Why You Didn’t Get the Job

Over the course of my career I have scheduled thousands of software engineering interviews with hundreds of hiring managers at a wide array of companies and organizations.  I have learned that although no two managers look for the exact same set of technical skills or behaviors, there are recognizable patterns in the feedback I receive when a candidate is not presented with a job offer.

Obviously, if you are unable to demonstrate the basic fundamental skills for a position (for our purposes, software engineering expertise), anything else that happens during an interview is irrelevant.  For that technical skills assessment, you are generally on your own, as recruiters should not provide candidates with specific technical questions that they will be asked in an interview.

It should be helpful for job seekers to know where others have stumbled in interviews where technical skill was not the sole or even primary reason provided for the candidate’s rejection.  The examples of feedback below are things I have heard repeatedly over the years, and tend to be the leading non-technical causes of failed interviews in the software industry (IMO).

Candidate has wide technical breadth but little depth – The ‘jack of all trades’ response is not uncommon, particularly for folks that have perhaps bounced from job to job a little too much.  Having experience working in diverse technical environments is almost always a positive, but only if you are there long enough to take some deeper skills and experience away with you.  Companies will seek depth in at least some subset of your overall skill set.

Candidate displayed a superiority complex or sense of entitlement - This seems most common when a candidate will subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) express that they may be unwilling to do any tasks aside from new development, such as code maintenance, or when a candidate confesses an interest in exclusively working with a certain subset of technologies.  Candidates that are perceived as team players may mention preferences, but will also be careful to acknowledge their willingness to perform any relevant tasks that need to be done.

Candidate showed a lack of passion – The lack of passion comment has various applications.  Sometimes the candidate is perceived as apathetic about an opportunity or uninterested in the hiring company, or often it is described as what seems to be an overall apathy for the engineering profession (that software is not what they want to be doing).  Regardless of the source of apathy, this perception is hard to overcome.  If a candidate has no passion for the business, the technology, or the people, chances are the interview is a waste of time.

Candidate talked more about the accomplishments of co-workers – This piece of feedback seems to be going viral lately.  Candidates apparently ramble on about other groups that built pieces of their software product, QA, the devops team’s role, and everyone else in the company, yet they fail to dig deep into what their own contribution was.  This signifies to interviewers that perhaps this candidate is either the least productive member of the team or is simply unable to describe their own duties.  Give credit where it is due to your peers, but be sure to focus on your own accomplishments first.

Candidate seems completely unaware of anything that happens beyond his/her desk – Repeatedly using answers such as “I don’t know who built that” or “I’m not sure how that worked” can be an indicator that the candidate is insulated in his/her role, or doesn’t have the curiosity to learn what others are doing in their company.  As most engineering groups tend towards heavy collaboration these days, this lack of information will be a red flag for potential new employers.

Candidate more focused on the tools/technology than on the profession – Although rare, this often troubles managers a great deal, and it’s often a symptom of the ‘fanboy’ complex.  I first experienced this phenomenon when EJB first arrived on the scene in the Java world, and many candidates only wanted to work for companies that were using EJB. When a technologist is more focused on becoming great at a specific tool than becoming a great overall engineer, companies may show some reluctance.  This is a trend that I expect could grow as the number of language/platform choices expands, and as fanatical response and the overall level of polarization of the tech community around certain technologies increases.

Candidate’s claimed/résumé experience ≠ candidate’s actual experience – Embellishing the résumé is nothing new.  A blatant lie on a résumé is obviously a serious no-no, but even some minor exaggerations or vague inaccuracies can come back and bite you.  The most common example is when a candidate includes technologies or buzzwords on a résumé that they know nothing about.  Including items in a skills matrix that are not representative of your current skill set is seen as dishonest by hiring managers.

Candidate’s experience is not ‘transferable’ – If your company is only using homegrown frameworks and proprietary software, or if you have worked in the same company for many years without any fundamental changes in the development environment, this could be you.  The interviewer in this case feels that you may be productive in your current environment, but when given a different set of tools, methodologies, and team members, the candidate may encounter too steep a learning curve.  This is often a response on candidates that have worked within development groups at very large companies for many years.

Give some thought to these before your next interview.

If you found this post useful, you may find my ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search even more helpful.  You can follow Job Tips For Geeks on FacebookTwitter, or Google+.

73 comments

  1. Ken Parmalee

    You made good points, some of which have a flip side –

    1) “Jack of all trades” — one reason a candidate may show up at your desk is because they want the opportunity to deepen their skills, which may difficult at their current job.
    2) “Buzzword-compliant” or “hot technology” or “non-transferable” — hiring managers have a notorious repuation for pickiness. A candidate’s second objective — after securing an offer — is to make themselves more employable. Employability becomes more difficult as the following increase — maintenance coding, maturity of the environment, and proprietary technology. So hiring managers shouldn’t be surprised when candidates exhibit behaviors that follow from conditioning provided by the market, i.e. rejection in past interviews.
    3) “Other-centric” vs. “egocentric / sense of entitlement” — Mac Davis once sang, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” Would you hire such a person? Maybe for the pleasure of taking them down a notch. Certainly hiring managers have stories to tell about candidates who wouldn’t stop talking about their massive accomplishments, especially in the face of overwhelming odds such as tight budgets, clueless bosses, and jealous rivals.

    Simply put, hiring managers are as irrational and self-contradictory as the rest of us. I hope they can learn something about their individual and collective behaviors from the candidates they reject as much as from the ones they hire.

    • fireandair

      “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” Would you hire such a person?

      Um, no. They tend not to be team players, and often think that they “don’t suffer fools gladly,” but the truth is that they simply treat everyone around them as if they were a fool. Guys like that have a bozo bit that flips in microseconds, and it makes them impossible to work with. They should be freelancers.

  2. Jane

    All valid and useful points. Ultimately we all have to look at ourselves honestly in order to evaluate where we can improve. Taking responsibility for one’s self is key if you want to change any part of your life for the better.

    That said, in today’s job environment the reason that someone didn’t get the job could have very little to do with them, so much as the other candidates. If someone else is more experienced or “clicked” better in the environment then they are more likely to get the job. Close second doesn’t get you the job, but it’s not worth beating yourself up over either.

    Finally, if you want to increase your chances of getting a job, keep trying. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep learning new things — even things unrelated to your profession (it makes you more interesting). Also, consider volunteering, work is work on a resume and in an interview regardless of if the work paid or not.

    • fecak

      Jane – Thanks for reading. A decision not to hire often can be more about other candidates traits. Perhaps the other candidates are showing more passion, are better able to describe their experience, and are more honest on resumes.

      The purpose of this article was certainly not to make people feel bad about not getting a job offer. Rather, this was meant to give job seekers (particularly software engineering job seekers) some insight into what hiring managers say about them after an interview. Sometimes that feedback gets diluted by recruiters, HR, or whoever is delivering the ‘bad news’ to the interviewee. If a job seeker is aware of reasons candidates are being rejected, it at least affords them the opportunity to try and avoid some of the traits most commonly used to dismiss.

  3. Bruce Mendelsohn

    Thanks for this, which I shared with students in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (web.mit.edu/gordonelp). We stress many of these points in developing engineering leadership skills among our students.

  4. Paul Arnold

    “Candidate talked more about the accomplishments of co-workers” can also signal the person is a strong team player, is others’ focuses, and has high empathy – all pluses and common traits among strong leaders. I’d dig into this one more before assuming it’s a flaw.

    • fecak

      Good point Paul. I probably could have mentioned this as sometimes being the inability to describe your own work relative to your remarkable ability to describe the accomplishments of others. An unwillingness to talk about yourself in an interview is a bit different than talking about the accomplishments of team members in a meeting. In an interview, acknowledging that you are a contributor among others is important, but you need to be sure that you can describe what you actually have done.

  5. Mikalee Byerman

    And if I might add, often it is simply “Candidate’s credentials were just slightly less than another candidate’s credentials.” Sometimes we can’t control these outcomes as much as we’d like!

    Great post.

    • fecak

      Could be a problem with the resume? Qualifications perhaps not a match? I know some very qualified people that have some major red flags on the resume, without even knowing it, that prevent them from being interviewed.

      • Stefano C.

        I’m very interested in reading such examples; could you tell us some more about them? Thanks

  6. Lady Gwendolynn

    I think some of these points are good for anyone going into an interview not just Software Engineering. I enjoyed reading this and the insights were rather nice, common sense in some cases and a good heads-up for some. Very down to Earth and simple answers.

    • fecak

      The article that was posted on Lifehacker this morning was actually edited a bit to remove some of the software engineering slant (not sure if you found this through Lifehacker or another site). Yes, much of this could apply to other industries. There are a few things about software engineers that make them unique, such as passion for certain tool sets. I’m sure that builders may prefer a certain type of hammer to another, but they probably don’t blog about it. Technologists tend to have strong opinions about their trade, which can become more obvious in interviews.

  7. frankeeg

    Hmmm! Not being a professional geek myself I read your post with a different viewpoint or mindset.
    Let me hypothosise for a few lines.
    Over the last 20 or 25 years, high school graduates have joined the big world with some difficult baggage given to them by teachers and society in general. They have been told from first starting school that they are unique and special and are entitled to all the good things in life. They develop the attitude that when they leave school the world owes them a living and become confused when they do not get a CEO position almost immediately.
    As well they confuse playing computer games with real life.
    They spend far too much time displaying skills on the latest smart phone and not enough actually doing the work they are paid to do.
    Older employees do not take kindly to younger employees arriving on the scene fresh out of a three week training course and who think they know all there is to know but have no idea of what is going on around them.
    Finally the other difficulty with school leavers is that not having their CEO dreams become a reality, leave their current position to find another and another and another. Apart from not building skills they do not build loyalty. Perhaps loyalty is a dirty word these days but maybe it deserves being revisited. Maybe, just maybe our forebears knew a thing or two.

    • fecak

      Interesting perspective. In the tech industry, loyalty is a little tricky. To move up in the world, moving around can become necessary. Loyalty in the past was perhaps a function of fewer employment options (less companies), or perhaps some golden handcuffs. Pensions are a thing of the past, so the incentive to stay is not nearly as strong as it was years ago, and the past volatility in the software sector have made job movement as feeling natural. I think there are certainly lessons to be learned from the past, and I also agree that there is some sense of entitlement among some of the younger generation, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is much different than it was years ago. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • fecak

      I’m not sure of your specific experience, but my candidates always get at least some level of feedback on why. That is one benefit of working with a recruiter (there are many other benefits IMO). Regarding legal reasons, it is certainly in a company’s best interest to give detailed feedback from a PR standpoint, but from a legal standpoint there could be some risk to giving feedback. I would always expect feedback after an interview and I think it is wrong not to provide it – I don’t think a company needs to give feedback on every resume submitted, but if a candidate takes the time to go through the interview process I think they deserve to hear why they were not selected.

  8. prithvitheprime

    candidates now a days focusing on the latest technology and tools over their industry and what they are good at. But unfortunately most if them are bluffing at their real experience in what they have got worked before. Candidate’s claimed/résumé experience ≠ candidate’s actual experience is a valid point really

  9. rachelbethahrens

    I just have a question: You’re giving all the great answers as to why people don’t get the job after the interview, but that’s only after the interview. What about people who never get the interview? What are the problems prospective employees have when they don’t even get considered for an interview? Is equal opportunity employment just a “guideline” to employers and not a rule?

    • fecak

      Rachel – Thanks for the read and for the comments. You certainly can’t expect every answer from one blog post! Would you like to read an article about maximizing your chances of getting the interview? I think the problems prospective employees have when they don’t get considered for an interview is a question that just answered itself. I talk to candidates all the time about ways to improve their resume, how to focus a job search, etc. I’d be happy to write something about that. I’ll be writing a book on several of these topics soon as well. I appreciate the comments and certainly hope you can take something away from my articles.

  10. Amol

    I have a question on last point you mentioned: “Candidate’s experience is not ‘transferable’ – ”
    I am experiencing same problem. I find myself in a situation where I have spent many years at the single company which is leader in it’s domain but when it comes to presenting the achievements/skills I have attained to other employers it seems irrelevant to them. e.g. some tools/tech/framework which my current company uses are made in-house and other companies make use of other open source tools/technologies/frameworks.
    So how should I present myself and what changes shall I make in my skill sets in order to not to appear an alien in front of other companies recruiters.

    • fecak

      This is one of the toughest ‘marketability’ problems that I see in the industry. The first thing you need to do is invest some time in learning about the tools that other companies are using, so you at least know what you are missing.

      I wrote this article linked below back in 2006, which addresses the exact problem you face. Your company dictates what technologies you use on an everyday basis (during work hours at least), so how do you stay relevant if your employer isn’t using technologies and tools that would make a developer marketable?
      http://fecak.com/taking-control-of-your-career-while-working-in-a-limited-technical-environment/

  11. thedarkestskin

    I have been following all the all those inciteful comments from other readers.Now question is: Is it a must that we should all be looking out to work for others rather than for ourselves? Developing the right tools that make us self-reliant,rather than always running around throwing out our resumes to every employer “that will be kind enough” to call us for an interview?

    • fecak

      We all should certainly not be looking to work for others. This article was republished on a few other sites, and the topics of self-employment and entrepreneurship were raised. I’ve written articles about that as well, but this one was focused merely on interview feedback. Thanks for reading.

  12. TheWordpressGhost

    Unfortunately, wordpress ate my other account’s comment …. they definitely have a superiority complex.

    You surprised me. On freshly pressed, the content is usually shallow. And recruiters do not always understand tech, much less interviews.

    This was well written, and written to the appropriate audience. I have met so many IT professionals who could not get a new job. They just were not transferable.

    Keep up the good work.

    Ghost.

    • fecak

      I’m not exactly sure how they judge what to post on ‘freshly pressed’, though I assumed it was based on the number of reads (this article was republished by Lifehacker.com and that seemed to generate significant traffic). Glad you enjoyed the post.

  13. sandraconner

    I’m not a computer technology geek (although many have been the times that I wished I were), but I was struck by the title of your post and came over to read. What you share is seriously good advice and is tranferrable — and totally applicable — to people seeking jobs in a great many fields. Most of my adult employment and career endeavors have centered around three main fields: education (in various environments), writing and publishing, and music. I can’t think of one job that I ever applied for where the criteria you cover has not been applicable. And, throughout my career life (of 40+ years), when I have been called upon to help decide who should and should not be given a job, it is these very points that weigh most heavily with me. Good advice. And good of you to share it so freely. Congrats on being “Freshly Pressed.”

    • fecak

      Thanks. Although I focus my blog’s content on the tech community, I’m glad that the non-tech audience can appreciate the content.

  14. Stefano C.

    “work is work on a resume and in an interview regardless of if the work paid or not” well… when you realize that you work only when youre unpaid, you have to ask yourself something: I know that people wants things done for free, but there are things they will never pay for: if your work is that, stop doing that, or make marketing of yourself.

  15. Frank W. Zammetti

    All good points. I haven’t been on the candidate side of the table in about 15 years now, but I’ve been on the interviewer side quite a bit over that time, and even more recently… I’ve noticed a SEVERE drop in candidate quality lately… what I’m finding more than anything else is a complete lack of basic logical reasoning ability. There’s no shortage of available candidates that I’ve seen, but there IS a shortage of candidates who can reason through relatively simple questions, even ones where the answer is the least-important aspect of it.

    For example, I like to ask this question: “In very general terms, without thinking too much about technology or implementation, how would you design an algorithm that discovers the shortest roadway path between two points on a map on a GPS unit?” Do they sit there in shock for 30 seconds unable to come up with anything at all? Do they starting yammering on nonsensically trying to BS their way through it? Do they say “well, I’d look for a library that does it”? (which is a legitimate answer by the way!) Or do they maybe come up with something, then say “oh no, wait” and then modify it on-the-fly? Sadly, it’s stunned silence or total nonsense I get more times than not when it’s the trial-and-error answer I’m looking for (or even the library answer).

    Just the ability to simply THINK seems to be in short supply these days. Give me a candidate who can think but is light on skills and I all but guarantee they’ll be more successful than someone with a deep resume but inexplicably lacks the ability to reason (we hired someone about four years ago who fit that bill- just out of school, no significant real programming experience, but could clearly just THINK… she has turned out to be one of our best hires ever).

    Also, for the love of all that’s good in the world, NEVER CALL INTO A PHONE INTERVIEW ON A CELL PHONE!!!! I’m to the point where the second I know it’s a cell phone I almost entirely dismiss the candidate. Yes, I know many people use the cell phones as their primary phone (that’s a whole other problem in my mind, but I digress). Yes, I understand there may be cases where someone HAS to do so (in which case, tell me that up-front!). If I can’t understand you on the call, and you can’t understand me, guess what? You’re not gonna get past the interview no matter how good you might be.

    Also, something which sort of ties together some of your points: I always ask about things like open-source work or side projects. Candidates that have a story to tell there are nearly always superior to those that don’t. Open-source work tends to show someone who can work well in a team. It also shows that they have an underlying interest in programming outside of the work environment.

    Also, I especially get excited when I see a candidate who has done something in assembly language at some point. Not for the skill itself, because *I* haven’t done anything in assembly in years myself either, but the fact that they have some experience there is a VERY good sign that they know how to think.

    Something else I always ask during interviews is “have you ever done any game programming?” Like assembly, it’s not something that’s directly relevant to my company, but game programming is something that it seems nearly EVERY top-notch programmer has done at some point in their lives. I wrote a blog post about it once… game programming touches on so many disciplines in our field and requires you to think outside the box so much and is a fabulous demonstration of someones’ ability to do so. I always suggest to programmers who have a desire to improve themselves that they should write a game. It doesn’t have to be the greatest thing ever, and it doesn’t matter much what technology you use, just get to it! I find that the experience they gain writing a game outweighs any job-relevant learning they may otherwise try and do.

    Finally, be charming! I like to crack little jokes here and there during interviews just to see how the candidate reacts. The ones that chuckle a bit are better than those that sit there like bricks on a wall. Some will make a little quip back, which is even better. Of course, humor is highly subjective and you have to be careful, but someone who is incapable (or unwilling) to engage in a somewhat casual conversation isn’t going to do as well in my experience. As a candidate, make sure you smile, make sure you’re friendly… yes, it’s a JOB interview, and there’s a degree of professionalism that’s expected, but you don’t have to be ALL business either. This speaks to interpersonal relationship skills of course, which in many ways is more important than any technical skills you have.

    • fecak

      Great points as well, Frank. The cell phone thing is just a sign of the times, and particularly a function of open work environments making it nearly impossible for candidates to sneak into a conference room during the day for a call. But I’d recommend letting the interviewer know the situation up front as you mentioned.

      Interesting thoughts on the game development making better programmers. I’d never given much thought to that. I tend to ask about open source involvement and some of those under the radar things that candidates might do that aren’t on a resume (arduino is one of the more recent I see), but never thought to ask about game development. I can certainly see how that would apply to creative thinking, and having to solve a problem thoroughly while compensating for a host of outcomes and possibilities.

      Great points, thanks for the comments.

      • funnyphuppo

        I completely agree with you, Frank. Even for hiring in the aerospace and energy fields, I would much rather choose a candidate who can think and is creative, than one who only knows the software package well.
        Fecak, when you talk about transferable skills, that is my problem with many hiring managers. Their vision is narrow and they can only see what software a candidate knows rather than how smart and passionate the candidate is. If a candidate has a basic background in a field and is smart and creative, than he/she can be taught as many technical skills as you want. But someone who only knows a particular software package really well, but cannot think out of the box, will only be able to do what he/she was initially hired for, and never expand beyond that role.
        Also, just a comment about your point on passion. I think it has increasingly become hard for candidates to shown passion in today’s economy. Most of them have applied to hundreds of companies without success, and gone to a dozen interviews. How can they maintain their passion for every company, after all those rejections? However, once they get a job, the passion will come automatically.
        In some cases, also, I have seen that certain employers expect the candidates to jump through hoops for them. I am sorry, if that is what the company needs to consider me passionate, then I am much better off without them. It would be too exhausting to always maintain that face.
        In any case, great point in your article. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

      • fecak

        If you have passion for the software industry that should show through regardless of your experience in interviews. Even if you are out of work, those that are passionate will be doing things to improve their skills – reading, writing code, contributing to open source projects, etc. Those are just a few things that managers will continue to look for from candidates.

  16. L. Rob

    Being an young IT professional, I can relate to many of these posts. In my experience, it just goes down to how you ‘sell’ yourself to employers. What can you offer to the company? Sometimes that’s what they want to know. Most (small) companies like to hire recent graduates, which is great because it gives them the opportunity to learn, learn and learn, and most of all, acquire that beloved experience, until they feel it’s time to move on.

    Candidate’s experience is not ‘transferable’ – This actually happened to me. I spent 4 years in a medium sized company that used some limited set of tools that made me valuable only to that company. So, I decided to go out and explore what was out there, what employers were seeking. I realized how “outdated” I was!. I went to several job interviews. I reviewed my performance and tried to make better each time, again, trying to “sell” myself as the better choice to the employer, being honest with my resume and what I was able to offer.

    So I got this job as an IT Consultant. I dared to ask the hiring manager, why did she chose me, over the other candidates? She said that, even though I may not possess that much experience as a software developer, I showed that I had a hunger for growth,passion for learning and coding, and the company might benefit from that.
    So my advice for job seekers is: Don’t be arrogant. Be honest. Be patient. On interviews, try to conceal your “negative” points into positive ones. Be a teamplayer. Don’t get frustrated over that job you didn’t get. Think what you did “wrong” and how can you improve? Like other readers noted, sometimes it’s just that the chosen candidate just clicked with the interviewers.

    • fecak

      Well said. The only thing I would add is that both large and small companies like to hire young talent these days, but in my experience specifically with hiring in the software industry I do see a difference between hires at large and small shops. Hunger and passion for learning are things that all companies will value, but I think smaller companies tend to value it slightly more (again, in my experience). Good points.

  17. Zohan

    Thanks for the post. Even though I haven’t fallen into these traps, but I am sure I could in the future. Sometimes I would show a lot more spark then is required! And even though I got the job, I was told it was more maintenance and less of new project work! LOL. But I got the idea behind the language! And I let it kinda lay low.

  18. crisgzr

    Wonderful article and very accurate. I wanted to add that you can recover from a shaky interview if you are honest and listen to their feedback:

    My DH was hired as a junior programmer, they took a chance on him. We had our own web design company and the President was shown a few of our sites by a headhunter. DH was thrilled to get a salary and benefits LOL. He also had a fine arts degree and taught himself everything he knew.

    They weren’t sure about hiring him and let him know they were on the fence. He wrote a follow-up letter; thanking for the opportunity and the friendly, honest interview. He told them he could not go back in time and repeat college, but he has shown in real-time that he could juggle responsibilities, learn new technologies as they develop, work with difficult or nervous clients.

    He admitted that working with your girlfriend doesn’t really show any teamwork abilities. In fact, he was curious to see how well he’d work with a professional team. He added that he shared and understood their trepidations; therefore, he would appreciate a mentor relationship with the entire team. Needless to say he got the job.

    He is now the Director of Software Development and introduced himself in a graduate school management class as the only one there with a fine arts degree. He never hides his background and gives the benefit of the doubt to interviewees.

    But, he is also disappointed! Their company offers a community college internship that pays full tuition and books -yet, the applicants show up completely unprepared and often in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops! I am not so sure anyone could recover from an interview that shows you did not prepare, are not even aware of the internship, do not dress with respect… It’s crazy in today’s economy, to throw away such a gift! Especially when his company expects to hire the successful interns on graduation!

  19. Tim Mushey

    I loved this post. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the list, especially lack of passion. Seems to be more and more of an issue these days! Thanks again…

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