Don't overstate your developer skills

When you're trying to land a job as a developer, don't waste your time exaggerating your level of expertise. Here are some interview traps that will expose the truth.

It’s a great time to be a developer. Businesses can’t find enough qualified programmers to update existing applications and create new ones, so the pay is good. And a lot of people entering the IT field like development work because, even though it requires a lot of skill and hard work, developers aren’t typically on call 24/7 like their brothers and sisters in network administration and support.

Unfortunately, too many people who apply for developer positions blow the opportunity during the interview. Here’s how.

Honesty is the best interview policy
When you fill out a developer job application or post your resume on the Web, you have to list the languages or tools you’ve used. If you tell the world you know C++, Perl, or Java, chances are someone’s going to contact you for an interview. But if you claim to have expert skills, you’d better be prepared to back up that claim by demonstrating your knowledge of the subject matter.

For instance, here at TechRepublic, nearly the entire team of developers interviews new candidates. If an applicant is found to have exaggerated his or her skill level, the word spreads like wildfire among the interviewers.

Rate yourself
Greg Gorman, manager of TechRepublic’s development team, explained one way his team evaluates a candidate. They ask a standard question in this form: “According to your resume, you know C++. How would you rate your comfort level or expertise, on a scale of 1 to 10?” Greg added, “If you rate yourself as '7' or above, you’d better be ready to answer some tough questions.”

Dan Seewer, Web development engineer for TechRepublic, shared the story of a candidate who rated himself as a “10” in C++. Dan asked him to explain the difference between private, protected, and public member variables, and the guy couldn’t do it. “That’s a fundamental concept in C++ programming,” Dan said. “I would expect someone who rates himself as a ‘10’ to be able to answer that question.”

Dan told me about another interview technique he uses to identify the “good” people. “You say you know UNIX? Here’s a piece of paper. You have 30 seconds to write down as many UNIX commands as you can.” Then Dan asks the candidate to explain what each command does.
Greg pointed out another trap that catches many developer-wannabes: Sometimes, just to land the interview for a candidate, a recruiter will embellish a resume. For that reason, Greg recommends that you always take a copy of your resume with you to the interview. That way, if anything fishy shows up on the copy of the resume provided by the recruiter, you can hand the interviewer your copy.
The bottom line
Like in all job interviews, when you’re applying for a developer position, the most important thing is to be honest about your skill set. If you overstate your experience, you might be able to fool the recruiter or the human resources person—but you’ll never pass the tests when the developers get their shot at you.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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