3 Must-Haves for Your Developer Interview at a Startup

Developer Interview

Acing a technical interview is crucial. Unfortunately, you can write flawless code and still jeopardize your candidacy at a startup if you don’t do your homework.

This rule isn’t just for startups anymore. Older and larger companies are imitating startup company culture, valuing personality fit more than ever. In a sea of candidates with competitive technical skills, finding a candidate with the right mindset and background is like finding a unicorn. Here’s how you can be that candidate in your startup interview:

Developer Interview

Talk About Side Projects

Recent college graduates: this interview tip is for you! Luckily for students and post-grads with little real-world experience, side projects are extra relevant at startup interviews. Startup executives want innovative, inspired, and conceptually motivated employees–especially at the junior level. Examples range anywhere from:

  • Building an app, no matter how small or basic
  • Creating your own website. For example, one that showcases your resume and projects
  • Volunteering at a non-profit, simply because you’re THAT passionate
  • Speaking about your expertise at a conference or in a classroom
  • Assisting in the development of a new product feature at an internship
  • Taking classes to learn or brush up on programming languages
  • Working with friends to sell their product through networking, pitches, and fundraising

The list is potentially endless. If you haven’t participated in a side-project, don’t panic. But, if you have, now is the time to incorporate it into your interview.

Developer Interview

Give Special Attention to the Product

Between of startups fail. Your interviewer knows this, and so should you. Entering an interview without any constructive questions or well-researched knowledge about the company’s product is a red flag for the manager interviewing you. Out of the startups that fail, of them cite a lack of market need for their product. Use the product at least a few times before the interview, and ask the right questions:

  • Have you achieved a product/market fit?
  • What are your goals this financial year?

Specifically if you’re a developer:

  • How much time is spent reacting to problems versus rolling out new code?
  • What is the biggest problem, and how are we trying to solve it?

computer engineering
Warner Bros. Television

Be Especially Prepared to Answer: “Why Do You Want to Work Here?”

Passion is crucial for all job interviews. For startup interviews, it’s front and center. Startup employees often work flexible hours (code for inconvenient) and overtime. You should also expect to receive below-market salary in exchange for equity in the company. So why would you work at a startup again? Experience, passion, and growth.

A big mistake interviewees make is not stating, “I really want to work at (company name), here’s why.” An equally big mistake is expressing your passion for the company–but dropping the ball in your other interview answers. A startup founder or manager will ask you questions that gage your interest in startup life. If you don’t know about other relevant startups or competitors, it will show. The same is true for apps, especially if you’re an IOS developer. Many interviewers ask a variation of:

  • What is your dream role at your dream company?
  • What other companies are you interviewing at?
  • Where do you see yourself in 3-5 years?

These questions quickly tell the interviewer whether you are truly invested in the startup industry based on your goals, knowledge, and passion. As the bluntly states, don’t tell a startup founder you’re dying to work as a junior developer at their company and then state your dream role is at a corporate brand name like Mercedes Benz. He or she will see right through your tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear act.

If you state that in 3-5 years you want a position that is totally not aligned with the career trajectory of the role you’re interviewing for–or if you don’t come off as ambitious–you could sabotage your callback chances.

Interviewing at a startup is 50 percent technical skill and 50 percent grit. Make sure you have these bullet points at the forefront of your mind, and you’ve thought deeply about your answers. Preparing for an interview is no longer mesmerizing your answer to “Tell me a little bit about your background.” It’s thinking about how you prove you’re a candidate worth working with 40-50 hours a week, during both relaxed company banter and intense twelve-hour days.


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