Tech Jobs: Here’s What to Expect While Interviewing With a Startup

Mar 23, 2015 -
There’s something about tech culture that revs your engine. You want autonomy, equity, the thrill of building something from scratch and a casual atmosphere. Welcome to the club. While a job search is more or less the same no matter where you look, startups have a special breed of process and culture that might throw you for a loop if you’ve never done it before. If you’re looking to land a job in tech, here’s how to prepare yourself to put your best foot forward. (Click here to tweet this bit of advice.)

Expect to: get specific

When interviewing with a tech company, you'll be asked to highlight concrete examples of exactly how you resolved difficult situations, as opposed to guessing at how you might handle a fictional one. While you may usually go prepared with an answer to “what do you want to do in five years?” tech companies will probably never ask you that question. “I'm a fan of ambition and planning, but I believe anyone with a concrete answer to this question, like ‘I will be a VP of marketing at a mid-sized sales-as-a-service startup with at least $25 million in venture-capital funding by the time I'm 35,’” is missing out on interesting career twists and turns that may lead somewhere cool,” says Olivia Watkins, User Experience Manager at Quizlet and previously Program Manager at Twitter. Here’s why: Behavioral interviewing is easier to scale when hiring a lot of employees quickly, and a lot of startups are trying to do just that.

Expect to: roll up your sleeves

On top of being specific, you’ll be asked to do actual work. If you're an engineer, expect to code. If you're a designer, expect to provide feedback on the brand’s current look. Every company I’ve interviewed with has asked me to complete an assignment, not just provide a portfolio. I’ve written real blog posts, sample strategy docs and done live critiques on social media profiles. Here’s why: Startups run on borrowed money and time. There’s no room to hire someone who can’t jump right in and work. New hires need to immediately contribute and if they can’t do it during the interview, they probably can’t do it on the job.

Expect to: dress down

Almost no one dresses up in tech, so if you arrive in a full suit, you’re going to look -- and more importantly, feel -- out of place. “When I see a suit here, it’s probably a visitor,” says Michael Smith, Art Recruiter at Airbnb. Wearing pajamas and your favorite bunny slippers might imply you don’t care, but feel free to leave the tie at home. The good news: most tech companies will tell you what to wear in advance. Here’s why: Tech companies put a heavy emphasis on cultural fit. Your attempts to look the part of a well-dressed professional might make you look like a corporate drone instead of a good fit for a company that organizes ping-pong tournaments. “But,” Smith adds, “you won’t be judged harshly on what you wear. It’s about what makes you comfortable sitting across a room full of people. If a suit gives you that confidence, wear it. If it’s a t-shirt and jeans, that works too.”

Expect to: be yourself

When you’re a small company with big dreams, it’s natural to surround yourself with people you want to spend your day with. Interviews will most definitely veer outside the scope of day-to-day work. Recruiters want to find out who you are as a person and what drives you. That said, don’t let that land you in those non-compliant, might-get-in-trouble areas. "’Do you have kids?’ or ‘Don't you live pretty far away to be commuting here?’ is not okay and totally illegal,” reminds Tess Smagorinsky, previously a Sourcing Specialist at Google. Here’s why: “Culture fit” is the newest recruiting buzzword, especially in tech. “What ultimately keeps you at a company is an environment that brings the best out of you. If the culture isn’t right for you, it won’t bring out your best work,” says Smith. If you’re going to be working hard to grow the company, loving your coworkers is sometimes the only thing that gets you through the madness. And better work comes from happier teams.

Expect to: be obsessed

While it might help to like Coke if you work at Coca-Cola, product obsession is required in tech. Adrian Granzella Larssen, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Muse told us, "Even more than your experience, startups want to know you're passionate about their company. In every interaction you have with them — cover letter, interview, networking — your passion and ideas for how you'd contribute to the team need to shine through.” Here’s why: Small, newly-formed companies take a lot of work to get them to the place they want to be. You’ll be expected to work long hours, contribute creatively and truly understand the product in order to make it as amazing as it can be. If you’re not passionate about the company, it’s unlikely you’ll create stellar work that contributes to company growth.

Expect: a marathon of interviews

While a traditional job interview might mean you’ll visit the office a few times, most startups do a phone screen, test project and end with a marathon series of back-to-back interviews in one day. While this sounds exhausting, it also means you get a great feel for what a day in the office is like. Some startups take fatigue into consideration for those later interviews and will grade on a curve. Here’s why: Especially in the case of smaller teams, it's critical for all the people who may work with you have actually met you during the interview. If you're interviewing somewhere with fewer than 100 employees, it's likely you'll meet people from at least four different functional areas like engineering, design, business operations, growth, or product management.

Expect to: move quickly

Once a company has expressed interest in talking with you by phone or onsite, it's likely they'll want to move fast. No more waiting around for weeks or months like you might in a corporate job search. This may require scrambling around to rearrange your schedule to accommodate an interview, so be flexible. Here’s why: A startup’s list of projects they want to tackle is enormous, and they're hiring you to fill a large gap. They'll want you meeting the team, in the door, and working as quickly as possible. Had a tech interview recently? Tell us what your experience was like! Marian Schembari is a writer, traveler and startup community development manager based in San Francisco.