"give a talk"-style technical interview
January 8, 2012 11:44 AM   Subscribe

There's a computer programming type job I'm going to apply for where the interview process includes a "give a talk to your future team" component. Has anyone done something like this?

Found this great looking software engineering/programming position at a start-up type place and I am going to apply immediately. The company clearly has a huge focus on "culture" and is big into making sure employees are a "good fit". Of course I only know them from their website so far, but my initial leaning is that I could be an awesome fit there (or at least I want to be!).

Their website says that as part of the interview process for the type of position I want, they have interviewees give a talk to their potential team on a subject of the applicant's (my) choosing. I know I'm thinking ahead quite a bit, having not even made it to the send-in-resume stage yet, but I'm wondering if anyone has done this sort of thing for an interview, or has any thoughts on how I might approach this if I ended up needing to do it.

How would I choose a topic? Should I try for humor or entertainment, or a "dry" but useful/related topic? Something related to the position (technical/programming, domain specific), or a "fun" completely unrelated topic that tells them more about my outside interests? My initial thoughts are that I could go in-depth on a recent project I did, do a pitch on a project idea that I have (and how it could mesh with the company's work), or I could choose something away from their domain altogether (which might be what they are looking for? I have no idea yet) and set up a talk based on a "history of punk rock" class I once took.

If you've done a talk like this (especially at a fun/culture-oriented start-up type place), I'd love to hear about what your experience was. What was the place like? How did you decide on a topic? How did it go? etc.

Certainly if I get that far I would have to talk to people there first and find out how long the talk would be and gauge the type of people I'd be speaking to and the general "vibe" of the place, and I'd definitely ask what talks others have done in the past, but for my own curiosity at this point I would love to hear mefites' thoughts on this. Thanks!
posted by sarahj to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have done this.

My talk was effectively on the subject of "me, and why you should hire me". It only had to be 5 minutes, and it went something like "These are my interests, this is what I like doing, these are some of the things I am opinionated about". I hoped that spending 5 minutes jumping up and down being enthusiastic about these things in particular would go over well at that company.

I also made sure to make some slides which consisted almost entirely of spectacular photos that I found on Flickr. I hoped that the pictures would do dual duty, both by being memorable and by inspiring positive feelings that people would subconsciously associate with me later.

They hired me.
posted by emilyw at 11:58 AM on January 8, 2012

Best answer: Are you sure they are not wanting a technical talk? I've done this before and it has always been on some framework or technolog you've used.
posted by geoff. at 12:00 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went through this kind of interview once. I put together a short talk on a technical topic that a) I knew inside-out, b) very few people understood well, and c) would be interesting to the team. It got me an offer.

I'd be very leery of trying to be a comedian, or spending company time discussing an irrelevant personal interest.
posted by Dimpy at 12:01 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I should clarify that when I talked about my interests and opinions and so on, those were technical interests and opinions that were related to the job at hand, not my taste in music or recreational activities.
posted by emilyw at 12:03 PM on January 8, 2012

I guess the idea is to better understand you as an individual but also judge your communication skills. I think you should pick something technical, maybe bleeding edge, and relate it to your work or the company itself, e.g. "here's node.js ... and here's how we can use it for x at our group/company".
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:07 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would advise against trying to be funny, because the failure mode of "funny" is "stupid".

I'd also advise against picking something interesting just for the sake of picking something interesting. If you can give a well organized talk about some work you did previously that has nothing to do with the potential job - great! People who can give well organized talks are not as common as we would like.

I wouldn't worry so much about whether or not it will be interesting. In my experience, intelligent people who have a genuine interest in something (which is very much not the same as being a fanboy) can usually make me interested in it too (for a short time).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:31 PM on January 8, 2012

Response by poster: Awesome, thanks so far guys, this is very helpful. If I go tech-instructional, in terms of choosing a technology... I doubt there is anything that I know that this particular group of people doesn't know about already (and probably better than me). Should I make an effort to learn something I don't know yet (like node.js) in order to present it?
posted by sarahj at 1:04 PM on January 8, 2012

I would be highly wary of that unless you have a lot of time. In fact I would say no, because if they ask you any in-depth questions, you'll be hosed.

I work in research organization which sometimes hires programmers. What we like to hear best in job talks is the following:

1. Here is a concise description of an interesting problem.
2. Here are the reasons why the obvious solutions you're thinking of didn't work.
3. Here's how we/I solved it - with all the anecdotes about troubles along the way, showing your perseverance, problem solving abilities, etc.
4. Results.
posted by fake at 1:15 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For a technical talk, I'd be inclined to choose something you know absolutely backwards, even if you suspect the other people know it as well as you do. In general, unless you have a lot of teaching experience I think you should be shooting to teach a level or or two below your own understanding.

If you're not comfortable doing a straight-up technical talk, other options include
- an opinion piece on future technological directions
- storytelling about a (work) experience you had that taught you something. Stories are gold.
- wisdom on team working, project management, working with customers, or something like that, particularly if it's an area that you're strong in and that you think makes you a particularly good candidate.
posted by emilyw at 1:28 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

" do a pitch on a project idea that I have (and how it could mesh with the company's work)"

This seems like an excellent idea to me. It's similar to the "briefcase technique" that Ramit Sethi has talked about a lot for job interviews: watch the video here. If it's open-ended at all I think this would be a good idea.
posted by permiechickie at 1:40 PM on January 8, 2012

I used to work at a company where we had a team member give a presentation each week. It was a 7 person tight knit team.I did maybe 10-15 over my time there. Ones I remember doing:

New features in C# 3.0

Object-oriented programming in JavaScript (covered stuff like mixins and multiple inheritance)

A spec for an XML technology I invented ( was useful as we based a product aroud it but this was more jokey than most since I had named the technology after myself)

Research on PAR and SmartPAR (this stemmed from an office debate but covered ECC theory in general)

I did two post-mortems/dev diary type talks on two projects I completed.

A few others like a review of solutions in X space. One of them was an overview of source control products.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:06 PM on January 8, 2012

Will you have a projector available? Can you give a demo of the last project you worked on?
posted by crazycanuck at 9:11 PM on January 8, 2012

We encourage this, although not so much with candidates and see it as a very quick way of raising awareness of new things. I would suggest picking something very new and introducing the concept/technique to a wider audience, maybe pick a just published white paper and make an accessible overview in 5 mins and provide links to further research.

We've blogged about these 'tech talks' and I've added a link to my profile
posted by handybitesize at 4:43 AM on January 9, 2012

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