When Gayle Laakmann McDowell had her first interview for a software engineering position at Microsoft 11 years ago, she didn’t know quite what she was getting herself into. “I was mostly naive about the interview process,” she says. McDowell had just finished her freshman year at University of Pennsylvania and was applying for an internship. “Now, I would think: ‘I should be studying for this like I would for a test,'” she says.
And McDowell should know. More than a decade later, having held positions at some of the biggest names in tech including Microsoft, Apple, and Google, McDowell is author of the book, Cracking the Coding Interview, and founder of CareerCup, a resource that helps prepare people for tech job interviews.
In 2014, McDowell started to teach a class at Facebook’s headquarters that focused on preparing prospective candidates for interviewing with the company. At first, she taught the class twice a month, but now, given the increasing demand, she’s up to teaching it twice a week. “Companies realize the interview process requires a lot of knowledge candidates haven’t used since college,” she says. “The more people are better prepared, the more people they can hire.”
But rather than striving for perfection, knowing what matters most during your interview is key. Fast Company spoke with McDowell about the most important factors to keep in mind, and the all-too-common mistakes to avoid during the interview process.
In the summer of 2004, McDowell applied and was rejected for an internship at Google. Later, she went on to get a full-time software engineering position with the company, where she stayed for three years. During her time at Google, McDowell would interview prospective hires for software engineering roles, which gave her insight into just what she’d done wrong her first time around–and what she says too many people falter on during their interview process. “The biggest mistake overall is people are rushing to complete something and not thinking enough,” she says. “They are very fixated on finishing and getting it done, and it doesn’t work very well.”
Instead, it’s most important to communicate your thought process as much as possible to interviewers. “It’s very much about your thought process, and if you don’t communicate that, I can’t evaluate it,” she says. “A lot of people dive in prematurely, and they make a lot of mistakes and actually end up doing a lot worse . . . Take your time to make sure you really understand what you’re about to do.”
Taking your time, of course, doesn’t mean standing silently at the whiteboard contemplating your first move. Dive in, but be thoughtful about the steps you’re taking. Interviewers don’t expect you to arrive at the right answer right off the bat, but they do want to know you’re willing to try and try again to get there. “I encourage people to start off with a brute force approach,” says McDowell. “Some people get very focused on that the first thing they say has to be the best approach. It’s better to have anything that works, rather than nothing at all.”
McDowell encourages job candidates to ditch this idea that striving for perfection out of the gate is what’s being asked of you. “Candidates are often upset by the process, because they think they have to write perfect code on a whiteboard and they think that’s unrealistic,” she says. “Try to make it good. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
One of the best ways to dive in and make sure you’re on the same page as your interviewer is to start with an example. This helps avoid misunderstanding the question, says McDowell, but more importantly for many it’s a great way to overcome your nervousness. “When people get nervous, they can’t stop thinking about how they are nervous,” she says. “When someone starts out with an example it distracts them from how nervous they are.”
If you want to get something up on the blank whiteboard, an example is a great way to establish the terms and values of the problem you’re solving for. “Here are actual values,” says McDowell. “Now where do you go from here?”
Facebook wouldn’t bring someone like McDowell in twice a week every week if the company didn’t want to make sure its prospective hires were as prepared for their interviews as possible. This isn’t an us-against-them scenario. Your interviewer might seem tough, but at the end of the day, every interviewer wants you to succeed and be the right person for the job. “Some people see the interviewer as the enemy,” says McDowell. “The interviewer is there to have a dialogue with you. The interviewer wants to see you do well.”
That means that if you’re not sure about what precisely you’re being asked, or aren’t entirely clear on what the interviewer’s expectations are, don’t treat it as a guessing game. Just ask. “Your interviewer is on your side,” says McDowell. “You don’t have to figure out their expectations. They are right there with you.”