Ask an expert: How can engineers ace their remote job interviews?

Best practices for crafting your resume, doing your research, and—hopefully—landing the job.

Part of
Issue 15 November 2020

Remote

It’s happened again. You interviewed for a remote position at a company you admire. You felt good about your performance, but the trail has gone cold. You either receive awe decided to go with a more qualified candidate” rejection email, or the recruiter stops responding to your messages. You stare at the expensive webcam you bought for remote interviews, but its cyclopic eye offers no comfort.

Engineering departments succeedor don’tbased on the hiring process. Software companies can be successful if they use out-of-date programming languages, have broken or nonexistent development methodologies, or face challenges with their technologies or processes. But success in software development is impossible if you don’t hire the right people, and the increasing prevalence of remote work has made it even more important to get the selection process right. As more candidates seek remote developer jobs, with varying levels of remote experience, hiring teams are hardening their practices to make the right hire with remote in mind.

Having worked as an engineering manager for over two decades, I’ve seen scores of candidates for all types of roles go through the recruiting funnel. If you’re a software engineer looking for a remote job, I’m here to share what hiring managers want to see. And if you’re a hiring manager, this article might give you some pointers on what to look for.

Pre-interview

Getting a remote job starts with preparation. You have to position yourself as a viable candidate before you get the interview. In many ways, this is no different from getting an on-site job. Here, though, you have to tailor your preparation to demonstrating your ability to handle remote work.

Resume

Your resume is still your primary asset for finding a job (though your LinkedIn profile or GitHub contributions provide powerful supporting information). You should apply the same rigor to crafting an effective, remote-skewing resume that you put into writing code. Most resumes list work history, and the ones that stand out also connect the dots between work and results. They list the impact the individual has had on code quality, deployment teams, and team cohesion. Even better if those results were achieved as a remote developer.

If you’ve never worked remotely, your resume needs to demonstrate you’ve developed the key skills for remote success. Working remotely requires strong communication, documentation, and collaboration skills, so make sure to highlight these as you describe the outcomes you’ve achieved. If you’ve done work that requires remote collaboration outside of your primary work experience, include that too. This could be freelance writing for technology-oriented publications or serving on distributed committees that plan tech events like meetups or conferences.

While contributing to open source should not be a requirement for most engineering jobs (the lack of paid open-source work, among other things, can be a significant barrier to participation), if you do make significant contributions to open-source projects, describe themtheir stack, the features you worked on, and the outcomes you achieved, especially if you contribute to mission-driven projects trying to accomplish some good in the world. Since open-source projects inherently require at least some remote work, a history of meaningful contributions can be a helpful way to demonstrate remote experience if you don’t have it in prior full-time roles. If you feel your open-source contributions are equivalent in value to your work experience, consider giving them a dedicated section on your resume; otherwise, include them in a section dedicated to other aspects of your experience (e.g.,Other Accomplishments”).

Research

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to research the company you want to join. You should be able to answer the question,Why do you want to work here?” as easily as you can answer the question,What’s your name?” If you’ve made it far enough in the selection process to meet the hiring manager, you’ve probably demonstrated the technical ability to do the job. However, we also want to know the value you’re bringing to the company, and researching the company is a vital part of preparing to demonstrate that.

Many CEOs regularly post on company blogs or get interviewed by publications. You should find and read these articles. They provide essential information about the company’s direction from the person responsible for guiding it. Write down some recent quotes by the CEO that you find particularly informative, especially if they’re about remote work. For a remote organization to be successful, remote work has to be championed from the top. If you can understand senior leadership’s view of remote, you’ll better understand how to highlight your own experience.

Rehearsal

Now that you’ve strengthened your resume and done your research, it’s time to rehearse. Interviewing is a perishable skillit degrades over time. Most people only interview when they’re looking for a job, and months or years can pass between interviews. Hiring managers like me often interview candidates throughout the year. We get really good at our side of the interview, and it’s easy to see when a candidate hasn’t put in the work on their end. You can close this gap by rehearsing.

The key to effectively rehearsing for a remote job interview is to mimic the conditions of the real interview as much as possible. Find a friend to play the hiring manager, and practice in the location where you plan to do the interview (your home office or the kitchen table, for example). Send your friend a list of questions to ask, and ask them to go off script and pose questions you haven’t prepared. Use the same lighting and equipment you plan to use for the interview.

Treat these practice sessions as seriously as the real thing, and make sure to record them. (Your friend should record on their end so you can see how you come across to the interview team.) Practice introducing yourself and going through the prepared and surprise questions. Also, practice how you’ll handle disruptions. Have your friend suddenly drop from the call and then rejoin. Interviewing via video call presents the risk of a random disconnect, so be prepared to respond to such events.

After you complete the practice session, have your friend send you the video so you can review it. Consider any upgrades your remote setup might need, like better internet connectivity, a new webcam, microphone, or headset, or better lighting, and any distracting items in the background you need to move or remove.

Hiring managers often talk to several candidates in a short time frame, and how well you’ve prepared can set you apart. Investing in your remote setup shows you understand the importance of creating the best possible experience for your interviewer. That said, we also understand that not everyone can afford to purchase new equipment, and connectivity issues can be out of a person’s control. We’ll also notice whether and how you’ve adapted to and communicated these constraints.

During the interview

It’s time to put your preparation into practice. By now, you’ve researched the company and understand its strategy. You’ve rehearsed, tweaked your setup, and you’re feeling confident.

As you go through the interview process, be sure to learn everyone’s name. Refer to them by name when you’re speaking. This makes the interview seem more like a conversation. You don’t have the benefit of the nonverbal communication cues available during an in-person interview, but hiring managers will remember who seemed fully engaged. If the hiring team feels that you’re presenting your authentic self and offering an accurate account of your skills and experience, they’ll get a feel for the value, perspectives, and thoughtfulness you’ll add to the remote team.

Your research should enable you to drop hints that you’ve come prepared. For instance, you can mention something the CEO said in an interview that aligns with the topic you’re discussing. As you detail your technical capabilities, you can weave in helpful ideas about their software engineering practices, accessibility, etc., and share your enthusiasm for the company’s future direction. Your hiring manager has to build a team that supports the company’s strategy, and companies often struggle to align employees with the short and long-term goals of the organization, even when they’re co-located. By linking the role you’re interviewing for with the company’s business goals, you’ll show you’re a motivated strategic thinker and a high-performing software developer who can create value in a remote environment.

After the interview

You log off and you’re feeling great about your prospects. You actually saw a few smiles during the discussion! But you’re not done yet.

Sending a short thank-you email to the people you spoke with is a nice final touch. Keep it short and sweet; a few sentences will do. Written communication is an essential piece of much remote engineering work, and thank-you emails are a light-touch way to reinforce that you value itand your interviewer’s time.

I often conduct multiple back-to-back remote interviews, and I then have to review my notes and make a decision. If you send a thank-you email within 24 hours of the interview, the hiring team will probably read (and discuss) it before making the final decision.

Itʼs a two-way street

Interviews are also an opportunity for you to determine whether you want to work for the company. Your research and your experience during the interview should help you decide whether you want to accept an offer. You get to make observations about the company that can lead to insights into the workplace. For instance, are members of the interview team punctual and informed? Do they seem authentically engaged in interviewing you?

You should also prepare questions to ask your interviewers. Consider asking them things like what drew them to the company or what motivates them to show up to work every day. Does the company offer a stipend to help employees acquire or upgrade the equipment needed to be successful as a remote worker? What do they like about the culture at the company? What are the expectations for career progression in this role? What reservations do they have about hiring you? These questions communicate that you’re genuinely interested in working at the company.

As a hiring manager, it’s a joy to participate in a stellar interview for a remote job. It leads to an enjoyable conversation with the hiring team as we discuss a candidate’s technical competence and strategic thinking, and it makes the decision to extend an offer an easy one. Hopefully, a positive interview experience, and all the preparation you put into it, will leave you poised and eager to accept.

About the author

Anjuan Simmons is an engineering coach at Help Scout, international public speaker, and author.

@anjuan

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