Rocking the Tech Interview: Navigating Tough Questions with Confidence

So, you’ve made it to the interview stage. Whether the job seems like a perfect fit or feels like a bit of a stretch, this part of the process is always a little nerve-wracking: and there always seems to be at least one question (or maybe even a few) that feels like a total curve ball.

Tough interview questions have one or a few qualities that make them, well, tough:

  • Often, they seem simpler than they actually are — a straightforward question that could instead be an opportunity for you to elaborate or share your working style
  • They’re about something (a skill, program, concept) with which you’re unfamiliar — in which case, you have to balance resourcefulness and honesty in your response
  • They’re so common that answering them feels like a game: i.e. “what is your biggest weakness?”

Questions also often fall under one of four main categories, including: technical skills and expertise, problem-solving, teamwork and collaboration, and behavior and fit.

In this blog, we’ve compiled several examples of questions that could very well appear in your next interview, with pointers on how to respond.

First and Foremost: the STAR method

In all interviews, and for all questions, do your best to follow an arc in your response. One of the most common strategies for crafting engaging and detailed replies is the STAR method, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. At the most basic level, this approach reminds you of the most critical elements to cover in your interview response: set the scene; highlight your core involvement; share the specific actions you took that underscore your skills, expertise, and competencies; and explain how you made a difference.

Set the scene; highlight your core involvement; share the specific actions you took that underscore your skills, expertise, and competencies; and explain how you made a difference.

If you’re not already using this formula, it will be the fastest and most effective way to transform how you interview. Keep this approach in mind for the questions below, and learn more about the STAR method here. You can also practice using the STAR method for role-specific, individualized interview prep on platforms like Exponent.

Technical Skills and Expertise

Technical skills are the cornerstone of success in the tech industry. Interviewers often assess your proficiency in specific programming languages, technologies, or frameworks. They want to understand your level of experience, your ability to work with relevant tools, and your familiarity with industry best practices. Demonstrating expertise in the required technical skills showcases your ability to handle the challenges of the role effectively.

Q: Have you ever had to learn a new programming language or technology quickly? How did you accomplish that?

How to Answer: Start by providing an example of a language or technology you had to learn quickly. Then provide one sentence of background as to why time was of the essence.

In technical skills and expertise questions, aside from general proficiency with the topics, interviewers also want to see how fluent you are with industry resources and topics. For instance, in answering this question, you might explicitly name some of the online tools, resources, forums and more that you reference when you have a tech question. This also shows your ability to outsource your learning.

Also be sure to mention if and how you collaborated with other people: did you seek guidance from a colleague or a mentor? This underscores your ability to build relationships and work well as a member of a team.

Finally, spend the last part of you answer briefly describing how you applied your learnings and what the see how you contextualize your expertise versus just hearing about how you have it. Include a description of your output: whether it was a website, program, or something else, to further illustrate the impact of your work.

Check out this thread discussing top skills for the future of tech.


Problem-solving is one of the most sought-after soft skills for all roles in tech. Somewhat inherent to the nature of the industry — largely grounded in innovation — problem-solving skills show that you can approach complex challenges, think critically, and offer solutions in moments of stress. Interviewers may ask you about your experiences tackling difficult technical projects or overcoming challenging bugs or issues. Highlighting your problem-solving process, and generally including how you’ve been involved in research, collaboration, building structured methodologies, and more can be one of the ways you demonstrate analytical thinking and resourcefulness.

Q: How would you prioritize features for a new launch?

How to Answer: This question is disguised as prompting a hypothetical response; but it would really come to life if you provided specific examples of how you’ve prioritized features in the past.

Then it comes down to defining your process and engaging your team. Your answer should include 1. the goal of the product, 2. how you created a high-level approach to identify and prioritize key features that would serve the goal, 3. what colleagues/teams you engaged to provide input, 4. how you incorporated or gathered related, and 5. how you used this information to make an informed decision.

The interviewer wants to learn about your awareness and your process: are you illustrating how you collaborate and streamline, and are you making it clear and easy for those involved?

The interviewer wants to learn about your awareness and your process: are you illustrating how you collaborate and streamline, and are you making it clear and easy for those involved?

Here are some additional examples of problem-solving -related questions with sample answers.

Teamwork and Collaboration

The ability to collaborate effectively with team members is crucial, and something you’ll be doing regardless of your role or industry. Interviewers want to assess your interpersonal skills, communication abilities, and how well you can work in a team environment. They may inquire about your past experiences working in cross-functional teams, your role within those teams, and how you contributed to achieving project goals. Emphasizing your teamwork skills, such as active communication, knowledge sharing, and adaptability, showcases your ability to collaborate effectively and move entire projects forward in a positive manner.

Q: Tell me about a time when you respected a team leader, and time when you didn’t.

How to answer: Here, the interviewer is trying to uncover what you value in team settings, how you work with supervisors, and also how you manage difficult interpersonal situations. When you describe a positive relationship with a former leader, try to cite reasons beyond “we got along well.” Qualities like good communication, emotional intelligence, and decision-making are great examples of why a person might respect their leader. When discussing a time when you did not respect a leader, you also want to ensure that you’re answering tactfully, incorporating constructive feedback, emphasizing what you learned, and maintaining objectivity. For both cases, specificity is key. And remember that your answer here is more about you than the leaders you mention.

Check out these other common questions related to teamwork and collaboration.

Behavior and Fit

While technical skills and experience are essential, companies recognize the significance of hiring individuals who can collaborate effectively, demonstrate respectful behavior, and align with the organization's mission. Interviewers utilize behavior and fit questions to evaluate a candidate's interpersonal skills, communication style, problem-solving approach, adaptability, and leadership potential. These types of questions also often determine if a candidate’s values and goals somewhat align with a company’s vision. Here’s where it gets tricky, though: while “fit,” is important in any kind of relationship, many companies are re-evaluating how they approach this bucket so as to avoid hiring people who are all the “same.” Behavior and fit, when considered well, can help build a company’s culture and perspective. Depending on these questions and conversations, they can also be a red flag from the candidate’s perspective, indicating that a company is looking for a very specific “type” of person. Keep an ear out when answering these questions, make sure to ask questions in return, and think of these questions especially as an opportunity for conversation and learning. (Fast Company explains this dynamic well in their article, “Culture Fit v. Culture Add.”)

Q: What does work-life balance mean to you?

How to Answer: This may not be an example of a potentially red-flag question; but it does provide an opportunity for you to share your interests and values. Take the opportunity to share some of the things you enjoy doing outside of work – such as spending time with family, practicing a hobby, or something else.

You'll also want to emphasize your ability to complete your work on time and during work hours. Underscore your organizational skills, and be prepared to discuss what's worked and what hasn't when taking work home with you in the past. You might ask about options for asynchronicity or a flex schedule. Certainly avoid being negative about taking work home, given that doing so is a common (or at least occasional) occurrence for many tech jobs; but however you respond, remember that honesty will serve both you and your employer best in the long run.

Additionally, it's a good idea to be prepared to talk about work-life balance and bringing work home before going into any interview: since 2020, the lines between home and work have become increasingly blurred, and adeptly understanding your potential employer's needs – while being true to your own priorities and tolerances – is a valuable consideration early in the process.

In Conclusion

In interviews, there’s often pressure to say the exact right thing, to present yourself as confident and knowledgeable; to show that you're the best.

Researching the role, brushing up on your skills, and practicing your presence and storytelling are all valid — in fact, necessary — tools to nail your interviews.

But the bottom line, and sometimes the hardest thing to remember, is that the company is hiring you; and you’re agreeing to work with them. As you research questions and practice responses, remember that hiring is a mutual decision, no matter how things pan out, and that your honest self is the one most likely to land your dream role.

Practice Interviewing and get advice about hiring with a Merit mentor:

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