Rudyard Kipling’s Software Interview Tip


I’ll bet you didn’t know that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936; author of The Jungle Book) had some really good advice for software interviewing.

Well, OK, maybe that’s a stretch. Admittedly it was a little early for the world of software. But one of the couplets in his immortal poem, “If”, is just as relevant for today’s Python or Rails engineers as it was when it was written in 1895:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too

How can you use this advice to be more successful in interviewing for a software job?

Interviewing for software jobs surely can be frustrating for candidates. Every company does things a little differently, so the process can be unpredictable. These days, there’s an emphasis on trying to assess a candidate’s coding abilities by means of coding tests, whiteboard sessions, or programming projects. However, there are no standard ways of doing this, so “past performance is no guarantee of future results”, as the commercials say. I often see seemingly-good engineers perform poorly when they have to run the interview gauntlet.

Nobody likes to hear bad news, especially when it can be such a personal judgment on their skills and personality. What happens next, when a software engineer doesn’t quite make the cut on an interview? Over the years, I’ve realized that usually it falls into one of three responses:

  1. Curl Up Into a Ball. These candidates eventually give up on interviewing. They may have legitimate reasons for wanting a job change, but the pain of rejection and criticism from interviewing bothers them more than the pain in their current job. They decide to stay where they are, and stop putting themselves out there for interviews. This solves the acute pain, but unfortunately doesn’t help the true “career wounds” that they may have.
  2. Sour Grapes. These candidates don’t let a rejection wound them. In fact, they shrug it right off, they say, “there are plenty of fish in the sea,” and they move on to the next interview. They are confident that the interviewing company doesn’t know what they’re talking about! This is a more useful attitude than “Curl Up Into a Ball”, since they don’t take the criticism personally, but the problem here is that they don’t give the interviewers credit for perhaps accurately assessing one or more weaknesses in their skillset or personality. These candidates don’t learn from interview feedback, and as a result, they often make the same interview mistakes over and over. Again, not constructive!
  3. Learn, Adapt, Improve. The candidates who are the most successful interviewers, and by extension who are the most proactively able to successfully manage their careers, are the ones who don’t take interview rejection personally, but instead use it as a learning opportunity. Sure, they didn’t get the result they wanted. But instead of taking their ball and going home, or dismissing the interviewer as a ignorant fool, they dissect the interview to analyze what went wrong. They brush up on the technical areas where they’ve been judged lacking, and work to polish the soft skills in which they may be naturally weak.

Software engineers, the next time you don’t make the cut on an interview, take this 120-year-old advice to heart (and if you’ve never read the whole poem, “If”, I strongly encourage you to do so before your head hits the pillow tonight. Even if you don’t think you like poetry) Don’t let the rejection get you down, but instead use it as a learning opportunity to nail the next interview.

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