Tech Jobs: Prepare Then Apply, Or Apply Then Prepare?

Some things when applying for jobs are just a waste of time

Adobe Stock / Pixel-Shot

WBS CODING SCHOOL would like to thank Aleksandra Jozwik, Co-Founder and Diversity & Inclusion Advocate at Berlin-based hiring consultancy TALENTFIRST, for the consultation and expertise provided in the research for this article.

When it comes to tech interviews, everybody knows that you can’t just walk in and improvise, and will instead have to do some careful work of preparation first. But here is a question: is it better to first secure the interview and then do the preparation for it, or should you start by preparing and then only apply for the job when you feel ready?

In this article we will tackle that question in detail. With no need to build up unnecessary tension, we’ll state this from the outset — the best approach is unquestionably to prepare first and then apply.

The reasons for this cannot be explained concisely, so let’s do a little bit of basic argument and counter-argument.

The Case For Applying First

Those who feel inclined to apply first and then prepare are usually thinking of a certain ‘scattershot’ approach to job hunting, which in some non-tech industries actually makes sense.

The idea is that by focusing your time and energy on the application process, you are able to apply to many more positions than you could otherwise — and therefore expose yourself to far more opportunities.

In brief, if you send out your CV to 50 companies rather than 5, it seems logical that you are 10 times more likely to get called for an interview — and ultimately, what is the point of doing preparation work for an interview if you don’t actually get invited to it? Seemingly, the time you spend sending out applications has the benefit of immediately expanding your opportunities — while preparation work for an interview you have not been offered carries the risk of being a waste of time.

Adobe Stock / fran_kie

Even if you eventually flunk the interview, there is an argument (not totally without merit) that the best way to prepare for interviews is just to do very many of them. You go into those talks, you get used to being asked and answering questions, and eventually it all feels a lot more natural (or at least less nerve-wracking) than it did at first.

Finally, one may argue that because different companies have different approaches to interviews, it is very difficult to do any general preparation work which will be useful universally. Instead, it is best to wait until you have that invitation, and then put all your effort into researching the company and the job, and making sure you can show them exactly what they are looking for.

Deconstructing The Case

It’s important to emphasize that the arguments we laid out above are not stupid, and that in certain contexts they do make a lot of sense. If someone just graduated from university and isn’t sure what to do with their life, it’s sensible to test the job market by sending out a ton of applications in a whole variety of fields and seeing what gets thrown their way.

It’s also true that a person like that might benefit from a few ‘crash and burn’ interviews, just to get a sense of what these are and how they function, and to work some of the first-time jitters out of their system.

The problem is that none of this applies to the ecosystem of tech jobs. The argument that it is a waste of time to prepare for an interview you will never do is invalid; in this field there is, in fact, almost no such thing as preparation work that is ever truly wasted.

The nature of tech interviews is such that you can’t prepare for them by quickly memorizing a few facts or practicing a personal routine in the week before the day. Instead, you will be asked to demonstrate deep understanding of technologies, problem-solving skills, and as many past projects as you can boast. All of these involve months and sometimes years of preparation.

Adobe Stock / Minerva Studio

The argument that you should prepare for interviews by doing many interviews is also flawed in this context. Getting tested by a team of recruiters without knowing what you’re doing is more likely to undermine than to build your confidence.

The same is true for the trick of sending out 100 CVs in the hope that at least a few will result in an interview — unless you are applying for jobs you’re overqualified for (in which case: why?), you are simply exposing yourself to an avalanche of rejections, and it takes some serious steel not to be put down by that. Sending out 10 good applications for which you have done the groundwork is ultimately a much better investment of your time than sending out 100 haphazard ones.

If you are looking for a job, you may often feel that you are pressed for time, and that you need to find something as soon as possible. But barring the odd stroke of luck, applying for positions without properly preparing for them is likely to be the longer way to actually getting a job — not the shorter one.

What You Can Do To Prepare

One way that tech is atypical (even if not quite unique) is that preparing for interviews should begin not just before you apply for the job, but effectively before you leave the current one you’re in.

This is why it is so often repeated in the industry that a developer should never stop learning. The things you learn from the job and while on the job are the essence of what you will bring to your next interview.

You have probably already heard that you must keep a pulse on the industry at all times, and an eye open for technologies which are growing relevant and more profitable, then update your knowledge accordingly. Since that is already the topic of so many articles out there, I will not go into depth on that. Instead, here are a few extra pointers that you often won’t find in those articles.

Adobe Stock / gstockstudio

Firstly, while the stereotype of developers as socially impeded nerds is outdated, it is true that communication skills are not widely taught in the tech world — and thus not easily picked up! — so it makes sense to put some effort into those. This is, by the way, also the sort of thing that will benefit your interview skills tangibly and immediately.

How do you improve your communication skills? The first step is simply to ask: find some time with your manager and your colleagues (ideally not those who are your closest friends) and ask them for some frank feedback. Ask them how you can improve, and then try putting their advice into practice on your current job.

Secondly, reflect on your professional identity. This means sitting down and and figuring out not so much (or not only) what it is that you like to do, but what it is that you bring to the table. What makes you valuable? What can you do for a company, and what do you add to a team? This process of genuine self-reflection is one many people skip, but you should do this before you write a word of your CV — never mind start sending it out.

Finally, and on the subject of actually sending out your application, don’t neglect pre-interview questions. Ask your recruiter casually if there’s anything you should know before going in for the interview, and which topics will be treated, and what sort of things they will expect from you. Don’t throw a questionnaire at them or anything — just a little bit of gentle prodding. That can often reveal useful clues for that final bit of preparation.

Tech interviews may be daunting, but compared to many other industries, they really are more about true skill and background than about on-the-spot performance. Make sure you are always learning on the job, put some thought into the application process, believe in yourself, and you’re going to do just fine.

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