How To Prepare for a Software Engineer Interview

Software engineers build, create, and maintain software products. A software engineer may work on anything from a website, mobile application, or game all the way to an operating system or database. The role’s become a large and impactful profession over the last couple of decades as the low cost of software creation has resulted in the invention of many software tools and products that people use on a daily basis. A lot of investment has since been poured into software development with an estimated 20 million+ software engineers around the world. The following guide will go over what a typical software engineering interview entails and how you can best prepare to do well.

What to expect in a software engineer interview

Software engineering interviews consist of behavioral, technical, and culture-fit interviews. We’ll focus on the technical interview process since that’s the most important one for software engineers. Typically technical interviews are divided into two types: coding interviews and system design interviews. Usually an onsite with a company will consist of multiple technical coding interviews with multiple engineers to test your aptitude and technical knowledge of software concepts. They’ll most likely provide you with a whiteboard or online code editor to follow along with your code and thought process. Depending on your focus, these technical interviews may be different. For example, for backend-focused roles, you may be asked more about data structures and computing efficiency-related problems. For machine learning or AI roles, you may be asked about how you’d train an AI model. And for other roles, interviews may even be more practical asking you to create a mini-application or interface for a case study. Most of the interviews will be testing your ability to think on your feet, debug code, and produce the best and most optimal result.

What to practice before a software engineer interview

To be best prepared for your software engineer interview, you’ll want to review and practice coding problems testing core technical concepts like data structures or dynamic programming as well as accompanying space and time complexity using big O notation. You’ll also want to practice designing systems at a high level. For example, how you might build and structure a URL shortener. You’ll want to consider handling various edge cases and also try to define a set of constraints for your own solution to the problem. It’s also a good idea to list out any trade-offs you’re making. For individual problems and a thorough overview of some of the technical concepts, Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell is a great book with many examples.

Outside of the technical concepts, it’s always a great idea to practice your verbal communication and critical thinking. The best way to do this is to practice through an interview with a friend by riffing on technical problems or even by simply speaking your thoughts out loud to ensure clarity.

What questions to ask in a software engineer interview

You should ask many questions throughout your interviews. Any time a problem is described to you, make sure to clarify the constraints of the solution that the interviewer is looking for. Are they looking for a certain time complexity? Does the solution have to work for any specific inputs? Try to weed out any edge cases ahead of starting to write code, and ask your interviewer how they expect you to handle them.

Once you have a clear idea of the problem and are starting to write code, you should continue asking questions as they arise. And especially if you are stuck, it’s a good idea to continue to ask questions about the problem to help you think. Questions can also help your interviewer understand whether you are on the right track or not, letting them provide more guidance and help.

Once you’ve solved the problem, you can ask more general questions about the tech stack for the team you're joining as well as questions you might have about the team and culture overall.

What are hiring managers looking for in a software engineer

Hiring managers are looking for clear thinkers, problem solvers, and people who are able to autonomously operate as a successful software engineer. They’re looking for technical aptitude and a good fit for the requirements of their team. As much weight as your technical knowledge carries, a hiring manager is also assessing your ability to work in a team. How quickly do you learn? Can you adapt to a dynamic environment? Are you proactive and forward-looking when coding your solutions or do you stick within the confines of the problem at hand?

How to stand out in a software engineer interview

To excel in your technical interviews, you should always start by solving the problem they give you. Once you’ve solved the problem, you can go above and beyond by addressing potential tradeoffs you could make by implementing different solutions. You can also discuss how you may scale your solution for a larger version of the problem. Or what you may do to ensure that your solution can gracefully handle failure. If you end early, you can also ask your interviewer if there’s a more optimal solution that is possible and try to discuss how you may make your solution better and more efficient.

What sort of salaries can I expect as a software engineer

Software engineers are paid quite well due to the high demand for the job. You can expect to receive a combination of base salary, a stock grant, and various bonuses for the role. While pay still largely depends on location, many professionals are able to work remotely as well.

You can view salaries and filter by different locations, companies, and more over on our Software Engineer salary page.

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