How do I handle this interview, for a position that would be a stretch?
April 21, 2015 7:52 PM   Subscribe

The company in question is a small, successful tech startup in a college town in a rural region. In an unusual fit of courage, I wrote and sent in a verbose letter of application for a development internship. I'm already regretting this bout of self-esteem, because I'm not that qualified, and though I made that clear in my letter, they've asked me in for a "short talk". I have no idea what to expect. Difficulty level: social phobia.

About the position: at least 3 or 4 hours a week, more is great. In my cover letter I offered to work up to 10. They did not specify the level of technical background required, only that I should have one, and they mentioned no specific technologies. They do specifically mention being more interested in characteristics than degrees.

About me: not a college student. I take massively open online courses in computer science and programming, and I'm not that far into them at that-- I'm still learning CS fundamentals. This is not a case of impostor syndrome. I'm only about a third of the way through two freshman courses, have completed a course on program design, and am almost done with a Linux course. That's it. I also have social phobia serious enough that I'm on disability, which is a big part of why (and how) I'm teaching myself the skillset for this particular career path.

For the uninitiated, and I didn't think about this until after I applied, this is the time of year that college juniors in computer science programs start nailing down their internships for the summer. It would take a lot of gall to think I'm anywhere near as qualified for an internship here as they are. One of my many fears is that maybe they're inviting me in to gently inform me that I have no business applying to positions like this until I have more knowledge and experience.

In my cover letter, I did state that I didn't know whether my technical background met their minimum standard, and that if it did not, I'd like the chance to talk to them about what they are looking for so that I can incorporate those technologies into my curriculum and try again after I've learned the basics. This may be the nature of the "short talk" I'm going in for.

But there is a possibility that this is a bona fide interview, and worse, I think there's a (small) possibility it's a technical interview. I downloaded a well-recommended book on preparing for technical interviews, and in the preface it straight-up says that if I don't have two years' worth of CS fundamentals under my belt, I "should seriously consider seeking more education before starting" any kind of tech job search.

So, I'm going in for a short talk of unknown purpose, to say I have jitters would be an understatement, and I can't decide how I should be spending the week I have to prepare. Should I be reviewing the course material I've already done so that if they ask me questions about it, it's fresh in my mind? Should I be trying to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of data structures and algorithms and the things that typically come up in technical interviews? Should I be doing mock interviews and practicing answering the nontechnical questions? There simply isn't time to do all of the above. What do I say if they ask, "why should I hire you for this position over another candidate?" that's not either self-defeating or delusionally overconfident? Should I try not to think about it at all?

In case it's not clear, I want the job, I would be absolutely thrilled to have the job, but I don't want to go in there seeming to presume that I'm something more than what I am and get thumped on the nose for it.

I apologize if I've blathered and appreciate any thoughts you have for me.
posted by dee lee to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're going there to learn: about them, about the industry, about what you'll need to know, and even more (and more fun) about the individuals you'll meet and what they're interested in. If you focus on that -- on what you're curious about, and what you might find behind the thresholds you've been invited to cross, then you might be able to enjoy yourself.

I bet it's a fun place and you could have a fascinating time, even if an internship were completely off the table.

You're right, you're not yet ready for the kind of internship where you sit and code; maybe they'll let you sit at a desk a few hours a week checking web stats or twitter or something -- the point of _many_ internships is just to absorb the culture, to get used to the people around you, to learn what they expect of each other. Even if this company is looking for technical interns specifically, there might be another capacity in which you could contribute a little. The fact that you're _not_ a college student is a potential boon: you could stick around for more than one semester, and so whatever they teach you to do, you can keep doing it all year round, if they want.

You, my friend, could be a nugget of gold ore, and if anyone with any vision happened to read your letter, they'll be very intrigued.

At the same time, they may not be a good fit for you, which is also fine. Your mission is to learn. Don't worry about what they may or may not want from you -- your real job hunt will happen later; this is just practice and peeking behind the curtain a bit.
posted by amtho at 8:13 PM on April 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Step one. Don't disqualify yourself. They read your resume, they indicated they want to talk to you.

Spend this time talking with a trusted friend or therapist, role-playing interview v scenarios until you stop apologizing for not being someone you never said you were.

Focus on working with your therapist ( you have one, yes?) on techniques to manage your anxiety. You're making this so much worse for yourself.

Is there any indication which skills might be most applicable for this internship? Brush up on those.

A short talk is unlikely to be be a technical interview, and if they thought you were not worth considering, they wouldn't waste their time talking to you.

In short, you need to get your support in order because right now, you're spinning yourself up in a way that's just going to make things harder when they don't have to be. Good luck. You sound motivated and eager to take on a new challenge; you just need some help believing in your own self.
posted by canine epigram at 8:15 PM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

You'd be surprised what will attract people's attention, sometimes. I managed to get an interview once by mailing in a copy of my resume to a company that had no address published and was vaguely in "stealth mode." The interview was not successful, but I was complimented several times on being original in the job search.

It would take a lot of gall to think I'm anywhere near as qualified for an internship here as they are.

If you actually believe this, then the corresponding consequence is that this company is so incompetent at hiring as to pick you over those rising senior students. That also takes a bit of gall. The company found something of interest in you. That doesn't mean they'll hire you, but it means that they are looking for someone that vaguely matches your background. Most of the time, companies aren't looking for the "best" candidate. At the risk of sounding depressing, most companies are vaguely boring, have limited challenges, and don't treat employees very well. Most companies aren't Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. Even if you perceive yourself as being in the bottom 50% of candidates (which I think is absolutely not the case based on getting an interview offer as a freshman!), you should remember that in the end, those 50% still end up somewhere. If you have a chance at ending up somewhere that you enjoy, then you are doing very well.

maybe they're inviting me in to gently inform me that I have no business applying to positions like this

This is not going to happen. That'd be a waste of their time. If they didn't think you were appropriate for the position, they would just ignore your application and never contact you. They might not offer you a job, but companies don't remain successful by spending valuable time criticizing people who apply for positions. Not only does it not generate profit, it has the tendency to give the company a negative image, which also makes it harder to generate profit.

I can't decide how I should be spending the week I have to prepare

Learn how to say, "I don't know, but if I was faced with the problem, I would do [something]." The only thing more annoying than interns who don't know how to learn new skills on the job is interns who think they know skills that they actually aren't very qualified for. As an employer, I expect an intern to be almost useless. However, I trade that for the chance that the intern generates new insight into a problem or develops into a valuable employee. In other words, your value as an intern isn't your skills now - it's the skills you will develop over the next few years.

I would be absolutely thrilled to have the job

Then say that. It's rather easy to tell whether a potential intern is just trying to get a position (any position) or is actually interested in the company. The former generally tend not to get internships (because they are not likely to generate new insight or develop into a valuable employee) and the latter tend to. I'd much rather hear about why the company excites you and your challenges in your current coursework (even if it's mostly irrelevant to the company) than trying to pretend you have background in a relevant skillset. Passion can't be taught. Skills can.
posted by saeculorum at 8:20 PM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

if I don't have two years' worth of CS fundamentals under my belt, I "should seriously consider seeking more education before starting"
These books generally mean when you are applying to places like google/facebook/microsoft/amazon, not small startups.

Startups like people who are willing to learn and try things that are outside of their comfort zone (You are self studying CS so I think you qualify.)
posted by uncreative at 8:41 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, books like that are to be read, not obeyed.
posted by amtho at 8:47 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

One good thing is that in tech, your demeanor isn't so hugely important in the interview and it's okay to seem a little "weird". (Indeed, depending on the culture of the company it could be an advantage.) You don't have to bubble at them or speak loudly and give a firm handshake or anything like that. They aren't looking for someone who's going to impress clients, just someone who can interact with their team and be productive in small group situations. So actually you won't be judged on a lot of the aspects of social interaction that might cause you trouble.

On the off chance there is an actual technical interview, I would make sure you know how to implement FizzBuzz or things of that difficulty. Do one or two of them the morning before; it's good to be warmed up. Also, in every technical interview, it's okay to ask for a little help; in your case, I think it's okay to ask for a lot of help. You want to come out of this having learned as much as possible.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:06 PM on April 21, 2015

> I downloaded a well-recommended book on preparing for technical interviews, and in the preface it straight-up says that if I don't have two years' worth of CS fundamentals under my belt, I "should seriously consider seeking more education before starting" any kind of tech job search.

You're not searching for a job, you're searching for an internship. If they are looking for someone to come in 3 hours a week, then they are not expecting any real work to get done anyway. A 3 hour per week internship is basically them volunteering their time and money to help someone get started in the profession. All they want is someone who could benefit from it, turn into a decent programmer later, and have a really good opinion of their company that they will share with future potential colleagues - and maybe even come and work for them once you are a real programmer. To be a good candidate, all you need to be is someone that will appreciate the experience and turn into a decent programmer one day. Sounds like you're there.

> One of my many fears is that maybe they're inviting me in to gently inform me that I have no business applying to positions like this until I have more knowledge and experience.

I guarantee you that nobody in a small (or large!) company is going to take the time out of their day to have a gentle conversation with some kid they've never met about why they aren't hiring them. If they weren't interested in hiring you, they would not have set up a meeting with you. Possible upside? Impart a little information they could have said over email, feel warm and fuzzy. Possible downside? You are a pregnant black disabled woman who sues them saying they invited you in for an interview and then when they saw you in person instantly decided you were unsuitable because of your protected characteristics. Or you just go nuts at the rejection and attempt to stab the guy. Either one, not worth the risk.

> What do I say if they ask, "why should I hire you for this position over another candidate?"

"I can't believe anyone else is as excited about this opening as I am, because..." (insert something about how this job would help you grow and improve as a programmer).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:08 PM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is an internship for 3-4 hours a week? Do not get yourself worked up about whether you are good enough for this. This is an opportunity for you to learn and make connections, and for them to have an extra hand to help out of low-level stuff. They are not inviting you to speak with them so they can tell you to stop applying for jobs -- that is a ridiculous form of catastrophizing. They found something about you interesting enough to want to learn more. This is a good thing.

Go into the interview prepared to talk about what you're good at, what you want to learn, and with questions about what they are looking for. Also get some basic interview question answers prepared, and be prepared to pivot to one of your planned answers if you get a curveball you don't feel you can answer. You can't learn a new skill in a week (I tried that once for a job -- that just isn't how stuff works) but you can make sure you have your thoughts organized and you know what you want to highlight, and you practice being articulate and thoughtful.

If it doesn't work out or if you somehow totally bomb the interview, no big deal. Job interviewing like anything in life gets better with practice, so going and doing this interview, even if you are freaking out, is a really good thing. Everyone will have a bad job interview, and it will help them in their next job interview, guaranteed. Either way, you're gonna be fine. It's just a couple people talking about stuff, and while it's weird for you maybe, they go through this process all the time.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:18 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Since it was mentioned: I do have a therapist. I saw her today and we talked about techniques for reducing my anticipatory anxiety now and psychological stress on the day of. She also let me know that my concern about why they're calling me in sounds silly to her. That seems to be the universal agreement and I know I ought to believe it. Thanks to everyone who's responded so far. It's helpful to hear these outside opinions.
posted by dee lee at 9:43 PM on April 21, 2015

First off, take a moment and feel good about writing a letter, and getting a response. That's an accomplishment. You substituted the possibility that you could get a job for absolutely no possibility (if you hadn't written anything). Good for you.

Everyone starts out as a beginner. Nobody is born knowing this. It's okay to know nothing, or almost nothing. Your anxiety may seem extreme, but anxiety over these issues is very common.

I would try to work a piece or pieces of software in a week. Like a little command line program to a reverse a string, or a dice rolling web page. I am not sure at your skill level, but try making a game. Easy would be random number guessing. hard might be hangman, or some sort of mini rpg. In any case, this gives you something to talk about, problems you solved. It's okay not to finish it.
posted by gryftir at 2:13 AM on April 22, 2015

For what it's worth, just yesterday I was contacted by someone local, friendly, proactive, and completely unqualified, asking about a summer internship. I said we wouldn't be hiring them but offered to bring them on a tour of my workplace, if they're interested. Because they won't be unqualified forever, and if we do have an opening in a few years, I want them to apply for it. I wouldn't invite them in just to tell them that because I'm not a terrible person. Got it? If your worst case scenario happened, that would mean they are TERRIBLE HUMANS. Not you.

Since you said you'd be interested in meeting with them to learn about what they look for in a candidate, have questions along those lines ready. Because it is possible that their answer is "we'd love to have you on as an intern once you've completed courses X and Y," and having the follow through to do the thing you said in your cover letter is a great way to show that you have the soft skills for the job.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:08 AM on April 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to work at a big tech firm and I was more or less in charge of a few summer interns over the years. Some of them were like the college juniors you described who had tons of CS experience already and were gunning for a job at a prestigious firm.

However, the most impressive one by far was a student who was hired through a minority/women in tech program and had only very rudimentary tech skills. She was the only intern who came in with the correct understanding that she didn't have all the background skills and knowledge she needed, and who was completely unembarrassed to ask questions until she felt comfortable. She was a hard worker and one of our only interns to ever create a project that lived beyond her summer at the company, not because she was a tech genius, but because of her humility and genuine interest in learning.

Even though I was her supervisor, I learned a lot from watching her work that summer. It's been years but I still think of her often if I sense my pride might be getting in my way.

I think you can be this kind of employee and I think you know that too.
posted by telegraph at 5:21 AM on April 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is the time of year that college juniors in computer science programs start nailing down their internships for the summer. It would take a lot of gall to think I'm anywhere near as qualified for an internship here as they are. One of my many fears is that maybe they're inviting me in to gently inform me that I have no business applying to positions like this until I have more knowledge and experience.

I co-hire software engineering/comp-sci interns. The competition for them is enormous, even the worst ones get multiple offers. A start-up in a rural town is way down the list for these guys, if it's on the list at all (unless there is a personal connection, college kids typically get interviews through their career offices, who typically partner with more established companies).

THAT is the reason you did not see a list of technologies on the job description, they are just hoping to get a smart kid who has a genuine interest in programming and a general aptitude for it, which you have ALREADY PROVEN.

Forget your competition, it's much, much thinner than you imagine.
posted by rada at 10:00 AM on April 22, 2015

You've done the best you can so far. The result? You've managed to get someone to contact you and invite you in!

As for what to expect: Nothing, and everything! Well, not nothing, at the very least, you should expect to learn a little something about something that interests you, the process of getting a job as a software developer and being a software developer.

As for everything, well, the rest of your life is on the other side of this interview, and you are going for this interview, because, well, why wouldn't you? You have nothing to loose if you go, except for, perhaps, an hour of your life spent feeling somewhat awkward. if you choose not to go, the anxiety and self-recrimination will not be any better than what you'll experience if you go. So, you are going.

Beyond these broad outlines, you can't really know what to expect. People here can give you ideas, but the people best able to answer that question are at the company. And here is the thing, they don't really know what to expect either. There is no way for anyone to know what's going to happen until it has happened, so, rather than spending hours speculating about it, they are scheduling some time for a "short talk," to see what happens.

All you need to do is show up. You've already been clear about your level of experience. It is incredibly unlikely that they are wasting your time, and, more importantly theirs, just to put you in your place and let you know that you shouldn't bother applying for this sort of position until you've learned more -- you'd be lucky to get a terse "thanks but no-thanks" email if that was their assessment.

However, while you could just show up, it is entirely appropriate, perhaps even desirable for you to send a short email asking them what you should plan to cover in the short talk, and then go from there.

In the end though, whatever their answer, whatever advice people give you here, there is only so much you can do in a week, and its significance compared to the weeks and months you've already spent studying is tiny. So, do whatever feels right. This might be a great time to take stock of what you've learned, and what you'd like to learn more about. It's a great time to think about questions you'd like to ask. It's a great time to do some mock interviews, if that will help you feel more comfortable. There are wrong answers, like going on a bender.

This interview is a chance for both sides to find out more about the other. They get to put a face to the resume and cover letter they received, to explore your talents, interests and skills. They may end up wishing you luck in your future endeavors, they may encourage you to check back in a year, they may let you know that you'll here from them within a week about whether there will be next steps. They may schedule you for a longer interview, or the short talk could turn into a few hours. For your part, this is a chance to learn more about the company, the job, the people. You may decide in the first 10 minutes that the people you are talking to are the biggest jerks you've ever met.

And now, something else to consider: Creating software is a lot like living life. The time you spend anticipating and planning is time you can't spend trying things, adjusting, and trying more things. Some types of software are worthy of more planning than others, just as some life decisions and experiences are worthy of more planning than the others. This interview is low-risk.
posted by Good Brain at 11:58 AM on April 23, 2015

Response by poster: Update: had my interview today. It was low-key and I was hired. Thanks for helping me slow my roll.
posted by dee lee at 3:01 PM on April 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Congratulations!!! Have fun and learn lots.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:11 PM on April 28, 2015

posted by Good Brain at 12:13 PM on May 11, 2015

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