Most technical interviews include some nontechnical questions. Some of these questions are asked early in the interview process to determine whether your experience, education, and goals make you appropriate for the job in question. There’s no point in proceeding with the technical interviews if you’re not the kind of candidate they had in mind. Others are asked after the technical interviews are over, to help the company prepare an offer that is acceptable to both parties. While you won’t get an offer on the strength of your nontechnical answers alone, a poor performance on nontechnical issues can lose you an offer you otherwise might have had, so don’t assume that the nontechnical questions are unimportant.
Nontechnical questions are important! Treat them that way.
Despite what you might think, nontechnical questions are often challenging in and of themselves, because they have no right or wrong answers. Answers are unique to each person, and different interviewers may expect different answers. Many books have been written about how to interview well, including how to answer nontechnical questions effectively. Rather than rehash what these books say, this chapter focuses on a few nontechnical questions that are particularly common in programming interviews.
Nontechnical questions are generally designed to assess a candidate’s experience and ability to fit in with other employees. Experience includes your work history and knowledge base. Even if you answer all of the technical questions perfectly, for example, you may not seem like the ideal candidate if the job isn’t consistent with your previous experience.
Be careful when answering questions about your experience because the questions may indicate that the interviewer has doubts about your capability to do the job. It’s important for you to allay any fears that your experience is lacking. For example, suppose you’re asked the question, “Have you ever used Linux?” Your interviewer has seen your résumé, so he or she probably has a pretty good idea that you haven’t. In effect, the interviewer is really saying, “We’re using Linux - will you be able to do the job even though you’ve never used it?” Don’t answer “No.” Instead, emphasize a similar strength. For example, you could respond, “I haven’t used Linux specifically, but I have done Unix development.” Pay attention to the job description when it’s explained to you. Emphasize any similar and relevant experience that makes you a strong candidate.
Fit is the other key theme of nontechnical questions. Fit refers to how well you will adapt to the organization and become a contributing member. Most people think this just means being a nice person, but that is only half the picture. It’s also important to be good at working with others. For example, suppose you say something like, “At my last job, I designed and implemented a system to move our HR information gathering to the Web all by myself.” This may sound like a positive comment about yourself, but it can set off alarms about whether you can and will work with other people. Therefore, it’s important to emphasize the team concept. Describe how you want to be part of a great team and a contributing team player. Everyone likes hearing the word team - everyone.
Most nontechnical questions are designed to ensure that you have relevant experience and can fit in with the existing team.
Of course, some nontechnical questions are very practical. If the job is located in the San Francisco area and you reside elsewhere, relocation (or telecommuting) needs to be discussed.