It’s a good day. After weeks of radio silence and anticipation, you’ve finally landed a first-round interview for that software engineer position you’ve had your fingers and toes crossed for. You managed to impress the company on paper and now they want to continue the conversation. Congrats!
Let’s break down the components of what you can expect in that first interview. Spoiler alert: This article will focus on nontechnical software engineer interview questions. If you want to read more about acing a technical interview, you can do that here.
What Do Interviewers Initially Look for in Software Engineers?
The initial interview is typically a nontechnical conversation to prequalify you for the technical interview. In other words, the interviewer wants to make sure you have the basics down before investing time and resources into seriously dissecting your programming prowess. Here’s what interviewers are trying to gauge in your first-round interview:
Does your experience match your resume? In the digital application world, recruiters need to make sure a candidate hasn’t manipulated their experience and stuffed keywords from the job description into their resume to beat the bots. “When talking with a technical candidate about experience, you want to know specifics of how tools and technologies were used, and get a sense for direct contributions to projects—actual involvement, not generalities,” says Michelle Martin, Founder of The MMGroup staffing agency. So expect plenty of drilling down into the details of your experience.
How have you moved the needle in previous roles? Software engineering is not about just showing up and following specs. Employers want evidence that you’re a problem solver—the kind of person who gets things done and is passionate about their work. Talk about things you did that made projects better. Skills are critical, but they won’t yield success if your delivery isn’t productive or purposeful.
Do you have the right soft skills? Companies place a lot of emphasis on cultural fit, says Martin. “But at the end of the day, they’re talking about the right temperament or soft skills—your ability to adapt to team dynamics, being coachable, open to sharing knowledge, collaborating across functions, and offering infrastructure support.”
While you’ll probably get a lot of classic interview questions (like “Why do you want to work at this company?” or “What type of work environment do you prefer?”), there are also a myriad of interview questions out there to test your experiences as a developer. We’ve selected and debugged a few to put you on the right track.
- Tell Me About a Complex Application You’ve Worked on or Supported.
- Describe a Particularly Difficult Project You’ve Worked on and How You Dealt With It.
- What Programming Languages Have You Used? What Are Your Top Three Programming Languages?
- What Interesting or Fun Projects/Tools Have You Created or Worked on?
- What Is Your Exposure to Agile?
- How Would You Explain APIs to a Nontechnical Stakeholder?
- How Do You Measure Success?
- How Did You Contribute Success to Your Last Project?
- What are Your Communication Strengths?
1. Tell Me About a Complex Application You’ve Worked on or Supported.
This question gives employers insights on how you’ve navigated challenges, worked under pressure, collaborated as part of a team, and creatively problem solved. Use this opportunity to talk up any of your best talents and show that you’re confident in your abilities.
How to Answer
When responding to this question, explain why you considered the application(s) complex, then describe your role working on them. Were you involved in the front- or back-end development, testing, design, or maintenance? Were you the sole developer or part of a development team?
From there, focus on a specific example of something you worked on and take a few minutes to summarize what you were tasked with, the actions you took to accomplish those tasks, and how it fit into the overall project. Be sure to include what you learned and how the experience shaped you as a professional. While you don’t want to drone on and on, it’s important to include some specific details to keep your response from being too general or generic.
2. Describe a Particularly Difficult Project You’ve Worked on and How You Dealt With It.
Software projects are synonymous with roadblocks, obstacles, and endless facepalms. Interviewers use this question to check your attitude and evaluate your overall level of contribution to a project—including management skills and your ability to interface with key stakeholders.
How to Answer
Think of a difficult project you’re particularly proud of—where you identified problems, resolved issues, and satisfied the client or stakeholder. Make sure you put a positive spin on the challenges you faced—no badmouthing clients or coworkers!—and include details of what you personally contributed to the outcome.
If you have a portfolio of your work, this would be a great time to pull a few samples to present as visual aids as you tell your story. This will help demonstrate your passion, enthusiasm, and subject matter knowledge, and bring a 3D element to the conversation.
3. What Programming Languages Have You Used? What Are Your Top Three Programming Languages?
A software engineer interview (even a nontechnical one) wouldn’t be complete without an overview of your programming languages and proficiency. The interviewer just wants a sense of how many languages you know and if any align with the languages commonly used for programming within the company.
How to Answer
There are no tricks to answering this question. Keep your response simple, concise, and truthful—don’t answer just to fit the job description. The interviewer is asking about your qualifications in order to get to know you.
I’m proficient in Java, Ruby, Python, C++, and Rust. I have a knowledge base in Perl and PHP and am currently learning Swift. But my favorite programming languages are Java, Python, and C++.
4. What Interesting or Fun Projects/Tools Have You Created or Worked on?
As previously mentioned, employers want to know you’re passionate about your work—both on and off the clock.
How to Answer
Use this opportunity to loosen up, show off your programmer personality, and let your inner geek shine. Again, if you have samples of your work, this is a great time to spotlight your crown jewel. And if you haven’t worked on anything you’d categorize as “fun,” don’t sweat it. Simply talk up an app or tool you really admire and break down the appeal.
The objective here is to show your genuine love for development in all its many forms.
5. What Is Your Exposure to Agile?
This question goes back to culture fit and soft skills. Employers who ask this want to understand your Agile development mindset to assess compatibility with their process. They’re looking for adaptable developers who can troubleshoot defects and provide feedback to grow their team’s methodology.
How to Answer
Start by sharing an example of a project you’ve been involved with where Agile was used. Be sure to include your thoughts about Agile development in the example. Do you feel it facilitates productivity and efficiency in rapid change environments? Are there any flaws you’ve observed in Agile processes and any recommendations you’ve provided to remedy them during projects?
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s a matter of sharing your perspective so the interviewer can discern how you best fit the role, the team, and their existing processes.
6. How Would You Explain APIs to a Nontechnical Stakeholder?
This question is designed to gauge your ability to translate tech-speak for non-tech-savvy audiences—an important skill for any developer.
How to Answer
While accuracy is important, you want to frame your response in a manner that educates without overwhelming your audience. Use a concrete example that’s relatable and demonstrates the practical application of whatever technology you’re being asked to explain.
Here's one way this might sound:
“If I were explaining what APIs are to someone without a lot of technical background, I’d probably say that at their core, APIs are a way for programs to communicate with each other—usually with a limited set of possible inputs and responses like a menu at a restaurant (where the inputs are menu items and the responses are food). But unlike a menu, you have to use the exact keywords an API is coded for or it won’t understand you. For example, if I use the correct inputs, Instagram’s API allows me to code a website so that the company’s most recent Instagram posts are automatically displayed on their site.”
7. How Do You Measure Success?
This question is often reserved for more senior level roles (such as program or project managers or subject matter experts) but can be asked across skill levels. “Recruiters who pose this question are seeking to learn about a candidate’s goals, values, [and] work ethic. The response can tell me if he or she is goal oriented, and what they value,” Martin says. What she looks for is “transparency and humility in their response.”
How to Answer
“The best responses I have received always have to do with how others play a role in how the candidate defines or measures success,” Martin says. That’s because software engineering is an inherently team-driven industry and no individual can be successful on their own—everyone on a software development team has to succeed for a project to work. And everyone contributes to success in different ways. Recruiters are looking for software engineers who understand this and seek to utilize their team to its full potential.
For example, Martin once had a candidate who was tasked with taking over a project. For him, it was important to learn about his team’s skill sets, interests, goals, strengths, and values, in order to move the project forward. He ultimately measured true success by whether everyone on the team had been engaged, contributed to the ultimate outcome, and learned from the process. This created a win for not only his project, but all his team members.
If you’re an individual contributor, you should still talk about how important teamwork is to your idea of success—but think about what you consider good collaboration. Focusing on these elements in your answer will help you demonstrate that you’re resourceful, you’re willing to help others, and you care about projects beyond just your individual contributions.
8. How Did You Contribute Success to Your Last Project?
Since the previous question asked to define success, it’s only fair to ask how you’ve made success happen. Here the interviewer is looking to evaluate your teamwork and collaboration skills. They’re assessing your resourcefulness, active listening, and ability to elevate a team or project.
How to Answer
Use examples that demonstrate what you did to make a project better and the steps you took to make it happen. A response to this question could look like this:
I spent a lot of time doing API code review on my last project. While reviewing a teammate’s code, I discovered some webviews were very resource heavy and not designed as efficiently as they could be. I recommended using an alternate webview to make it less dense and more optimal, and to potentially lower project costs.
9. What are Your Communication Strengths?
It’s likely that developers will, at some point, find themselves in a client-facing situation, and they’ll definitely have to communicate with team members and other departments within their company. Being able to communicate like a champ on paper—and in person—is the holy grail for a software engineer candidate. A question like this shines a light on a candidate’s awareness of their own strengths and how adept they are at communicating under pressure.
How to Answer
How you communicate in the workplace likely falls on a broad spectrum. Your job in the interview is to paint an accurate portrait of your communication style. Talk about how you break down problems for yourself and then tell your interviewer how you would articulate that to others. Think about your strengths: Are you a rock star at translating information into visuals (sketches, doodles, charts, infographics)? Or are analogies and metaphors your weapon of choice?
Some parting tips…
It’s important to remember that there’s no way of knowing what exact questions will be asked in your software engineer interview. But hopefully now you feel more comfortable about the types of questions that may be asked and better understand where recruiters and hiring managers are coming from.
What you don’t want to do is feed the interviewer what you think they want to hear. Doing so will start the working relationship off on false pretenses and potentially set you up for failure. So be yourself. If they like you, flaws and all, you’re off to a great start. If anything gives them pause, consider it a bullet dodged and know that better things are on the horizon.
You’ve. Got. This.