conversationally, without overloading it with book vocabulary.

7. Misunderstanding of the mission

Every team member has a mission and a value for the process and the result. Analysts bring requirements into the common pot, product managers: product vision and priorities, developers: a code, testers: a bug-free product, developers: streamlined CI/CD which saves time for all participants of the process, and so on.

However, even senior-level employees often give very vague answers to the question: what is your primary task as an analyst, developer, or architect.

This is an answer from an experienced architect about their mission in a project that raises even more questions: An architect plays the role of a bridge linking the business and the development team.

The answer clearly does not sound like nonsense and is true for the most part, but again look at point No. 1. The bridge between the customer and the development team is not just the architect, but also a business analyst, a project manager, and a product owner, each having their own tasks. Of course, there is no doubt that both the junior and the lead have a general understanding of their mission.

Conclusion: It will be very useful to have a simple, clear and concise answer to the question about the intended area of responsibility in the proposed project.

8. Unwillingness to work with documentation

Creative people tend not to like tedious and often just routine paperwork. The level of bureaucracy varies in different companies and processes. As a rule, the bigger the company, the more attention is paid to the quality of documentation and compliance with document approval processes.

A startup consisting of a classic "two-pizza team" can easily grow and develop for years without a single requirement specification. But even a fairly medium-sized bank can't operate without documentation. So when a candidate clearly demonstrates unwillingness to work with documents and artefacts at the interview, this sends a strong message that should you hire such a candidate, they will work carelessly and demotivate as well. And this relates to not only analysts and technical writers, but also developers, QA and others.

Example of an interview with a candidate applying for a senior QA position:

In your opinion, what is the best way to keep track of test cases of the integration project in a bank?

– I don't see any point in wasting time by keeping track of them as products change very quickly, and many of them quickly become irrelevant. The product itself is still tested by the same team.

Of course, this assumption can and should be questioned because lack of documentation on the test plans and scenarios can cause a lot of problems on the project, such as: the bus factor of key QA, a complicated and long process of transferring knowledge to a new employee, the impossibility of effective automation of the testing process, and so on. This answer makes one thing clear about the candidate: their unwillingness to work with documentation means that testing can only be built in a team of 2–3 people, so organization of processes will not be scalable or systemic.

Conclusion: You should be prepared for questions about documentation at interviews in any type of the company bigger than a startup. Those who dislike documentation are at the highest risk of not being a team player.

9. Ignorance of good and bad processes

Processes are really our everything. Proper processes help save resources on routine, release more often, detect fewer bugs on promos, make more accurate estimates, find resources for technical debt and refactoring, and much more.

Implementation of trendy Scrum and Kanban processes can vary significantly from company to company. At project interviews, we regularly ask what processes the candidate worked with previously, how good they were, how they could be improved.

This does not necessarily mean that the current job has good processes. However, it is important for a candidate to be familiar with them and to be able to provide a critical assessment. This says a lot about a professional of any level, about their involvement in the process, their motivation, and their desire to change the world for the better. And if the processes were clear and effective, such a candidate could bring these good practices with them, thus becoming more attractive for a company.

An interview with a middle+/senior level developer:

You mentioned that technical debt that accumulated in your current project was swelling because you never had time for it. How would you solve this problem?

I have repeatedly spoken to the project manager and product owner, offering to allocate at least 15% of the development resources to technical debt and refactoring every other sprint, but their reply was always the same: there are so many critical business tasks which we cannot put off until later.

Of course, when interviewing a project manager, this would be a red flag, but it shows a developer in a good light, because he regularly reminded the management that if technical debt tasks are not solved, the product and the team might have serious problems in the not-too-distant future. Even though he was not heard, but this is a definite plus for a candidate at the interview: such a developer will not hide and silence the problems in the code, which means that his manager will be better aware of the real status of the project and will be able to make the right decisions.

Conclusion: Don’t be afraid to speculate over the processes and suggest improvements at any position where you are working now. This understanding will become your asset not only in the here and now, but also in the next step of your career advancement.

10. Insincerity

While interviewing an analyst, architect, or developer, we always try to imagine in some way what working in a team with them would be like. So even if a candidate shows their soft skills accidentally, we will expect them in the future work.

The more vague a candidate remains for the interviewer after the project interview, the more doubts the interviewer will have before offering the position. Any secrecy, hypocrisy, insincerity, falseness, or avoiding an answer will not be interpreted in the candidate’s favour.

Conclusion: I sincerely recommend everyone to be themselves at the interview, and to show openness and sincerity, trying to be, rather than to seem. Under such conditions, you will most likely be able to demonstrate what you can do, show your best qualities, and make a good contact with your future supervisor. The more variables the equation contains, the more difficult it is to solve. This rule applies to people as well.

What's next

Eliminating the above mistakes significantly increases your chances of getting the desired position. In addition, the interview will be less stressful and more comfortable for both the interviewer and a candidate.

I recommend you to bookmark this article and come back to it whenever you want to change your job. I wish efficient interviews to everyone who has read this article.




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