Launch Pad Blog


Interview Prep: Starting the Interview Process with a Bay Area Start-up

by Cody Voellinger | Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The start-up wants to interview you – great! But one common pitfall is not putting the effort in prior to the interview because you aren’t sold on the opportunity yet.  After the interview you love the team, mission, culture, and schwag.  Unfortunately they felt you were unprepared and uninterested... preparation must happen prior to the interview! 



This link has great general start-up interview advice. Mine is written assuming you are an engineer preparing to start the interview process with a Bay Area start-up.


Before the Interview:  

Before the first interview, 30 minutes is a good amount of time to allow you to:

  • Visit the product page and understand it enough to provide insights and discuss your relevant experience.  Sign up and use it!
  • Skim 3-4 most recent press articles to understand current and upcoming challenges and offer your relevant experience.
  • Do a LinkedIn search of the management team, the person interviewing you, other people in similar roles, and even the entire company. Look for connections to reference - social proof is huge in hiring!
  • For the people you will be meeting, finding them on Twitter, Quora, Facebook, etc will give you a better idea of their personality and interests.
  • Review your career and recall 4-5 stories that address common topics such as: your biggest challenge, learning new things/ being flexible, how you work in a team environment, going above and beyond, and important lessons learned.   *Use the STAR Technique
  • Prepare 3-4 questions to ask your interviewer.  Good questions highlight your research, interest in a career at the company, and prepare you to close the interview. Some good examples I have seen include:
    • How has your previous experience at X benefited you here?
    • What are some of the first projects I might work on?
    • What does it take to be successful in this role?
    • What are some of the biggest challenges your team is facing now?


Interview Style & Tactics: 

You may notice “your relevant experience” as a pattern above.  An entire interview process lasts maybe 5-6 hours into which you need to explain all of your years of experience.  This is impossible, so determine what you have done that is most relevant and beneficial to the company you are interviewing with. 


Whenever possible, use the STAR Technique:

  • Describe the Situation or Task to be accomplished
  • Describe the Action you took (be sure to talk specifically about your contributions, not the general contributions of the team)
  • Describe the Results achieved

This technique works well to answer Behavioral Interview questions; use it to describe the 4-5 stories you prepared.


Give examples!  “I am a quick learner - when our DevOps engineer was sick for a week, I took over Chef and AWS responsibilities without prior experience.” 


When discussing failures or weaknesses, quote lessons learned - “…the project was delivered late, but I used it as a chance to implement Agile.”


Think before you answer!  Fight the urge to start talking right away, since a couple seconds of forethought will save you back-tracking later.


Talk through your answers as you whiteboard, code challenge and pair program.  Generally start-ups are looking for someone who can work in teams to solve problems, and sometimes parameters are purposefully ambiguous to prompt questions.  Teamwork and culture fit are usually 30-60% of the evaluation. 


The interview is a communication experience.  Don’t feel that you can only answer questions when asked – instead, create a dialogue.  After answering a question, follow-up with: “Did I answer your questions? How would you have answered that?”


If the interviewer gives you a choice which language to code in, choose your strongest.  Your ability will be judged assuming this is your best.


If you list a tool, tech, or skill on your resume, expect to be asked about it.  If you claim to be an expert and can’t answer basic questions, interviewers will assume all of your “expert” level knowledge is questionable.  Be confident in what you know and modest about what you don’t.


Show your personality!  Talk about your interests (and list them on your resume): sports, hometown, hobbies, volunteering, gaming, travels, etc. Sharing an interest is an easy small-talk topic and a great way to find common ground with your interviewer.


Keep an open-mind regarding title and responsibilities.  Save that discussion until a bond is established.  At most start-ups, if they want to bring you onboard, a position can be created to meet your needs.


Towards the end of an interview, you should close. This means listening to the challenges of the position, team, and company, and recapping your relevant experience by circling back to:

  • The challenges and exciting work ahead
  • Your value add (relevant experience that will allow you to contribute immediately)
  • Your interest in the opportunity and the company 


Of course, with interviews come the topics of salary discussions and negotiations.  These topics are important enough to deserve their own blog entries, so stay tuned.