The ultimate interview preparation framework. Part 2: initial screening with a recruiter

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Posted on 09.08.2023
Last updated on 11.02.2024
Image by AI on Midjourney

In the previous article we talked about your application for a job of your dreams. Today we talk about what comes next.

So, a recruiter gave you a call, or wrote you an email asking to fill some Calendly slots up, and the day X finally came. Before you commence, know this: there are usually two types of recruiters: external (outsourced) recruiters and in-house recruiters.

👉 The external recruiters are typically highly motivated in getting you hired, because a successful hire is their source of income. That is, they typically do a really brief screening, literary making sure that you can talk, verify that you know the relevant stack, you are not asking for a half a billion euro salary, maybe check for your motivation and other things of a sort. If there is nothing wrong here, you automatically move on to the next level.

👉 The in-house recruiters are much, much trickier. These people work for the organization they hire for, so they know the requirements and necessities quite well. They also work for a fixed salary, so filling a position up with just someone is off the table. This is where you need to be extra careful if you really want this job, because these recruiters act as a first-stage filter for un-fitness for this particular position. If they don't like something you say, you're out.

Big, well-established companies usually have in-house recruiters. Small start-ups can't or don't want to afford that, so their recruiters are all external.

So let me give you some tips on what you might expect when entering a call with an in-house recruiter.

Before entering the call

Make sure you open and re-read the Job Description in good time, to refresh your memory. With this regard, joining a call using a mobile phone is not recommended, as you won't be able to quickly access the materials needed for the call. The recruiter may ask if you had time to even get yourself familiarized with the JD. Should the answer from your side be "no", it's an ultimate red flag, which basically indicate your unwillingness to make efforts and lack of overall motivation regarding the process as such.

I recommend tracking all your current interview processes in a centralized manner, where the process, the link to the JD, the log of past and upcoming events is clearly seen and easily accessible.

The "Tell me about yourself" question

That is a Holy Grail, a Keystone of this whole interview. This is where you are given a chance to shine.

The FacebookMeta recommends preparing and rehearsing your 10-minutes pitch in advance, and they are goddamn right. I wouldn't recommend improvising here, unless you used to write scripts for TV commercials before.

A typical template of such a speech may look like this:

I am a ___ working at ___. In the university I studied ___. Then I worked ___ as a ___.
Then I worked ___ as a ___. Currenly I am responsible for ___.
My key achievements are ___. Outside of work, I do ___.
The code is licensed under the MIT license

Your pitch must show success and prompt the interviewer for follow-up questions. Tell something that you want to be asked about.

You can tell how your team is structured, and how important there your role is. Provide examples. If you write RFCs and boost the company standards, say it. If you like participating in hackathons, say it. If you like giving tech talks, participate in a mentorship or coaching program, damn say it.

Do not neglect details! Your pitch should not sound empty and shallow.

It is of utmost importance to demonstrate the presence of your experience in the same technologies as the ones mentioned in the description of the position. The recruiter wants to hear the keywords. In case the job description states that Terraform and Kubernetes are essential, and you indeed possess such knowledge, then mention it for f***s sake. You can say "I am in charge of the infrastructure of our project managed with Terraform and Kubernetes, I maintain GCP resources such as PubSub, Spaces, etc, and do regular deployments of our three main microservices." You can then continue: "I also have on-call experience. As SRE I've spotted such and such problems in the application, and proposed such and such updates to mitigate those, and so on and so forth".

Should you have a hobby that could be somehow related to your professional activity (a personal website, a pet project), name it.

Don't talk about your failures and limitations. It's like selling a house, really. No need to lie, but it also doesn't make any f***ing sense to bring attention to any sort of negativity. Of course they may ask funny questions like "Tell me about your biggest failure", but honestly I've never seen this question asked, and should there be one, it could only potentially surface during the behavioural interview, not the initial one. So don't be humble!

Avoid phrases like "I am new to X", "My experience with Y is limited", etc. This is irrelevant excessive honesty you are not asked for. Also avoid mentioning the amount of years you worked with a specific tech, unless the amount is impressive or unless explicitly asked. This amount may not reflect your actual level of skills. Maybe you worked like a goddaimn' beast for just 1 year trying to boost your knowledge of Golang or Python? No one knows!

Don't say "we", say "I". You are selling your expertise, not of your engineering buddy to the left, and the recruiter is interested in buying your skills. Mentioning the importance of healthy team working could be nevertheless beneficial.

Try not to talk much about a part of your experience that is irrelevant for the position. You could be rejected on that basis (they may think you are too "frontend-ish" for this fullstack position), or assigned to an additional "clarifying" interview later, and this could become additional trouble, an obstacle or a potential chance to fail. You can briefly mention your other skills at the end.

What else the recruiter may ask

Most of the time, I hear the questions including, but not limited to:

  • "Tell me about your motivation in using technology X." - they ask it because that technology is the one you will be dealing a lot with, and they want to make sure this is what you are motivated in.
  • "What are your motives for leaving your current job?" - certainly they want to know if the new job does not have the same aspects you dislike in your current job.
  • "What kind of project would you be interested working on?" - same.
  • ...

Each question is asked not out of idle curiosity. Every question is a test. Every question screens for something. So you better be ready to provide good answers.

Communicating or not the salary expectations

The recruiter typically asks about either the current level of your income, or the target salary range you seek for. They do it only for one reason: to understand whether the expectations match the possibilities. Maybe you target 150k gross, while the position's top is 120k? That kind of thing is good to know in advance, otherwise the whole process may turn into a huge flop and mutual disappointment, when the card are finally open.

It's up to you whether to disclose your salary or not. Just remember two things: disclosing the salary is sort of an NDA breach, and also keep in mind:

Never communicate the numbers. Who tells the numbers first, looses.

If you do wish to talk about numbers, remember two things:

👉 A polite way of talking about salary at this point would be asking "How much is the hiring budget?". This question bears the most neutral connotation and basically asks to disclose how much the company is willing to pay for the best candidate (not necessary you).

👉 When talking about your own salary expectations, always aim a bit higher. You should also add at least +5 or +10k to what you currently earn. Aiming higher isn't usually a substantial deal breaker: the recruiter will communicate the hiring budget and ask you to take it or leave. On the contrary, naming lower check at the first place could make it less possible to negotiate a higher one later down the road. Also, it feels a bit like betrayal of your own interests.

Don't be shy, you deserve fair compensation.

Ask questions at the end

I would not recommend asking obvious things, like "How many employees do you have in the company?" or "How big was your last round of investment?" or "Is the company public or not?", because such things can be easily googled. Instead, better ask something related to the description of the position itself.

Not asking questions at all can be noted down as a yellow or red flag, should the recruiter turn to be extra picky. The presence of questions indicates your interest in the company and the job.

Scout the territory ahead

At the end of the meeting the recruiter informs you about the next steps: is there any behavioral interview, what kind of coding challenge to be expected, how many steps the process has. Should the recruiter fail to not communicate this (which is odd), you must be proactive and ask for clarification.

Also, search for un-obvious clues on what to expect. If the recruiter says "you are potentially a good fit for the dispatching team, the next interview is technical", read this as "refresh your memory on the topic of graphs and algorithms".

You can also ask for preparation materials, some companies have it at disposal.

The more you know about the further steps, the higher your chances are.

Waiting for the response

If that is a green light, the invitation for the next step typically comes next day. If it takes longer, that's usually a grim omen. Recruiters normally tend to go full steam ahead with a "potentially yes" candidate. Otherwise, they take a brief pause to gather verdict-making consiliums or wait for the rest of the competing candidates to pass the same step.

One way or another, no harm is done if you ping the recruiter with a follow-up e-mail in a couple of days.

If the answer is no

A rejection e-mail usually contains phrases such as "thank you for your time" or similar in the subject. You'll recognise one from the first glance at your inbox.

If you are not chosen for the next step, don't take it personally! Most of the time it is not about you as a person, it's that maybe they were looking for a specific trait or skill they could not catch from your pitch. You are always free to re-apply after the cool down period ends (usually from 6 to 12 months), or apply for a different position some time later.

Also, every now and then you may fall a victim of unprofessional recruitment. This may happen when dealing with younger companies, where the hiring process (and thus the interviewers) isn't quite mature yet. For instance, they may start checking for domain knowledge, whereas what they should be asking for is cross-domain, fundamental skills. For a backend engineer fundamental knowledge could be an ability to design, say, a bunch of REST endpoints, or maybe a database. This is what an average engineer usually does. A prominent example of domain-related knowledge is searching for the shortest path in a weighted tree. In this case, you'll have a chance to pass the interview either if you worked on something similar to this before, or you are well-informed on what it's to be expected and had a chance to prepare.

Don't be harsh on yourself. Companies are run by people, and people make mistakes. If something went wrong, it's all right. It may also be a good thing, as there could be no chemistry between you and this position.

It is considered to be polite to reply to the rejection email (unless marked as "no reply") and thank the recruiter for the time well spent. You can also request feedback. Some companies have the hiring process streamlined, and on each step notes are taken and submitted in a form of a report. The recruiter may disclose those on-demand.


In case if you are chosen, then... Congratulations! All the fun just begins...

Extra thoughts

Some random thoughts that don't quite fit into this article, but I still wanted to note them down.

  • If you have luxury of choosing the interview slots, don't assign those after a vacation, take at least one day and prepare yourself. The back trip home can be exhausting, and you will be for sure cracked AF on the next day, so keep that in mind.
  • Do not assume anything. Don't buy positive messages a recruiter sends you. Don't think the offer is "almost in the pocket", just one more small interview to pass. You will fail this interview and be back in square one, all previous efforts wasted. This will be quite discouraging.
  • By any means do not neglect duties of your current job only because you are "almost" out.
  • Don't join the call using your mobile phone. See the reasoning above.


Sergei Gannochenko

Business-oriented fullstack engineer, in ❤️ with Tech.
Golang, React, TypeScript, Docker, AWS, Jamstack.
15+ years in dev.