The good news is that you just landed a promising job interview for a remote tech position with a great company. The less-than-spectacular news is that you’ve been asked to participate in an online code interview, and you’re not sure what that might look like.
Even if you’ve previously participated in a coding interview, every company has its unique protocols. What worked well for one opportunity might not apply to this one, so any confidence boosting you can do beforehand is probably warranted.
Don’t lose sight of the basics.
- Don’t lose sight of the basics.
- Determine whether the job is truly a good fit for your skills.
- Put in some prep time.
- It’s showtime!
As with any other type of interview, online or in person, following the usual tips will pay off for remote coders. Dress appropriately. Prepare any questions you have in advance, in writing. Manage your stress level. Smile. Make sure you have a stable internet connection. Pick a location that is quiet and distraction-free. Don’t interrupt. Thank your interviewers both at the beginning and end of your interview.
In short, make sure a focus on effectively demonstrating technical prowess doesn’t obscure the need to follow common-sense guidelines.
For technical jobs, there are several things you will want to keep in mind between now and showtime, though. Equipment, platforms, preferred coding languages, proprietary systems, common exercises, edge cases, and best practices can vary widely. That means developing a cookie-cutter approach may not be in your best interest.
Determine whether the job is truly a good fit for your skills.
In the frenzy of sending out cover letters and résumés, you may discover that you’ve unintentionally veered off into the weeds. As you delve deeper into the technical details of the position, you might come across a skill or two you don’t yet have.
If your current job search has any urgency attached to it, it’s tempting to overstate your abilities or blow past discouraging information. Resist these impulses. By not overselling yourself and being transparent about your qualifications, you protect yourself and others from future problems.
If new information makes the role seem less like a good match, inform the potential employer ASAP. Apologize for any inconvenience. Give them the option to cancel the interview or keep it at their discretion.
Your commitment to rigorous honesty will engender goodwill with the employer. Everyone on the interview team will appreciate that you respected their time. Who knows? It may turn out that a skill you lack is considered a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Or the company might have a more appropriate position opening up or be willing to refer you to another employer.
Put in some prep time.
Let’s say you passed the gut check with flying colors, and the company still wants to talk to you. How you manage your time between now and the interview is probably the single most important criterion for building up confidence.
There’s no shortage of helpful online resources to coach you through an online coding interview, and you should take advantage of them. Be aware, though, that this abundance can be both beneficial and harmful. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get sucked down a technology rabbit hole that contributes nothing to your upcoming interview.
To help maintain focus, write out a list of the top five topics you want to review in preparation for the interview. Tape your list to the edge of your monitor screen. Don’t permit yourself to spend time on other resources — or add to the list — until you’ve taken care of the top five. (Or until you make necessary adjustments to your priorities.)
As you log in for the interview, remember that your interviewers are looking to hire a co-worker, not flip the switch on a coding drone. The quality of your code is a vital consideration, of course, but your overall approach to problem-solving is being evaluated, too.
1. Get comfortable with the provided tools.
As code work is being increasingly outsourced, more companies are using specially designed remote tools for their testing. On the other hand, some employers might ask you to set up a camera and a dry erase board. Whatever their preference, do your best to adapt.
If the employer allows, ask to test their system before the official evaluation session begins. Make a mental note of anything you find confusing or ambiguous. If you have any special needs as covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, don’t hesitate to ask for accommodation.
2. Restate the exercise before you touch your keyboard.
Clarity is key, so begin by restating the interviewer’s request in your own words. This will help you avoid creating code that might be breathtaking to behold but not fulfill the intended purpose. Keep asking questions until the objective is clear.
3. Assume the need for comments and documentation.
If you’ve been coding for more than a few months, you’ve almost certainly had to interpret and update someone else’s messy code. No one likes being left to guess what another coder might have been thinking. Depending on the instructions given, your approach should be to produce the kind of code you would want someone else to write.
In practical terms — unless you’ve specifically been told otherwise — write your code so that someone else can easily follow along. Insert brackets for comments to indicate where you would go back and provide documentation. Try to keep your work 100% machine-readable and human-friendly at the same time.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask obvious questions.
When presented with a coding exercise, you might see an immediate and obvious solution to the problem that involves no coding modifications whatsoever. If that’s the case, speak up and share the solution that seems best. It’s possible the interviewer missed something or is attempting to gauge your ability to think on your feet or offer outside-the-box solutions.
You may have experienced a previous coding interview that was poorly devised or, worse, included some sort of “Gotcha!” moment. Try not to allow previous bad experiences color your perception of the current interview.
5. Write and (if permitted) compile and/or validate your code.
As you work on the exercise, keep in mind that there is almost always more than one way to accomplish the task. If appropriate, explain why you chose the path you did and not another. Anyone with coding experience will be curious to know your reasoning and methodology.
Different interviewers may give you different guidelines as to whether or not to compile, validate, or spot-check your progress. It’s possible that you won’t be permitted to compile as you work. If that’s the case, you might simply say, “I would normally stop to compile at this point” where appropriate. Once your session has ended, be sure to ask for your score (if applicable) and next steps, if any.
While a coding interview adds a layer of complexity to the hiring process, the underlying dynamic is much the same as with any other interview. The evaluation team is trying to assess whether you would be a valuable addition to their organization. Coding agility is only one part of the equation. Make sure you’re applying for the right position, prepare beforehand, be clear and concise when describing your work, and do your best. Good luck!