As an interviewer for Triplebyte, I've asked hundreds of engineers what they want from their next role. And one answer I heard time and time again was this:
"I want to grow as an engineer"
And that's great. Expanding your technical prowess and having a thirst for challenging yourself with tougher problems are hallmarks of great engineers. In fact, I frequently heard this from some of the most skilled candidates.
But I also heard it from just about everyone else, as well. At this point, the idea of "growing as an engineer" has started to take on buzzword status like "disrupt" and "innovate." You need more to convince interviewers.
As such, it would benefit you to explore the precise ways in which you are interested in growing. Answers like "learning new technologies" and "solving tougher problems" are a dime a dozen. But if you could give examples, particularly those that are aligned with your specific goals and interests, you're going to reveal a level of genuine enthusiasm without even realizing it.
And that's gonna raise eyebrows — in a good way. Here's how to architect your growth story.
Talk about your personal north star
Let me be clear, there's nothing wrong with genuinely wanting to "learn new technologies" and "solve tougher problems." But the issue with not expanding upon those answers is that they don't offer much insight into what motivates you personally.
The truth is, there are deeper reasons behind surface-level motivations like those, and they can differ pretty substantially among engineers.
For example, learning new technologies for one engineer might be motivated by delivering greater business value. The greater the number of tools in one's tool belt, and the more cutting-edge those tools are, the more business impact one can have with the solutions one can deliver.
Some engineers care about that a lot, while other’s couldn’t care less about business impact, let alone the industry of the company they work for. Lots of engineers are motivated more by intellectual curiosity or a sense of conquest. These engineers get bored after they conquer one set of tools, and have a thirst for solving tough problems in a totally different way.
Even still, some motivations boil down to a specific situation. I had one candidate mention that he was creating all sorts of unnecessary problems for himself by being overly committed to one tool, only to discover an alternative was a much better solution for his particular problem. So his motivation for learning new technologies was more about avoiding being cornered by problems in the future.
The point is not that any of these perspectives is inherently better than another. But getting specific on where you're personally coming from can give a company insight into who you are and your values, while also seeing that there's substance in your words beyond simply virtue signaling. Being aware of that allows you to discuss your motivations with meaning and enthusiasm, and that makes you more interesting to most if not all parties interviewing you.
Get specific about the technical growth you're after
When an engineer works day-in and day-out on a certain class of problems, some technical details become so second nature that they hardly warrant direct conscious thought, let alone verbal discussion.
But when you’re asked about your technical interests — even by other engineers who might be capable of understanding those interests — you still need to get into the details for them to have meaning to the party who’s asking about them.
For example, tougher problems for an iOS role could mean a million things. Are you talking about advanced animations for slicker user interactions? Sophisticated caching for on-device processing of sensitive data? Or perhaps more elegant project architecture? Your interests might seem obvious to you, but when you’ve heard as many different answers as interviewers tend to, you learn not to make assumptions.
On top of that, once you’ve honed in on the why of "wanting to grow as an engineer," it’s interesting for interviewers to hear about the nuances of the specific technical directions in which your interests might be pulling you.
If you tend to draw a blank on those details, that’s fine, you just need to do some minor prep work. List the top five technologies you’re interested in learning. Then for each, give a short “why” to see if there’s any connection between these micro motivations and your macro “why” from above. Do the same for the top five types of problems you’re interested in solving or technical skillsets you want to take on, as well as the top five things you’re bored with at this point. Simply taking time to concretely list these things out can flood the mind with interesting nuance to discuss in future interviews that would otherwise be difficult to retrieve on the fly.
The more nuance you're able to offer in your answers, the more opportunity you have to establish a legitimate alignment with the values of the interviewer or company you're interviewing for. Not to mention, you also come across more potently as a serious professional with meaningful experience.
Mine past growth experiences for substance
That said, you may still find yourself grasping for straws if this is the first time you’ve consciously thought about something like this. And that’s truly ok. It’s not necessarily part of the engineering skillset to self-reflectively discuss and pick apart one’s technical trajectory, as opposed to simply being on a trajectory.
In that case, a short trip down memory lane might just do the trick. In other words, systematically mine the past for ways you’ve already grown and struggled. This will not only help serve as a foundation for developing conscious future interests, but also add fodder for interviewers interested in your backstory.
Can you think of examples from the past two years where you started pretty weak or inexperienced at something and got better? I’m not talking about having gone from novice to Elon Musk as one of the top five most successful tech ninjas in the world. I’m talking about human examples, the incremental, iterative steps even the most successful of us take before anyone notices the big successes. Perhaps you struggled to write performant queries but are now able to write sufficiently performant queries. Perhaps your code received a lot of criticism in code review initially but now you get the occasional complement. Perhaps you struggled to implement UI to design spec, but now you are aware of a lot more design nuance and have your designers more satisfied. The examples don’t need to be grandiose, and you don’t even need to have reached expert- or full-level competence. A win is a win is a win.
Now, as you go along identifying your wins, some might come with emotional potency. Think about how it make you feel when you finally jumped that technical hurdle. And if you’re noticing it for the first time during this exercise, ask yourself how you feel about it now. Are you relieved? Happy? Excited for the future? Proud? Did it spark an interest in the technology itself or for simply jumping as many hurdles as you can get your hands on? All of these details can be interesting in interviews, but they also give you a stronger grasp on your own place in your journey which is inherently empowering.
And a great way to find examples is by literally going back into your tickets on Asana or JIRA and thinking through the problems you've encountered in the past six or so months. Go through your pull requests (at work and/or on your personal GitHub) and see how the comments have evolved. Check out your Stack Overflow history. Make note of any articles you've published. Talk to coworkers and bosses to help jog your memory over coffee. There's a million techniques for bringing past details back into the foreground of your mind.
Whatever you choose, most of us never think to go through this exercise at all. We just allow one experience to blend into the next, and nothing really ends up standing out or forming a coherent narrative even though we experienced legitimate growth. Your job is to itemize as much as you can and surprise yourself at what you end up noticing.
After that, ask yourself whether you'd like to continue to grow in the same technical directions or whether you're ready for a new frontier. After several years of whipping up simple back-ends, you might be ready to face problems at scale. And after several years of a particular flavor of problems at scale, you might be ready to add ML into the mix. Your past can be a great place to identify what you've had enough of and what you want more of, which can, in turn, help spark ideas about new directions.
Your growth story is a way of humanizing yourself in the eyes of your interviewers and companies. It’s a way of taking your technical history and weaving it into an interesting narrative that can be easily plugged in to the mission and human narratives of the teams you’re trying to join. It takes raw, technical data that interviewers see from hundreds of candidates and attaches a real person with a life to it, and that can take you from being a cold data point to being a warm hire.
As you’re honing your narrative, be patient with yourself. It takes time to develop the muscle of weaving details into a meaningful story. And when you’re just starting out, it can feel like there’s not that much detail to go off of. Whenever you find yourself at a loss, always remember to be resourceful. If one technique doesn’t work right away, try another. Ask others for help, then circle back to prior techniques to see if you’re more ready than you were before. Everyone has a growth narrative waiting to be articulated.
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