Joseph Pacheco is a software engineer who has conducted over 1,400 technical interviews for everything from back-end to mobile to low-level systems and beyond. He’s seen every quirk, hiccup, and one-of-a-kind strength you can think of and wants to share what he’s learned to help engineers grow.
There’s nothing worse than acing a technical interview and being denied an offer because of “culture fit.” It can feel like a bewildering slap in the face, particularly if you’ve had your heart set on a company you feel couldn’t be more of a fit. This article is about approaching the question of culture fit from a place of authenticity to make sure it never takes you by surprise. That includes being able to honestly decide, for your own good, when you actually aren’t a fit.
The Basics of Culture Fit
Before we get tactical, it’s important to clarify what we are talking about, as well as acknowledge the looming elephant in the room: bias.
What Is Meant by Culture Fit?
culture fit refers to the way your personal work style and values aligns with a company's work culture and values. The idea is that teams that are aligned on core values are happier and more productive. They feed off each other's energy, avoid toxic pitfalls, and reach goals at a higher rate. This really matters for companies. Wharton scholar Adam Grant argues that early-stage companies that value culture fit above all else do substantially better than others that value existing skills or even raw intelligence and growth potential. He cites a Stanford study in which 200 companies were evaluated, and the culture fit companies had a zero percent failure rate. That’s a pretty big deal.
‘Culture Add’ Is the Latest Twist
Grant also points out that the companies who immortalized culture fit were the most likely to stagnate post-IPO. At that point, “culture add,” or the way in which candidates add to a company culture (rather than fit into it), is more important for taking the team to the next level. A lot of companies have wised up to this and actively seek candidates who make a case for what they bring to the culture that isn’t already there. This should be on your radar just as much as culture fit.
There’s a Dark Side
At the same time, there are serious caveats. Culture fit assessments can be far from perfect in practice. In fact, those that lack rigor and nuance are ripe for introducing bias. As Triplebyte CEO Ammon Bartram points out, “poorly executed, a culture fit screen can be one of the most capricious parts of an interview.”
The problem is that culture fit can veto all other interview areas. If this decision is left to an unexamined gut call, then it can amount to nothing more than a popularity contest. People typically choose those that pass the so-called “friend test,” which doesn’t meaningfully evaluate culture fit. And this can lead to the most egregious forms of bias (e.g. racial, gender-based, sexuality-based), all while remaining completely unconscious of the roles those biases are playing. It’s a pretty bad deal, and there are no excuses for it.
Culture Fit vs Soft Skills
You may also have heard the term
soft skills thrown around. This is not the same as
culture fit, although they are related. Soft skills are a set of social competencies that support work in a team context. Strong communication, a habit of respect for other team members, and the ability to receive and make use of constructive criticism are examples that most companies value. The more you strengthen these general skills, the more likely you are to pass a culture fit assessment across the board. Some companies require exceptional soft skills regardless of technical skills, while others are more flexible. That said, soft skills are only one piece of the puzzle. Think of them as the basic prerequisites for passing a culture fit assessment. To ace this part of the interview, you’ll need to go deeper.
Don’t Fake It (Because You Probably Won’t Make It)
A lot of engineers think of culture fit/add as a puzzle that needs a quick solution. Find the right answers, tell the company what they want to hear, and slide into a great job. But that’s the farthest thing from the truth. This is not because I naively think companies are particularly good at evaluating culture fit —they frequently aren’t — it’s just that this approach is especially common and usually leads to more problems than it solves.
Forcing a Fit Is Bad for Everyone (Especially You)
You aren't actually going to be a fit for every company you apply to — and that's totally OK. For example, Uber has been notorious for having an
always be in hustle culture that valued rushing to beat competition over taking time to really design the product. Personally, I neither think that’s good or bad. It works for some, but it absolutely doesn’t work for me. It's not compatible with my creative process, so trying to convince Uber that I'm the aggressive type they're looking for would set me up for failure. It would be bad for Uber because I would be a kink in their rhythm, and it would be bad for me because I would be miserable. What you want matters as much as what the company wants, because when these genuine wants are aligned — magic happens. That's why it's called culture
fit — it's about chemistry and synergy, not self-denial and self-degradation. And if a company expects that of you, you may seriously want to reconsider whether they deserve your labor.
They've Heard It All Before
But let’s say, for some reason, you want that job no matter what. The “fake it till you make it” mentality usually backfires. That’s because experienced interviewers are like living machine-learning models. They can detect BS with their eyes closed. In fact, they've heard the exact same BS from hundreds of candidates. (Trust me, after interviewing 1,400 engineers, I've heard it all myself, too.) Parroting things you don't personally believe is more obvious-sounding than you think. And if detected, it can really undermine your chances of nabbing the role — and delegitimize the points you made that were actually genuine. Besides, being honest about your strengths and weaknesses can (perhaps counterintuitively) be a hugely positive signal to your hiring team about your integrity and willingness to be vulnerable with your coworkers.
Uncover Authentic Culture Fit — Then Show It
A lot of us have no idea if we really are a fit for a given company. And even if we think we might be, we have no idea how to articulate why. The good news is, there are some really smart ways to figure these things out. You’re probably already a genuine fit for more companies than you think. You just need to get really clear on your values, research theirs, and do the work to creatively think through all the ways in which you are both aligned. If this stuff isn’t obvious to you, it’s definitely not obvious to your hiring teams. You’re the only one who can build a bridge from your perspective to theirs — and it doesn’t have to be the Golden Gate! Just a simple rope bridge will be more than enough to satisfy a lot of companies out there. Here’s how.
Get Clear About Your Values, Interests, and Preferences
You can’t argue culture fit if you don’t know what matters to you. The good news is you already have preferences and values. It’s just a matter of exploring what they are. The key is to ask yourself a lot of questions and boundary-test until they become clear. It’s important to explore both your likes and dislikes, what motivates you and what suffocates your morale and creativity, and what you can tolerate ethically and what you can't.
You may be exceptionally open-minded and flexible, but you still have requirements. For example, recent college grads often say they’re open to any company that will take them. Not only are they company agnostic, but they don’t even know what they want to focus on technically. While this may seem requirement-free, it isn’t. It’s probably a bad idea, for example, to work for a company that's hostile to learning and has unrealistic expectations of its junior engineers. You could end up back on the job market in a few months with the added problem of having to explain what happened. Likewise, if you want to find your niche, you may prefer companies that allow you to explore different technical responsibilities rather than focus narrowly on one area. The desire to avoid needless setbacks is probably a value of yours. The desire to grow as an engineer and identify your interests is also a value. The more of these values you identify the better you are to both understand and argue genuine fit to the company.
Research the Companies
Likewise, you can’t argue culture fit if you don’t understand the values and culture of the company. Fortunately, there’s a lot of techniques you can use to learn about the nuances of all the companies to which you are applying. Googling larger companies will reveal a ton of data. Some publish their values and mission online, but if you can find third-party news/blog articles about the company, or long threads on Reddit or other forums, you can often find a little more truth and nuance. You can also ask contacts who have worked at these companies, or even be direct in asking the hiring managers thoughtful questions. Don’t go in blind. You might even find your idea of a company is vastly different from the reality of their day-to-day operations, and that is important to know as soon as possible to avoid burning bridges.
Know Your Dealbreakers
Some values and requirements are more important than others. Separating your dealbreakers from nice-to-haves is key to knowing where to focus. If a company satisfies three of your nice-to-haves but requires you to do a kind of work you hate 24/7, that’s a dealbreaker. Accepting an offer would be a bad choice, and wasting your time interviewing for that company could take much needed bandwidth away from focusing on one which is actually a fit.
Let’s say you’ve found a company that meets all of your dealbreaker requirements and even some of your nice-to-haves. When you interview, just being aware of this can lead to you expressing natural enthusiasm for the company that is noticed by your interviewers. And if you really think through the details, you can prepare talking points that undeniably demonstrate your enthusiasm and alignment. On the contrary, if these details are not clear in your mind during the interview, you may come across as neutral or uninterested and you will lose the opportunity to make this very real alignment clear.
Look for Alignment (and Craft an Honest Narrative)
Once you’ve clearly identified your nice-to-haves and dealbreakers, it’s time to communicate to companies how you are aligned with their values and interests. You have to consider each one, empathize with the perspective of the company, and do the work to argue why you are both aligned.
Let’s say you’re one of those engineers who just likes to solve problems. You’re genuinely company agnostic and industry agnostic. You simply love the process of grappling with the toughest challenges you can get your hands on, and you want a role that pushes you to the cutting edge. That’s totally OK. In fact, that’s great. That kind of fundamental challenge-crushing mentality probably means you’ll be an enormous technical asset.
In this case, your goal is to verbally show the company how you are compatible with their interests. To you, it may seem obvious: You build great technology, they get their products implemented. End of story, right?
Nope. You still have to cater to your audience.
For example, most non-technical people don't understand this phenomenon of
being motivated by solving hard problems. If you've ever seen someone struggle with their iPhone, it's easy to see that people actually hate problems — especially technical problems. They resist them at every turn, often flailing until they get someone else to fix it. The idea that you actually thrive on being presented with complexity and find pleasure in wading through and mastering it is a completely foreign experience to most non-engineers. Not only do they not believe you, they can't even fathom a world where someone might enjoy such a thing. If you genuinely enjoy this process, and you're being interviewed by a non-technical manager, you need to make a strong case for it that they will understand.
The other side of that is let's say you're being interviewed by an engineer who does get the satisfaction of problem-solving. They could be looking for more information, because if you just like to solve problems and you don't really care about the big picture, what's to stop you from solving only the problems you enjoy at the company's expense? Will you be someone who prioritizes problems that actually benefit the company or will you use this role as an opportunity to narrowly explore your personal interests? You may think this is a ridiculous suspicion and that of course you will prioritize what your role demands. But that's not obvious to hiring managers (and some engineers are guilty of doing exactly this). They need you to make a strong personal case as to why your interests truly dovetail with the company's interests (and they need to see that you're clear on how). You need to show it's actually a win-win for everyone involved! And if you already do have interests that align with the companies business interests, talk about them. The more genuine alignment you make explicit, the better.
When you make a case for culture fit/add from a place of authenticity, it comes through as more potent and palpable than any combination of performative BS possibly could. And in order to make that case, you need to be conscious of all the real ways you actually are and aren’t a fit for the companies you’re applying to. Most candidates never do the work to really think this through creatively, so they find themselves with nothing interesting to say. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You already probably have a stronger case than you realize. You just need to do the work to understand and then articulate that to companies. Do your homework, be honest with yourself, take notes on what you discover. Only from a foundation that is true to who you are can you beam the kind of realness that leaves hiring managers truly impressed. And at the very least, you’ll be able to “pass” without having to sacrifice your integrity.