The Non-Technical Interview, Demystified

Anna Lewis
The Non-Technical Interview, Demystified

The best predictor of how a student will perform in an internship is a work sample test—asking the student to perform the type of work or activity that is typical of what the future mentor will assign. For technical roles in the tech/web industry, such interviews often involve writing code and solving problems in real time.

But work sample interview are often preceded by the ever-dreaded non-technical interview. Every winter, droves of technical college majors encounter the non-technical interview and ask: What exactly is this interviewer evaluating?

Good news. The answer is (or should be): not much.

Strong interviewers at great internships recognize both the need for and the limits of the non-technical interview. We typically use it early in the evaluation process, primarily for social reasons—to introduce you to us and to introduce us to you. Often, both of us have a few, simple questions we’d like to ask each other as we get to know each other a bit.

Ultimately, we don’t use the non-technical interview to tell us if you should get the internship. We need much better interviews—like work sample interviews—to help us make the big decisions.

Instead, we use the non-technical interview as a quick way to eliminate applicants who should not get the internship, as well as a quick way to steer applicants in various directions, based on some of the early indicators we pick up on.

So what types of early indicators am I talking about? In the non-technical interview, we’re looking for a few main things.

1. Basic Communication Skills

My goal is to learn if an applicant can engage in quite basic conversation: listening to a few questions and answering them clearly. Every once in a while, I discover that an applicant cannot meet this basic standard, and it’s important for me to learn that early.

2. Basic Professionalism

This one is related to basic communication skills, but it’s a little more subtle. I’m on the lookout for indications that a student might not have the self-awareness or maturity to meet a base level of professionalism. A few examples: conducting a video interview in a very messy dorm room; insulting team members while describing group project work.

3. Commitment to Our Work and/or Industry

Every once in a while, I’ll speak with a programmer who looks strong but it turns out that, in the long term, she is ultimately interested in working for a completely different type of company or field or industry. Depending on the nature of the internship, that’s not necessarily a blocker—but since most internships support long-term recruiting efforts in some way, it’s important for interviewers to gauge commitment early.

4. A Sense for Strengths and Preferences

This one is quite broad and possibly the most confusing. Imagine things from my perspective—I’m looking at a pipeline of twenty top programming applicants, and I’m aware of various different mentors and projects that they might get paired with. I won’t eliminate an applicant if he or she comes across as particularly introverted, but it’s helpful to observe and note that tendency as I consider who would interview or ultimately mentor him through what types of activities. This part of the non-technical interview is about making sure the rest of the interview process—and, ideally, the actual internship—is as positive of an experience as possible for the applicant.

In other words, the big secret is that there is no big secret. At its core, the non-technical interview is pretty pragmatic, and when I conduct them, they last fifteen to thirty minutes maximum. I keep them short, so we can all move on to the good stuff, like the work sample interviews that’ll show us your skills and potential with a great deal more accuracy—as well as, ideally, give you a great glimpse into the nature of the gig so you can decide, for your part, whether we’re the right fit for you.