Having a prestigious educational pedigree can certainly catch an employer’s attention, as can a stint at a famous company. But even if you didn’t attend a big-name college or work at a world-famous tech firm, there’s no need to worry—you can still impress a tech manager during the hiring process. “You don’t necessarily need a deep technical background to impress a hiring manager or CEO,” explained Refael Zikavashvili, co-founder and CEO of Pramp, a platform that allows people to practice live technical interviews. “You don’t even need to know the answers to every single interview question.” So what do tech managers really desire when they interview candidates? To help you figure out what you might be overlooking, we asked two founders to reveal what impresses them.
Show Me What You Can Do
Taking the initiative to showcase your skills and abilities is absolutely the best way to impress any hiring manager. These folks are interested in assessing your potential and envisioning how you will perform on the job, not picking apart the job-duty descriptions in your résumé. When you’re trying to a hit a manager’s hot button, a prototype is often worth a thousand words. “Research the company to anticipate the challenges we’re facing, then send me a sample solution for handling a scalability issue,” Zikavashvili advised. “Or a design for a new feature, and bring it with you to the interview.” Prototypes don’t even need to map directly onto your prospective employer’s portfolio or roadmap. “It can even be a solution that you’ve implemented in a previous job or industry,” Zikavashvili added. “Just walk me through your thought process and approach so I can see how it relates to our situation.” Tigran Sloyan, CEO and co-founder of CodeFights, says he’s willing to review code samples, test results or prototypes to affirm a candidate’s ability to write clean, organized code. However, he’s partial to side projects that demonstrate passion, a design sense, and the ability build a product or solution. “If you want to impress me, show me a product or something you’ve actually built in your free time,” he said. Yes, hiring managers are impressed by candidates who make an effort to connect the dots to show how their qualifications fit. Ushering a manager through the steps you’ve taken to create a product lets you illustrate highly desirable personal traits such as conscientiousness and attention to detail; plus, it helps you draw a connection between your abilities and the job you want. Best of all, providing a miniature project plan affirms your understanding of company missions and customer approach. In fact, Zikavashvili used a similar strategy to score his first job as head of product. “My ability to envision the product blew the CEO away,” he said. “Although I didn’t have direct experience, I was able to show him that I had the ability to create it.”
While you don’t want to overemphasize your negative traits or appear to lack confidence, don't oversell yourself. An experienced hiring manager can easily spot attempts to overcompensate for any professional shortcomings. For instance, you don’t need to agree with every argument or idea the manager puts forward; it’s okay to express a dissenting opinion, so long as you can back it up. But most of all, be fully transparent about what you know (and don’t know). Demonstrate self-awareness by openly discussing experiments and failures, and objectively analyzing mistakes on past projects. Managers don’t expect you to know everything, and they’ve made mistakes, too. In other words, don’t try to be someone you’re not—presenting the “real you” is key.
The way you communicate with a hiring manager can even compensate for a lack of technical knowledge—or, conversely, doom your chance at the job completely, no matter how good your technical skills. For example, Sloyan views timely follow-ups and quick responses to requests as a sign of interest, as well as a preview of how a candidate is likely to “handle things on the job.” The pace at smaller companies is fast, he explained, so proactive people are essential. “I’m impressed by candidates who are super-fast in responding to emails and who stay on top of things throughout the hiring process,” he noted. “A quick response signals diligence, hunger and excitement, and those traits are bound to impress any hiring manager.”