The prospect of a technical interview can leave the best of us trembling with nerves. The internet doesn’t help: type “technical interview” into a search engine and you’ll be besieged with stories of hapless interviewees who’ve been tasked with impossible brain teasers, supremely complicated technical problems, and coding whilst standing on one leg.
A lot of these stories simply aren’t true. It’s easy to get carried away by all the myths surrounding technical interviews, but in reality most technical interviews are pretty straight forward.
Technical interviews aren’t there to throw impossible questions at you, but rather to assess the extent of your technical knowledge and to gauge how you think.
What is a technical interview?
Technical interviews are common amongst employers recruiting for engineering, science or I.T. roles. Essentially, it’s an interview to assess your technical ability, usually related to the technical knowledge required for the role and the organisation you wish to work for.
Some questions might focus less on technical knowledge, more on how you think. Such questions are looking to test your problem solving or your numerical reasoning abilities. This might involve being asked a few brainteasers or undertaking a numerical reasoning test.
Not all technical interviews will be conducted face-to-face; some might be telephone interviews, while others might be conducted over Skype.
What are they looking for in a technical interview?
Obviously, the first thing they’ll be assessing is the extent of your technical knowledge. This will be the knowledge base required to thrive in the job, as well as an understanding and interest in different technologies and the industry. They might also test how you can practically apply that knowledge to real working situations.
However, assessing technical knowledge might not be the only point of the interview. They could also be looking at how you set about solving a problem, i.e. how you think, and, importantly, how you communicate your thinking during the interview.
They’ll be looking at how articulate and personable you are and how well you can explain and analyse things, particularly if the role requires you to compile presentations, write reports or offer technological assistance,
They’re not only looking for a correct answer, but how you reach that answer. They might be testing your reasoning and analytical skills, as well as whether you can think laterally and creatively.
A huge part of this is how you set about finding answers to questions and solutions to problems that you’ve never come across before.
Another thing they might be assessing is how well you handle pressure. When faced with a difficult question, do you crumble under the pressure or can you rise above the challenge?
What kind of questions will I be asked in a technical interview?
The likelihood is that most of the technical questions in the interview will relate directly to the job role. Therefore, you can get a good idea of what questions they might ask you from the job advert.
Most job descriptions will specify a set of essential technical skills and, rather than take your word for it, they’ll want to see those skills and knowledge in action.
The kind of questions will vary from role to role. Your first point of reference, particularly for a big graduate employer, should be their website, as they might post examples of the sort of questions they’ll ask.
You can also find plenty of websites with lists of technical questions, which you can use to test yourself. However, you should always check the sources of the website; some simply post hearsay.
All in all, during a standard technical interview they might expect you to complete a task, such as coding, or they might ask questions that test how you would use your technical knowledge in a real-life situation.
How can I prepare for a technical interview?
Even though you can’t really be sure of the questions that they’ll ask you, it’s always worth doing your preparation. Believe us, ‘winging it’ isn’t the way to go. Technical interviews lend weight to the adage: “practice makes perfect.”
By now, you should have an idea of the kind of technical knowledge they’ll be expecting you to have (look at the job advert if you aren’t sure).
Refresh your knowledge about those areas and brush up on all the fundamentals (you don’t want to be caught out). You might also want to re-read your notes from any parts of your university course that you feel will be relevant to the role.
Essentially, it’s a bit like revising for an exam, but without spending days on end in the library. A day or a few hours spent refreshing your memory and answering practice technical questions should do the trick.
Avoid the ‘student favourite’ of cramming the night before. A well-rested brain beats a crammed, panicked brain any day.
Practice with someone too. Get someone with technical knowledge in the same area as the job to which you’re applying and get them to ask you a couple of questions. Alternatively, you could set up a mock interview with your careers service.
Remember, it’s not just about finding the right answer, but explaining your reasoning behind it. The same goes for brain teasers and questions designed to challenge your logic.
Finally, the technical interview is still a job interview, so make sure you’ve done all the standard preparation you would have done for a straightforward job interview. You can find our tips for interview preparation here.
During the technical interview…
Remember, the interview isn’t just about assessing your technical know-how, but also how well you interact with people.
You might want to take a look at some of our interview techniques and interview body language tips for some pointers, particularly if it’s a face-to-face interview.
One of the things that can throw interviewees is if they’re asked a question they don’t know the answer to. Don’t get too flummoxed: some questions are designed to test your reaction to this kind of challenge; they probably won’t even expect you to know the answer!
Take a deep breath and see if you can reach an answer using your existing knowledge, logic and creative thinking. The interviewer might be more interested in how you tackle a difficult question or problem, rather than whether you reach the right answer.
Always try to answer a question, no matter how hard it seems. If you really can’t answer a question, then tell them so. It’s far better to admit it than covering up the fact that you simply don’t know the answer.
At the end of the interview…
At the end of the interview, you might want to ask the interviewer the answer to the question or how THEY might have solved the problem. If anything, it shows a willingness to learn.
Alternatively, you might want to include the answer to the unsolved problem when you write a ‘thank you’ email to the interviewer later on.
Don’t worry too much if you make a mistake during the interview either. We all make mistakes, so try not to let it throw you.
If you realise you’ve made a mistake, mention it at the end of the interview and tell the interviewer how you would have answered the question better.
All in all, as long as you keep a cool head, stem those interview nerves and prepare thoroughly for the interview, you should be well-equipped to tackle those pesky technical interview questions.