Get to grips with the coding interview process

Coding interviews are notoriously complex processes that involve technical and non-technical recruiters. These interviews aim to test your theoretical knowledge, programming skills, problem-solving ability, and solution-explaining skills. With so many aspects to consider, no wonder most engineers dread coding interviews and need guidance on how to ace them. 

In this article, we'll look at what coding interviews are and what is the aim of companies who rely on coding tests to hire top tech talent.

What Is a Coding Interview and What Is Its Purpose?

A coding interview is one of the processes that help tech companies assess your technical competency for a position. These interviews involve programming challenges that test your software development knowledge and skills. Typically, coding interviews have a time limit, which enables recruiters to assess your performance and decision-making skills under pressure.

The difficulty of a programming interview depends on the seniority of the position we are applying for. For example, junior positions may focus on fundamental programming concepts (associate software engineer, junior web developer, etc.). However, more senior positions may test higher-level knowledge and present complex scenarios.

Recruiters design their coding interviews to be as comprehensive as possible. A well-designed coding interview process helps them assess your abilities while informing you of the nature of your work at the company. Such intelligently-designed coding interviews benefit both you and the recruiters and help confirm that you can be the right match for the job.

Understanding the Career Levels for Software Engineers

The software engineer industry has grown a lot in the past few decades. Engineers now work with more intelligent tools, and the software we have to develop has become more complex too. You should know what the modern-day software engineer career trajectory looks like so we can apply for the right positions and then prepare for their programming interviews.

Let's delve into the responsibilities and skills required for each developer level on the software engineer career path:

  • Junior software engineer: This beginner-level position introduces individuals to software engineering. Companies offer internships for fresh graduates or soon-to-graduate to occupy this role and gain crucial professional development experience. The role's responsibilities mainly involve writing low-impact code or shadowing more senior engineers.
  • Entry-level software engineer: This is the first stage of the professional software engineer career path. It requires proper development experience and a grasp of fundamentals. Early career software engineers work together with senior engineers and learn from them while developing software themselves.
  • Mid-level software engineer: This position comes after you have a year of professional experience. Mid-level software engineers handle greater development responsibilities and work on multiple projects simultaneously.
  • Staff engineer: You can advance to this stage after working for a few more years as a mid-level software engineer. Companies expect that staff engineers can write elegant and efficient enterprise-level code. Additionally, they have solid debugging skills.
  • Senior staff engineer: More years of professional software development experience will earn you the senior staff engineer position. This role requires you to design high-level software systems and guide a team of software engineers under you.
  • Engineering manager: The engineering manager role involves high-level software development and managerial duties. They have seven to eight years of professional development experience and lead teams of engineers. They also play a role in company-wide initiatives.
  • Director of engineering: The software engineering leadership leads the whole engineering department and closely understands the company's goals. They tend to have significant experience in leadership roles along with nearly a decade of software development experience.
  • Chief technology officer: The CTO is the pinnacle of the software engineer career path. They determine the direction of the software product's growth and help guide the career growth of the company's software engineers. The role requires you to possess decades of software development and leadership experience.

Stages of a Coding Interview & Tips

As we saw above, the motivation behind the coding interview process may look the same for most companies, i.e., hiring the most qualified talent for the role. However, the method itself can vary among different types of companies. 

Top tech companies often have a more standardized and concept-focused interview process, while other companies may opt for a more personalized interview process that focuses on real-world scenarios. Understanding these differences can help us prepare better for the interview process.

The interview process typically includes the following steps:

1. Phone/Video Call Screen

This is the first step where a non-technical recruiter arranges a phone call to ask about basic professional and personal information. They ask us questions such as:

  • How long have we worked in the industry?
  • Where was our previous job, and what did it entail?
  • How did we learn about this job opportunity?
  • What kind of technologies do we wish to work with? What type of work do we expect at the company?

Recruiters rely on these screening calls to filter out inexperienced candidates or those who don't align with the company's expectations. Therefore, we should be honest throughout this stage and confidently inform them about our technical expertise and professional experience. However, we may face questions about salary expectations, and it's best not to answer them and defer the question to a later stage.

2. Remote Coding Assignment

Once you pass the initial screening call, you then receive a remote coding assignment. These assignments test your programming skills and can look different based on the company. For example, the time constraint for some assignments is twenty-four hours, while it can go to multiple days for some. 

Recruitment teams design the coding challenge based on their requirements for the particular role. The remote coding assignment could require the solution to have a certain complexity if the work involves writing high-performance code. Similarly, the team will tell us if we have to devise a solution based on a certain framework or technology if the role requires specialized knowledge.

2. Technical Interview / Whiteboarding Challenge

Technical Interview / Whiteboarding Challenge: The second last stage of the process is the onsite coding interview. Technical recruiters handle this assessment and test how quick and effective your problem-solving skills are. They also aim to check our analytical skills and how well we manage challenges, if not necessarily solve them.

The technical interview format often includes the assessment popularly called 'whiteboarding.' The technical recruiters throw theoretical problems at the candidate and ask them to show how they reach their solutions. 

We also have to explain the final answer and use a whiteboard to visualize the explanation. The software developer interview also checks if we can convey problems and solutions effectively. After all, every software role involves collaboration and requires proper communication skills.

2. HR/Hiring Manager Interview

The last round is the interview with the hiring manager or HR personnel. Since the HR department has to create and maintain a certain organizational culture, this interview helps ensure you are the right culture fit. 

The interviewer assesses your soft skills such as communication abilities, time management capabilities, and lessons learned from previous professional experiences. They also inform you of the organization's culture so that you can make a better final decision and know the workplace's norms if you join.

How Non-FAANG Companies Assess Developers  

Once you have scored a coding interview at a Non-Big Tech company, you can be tested in different ways. As you will see, the coding interview process at such companies is more focused on testing your abilities to handle a real-world problem than traditional algorithmic challenges. As a result, technicals interviews at non-FAANG companies often involve more tests and projects.

Unfortunately, the extensive nature of these developer assessment methods can be overwhelming for many candidates. However, once we have an overview of all the different assessment methods, we can be more confident and create a smart strategy to ace the non-FAANG coding interview.

Here are the different coding interview methods employed by Non-Big Tech companies:

Portfolio Review / Recruiter Call

In many cases, recruiters at non-FAANG companies assess an applicant primarily on their resume and portfolio. The former gives an overview of the candidate's skills, while the latter demonstrates how they have applied those skills in a practical setting.

Reviewing the candidate's portfolio lets the recruiters immediately assess their technical competence, coding style, and approach to problem-solving. Then, the recruitment team can follow up the portfolio review with a call to better assess the candidate's soft skills and eligibility for the role.

Coding Tests

  • Take Home Tests / Projects: This kind of test is becoming increasingly commonplace. Recruiters give applicants a remote coding assignment that closely mirrors the work the position will involve. Alternatively, some recruiters give a coding project with requirements and constraints the applicant must satisfy.
  • Once an applicant submits the assignment or project, recruiters follow that with an interview with a senior developer. The candidate has to explain their solution and their approach. Such a test helps recruiters see if you possess the necessary skills to implement solutions and explain them to other developers. Additionally, it helps them assess your ability to understand requirements and manage constraints
  • Pair Programming: Recruitment teams use this test after assessing an applicant's technical background. An engineer joins the applicant on a set of questions they solve together. While one writes the code, the other reviews it in real-time, and the roles switch occasionally. Such a test helps technical recruiters assess applicants' ability to design solutions and coding skills while testing their collaborative abilities. The engineer can also better evaluate if the applicant would fit the team's development methodology or not.    
  • Whiteboarding: This test involves explaining the problem and your outlined solution to your recruiters. After all, recruitment teams don't just want the solution to the challenge but also want to see your problem-solving approach. Therefore, you should practice how to efficiently explain your understanding of a problem and your solution to it on a whiteboard while preparing for the coding interview process.
  • Screening Quiz: Such a test aims to assess your technical knowledge and problem-solving abilities within time constraints. Recruiters mostly use such quizzes when looking for senior positions since they require certain technical knowledge. These questions are not extensive coding challenges, and recruiters can use them to filter out applicants lacking in required technical knowledge. 

Technical Interviews

The coding assessment method at many non-FAANG companies mainly consists of technical interviews. After screening out applicants that don't fit the criteria, the recruitment team is left with a handful of candidates. Then, recruiters at such companies personalize interviews according to the nature of the role and the applicant's background. 

Such technical interviews don't only focus on algorithmic concepts and problems. Rather, they present problems to the applicants and observe what tools they use to solve them. Additionally, such interviews help ascertain if the applicant can learn tools and build skills adequately if they lack either.

What Concepts Are Tested During the Coding Interview?

The average coding interview process tests how far-reaching is our technical knowledge. A good candidate for a technical position needs to have solid theoretical foundations and programming skills. Therefore, interviewers try to see if we have a good grasp of the fundamentals and understand how to use our knowledge to create optimal solutions effectively.

Some essential concepts that interviewers routinely assess in the coding interview process are discussed below.

  1. 1
    Good Coding Practices: The coding interview process will assess how you write code and if you can follow conventions. Interviewers can give you real-world problems and put constraints that require you to follow a certain code-writing strategy. For example, while one scenario may require you to write easily scalable code, another may ask for more readable code which doesn't necessarily need to be scalable.
  2. 2
    Software Testing: Coding interviewers want to see if you know how to test software and look for edge cases. Questions will be based on real-world software applications and testing their code base for failure scenarios through popular frameworks. However, certain coding interview processes can present more complex testing scenarios based on whether you have prior software testing experience.
  3. 3
    Design Patterns: Design patterns are commonplace in enterprise-level applications with efficient codebases. Therefore, coding interview processes assess if you understand the advantages they bring. Interviewers can ask which design pattern you would apply in a certain real-world application and how you would code it.
  4. 4
    System Design: It is a pretty complex area, and questions about it can be challenging. However, we should practice analyzing requirements, formulating and developing solutions, and testing them in different scenarios.
  5. 5
    Software Design Methodologies: Development teams follow collaborative software development methodologies to ensure maximum productivity and product quality. Coding interview processes will assess your understanding of different methodologies and any prior experience you might have working with one.
  6. 6
    Version Control: Versioning is a critical part of modern software engineering. Therefore, coding interview processes ensure you are well-versed with version control technologies like Git and platforms like GitHub and Bitbucket.

    Interviewers will present real-world scenarios and ask you to write the relevant commands to achieve a certain end goal, such as successful branching or resolving merge conflicts. Additionally, there can be questions about resetting branches and addressing diff issues.

  7. 7

    Designing and Querying Databases: Coding interview processes test your understanding of relational databases and design one based on given requirements. Questions will ask you to design an entity-relationship model that solves a real-world problem. 

    Additionally, you should have a firm grip over SQL since coding interviews ask you to write queries for complex database systems. However, NoSQL databases are becoming increasingly popular, so you should be knowledgeable about them too.

What to Expect From a Coding Interview?

Who you'll be talking to at your interview?

You'll be interacting with technical and non-technical recruiters throughout the coding interview process. Non-technical recruiters conduct the initial screening calls to check if you have the necessary experience and skills. Software engineers and technical recruiters then overlook the subsequent technical interviews and assessments.

What tools do you need for a coding interview?

The remote coding interview requires a computer and high-speed internet since most companies use third-party assessment tools like HackerRank and HiringGuru. However, recruitment teams provide all you will need for the onsite coding interview.

What to bring to your onsite coding interview?

You should take the following to your onsite coding interview to be on the safe side:

  1. 1

    Resume: Your developer resume will provide the recruitment team with the background they need to tailor the assessments accordingly.

  2. 2

    Coding samples: These can show your coding style and leave a better impression on the recruiters about your programming skills.

  3. 3
    Laptop: Bring this just in case the recruitment team doesn't provide you with a machine for the interview

How can you prepare for the coding interview questions?

  1. 1

    Company website: You can find what kind of talent the company hires and what experience it is looking for when searching for candidates for certain roles.

  2. 2

    Job description: This gives you a thorough idea of your job responsibilities and expectations from the role. The assessments will test you on these aspects.

  3. 3
    Ask the recruiter: You can also ask the recruitment team to give you insight into how they structure their coding interview process. You can ask what kind of problems they ask candidates and what level of knowledge and experience they expect from them.
  4. 4
    Coding assessment platforms: Many platforms guide you about the coding interview process and give you sample questions and challenges. We can use these platforms to practice and sharpen our logical problem-solving skills before an interview.
  5. 5

    Online tutorials: You can find a lot of online material that takes you through each step of the coding interview process and how it looks across different companies.

Types of interview questions

  1. 1
    Behavioral: Recruiters can ask us about how we handle stressful scenarios or about our conflict management and collaborative skills
  2. 2
    Situational: The recruiters can present certain scenarios to us and ask how we will react to this situation
  3. 3
    Education: The recruitment team can ask about our general academic qualifications and our communication skills
  4. 4
    Technical knowledge: The recruiters can ask us about theoretical software engineering concepts and how we can use this knowledge to solve problems.

What Should You Do After the Coding Interview?

After completing a coding interview, it's important to take the right steps to establish yourself as a strong candidate and learn from the experience. By doing so, you'll increase your chances of getting hired and become better at acing future interviews.

Here are the steps to follow after a coding interview:

  • Send a follow-up thank-you email: You should let the recruitment team know that we are grateful for the opportunity they gave you. This will ensure that they stay on favorable terms with you, and even if the current position doesn't work out, you are the top choice for future vacancies.
  • Reflect on how you did: Self-reflection is essential for positive career growth. Therefore, we need to revisit our experience of going through the coding interview process. While doing so, we should keep an eye out for mistakes we may have made or concepts we may not know. Then, we can iteratively improve our shortcomings.
  • Evaluate the company: It is important to reflect on the quality of the coding interview process itself. We must consider how well the recruitment team handled the whole process. We should also try to gather all that we know about the company and the work they do. All this reflection will be crucial when deciding if we receive an offer.
  • Follow-up with the recruiter: One way to get a comprehensive idea of our performance during the coding interview process is directly contacting the recruiter. We can approach them to understand our mistakes better and get a clearer picture of the areas of self-improvement. You can ensure the most from the coding interview process by following the above steps afterward. The more coding interview processes we go through, the better we become at acing these interviews and securing lucrative software engineer positions.

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Wrapping up

Now that we know all the ins and outs of the coding interview process, we can better prepare and sharpen the aspects we lack. Since each part of the coding interview process is dedicated to testing our skills, we should begin with ensuring a solid theoretical foundation. Then, we can learn better programming practices and become better through practice exercises and questions. 

However, nothing teaches more than direct experience. If we wish to ace coding interviews, we must attempt as many as possible. We can improve with each interview and finally become confident, no matter how complicated the process is.