How to Ace Your First Phone Interview With a Tech Company or Startup
By: Ashley Artrip
Phone interviews — or screeners, as they’re often called — are an increasingly common first hurdle in the job application process. The intent of the phone interview is to parse whether or not a candidate is worth bringing in for an on-site interview based on ‘soft’ factors. These include communication skills, energy level, professionalism, and drive. As a candidate, a phone interview is an opportunity for you to become more than your resume, and show your potential boss your natural aptitude for the job.
Tech companies and startups tend to be huge proponents of phone screeners for two reasons. The first, is that by doing initial phone interviews, which usually last no more than 20 minutes, hiring managers end up saving time and only bringing in candidates who are likely to be possible hires. The second, is that the tech and startup industry favors meritocracies, where people are judged by what they’ve done and can do, rather than by their pedigree or legacy. This is good news for job applicants, especially entry-level candidates: if you can wow your interviewer during the initial screener then you have the chance to outperform your resume.
The Top Five Must-Dos for Tech or Startup Phone Screeners
The tech/startup industry is very personality-driven. Unlike, say, finance, there are numerous stories of successful tech entrepreneurs who wildly outperformed their backgrounds — for one, the founder of SV Academy never went to college and was fired from McDonald’s! After that little setback, he went on to sell his first company to Oracle. Stories like this are possible because the industry is willing to accept outsiders with non-traditional backgrounds who have the intelligence, drive, and aptitude to succeed.
To show that you are one of these people, make sure to follow these five must-do tips for acing your first tech/startup phone interview.
1. Know the company and the role like the back of your hand
Almost all recruiters will ask you if you have a clear understanding of what their company does and of what the role at hand is. This is not meant as a yes or no question; rather, the recruiter is looking to see if you’ve done your homework, invested time into preparing for the interview, and if you’re able to concisely communicate what you’ve learned.
Research the top 2-3 competitors, write down a one-sentence synopsis of what the company does, read any press on the company, and familiarize yourself with the company’s landscape. For instance, if you’re applying to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company that offers both a consumer-facing product and a business-facing product, identify who the largest competitors and upstarts in each space would be, and be prepared to differentiate between the two customer bases. Read a few news articles about the space, and come into the interview with a general understanding of not just the company, but also its place in the larger business ecosystem.
2. Write down 2-5 well-researched questions to ask
At the end of both in-person interviews and phone interviews, the interviewer will typically ask if you have any questions for them. Make sure to come with these questions prepared. They should be thoughtful and subtly showcase the amount of research you did on the company. For instance, if you were applying to an AI-powered SaaS company you could ask about the architecture of the platform, or about the type of machine learning the platform uses. Additionally, it can be helpful to ask about the culture of the company you’re applying to during the screener. This will help you prepare for how to dress and present yourself in the in-person interview.
3. Be prepared to contextualize your experience and interests
A key component of being a good interviewee is being a good storyteller. You need to be able to turn your resume, interests, and personality into a cohesive narrative that taps into why you’d excel in the job. For instance, we recently had an applicant who had founded his own small-batch pickle company. While the job he was applying to certainly didn’t require pickling skills, he successfully demonstrated how this background was indicative of his entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and drive.
Oftentimes, recruiters or hiring managers will ask where you see yourself in five years, what your career goals are, and/or how you see the job you’re applying to fitting into your career. Be prepared to show how your skills set and strengths apply to the job at hand.
4. Check out the Glassdoor interviews section for the company
Other candidates post job and company-specific interview questions and experiences on the interviews section of Glassdoor. This is by no means a fool-proof method for preparing on its own, but it can give you a good idea of what types of questions the interviewer is likely to ask.
5. Be professional, regardless of how ‘chill’ the company is
A classic rookie mistake that candidates make when applying to tech companies is assuming that because the company has a casual dress code and millennial decor/office rules (like office dogs and bean bag chairs), that means that speaking casually or using hip slang is acceptable. While you may not need to wear a suit to the interview, it’s still important to be professional and to adhere to formal social norms.
This rule applies beyond the screener and into the in-person interview as well. Even if the company is casual, you should still dress up a bit — i.e. slacks instead of jeans — and make sure that you look presentable. For instance, one hiring manager we spoke with described a candidate who wore a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals to the interview. While this attire would have been appropriate for one of their employees to wear to work, the hiring manager was put off by the lack of professionalism and respect that the outfit exuded in an interview context.
The Three P’s: Personable, Professional, and Perspicacious
At the end of the day, a good phone interview will be a pleasure to speak with, be professional, and exhibit intelligence and shrewdness. A phone interview is an opportunity for you to stand out and put a personality behind your resume. Make sure you’re prepared to put your best self forward in order to pass this first hurdle in your job interview process.
Elaina Ransford contributed to this article