Software Developer Career Tips: The Initial Phone Screen

Date: 2020-01-08

Time to Read: 4 Minutes



Photo By: Headway

At this point, we should have developed an overarching strategy to our employment obtainment process. Based on the previous posts, we should have the following:

  • We have at least a cursory idea of the concepts of company classifications, locations and their opportunities, extra-curricular programming.
  • We have an idea of our candidate pool based on our own preferences for location, company, employment-type (remote, etc).
  • We have an idea of our preferred application schedule based on the urgency of our situation (if we’re unemployed, we’re probably increasing the frequency of sending out applications).
  • We have some document (spreadsheet or otherwise) to track our progress which can be used to adjust our strategies accordingly.

    • Adding additional details such as which resume template used and recording the response rate can provide an A/B approach to testing resume efficiency.

All of the information from the previous posts have been focused primarily on actually receiving a positive response from the company (or the HR representative of the company to be more exact) to your application or outreach. Going forward, let’s assume that whatever method you used (cold-application, referral, or otherwise) has been a success.

What now?

Most companies begin with a preliminary screening stage, this can come in a few varieties but the most common is a phone/video conference interview which is typically used to validate such facts as:

Are you a human? Are you really the person that your resume describes?

The latter point can range from just a quick 15 minute review of your resume to verify that your education and experience is accurately described or an hour long discussion of your previous experience. You should be prepared for either, for every point on your resume (a listed skill or task detail listed under a previous/current job) you should have a summary of what to say. For skills and technology, you should be able to quickly recall a moment where you utilized that skill or technology. For previous employment experience and personal projects, you should have two or three situations that you can draw upon that follow the formula of: I encountered this problem and here’s how I solved it. Collecting and communicating this information may be a mess at first and you can rehearse your responses prior to the encounter to increase the effectiveness of your communication, however, as you interview more often you’ll probably find yourself implicitly beginning to follow a similar script each time when encountering these questions.

In short, you should be able to talk confidently about every detail of your resume if asked to do so without rambling or losing context.

Even if you’re not asked any specific questions about your resume during the initial screen, you’ll likely be asked to delve further into your prior experience in future stages during the process.

Another tip for this initial stage is to re-familiarize yourself with the details of the job position itself. Oftentimes, in the mad dash of submitting multiple applications, you may simply screen the position for certain keywords or requirements to ensure that you at least have a chance to receive a positive response from your application. Many people recommend not getting hung up on satisfying all of the requirements of a specific job title and simply apply if you meet at least 50% of them. Nevertheless, it would be awkward to speak with your initial interviewer in the context of a back-end role when the position in consideration is actually a front-end role.

So try to look back and find the information for the job position and quickly review the bullet points highlighting the multiple requirements. If you meet a requirement, be prepared to talk about how you satisfy that specific requirement. If you don’t meet a requirement, be honest and admit it (though I would recommend that you at least learn enough surface-level information about it to talk about it in some capacity). At the same time, don’t volunteer too much information that might highlight your shortcomings in relation to the job position. For example, if the interview says “I see you have x years of experience of web development. That’s good.”, don’t immediately reply with “Sure, but it’s mainly PHP, I don’t have experience using Java Spring Boot as described in the position details…” Why would you even say that?! From my experience, anticipating that criticism and your own nervousness can prompt you to try to preempt any critical points unnecessarily. Try to avoid this.

Another reason to review the job position in detail is to be able to offer your own questions regarding the position if asked to do so. If nothing else, this shows that you’re treating the process with a degree of seriousness and interest and not simply spamming every open position available.

During this initial screen, you may be asked some softer questions that will typically range from: “What excites you about technology?”, “Why did you start programming?”, “When did you begin working with computers?” to “What are some of your hobbies on the side?”, “What are your goals in life?”, “What is your purpose in life?“.

Be prepared for these as well and don’t make the mistake of simply blanking in response as I did. Even if the response is predictably banal, it’s better than nothing. And even as you progress through this initial stage, it’s good to record your experience and make notes on certain details such as the questions you were asked, the duration of the interview, and a brutally honest critique of your performance. A lot of the success in this stage requires the ability to communicate clearly and confidently, skills that unfortunately can decay if you have a very limited exposure to social situations (i.e., you’re an introvert like me) or you’re simply not use to conversing verbally about these topics (also like me).

But practice makes perfect and repeat performance sharpens your ability over time, don’t let some rambling mess of an encounter (or conversely, awkward silence) dissuade your future attempts. Note your shortcomings and make a proactive attempt to not repeat it in the future.

Sometimes, however, even on this initial screen, the interviewer (especially so if they’re in a technical position in the company) may use this opportunity to gauge your problem-solving skills.

I’ll cover this in more detail in the next post about the technical aspect of the hiring process.

Software Developer Career Tips

12 February, 2020
A collection of posts detailing much of the information that I've learned in recent years when considering a significant career move.
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Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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