Why Female Programmers Should Love Technical Interviews

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Editor's note: Join Gayle Laakmann McDowell for her upcoming talk at General Assembly in San Francisco on Thursday, November 29, 2012. Save 15% with promo code "Women2" when you register here. By Gayle Laakmann McDowell (Founder & CEO, CareerCup)

We’ve all probably experienced it. The raised eyebrows when we say, no, really, we’re engineers. The extra fighting to prove we’re technical. The presumption that we’re in some less technical role (or, if we actually are there, that we probably have no technical chops). In that sense, technical interviews are a good thing for us. Let’s be excited about them.

What is a technical interview?

A technical interview for a programmer consists of coding and algorithm questions. These questions might be things like:

  • Write code to remove duplicates in a string.
  • How would you design a mail server?
  • Design an algorithm to find the Nth largest item in a binary tree.

They are common in many companies for software engineering / programming roles, and even for many program / product manager roles. At companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, this is how they hire software engineers. This is not just a component of your interview; this is your interview.

And you get five to six of these in a row, making your interview process effectively eight hours of straight problem solving.

(What do these interviews look like? Click here for a clip.)

Why should women love these interviews?

These interviews can certainly be scary, particularly if you’re not expecting this. But there’s good news too: these can actually be a great thing for women, as compared to traditional behavioral / tell-me-about-your-experience interviews.

  1. Objectivity: Although evaluating technical interview performance isn’t perfectly objective, it is much more objective than trying to evaluate someone’s technical skills by discussing prior experience. This means that to the extent that people are biased and assuming that women are less technical, we’ve got a better shot when the evaluate criteria is more objective.
  2. Leveling the playing field: While times are (fortunately) changing, many women take on more domestic responsibilities than do their male colleagues. More responsibilities at home means less time to build the cool “extracurricular” projects that can set you apart in an interview. With less focus on your projects and experience, and more on your raw coding / algorithm skills, women may perform better in interviews.
  3. Gives a leg up to those who started later: Some women were fortunate enough to pursue computer science in college; others were not, and picked up coding later in life. Because technical interviews emphasize aptitude rather than pure knowledge or experience, those with less experience can perform comparatively well.

Technical interviews are not a perfect system by any means, but they do have their upsides.

How do you ace the technical interview?

You should prepare for all interviews, and technical interviews are no exception. Studying is important!

Here’s what you do:

  1. Read real interview questions: CareerCup has over 8000 technical interview questions on there. Read them. Practice them. The goal here is not to memorize questions and solutions, but rather to help you learn how to solve questions.
  2. Practice with pen and paper: In most cases, you won’t get a computer to write code in an interview, so you shouldn’t be practicing interview coding on a computer. Use a pen and paper to practice code. And don’t forget to test your code!
  3. Talk Out Loud: The interviewer wants to see you try to solve the question. They want to know how you’re approaching the question. Explain to them your thought process, and definitely ask about anything that might be vague or unspecified. This is supposed to be a conversation with you and your interview.
  4. Be Confident: Many people get scared when they read interview questions, thinking that they have to immediately know how to solve a question. Not so! Even the best candidates can’t spit out the answers immediately to interview questions. If you get a problem that stumps you, that’s okay. Start with a brute force solution and work your way from there. Try some example cases. Brainstorm various approaches. Just don’t give up!

You can ace these interviews with a bit of studying. Check out Cracking the Coding Interview for more tips.

Editor's note: Join Gayle Laakmann McDowell for her upcoming talk at General Assembly in San Francisco on Thursday, November 29, 2012. Save 15% with promo code "Women2" when you register here.

Women 2.0 readers: What are some interview tips for technical interviews? Let us know in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the Founder and CEO of CareerCup, which provides programming interview prep for candidates interviewing with Microsoft, Google, Amazon and many other companies. She is the author of two books: Cracking the Coding Interview and The Google Resume. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School. She lives in Palo Alto, CA. Follow her on Twitter at @gayle.