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Why Senior Software Engineer Interviews Have Become So Damn Difficult

There is a general sense that interviews for senior positions are getting harder all the time
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

Interviews for programmer roles are a tough racket at the best of times, but there’s an undeniable chasm between the sort that are given to regular developers and those reserved for senior software engineers. The latter are in a whole other realm of difficulty, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this difficulty may actually be rising.

But why would these interviews be so frequently, sometimes even so unreasonably challenging? Do tech companies just enjoy making their candidates feel inadequate?

The answer actually has to do with an entire constellation of reasons, and if you’re looking to become a senior engineer one day, it’s worth finding out about them – they may well help you ace your own interview someday!

Here, then, are the 6 most significant reasons why interviews to become a senior engineer have become so difficult.

Competition Is Sharper

Let’s start with the obvious. The number of newbies entering the tech industry has been booming for at least a couple of decades now. This boom, logically with some delay, translates to senior roles: all of the new people who were junior developers 10 years ago are now in a position to shoot for the senior engineer position.

At the same time management as a whole, being itself composed of many of those same former junior developers, has become increasingly competent at evaluating technical skill. As the competition grows, it becomes harder to identify talent that really stands out, and the result is that interviews get correspondingly harder.

Not My Type

As tech companies have diversified in the course of time, their internal cultures have followed suit. A start-up looking for a senior engineer and a big company advertising for the same role aren’t necessarily looking for the same type of person. This means that interviews will screen you not just for your skills, but also for your likelihood of aligning to the company’s philosophy and values (along with other intangibles). This is exactly why it is so important to properly research the company you’re applying to. Sometimes employers are looking not just for skills but for a very specific character, and if possible you’ll want to find out what that is before you walk in and start talking.

Outsiders Versus Insiders

It is an increasingly common practice for companies to grow their senior engineers internally rather than hire them from outside. Insiders have natural advantages that outsiders really struggle to compensate for: they already know the company very well, they have enjoyed months if not years of groundwork and preparation, and they have an established relationship with the team. When recruiting somebody new, companies will often expect them to meet or even improve that sort of internal standard. Questions will therefore reflect the fact that, as unfair as this may be, you are basically starting with a handicap and have to make up for it.

AdobeStock / denisismagilov

No Country For Old Men

When it comes to the age of candidates, the world of tech unfortunately has a truly brazen level of prejudice. It’s called ageism, and alas, it is an issue. Managers nowadays will typically look for candidates younger than 25, which means that (paradoxically) having more experience may sometimes work against you, and interviewers may be less accommodating with their questions and your response time if you aren’t very young. On the other hand, if you are young, the approach to the questions may be more generous, but you could also be expected to conform to a sort of “young genius” cliché – which generates yet another form of bias to contend with.

New People To Meet

If the number of developers in the industry has ‘boomed’, the number of users in the market underwent a nuclear explosion. With so many dedicated customers, expectations in certain sectors have now risen to the most extraordinary standards. This means that, in recent years, many senior engineers have had to pick up a new art which previously wasn’t part of their job – I mean responding to public feedback, which with a bit of a stretch one may even call a variant of customer relations, albeit highly mediated or indirect. A company developing a game, for example, will be involved in an extended process of collaboration with their fans, calibrating and debugging their product according to the feedback that they receive. Knowing how to manage this process involves an aleatory set of skills which you may well be expected to demonstrate at the interview, and for which it is rather difficult to prepare.

A Tough Racket Indeed

It’s true that senior software engineer interviews can sometimes be unreasonably difficult. But, for all that we have said above, it’s also true that the job of a senior software engineer is indeed a very difficult and serious job, among the most advanced in the commercial tech industry. You will have to be proficient in all of the technologies relevant to your project, while also acting as a leader and an inspiration to those below you, and as the first port of call for those above you – particularly when things go wrong. You will need intelligence, initiative, and vision in spades.

The buck may stop at management, but the reality about being a senior software engineer is that the last line of defence is you. When (not if) the plans carefully laid out by your company start to break down, you will be the one expected to save the day, to steady the boat in the storm and bring it safely back home.

That is why, to ace an interview for a senior software engineer position, you have to be good. But to be a senior software engineer yourself, you have to be better.

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