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Panelists at RISE 2023 offered job interview tips

8 Ways to Pass a Technical Job Interview: Key Skills and Strategies from Cybersecurity, Software Engineering, and Data Science Professionals 

10 minute read | December 1, 2023
Kindra Cooper

Written by:
Kindra Cooper

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Technical job interviews can seem daunting—for good reason. Candidates must demonstrate technical proficiency, soft skills, and cultural fit. Multiple rounds of interviews, take-home assignments, and whiteboard coding challenges can trip up otherwise viable candidates if they’re unprepared. 

At Springboard’s annual RISE 2023 Summit, we convened seasoned tech executives and Springboard mentors to discuss the hot topics in the tech job market

During a panel discussion, four tech executives shared their top tips for acing the tech job interview process. Speakers included Ruba Wisda, senior engineering manager at Vox Media, Dan Smith, chief learning officer at Winning by Design, Mark Adams, IT compliance manager at VineBrook Homes, and Chris Hui, head of product at Tracked.

Here are some of their top tips. 

1. Know how to sell yourself in a job interview

When you’re interviewing for a job, you’re essentially assuming the role of salesperson, and the product is you. 

“Everyone is in sales, even if it’s not their formal job title,” said Dan Smith, chief learning officer at Winning By Design. “How else do you influence someone during an interview and convince them to hire you?” 

As any diligent sales rep would do, research the prospective company. Every job role is created to solve a problem or ease pain. Identify problems insinuated in the job ad. 

For example: “We are looking for a data scientist to help us discover information hidden in vast amounts of data.” This requirement implies the company may lack data maturity and is looking for someone to implement the right technology stack and create a data governance framework. 

Tailor your language accordingly—instead of discussing advanced machine learning techniques, emphasize your approach to sourcing and organizing data and understanding business requirements. 

“Effective communication comes from putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and showing them how you’ll add value,” said Smith. “One of the best techniques I’ve found is using their language throughout the conversation to describe the skills they want so it feels like you’re already part of the company.” 

Prepare ideas detailing how you’ll solve those problems and give examples of similar challenges you’ve overcome previously. When highlighting your abilities, back up every claim with specific examples. Don’t just say, “I’m an excellent communicator and always deliver projects on time.” Tell them about the time you had to gather requirements from an indecisive client and deliver a prototype during a design sprint.

2. Use your soft skills to stand out from other candidates

Every shortlisted candidate is assumed to have the baseline technical skills the role demands. To distinguish yourself, demonstrate your unique value to the team with your domain expertise, prior work experience (even in an unrelated field), and transferable skills. 

For example, suppose you’re applying for a UX design role at a healthcare company and have previous experience as an EMT or medical assistant, affording you a superior understanding of the end user. Describe to the interviewer how this will help you empathize with users. 

“In data analysis, you ultimately deal with people even though you work with numbers and computers,” said Chris Hui, VP of product at Tracked. “It’s important not to get caught up in the underlying technical jargon and ensure everyone can walk away with insights even if they don’t have subject matter expertise.” 

Play up your soft skills to ace your next job interview

When Hui interviews candidates for a role on his product team, he evaluates the quality of their portfolio and how well they explain it. Even if someone is technically competent, they’re not hireable if they can’t explain the value of their data analysis to a lay audience. 

When applying for a cybersecurity role, clear communication, tactfulness, and the ability to stay calm in stressful situations are essential, says Mark Adams, IT compliance manager at Vinebrook Homes and a mentor for Springboard’s Cyber Security Bootcamp.

“One time, a woman had an issue with her computer,” he recalled. “A technician checks on it. Then I received an email addressed to me and eight other managers in all caps that read, ‘WE’RE BEING HACKED!’ I had to sit the person down and explain to him that when you’re talking to senior management, certain words trigger them, and one of them is ‘hacked.’”

A cybersecurity analyst’s role is triaging—determining which incidents deserve immediate attention and the best course of action. It also involves communicating appropriately about the incident—providing accurate details without over- or understating the problem. 

“Sometimes, we have to talk executive management down and explain that the situation is not that bad,” said Adams. 

He advises entry-level candidates to let their managers do the “heavy lifting”—communicating with management, doing escalations—and focus on being able to spot a problem and deciding how to intervene. 

“You’re being hired to be a problem-solver and find those needles in the haystack,” he said. “You should be able to look at a system log, Wireshark, or packet capture and say, ‘Hey, I think we have a problem here.” 

3. Pitch yourself as a team player

Most techies work in teams. Developers do paired programming and review each other’s code. UX designers brainstorm ideas and collaborate during design sprints. Tech sales reps book meetings on behalf of account managers. Remember, when applying for a job, you’re angling for a spot on an established team. Demonstrate how you’ll enhance the team’s communication, idea generation, and productivity. Explain technical concepts using language tailored to your interviewer’s level of domain expertise.

“I look for clear communication,” says Wisda. “I hire the person I’d want to work with to solve a bug or finish a project.”

Good communication skills are especially critical when applying for a remote job where managers rely on asynchronous communication in lieu of in-person meetings. Demonstrate to the interviewer that you are a responsive communicator who can keep other teams informed of project developments, even as obstacles arise. 

4. Prepare a strategy for when you don’t know how to answer a question 

While engineering job interviews require candidates to answer complex questions on data structures and algorithms, hiring managers don’t expect perfection. They want to understand your problem-solving approach. Do you ask for more information? Do you consider constraints? Do you offer an alternative if you don’t know the answer? More importantly, are you willing to admit when you don’t know something? Creativity, improvisation, and the ability to view a problem from multiple perspectives will help you win points with the interviewer. 

What to do when you don't know how to answer a question during a job interview

“I don’t hire the smartest people who have worked at top companies,” said Ruba Wisda, senior engineering manager at Vox Media. “I want to work with people who understand me and are confident enough to ask, ‘What do you mean? Can you explain that again?’ or ‘Can you reword the question?’” 

If you’re still stumped, state your willingness to learn about that topic or technology framework. Give an example of a past experience where you had to adapt to a new tech stack or learn something quickly. 

“A good response is, ‘I may not know the answer to that, but it’s similar to something else I’ve learned, and here’s how I implemented it,” said Wisda. 

This strategy might not work if the company seeks someone knowledgeable about specific programming frameworks, machine learning algorithms, or cloud computing platforms, but it shows you’re adaptable and willing to learn. 

5. Focus on the other person 

Likeability is equally important as technical ability in hiring, especially during the final rounds of a job interview. Parrot the interviewer’s language to build a sense of affinity. For example, if they refer to machine learning as “predictive analytics” or “algorithmic modeling,” echo their word choice in your response. Even though you’ll do most of the talking during the job interview, try to keep things conversational. Find opportunities to ask the interviewer about themselves and ask follow-up questions to specific things they’ve mentioned to show active listening.

“When you meet someone new, try to minimize the amount of time spent talking about yourself and more time asking thoughtful questions about what they said,” said Smith.

During a portfolio walkthrough, avoid detailing every step of the technical process. This will bore the interviewer, who is more interested in why you came up with the project, how you formulated a problem statement, and what impact your solution had on users. 

“The project’s already done; it should speak for itself,” Smith continued. “Make it about them and how they might find a similar solution useful at their company or how the experience of working on this project can help you succeed in the job you’re applying for.”  

6. Find an industry mentor and build your network

Mentors are seasoned industry professionals who can advise you on emerging technologies, the skills employers are looking for, and tried-and-true job interview or career advancement techniques to help you land your next role. 

“The best thing is you learn from other people’s mistakes because they’ve been through what you’re going through,” said Hui. 

When Hui stepped into his first senior technical position, he knew from a mentor that it would entail more people management than technical decision-making, so the shift from individual contributor to supervisor didn’t come as a shock. Mentors can also suggest additional certifications to pursue, AI tools to try, and programming languages to master. 

Mentors can help you land your next job interview

“There’s a lot more I would like to do in my career, but without a mentor, it’s hard for me to know what to do next,” said Wisda. “I always tell Springboard students to make connections by attending events virtually or in person.” 

Don’t limit yourself to networking exclusively with people who share your job title or industry. Tech sales reps collaborate with marketers. Software engineers work closely with UX designers and project managers. By networking with professionals outside your domain, you learn how to better collaborate with cross-functional teams at work. 

“It’s way better to learn from different professionals than the single top professional or expert in your field,” said Smith. 

If you can’t find a mentor in your workplace, try networking or using platforms like ADPList, Merit, MentorCruise, and Hexagon (UX design only). Springboard offers weekly 1:1 mentorship sessions plus unlimited mentor calls for students in all career tracks. 

7. Be coachable 

The ability to receive constructive criticism and follow instructions is critical in tech, where deadlines and goals are often rejiggered mid-project, clients change their minds about technical requirements, and companies reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the competition.  

“We’re looking to see if you’re teachable—if you’ll listen to what we tell you and apply it,” said Adams. “But we don’t just want you to do what we say word for word; we want a good back-and-forth.”

Digital upskilling is an unceasing mandate in tech. The World Economic Forum estimates that 85 million jobs will go unfilled by 2030 due to the global digital skills gap. This doesn’t mean constantly studying outside of working hours. Instead, instill a learning habit as part of your workday. Read up on industry insights, attend conferences, and request informational interviews with more senior professionals. 

“I’m big on joining Slack communities,” says Wisda. “Even when I’m not looking for a new job, I check LinkedIn to see what projects people are working on. I don’t spend hours every day learning, but it’s part of my day now. I’ll read articles, watch YouTube tutorials, or read about how someone built a project.” 

8. Learn about AI and how it affects your role or industry 

AI is infiltrating every industry, assisting skilled workers with task automation, providing recommendations, and creating content. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2022, 19% of American workers were in jobs where AI may replace or assist in the most important activities. These include web developers, technical writers, and budget analysts. 

AI has obvious use cases in tech sales, such as auto-generating emails and summarizing case studies. However, AI can also help sales reps flag keywords and topics in customer interactions to analyze sentiment and provide more personalized feedback.  

“Hypothetically, AI can flag specific things a customer said that you might not have noticed and give you options of what to say next,” says Smith. “Of course, we’re not there yet, but I’m really excited about what AI can do for conversational intelligence.” 

Hui recommends job seekers experiment with AI tools, especially as a growing number of job descriptions require AI proficiency. Job postings on LinkedIn mentioning AI or generative AI more than doubled from 2021 to 2023, including positions like digital product manager and cybersecurity consultant. 

“Get familiar not with the algorithm’s inner workings but with what you can produce with it,” says Hui. “Sign up for a free trial and start experimenting and learning.”

Many data analytics jobs require some knowledge of AI, especially as business intelligence (BI) tools and data visualization software like Tableau, SAS, and Power BI are embedded with domain-specific AI algorithms. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to use AI to help you stand out in the job market. For example, you can ask ChatGPT to summarize a company case study to reference during the job interview. 

“When the interviewer asks, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ most people will talk about themselves,” says Smith. Knowing more about the company lets you tailor your response and impress the interviewer with your resourcefulness. 

 “You can say, ‘I read a case study where X company was struggling with Y problem, and your tool helped them accomplish [blank], and that’s the impact I want to make with your customers.’”


About Kindra Cooper

Kindra Cooper is a content writer at Springboard. She has worked as a journalist and content marketer in the US and Indonesia, covering everything from business and architecture to politics and the arts.