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How to ace your technical interview

James Milligan, Global Head of Hays Technology

Whether you are an experienced developer or a self-taught programmer, if you’re looking for a new job, you’ll almost certainly be faced with a technical interview. Some may find these interviews daunting and so preparation is key to your success.

To help you prepare for your technical interview, today we’re speaking with James Milligan, Director at UK and Ireland and EMEA – Technology and Project Solutions at Hays. James has worked at Hays for over eighteen years and is responsible for leading the UK, Ireland and EMEA IT business to help tech professionals develop their careers.


1. The tech industry has one of the most competitive job markets across the Hays business. We’ve certainly seen that there’s been a rise in demand for tech skills. So what can you do to really set yourself apart from the crowd?


As you said, the tech industry is a very competitive market, which means organisations are actively seeking the best talent. There’s lots of skills that we’re seeing in demand at this moment in time, particularly in the digital technology area. The reason being is that there’s lots of traditional organisations like banks or business services organisations that are going through digital transformation at this moment in time. We’re seeing a high demand for software engineers, particularly those with front end experience as organisations wants to improve the user experience for both internal and external customers. We’re also seeing a high demand for people with advanced analytical skills because of the rise of mobile devices, wearable technology, the emergence of the internet, smart cities and smart buildings. We’re creating more and more data and as a result, we’re looking for people with skills to analyse that data in order provide insights around it.

Also with the increase in data and with legislation like GDPR, cyber security is becoming strategically important for lots of organisations, particularly at ‘C’ level. So we’re seeing a big demand within cyber security as well. As I’ve just described there, the tech market is competitive, so it’s important that you take ownership of your own career and make steps to set yourself apart from the competition. So how do you do this? Well, you need to be constantly developing and refining your skills. I’ve been in IT recruitment for twenty years. There are skills that were in high demand twenty years ago that just don’t exist anymore and not widely used anymore. The skill set that people require is constantly evolving. And if you do this, this will help develop your tech skills, but also help develop your problem solving skills.

So organisations, when they hire, they are looking for people, for experienced hires with a specific set of technical skills apart from if a person comes to an organisation who are looking for someone who is going to self-learn throughout their career and develop those skills. And if they’re hiring at a graduate level, because the technology moves so quickly, the technology that has been taught in third level education, may not be as relevant by the time they graduate, they’re looking for people with critical thinking, so if they have a problem in front of them, they can take a creative approach to solving that problem.

2. When it comes to the interview process itself, how does this work with tech roles? It’d be great if you could explain for those who may be new to the sector, for instance, what candidates can expect from a technical interview and what the interviewer is trying to find out as well.


Technical interviews are designed to assess your technical ability and also to understand your soft skills such as reasoning, communication and problem solving. So technical interviews can happen in a number of different ways. Candidates that go through the interview process, quite often will have a number of different steps. Now these might happen all at one time on the same day or they might happen independently to one another. So some organisations as part of that screening process like to use technically testing platforms such as Codify or technically compatible IKM to validate somebodies skills set. Quite often this is used when candidates maybe don’t have much commercial experience and they want to just check their technical knowledge or if somebody is moving from a different country to a new country and want to validate that person has the skills and maybe they don’t find it as easy to validate that as speaking directly to a referee or a previous employer.

Once then they’re in front of an organisation, there’s a number of different interview techniques that can be used. Competency-based interviewing is quite often used for screening technical candidates and when somebody’s going through a competency-based interview, the interviewer is looking for examples of how somebody has behaved in the past to give an indication of how they are likely to behave in the future. These are normally around more situational type questions,  so this is the type of question that we’ll maybe touch on some of the softer skills such as communication or project management or problem solving.

Then the other area that organisations quite often look at then is specifically the technical test itself. So, sometimes they might revert back to the online test that’s been completed prior to the interview and ask a candidate why they went down a certain route to solve a problem. So the online test is quite sophisticated now. You can see what the reasoning or the route that somebody took to solve a problem, it’s not linear, these are recorded and you can assess in real time why somebody went down that route. Or organisations quite often use whiteboard techniques where you’re given a problem on the whiteboard and you’re asked for a solution and again you’ll be asked why you decided to go down a particular route, potentially challenged or you discuss why were you applied a certain methodology.

So there’s quite a wide variety of techniques that are in play in order to assess technical candidates and I think it’s really important that you are both prepared for the technical elements of an interview and also the softer elements around those core competencies that are required and that you are mindful of examples that you have of situations that you have to deal with in the past that articulate your ability to deal with those situations.

3. There are some clear differences there between tech interviews and more regular interviews. But one thing that is constant is that it’s important for candidates to prepare well. So do you have any particular advice to help our tech candidates listening today?


There’s a lot of the information in the public domain these days. It’s much easier to research the interview process than it would have been five or ten years ago, using sites like Glassdoor that will give you insights into how organisations run their interview process. So you should definitely look at that, that open source data and take in as many insights you might have and be able to apply them for a competitive edge. If you’re working with a recruiter, they will be able to tell you if an employee you’re interviewing with has provided any specific information about the upcoming interview and key areas to focus on.

Again, being able to go back and sharpen up either on your technical knowledge or the relevant examples that are going to be required is really, really useful. It gives you confidence prior to the interview that you are in a good position to do a good job. And if you haven’t gone for an agency and if you have applied for a job directly then speak with the organisation, with the person that you’ve been liaising with and ask them for details about how the upcoming interview is going to be formatted and any other advice or suggestions for preparation that they can share with you.

4. Going back to the interview itself where you spoke about the different assessment methods for tech interviews. Is there any way that candidates can prepare for each of those?


Tech interviews require as much preparation as a standard job interview, if not more. So to give yourself a better chance, you should always try and think of the types of questions that might be proposed and think in advance of your answers. So, I personally find if you’re talking to either a colleague or a friend or someone who is familiar with your sector, to look at or to discuss various scenarios, that’s often useful and you might get a different viewpoint or consider something in terms of your preparation that you otherwise wouldn’t consider. So speaking not just to the recruiters, but to other people within your sector and people you trust I think is always useful.

Obviously research the company, their history, their products, their services and their industry reputation. Have a look online, have a look on LinkedIn, have a look at the technology they’re using and have a look at what people who currently work for them say about the organisation. Try and glean any technological insights from that in terms of if there is specific technology you see coming up again and if it’s something maybe you are not familiar with or you haven’t worked with recently, it’s probably worthwhile just doing a bit of a deeper dig in and understanding a little bit more about that and trying to relate it to what the organisation does and that will really set you apart from other candidates.

Another important point to find out is what’s the culture like? It varies widely in tech environments. You could be used to relaxed informal environments, maybe the shared working space or smaller medium size enterprises where you can dress casually and work flexible hours which is often the case with tech roles, but sometimes organisations can be a lot more formal. If you’re going into a financial services organisation, maybe they have a different culture and it’s important that you align yourself to that culture and that you’re sure it’s the type of place that you want to work with, it’s the type of role in an organisation you want to work with.

In addition, it’s really important to demonstrate your soft skills such as your ability to communicate clearly and collaborate with others and I think when candidates have been assessed in an interview, the communication bit is quite often attacked subjectively by the interviewer. So maintain eye contact, respond to the question directly. If there’s more than one person within the room, make sure you’re speaking to all the different people within the room and your engaged with them on an individual basis. Make sure that your examples that you have if working within a team environment is really important, make sure the examples that you use when you’re answering your questions, demonstrate collaboration with others and successful outcomes and also times where maybe things weren’t successful, with the reasons why and the lessons that you learned. That shows a level of personal awareness and emotional intelligence that might set you apart from other candidates.

5. I’ve just got one more question, which is one that we ask all our guests and it’s just if you could give one piece of careers advice to our listeners, what would that be?


Understand what you want from a job. Try and understand what you enjoy, what motivates you, what makes you smile and align your career path or your job search, to that type of role. I mean you may not know and it’s fine to explore that and get various different options to have available, but in time you’ll probably get a good understanding of yourself and what you enjoy and what makes you happy.

Be quite structured in terms of exploring opportunities that align to that so that you have your own career strategy or your plan. For some people that might be just moving up the career ladder which gives a sense of fulfilment. For a lot of people though it might be working with a specific type of technology that they enjoy or a specific sector that delivers personal satisfaction or working within the specific industry that they find very, very rewarding. I think spend some time to think about what it is that drives you, motivates you, what you’re looking for in your life because you spend more time at work than you do anywhere else, and you want to be spending that time in an environment and within an organisation and culture that aligns to your own personal values and what you want to do with your life.

So my piece of advice would be try to understand that and if you’re somewhere where that doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to change and recalibrate and try and find somewhere that does align to that. Because at the end of the day, I think it’s like any relationship you have in your life, it has to make you happy and you have to feel satisfied with what you do with your career.


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James Milligan is the Global Head of  Hays Technology, having joined in 2000. In his role, he is responsible for the strategic development of Hays’ technology businesses globally.


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