Interviewing as a Developer in Todays Market

June 5, 2021

Oliver Lillie. Senior Developer and Designer @ New Things Co.

Oliver Lillie


I had quite a few ongoing processes, and in some way or another they were all bad, except at New Things... obviously.

A little bit of background

I am a designer by education, coder by love. I gained a First Class Bachelors of Arts degree in Graphic and Media Design from, at that time, London College of Printing. I taught myself programming during the degree when starting to focus on web and interactive design. From that point onward, I was hooked on programming and now genuinely [mostly] enjoy programming more than design.

I’ve lived in Finland for 15 years. Before I started working at New Things, I worked freelance for the previous 14 or so years, 13 of which were in Finland, working remotely for British companies. I had my own company, my own expenses, and I was my own master. Responsible for all and answerable to none.

It was an emotional decision to jump from being self-employed to looking for a salaried position. It was partially a decision dictated by nationality since I am British and BREXIT is a cluster ****.

Dipping my toe into the Finnish Talent Pool

Thanks to a friend who worked for a large consultancy, I had my first interview as a “hot lead”. The actual interview was ok and friendly enough, but I was pretty nervous, and it was a daunting experience. Not in the least because I had never really done any kind of interviewing before, pitches yes, introductions to clients yes, but not selling myself as a potential employee. 

I mainly explained that this was my first interview, from what I remember in the adrenaline-fueled first few minutes. I’m not entirely sure that they believed me either. After all, I was at the time 39, and it’s pretty unlikely that a developer gets to 39 without ever having done an interview. 

They also kept asking me what kind of role I saw myself as - a pretty standard question when interviewing in dev companies. But - since I enjoy design, front and back end stacks, this is not something I can answer in a way that satisfied anyone.

The interviews

“Where do you find yourself the happiest, front or back?”, “Hmm, I like to straddle both; I wouldn’t be happy just doing one. Oh, and I love design too.” was my answer. It wasn’t just these interviewers that did not know what to do with this answer. It was pretty much anyone who asked me that question during my time applying for work. 

A typical interviewers response to this answer was, “So you are a Unicorn then?!”. Now having a non-traditional career of mostly freelance clients, outside the sphere of typical recruitment, I had no idea what this meant. The first time I heard it, I was like, “Er,... yeah? Sure?”. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a jokey kind of response or a serious term that I had never heard of before. 

But it turns out that recruiters didn’t know what category of developers to put me in - and that, as it turns out, is quite the problem. It was surprising to me because I had not previously considered having skills in so many fields would be a problem. I had naively thought this was a very positive thing.

The first interviewers decided that I should be put forward for a design only second round - and no tech round. I consider this to be a ridiculous mistake on their part. Sure I can design and do it well, but I’m not as good as a pure designer. I’ve spent far too much time in both fields to be put forward as a single thing. 

I thought the design interview went well, and actually, the conversation was charming, and everything flowed well. But then no one got back to me for three weeks. :-/

A bad taste

Whilst it is likely this was not the typical recruitment experience, being left hanging for three weeks left a distinctly sour taste in my mouth. And what’s more, it left a lasting impression of that particular company. 

But to be honest, it was my first ever interview, and I was only dipping my toe in the water. I didn’t seriously want to work for such a big company anyway. My previous 16 years of freelance meant I had got extremely comfortable managing myself. The thought of losing my “power and freedom” to a large company was not particularly palatable.

Repetitive questions

But, this question regarding, “Where are you happiest?”, as mentioned, kept on coming up again and again. It was a little disheartening to find out that being full-stack without having a specific preferred end - and wanting to be a designer, was such an issue.

It was is an issue with many, if not all, companies I spoke to. It appeared that if the interviewers see people who tick too many boxes, you are suddenly a square peg and won’t fit into a company’s tidy round hole. I think the assumption is that you will not be happy in any position because it doesn’t offer everything you like doing. I guess this is a valid concern, but no one ever asked.

I went through several different interview processes at the same time. I ended up completing an insane amount of extra “home assignments”. There were some odd interviews, plain lazy recruiters, and some also really unpleasant experiences. 

Talent management

I eventually ended up speaking to Talented. I’m not entirely sure if I remember where I got the companies information, but what matters is, speaking to the agents there, I felt listened to and understood, and I am very grateful that I found them. Their process was enjoyable, and I recommend them to everyone I speak with.

I originally had three positions suggested to me by them, and I interviewed for all three. 

Three choices

One sounded like an exciting company that were doing some exciting things. I was interviewed by a developer who worked there, and unfortunately, he was not a people person. He had a hard time even looking me in the eye when talking to me. I like to think of myself as a people person and can connect to everyone. Still, I found this a challenging and offputting situation. The whole interview process was abysmal. The actual job sounded horridly dull - they practically offered me the job on the spot, which is never a great sign.

I heard good things about the development team of the second company and how it was doing remarkable things. I did the home assignment, and I got a first-round interview arranged. I had put an extreme amount of effort into the task: front and backend and invested a significant amount of time into custom designs for this task. In reality, it probably took me upwards of 20+ hours. The interview went well, or so I thought. No tough questions; interviewers responded well, had a few laughs here or there. But then, two days later, I got a rejection. 

Honestly, I was pretty annoyed, especially after asking for feedback about why. All I got was a wishy-washy answer about probably not choosing the right technology for the task. But considering these kinds of questions never came up, and one of the interviewers said how much he was impressed with my code on the way out of the interview, it was somewhat unbelievable. 

I’m pretty sure that was a cop-out. I guess it could have been down to the fact that I would have been the first English only member on the team, and they weren’t quite ready to do that. But that is conjecture, so I will never really know. Not speaking Finnish is, of course, an understandable issue, after all, as the saying goes, “When in Rome” - but it’s much better to be honest about such things.

New Things enters from stage left.

At the same time as doing the above work, I also met with New Things. Much to my relief, they didn’t ask me to complete the task before an initial meeting. The first few communications were with Laura, New Things’s HR honcho, via Slack. She had such a delightful manner and showed such care with the details that she communicated. It was a remarkable difference from the other interviews.

I met with Sami [New Things's CEO] and Laura. The first thing I noted was that everything was so friendly, relaxed and informal. We made small talk, and the conversation while getting coffee before the interview was exceedingly focused on me. They had noted a few things from my CV and bios and asked about those things. It showed that they were paying attention and were really trying to get to know me.

Focus Points

The conversation continued after getting coffee in the upstairs entertainment area. I was still amazed by my previous but limited interview experience at how different this was. Every part of the conversation seemed to revolve around getting to know me rather than asking immediate and direct questions about tech. It was a stunning night vs day difference from previous experiences.

Certain fundamental things stood out. Again this question of “Where is your comfort zone, front or backend?”. It seemed that this time, there was no expectation of a specific answer to fit into a predefined selection of empty shaped holes.

Tech came up, but the way the conversation worked, it wasn’t just about my skills. More importantly, it was where I wanted to go in my career, what I wanted to learn, what I wanted to avoid.

But they wanted to know mostly my previous experiences, things I liked about my current job, and equally the problems - pain points, if you will. They appeared to want to know as much as genuinely possible about me. But - it did not ever feel like an interview. It was just a low-pressure, casual conversation.

At the end of the conversation, there was an excellent round-up of what we had discussed. It allowed us both to recap. It felt good that this happened because we both had a clear picture of what we had talked about. Any possible misinterpretations could be clarified and rectified.

In the end, Laura outlined the next steps in the recruitment process. More or less, Sami and her would talk after I left and then sleep on the decision whether or not to continue overnight, and they would get back in touch with me the next day or the day after. Now, this was almost two years ago. I can’t remember if it was precisely the next day, but I can tell you it certainly was not three weeks.

Homework, homework, homework

The next step was another home assignment. This would be number 3 (or was it number 4? I can’t remember anymore). I remembered stressing I had already done some of these for other companies. They responded that it was preferred if I did New Things’s assignment because they had a better understanding of the task at hand. I was thinking to myself, yeah, but, no, but yeah, but no, but hmmm, maybe, ok, I have an exciting idea. 

Luckily the home assignment was quite fun. I immediately had a clear vision of what I wanted to do, something a little bit different and whimsical, something to possibly make me stand out a little. In addition, tasks like this are great for brushing up on tech you have used previously or tech that you have never done before. It had been a while since I had done React work, so this was an excellent opportunity for a refresher.

I enjoyed the task but ended up spending more time on it than I would have liked, but I was impressed by New Things this far and wanted to give it my all. I don’t always think you should do a considerable amount of work for these tasks, but if you want to give a good impression, why not.

I submitted the task, and then within three days, I was invited to the second round of tech grilling.

The Tech Interview

Having spent the vast majority of my career in freelance work, I’d never actually been in a tech interview up to this point. I did what most people would do, Google about what to expect. Typically everything that would come up would be about American based tech interviews. This research led me to believe that I was in for a tech grilling, including demanding complicated questions designed to trip you up and prove a challenge. Since I am a self-taught developer, some of the more complex names for various algorithms and other terms, I don’t know the correct terminology. The thought of having to go through all of this was quite daunting, and I was pretty intimidated by it. At the interview, I was greeted by Laura and the technical interviewers. Everyone was friendly from the start. It helped that the email invite to the interview had introduced me to both interviewers as it included both of their LinkedIn profiles. 

Upon reflection, I’m not so sure this helped soften my nerves or not. They were/are both exceedingly experienced with some impressive work history, and just having viewed that, it was a little intimidating.

Down to the nitty-gritty

Coffee and water in front of me, laptop closed, but at the ready. Mike on one side, Tuomas opposite and we were off. I don’t remember the exact ebb and flow of the interview, as, after all, it has now been just over two years ago since it happened. 

I do remember is that as part of the interview, there was a whiteboard task. Since I been prepping for interviews based on American style grillings, I completely froze when they explained the task - but not because I couldn’t do it. It seemed far too simple a job as it was something I had implemented quite a few times in my career. I was stuck in a sort of feedback loop, between deciding if this was a trick question or if it was just as simple as it seemed, and then back to, this must be a trick question. 

I remember feeling like I froze for quite some time; however, the interview was particularly collaborative. When I froze, the interviewers gently prodded and guided the conversation. It helped continue instead of getting trapped. It helped me feel more at ease.

The tech interview ended with Mike and Tuomas explaining the process to go forward. They explained that they would talk after I left and then sleep on any decision. Then someone would get back to me within the next day or two.

All in all, the conversation flowed well, or at least, so I thought and left with a very good feeling about everything. 

A Done Deal

At this point, I was pretty confident, and Laura rang me the next day with the offer. I won’t go into details about what happened next as I’ve already grabbed far too much of your time if you have read this far.

Suffice to say, a lot of things were new to me. Working inside a company. Working inside a company in Finland. Commuting. Defined company processes. There was indeed a steep learning curve. But that is not really what this post is all about. If you want to know more about what working for New Things is like, shoot me a message and ask away.

About the author

Oliver Lillie

Senior Developer and Designer of Shiny New Things

I have two young boys, and since they were born, most of my hobbies went out the window. But if you can’t find me on my computer, you can either find me eating an insane amount of chilli, on my bike or in my canoe.