This article was published on March 10, 2022

10 massive red flags in developer job interviews

Spot a toxic workplace before it's too late


10 massive red flags in developer job interviews
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.cult by Honeypot is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries .cult by Honeypot is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries and share heaps of other untold developer stories from around the world.

This article was originally published on .cult by Mikaella C. .cult is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries and share heaps of other untold developer stories from around the world.

The job posting looked great. The company is interesting. The role offers you a challenge you’re excited to tackle. But when you get to the first interview, you have a strange feeling of unease… or worse, you think the interview is fine, miss all kinds of red flags and end up working somewhere truly miserable.

Some interview red flags are applicable to anyone in any career: an interviewer who is rude to you, for example, or a company who forgets to book a space to interview you in. There’s also the importance of trusting your own gut — if you have a creeping feeling that you don’t want this job, you might be picking up on under-the-surface signals. But there are also some specific warning signs for developers on the hunt for a new role. In this article, we’ll tell you what to watch out for!

1. ‘Haha, yeah, we work a lot’

It’s no surprise that developers often end up putting in overtime. It’s a demanding job, and sometimes you’ll have a stressful or busy week or month. But watch out for companies who seem to imply that constant overtime is just “part of the job.” Some companies will expect developers to put in more hours than is fair, and even the dream job might not be so dreamy if you’re working 60+ or even 80+ hour work weeks.

How can I be sure?

Aim to get a clear, satisfying answer about how many hours are typical. Don’t let your interviewer off the hook with platitudes like “this is industry standard, so…” or “we work hard to play hard!” If you’re expected to always be reachable on your company phone, the phone might not be worth it in the first place.

2. The job sounds simple but they insist it will be challenging

Sometimes a job description will feel like a “check the boxes” situation: yep, I can do that, and that, and that! But what if the role looks incredibly straightforward, and yet your interviewer keeps emphasising what a “challenging” place this is to work, or that they need someone who “loves a challenge”?

Of course, a challenge at work can be a great thing — it can keep you motivated, help your professional development and add some interest to a routine workday. But if the interview stresses how challenging the role is, and the job description doesn’t seem very challenging to you, it might be a danger sign down the road. Maybe it’s not your role that’s challenging, but the company’s management style. Maybe they’ve had people quit over poor deadline enforcement or internal communication, and are trying to reframe those flaws into “part of the job,” rather than something that needs to be fixed.

How can I be sure?

Ask your interviewer exactly what about the role is “challenging.” Ask for specifics, and don’t be afraid to say that the job duties seem standard to you, and you’re not sure where the challenge will be.

3. ‘Rockstar required!’ (Or any similar barf-worthy name)

This is the kind of red flag that can pop up in a job description or interview. “Rockstar required!” has become a part of start-up jargon that many developers are now rolling their eyes at because it’s one of those terms that doesn’t seem to mean anything. It can cover a multitude of sins, including a role that’s going to be mostly responding to panicked demands from higher-ups, or a role that hasn’t been properly defined.

How can I be sure?

Sometimes trendy jargon is just that: trendy. It might be a little annoying or overdone, but it’s not necessarily a warning sign as long as the rest of the role looks clear and achievable. But if it’s paired with a vague description or an interviewer who doesn’t really seem to understand engineering and what a business really needs… beware!

4. ‘Must know 10+ languages and every possible tool’

Unreasonable or outsized technical requirements might mean that the company doesn’t have a solid and sensible operation method. Even in the newest of startups, you’ll want to work for a company that is approaching its development in a practical, straightforward way. If they want you to know too many languages and tools, it might be a sign that they don’t yet have a grip on their programming requirements and processes.

How can I be sure?

Get deep into the technicalities. If there seem to be lots of languages and tools at work, ask them for their reasoning behind this requirement. Make sure that they’re thinking through the way they work, and not simply expecting their developers to jump on every buzzy language or tool at the drop of a hat.

5. You only get a technical interview

Of course, your coding skills are usually the most important part of your job. But they’re not the only part! If a company is only interested in a technical interview, this suggests that they’re not interested in your collaborative, communicative, or even problem-solving skills. And that, in turn, means that they’ve probably hired other people whose skills in those areas have not been evaluated, which means you could be working with people who are all hard skills and no soft skills. That makes for a lot of fights in meetings or unpleasant lunches.

What if your favorite part of the job is the coding and you prefer a role that’s not heavy on interaction? Of course, that’s completely fine! But even if you don’t talk to people much in your job, you probably will have to talk to them from time to time, and a company should be ready to evaluate that. You can make it clear in your job interview that you’re less interested in the “social” side of work while still showing that you’re a pleasant and communicative team member. And remember, a team who doesn’t talk to each other is never going to get anything done.

6. Your interview looks like a pop quiz

Just like a purely technical interview might indicate you’ll be working with difficult people, an interviewer who’s too invested in testing your intellect might not be the easiest person to work with.

Because developers work in the ‘hard skills’ arena, it’s important that an interviewer tests you on your knowledge and skills. But watch out for an interviewer who spends all their time quizzing you and trying to beat you in intellectual one-upmanship or an interviewer who is only able to accept their solution to the problem they’ve posed. This could be a sign of arrogance or lack of flexibility in the workplace. Most of us want to avoid a hostile dog-eat-dog working environment, so watch out for anyone who starts barking!

7. “Uuuh, the other devs are too busy to join”

The person who can give you the most insight into your potential role, along with its challenges and its responsibilities, is another developer. For most developer roles, there will be at least one developer who’s part of the interviewing team. Or perhaps, if the developers don’t want to or aren’t up for interviewing a candidate, the company will organize an opportunity for you to chat or have a coffee with one or more members of your future team.

But if you’re not given the opportunity to talk to another developer, it might be that there’s unrest in the team. Perhaps the other developers aren’t happy with the company or there are problems the hiring committee doesn’t want you to know about. If the interviewer says something like, “oh, they’re all also new and won’t be able to give you much insight,” or says that it’s rare to meet people who’ve been in the office for more than a few months… You may be looking at a warning sign that the company has a lot of turnovers and doesn’t value its long-term employees. Don’t be sucked in by a smiling face that isn’t going to give you real insights into the team.

How can I be sure?

Sometimes the lack of this option might just be an oversight, particularly if the hiring committee is busy or if the role is urgent. But always feel free to ask. The way your interviewer reacts to your request will give you good insight into whether it was a mistake or a strategic decision to hide things from you.

8. Non-existent vision, purpose, or reasonable goals

One of the interviewer’s responsibilities is to make it clear how your job will feed into the company’s greater output. If your interviewer can’t explain the company’s vision, purpose or goals, you might be running into trouble. A developer’s role is to build the technology that enables a company’s USP. But if your interviewer can’t clearly communicate what that USP is, it might be a sign that you have a long and frustrating path ahead with this company, where you’ll be stuck trying to divine their concept of the company and transform it into code. You’re a developer, not a mindreader!

How can I be sure?

Sometimes individual people get flustered and explain something badly — and believe it or not, interviewers themselves get nervous about hosting a job interview. If they give an answer that is muddled or unclear, ask a follow-up question, or say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I’m still not clear on the company’s exact aims. Could you break it down for me?” If possible, ask another person in the hiring team or the company. And if you’re still struggling to understand, it might be time to reevaluate.

9. The ten-year-old company that is still a ‘startup’

Look, we all love startups. They can be some of the most exciting and inventive places to work, and it’s a lot of fun to get in on a company on the ground floor. But a company that is still defining itself as a startup after ten years might not be headed in such a great direction. Even if they’re not struggling financially, they might be using the “startup” concept as an excuse for bad performance, bad management, and bad development strategies.

And there are all sorts of potential pitfalls that could be waiting for you if you choose to join such a company. Maybe the product has expanded so much and so wildly that it’s tough to add new features. Maybe there are thousands of old bugs that you can’t dismantle without taking the whole product offline. Either way, it could be a balancing act rather than a chance to build.

How can I be sure?

Ask your interviewer what the past decade has taught the company. Ask them why they’re still self-defining as a startup. Ask what the path for the future looks like. And be sure to talk to another developer who will be able to give you an insight into what’s going on behind the name.

10. Employees with glassy eyes and no spark

Start checking out your potential new company well before the interview officially begins. As you’re being led to the interview room, take a look around: how do people look? Are the corridors busy and full of conversation and activity, or has the company culture translated into a deadened, apathetic feel? Where do the developers work, and is it an office set-up you’d be comfortable in?

If you’re looking at a remote role (or “remote for now”), it can be more difficult to get a feel for the environment, so make sure to ask about the company culture. How does the company make their workers feel welcome even in a situation where you don’t physically work together? And what are their plans for the future? If you want to stay remote, or if you’re looking forward to returning to the office one day, it’s important to get a sense of whether your preferred working style will be an option.

How can I be sure?

Why not ask something simple like, “Could you describe a typical working day at your company?” See if the interviewer mentions regular team check-ins, lots of meetings, company coffee breaks, and more. Watch out for anything that would make your daily life much better… or much worse!

Go forth and interview!

This list might seem like a lot to remember, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have to keep track of all these red flags. If you do find a company proudly flying them all, put them in the worst interview hall of fame The main thing to remember is that even though a recruitment process feels weighted towards the company’s needs, it’s also your chance as a potential future employee to evaluate them and decide whether their working style will be a good fit for you. Trust your gut, ask questions and you’ll be sure to land a job at a happy — and sane — company!