Stop Googling “Full Stack Interview Questions”
We’ve all been there. It’s a busy day, your workload is piling up with tasks you’d already planned to do combined with last-minute requests from other teams, when suddenly a meeting reminder flashes on your screen. You’re interviewing a candidate in 15 minutes.
Naturally, you Google (or Ecosia or DuckDuckGo or Startpage) “full stack interview questions” to prepare for the interview. The only problem is, the candidate did the same thing in preparation.
Interview prep is hard for both parties. Candidates want to be prepared, and recruiters want to make sure they’re asking the right questions. So instead of creating another listicle of interview questions that ultimately leads to recruiters and candidates memorizing canned responses, I talked to three full stack software developers with varying degrees of experience to get their take on the full stack interview process.
How to structure the interview process for a full stack developer
First, decide on a process for your full stack developer interviews. The three developers I talked to said most jobs they’ve interviewed for consisted of three to five steps:
- Phone interview. This step is common to all job interviews. No surprises here.
- Technical interview/assessment. The technical interview should be conducted by a technical recruiter or a member of your development team. Questions usually cover coding experience, known coding languages and levels of proficiency, and programming approach.
- Code challenge/code pair. Thanks to the trend towards remote and hybrid work and the advent of new tools like CodePen, many employers assign a take-home coding challenge or code pair session instead of an in-office whiteboard challenge. The company usually either contracts a third party for this step or builds a test website to see how the candidate handles certain problems and situations. A follow-up interview takes place to review the assignment and ask questions about the reasoning behind the candidate’s decisions.
- Culture fit/add. Usually conducted by a member of HR, the culture interview seeks to learn if a candidate would be a good fit or addition to the company’s culture. Questions usually cover interpersonal work dynamics, interests or hobbies outside of work, and willingness to work with a team.
- Final interview. This step is a chance for those in positions of leadership to meet with the candidate. Depending on the size of the company, this person could be the CEO, CTO, lead software engineer, or someone else.
Processes vary company to company, so don’t feel like you need to follow these steps exactly as written above. Experiment. Test out different steps or shuffle the order to find what works best for you.
What not to ask
The developers I interviewed had different opinions on interview questions, but they all agreed you shouldn’t worry so much about asking targeted technical questions with only right or wrong answers.
“Unfortunately, I’ve most often been stumped by specific coding algorithm questions,” says Jordan Hurt, Senior Software Engineer at FullStory. “These questions tend to be binary in nature—you either know the trick or you don’t. For example, I was once stumped by a simple tree-balancing problem because I had not adequately prepared to discuss tree algorithms.”
Recruiters ask these types of questions to make sure they’re only advancing qualified candidates. But to candidates, they might come across as pedantic.
Consider also the technical challenge you assign. If you create the challenge in-house, use custom questions. If you outsource the challenge to a third party, make sure the questions and their answers aren’t easily found through a web search.
“Typically these tests are not too difficult and are designed to weed out people who have minimal technical skill,” says Zane Celmar, Software Engineer at Built Technologies. “Most people just Google their way through them. It’s easy to cheat, and they [the tests] don’t really provide any useful information, in my opinion.”
Questions to ask full stack developer candidates
So if you shouldn’t look up interview questions, what should you ask candidates?
Instead, ask questions that will give you a better understanding of how the candidate thinks—their approach to programming and problem solving, how they give and receive feedback, and their willingness to learn new strategies and technologies.
“If I were interviewing a candidate, one of the questions I would ask is, ‘What are the most important aspects of being an engineer?’” says Zane. “There are a lot of important aspects to being an engineer, and I would want to see where their priorities lie. Do they lie in their own code? Do they lie in their team’s success? Do they lie in mentorship or leadership? These give you the keys to hiring someone who not only can code, but has something to offer everyone on the team.”
Don’t shy away from asking questions about code candidates have written for recent projects, either. Questions about the tech a candidate used in their last position are fair game as well.
“Sometimes you will get an interviewer that will ask you to describe your codebase and how you’d go about implementing a change or architecting a new feature, which I believe is a better way to see if the candidate understands the stack and codebase they’re working in,” says Mike.
Finally, ask follow up questions. Respond to the answers the candidate provides and try to dig deeper. Conducting interviews this way will yield better results than a list of pre-written questions you work through methodically.
Advice for candidates: Googling interview questions may not be a bad idea, after all
If you’re interviewing for a full stack job, you can probably count on the interviewer to have searched the web to find interview questions. The corollary here is that you can likely find the answers to the very questions they’ll ask you.
This isn’t good practice on the interviewer’s part, but it could give you an advantage in an interview. However, this approach has its limits.
“Don’t over-focus on coding algorithm questions, especially for more senior roles,” says Jordan. “These interviews are designed to be quite difficult to imitate, so it’s best to brush up on what you know, and focus on adequately preparing for behavioral questions. Be very familiar with your resume and last work experience, and keep a few great examples of past system design challenges at hand.”
Last but not least, don’t sweat it, says Zane. This is just as much an opportunity for you to interview the company as it is for the company to interview you.
“If this company is stressing you out with their hiring process, how will they treat you as an employee?” Zane says. “Protect yourself from predatory companies by keeping an eye out for predatory practices from the start!”
Constantly refine your interview process
For best results, take detailed notes during interviews. If your company uses an applicant tracking system, check to see if there are features to assist with conducting interviews. Good applicant tracking systems will let you choose from a library of interview questions and write custom questions to save to your library.
Be mindful of bias in the interview process as well. There are many ways to do this, but consider implementing blind hiring to reduce the risk of unconscious bias creeping into your hiring efforts.
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