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Developing Interview Skills Through Practice

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An interview can be a terrifying thing. The only way to get better at them is practice, but getting that practice can be tricky, too. In a 1:1 conversation with Mailchimp’s VP of Development, Eric Muntz, I’d mentioned an idea for using my 16 hours of volunteer time. We’d been talking about an internal event we’d held last year, Mailchimp Gives Hack. Over 2 days we worked with 3 local organizations to rebuild and enhance their websites. All of the volunteers loved sharing their technical knowledge with these organizations, and we wanted to host something similar this year but hadn’t planned anything yet.

I was thinking about holding community office hours for career coaching and letting folks practice some interviewing skills. As a Software Engineering Manager at Mailchimp, I strive to hire a curious, kind, and thoughtful team.

But conducting interviews takes practice, too! When I mentioned the idea to Eric, he suggested we go bigger. Why not open it to the engineering community, create something that helps people outside of Mailchimp’s walls, while also broadening our own perspectives? Just like that, we started organizing our first Mailchimp Gives (Feed)back event.

We put out the call for volunteers, worked with our Facilities, Office Management, Recruiting, and Design teams, and started reaching out to the Atlanta tech community, mostly through women’s programming groups and the network of tech folks collected by our diversity employee resource group, The Mothership. We quickly “sold out” of our 50 free tickets and started pairing the mock interviewers with mock candidates based on their career trajectory and fields of interest noted during the registration process.

When the day of the event arrived, we were ready. Engineers, managers, directors, testers, designers, and writers from our Engineering team and across the company were all present for mock interviews, career coaching, group exercises, and general conversation. Volunteers from the Engineering team also staffed the espresso machines, serving cappuccinos, lattes, and americanos in custom-made mugs—gifts for attendees and volunteers alike.

Mailchimp’s excellent recruiting team was on hand all day holding office hours. They gave feedback on résumés, portfolios, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles, all while answering questions big and small.

As an after-lunch activity, we asked Jennifer Jackson, a Millennial Transition Coach, to moderate a panel about all the things to consider while on the job hunt. She got our Mailchimp panelists (Loren Crawford, Junior Software Engineer; Lee Duh, Senior QA Analyst; Ethiopia Rabb, Software Engineering Manager; Maura Kelly, Senior Director of Engineering; Chris Turner, Technical Recruiter; and Eric Muntz, VP of Development) talking about a great range of topics, including how to approach questions when you don’t know the answer and how to dress for an interview at a more casual tech company.

But the best part of the day was getting to meet and getting to know the mock interviewees. So many of them were self-taught and transitioning to a brand-new career. A few even had their first technical interview in our mock interview setting. Everyone was excited to know that they’d get real feedback afterward, and not just a pass/fail response. Our interviewers all filled out a scorecard to grade on various criteria, including:

  • Demonstrates a strong grasp of core functional/technical skills expected at this level
  • Shows curiosity and initiative
  • Capably articulated an approach to a previous project
  • What’s something this person could improve for their next interview?
  • What’s something this person did really well in this interview?

Besides giving direct feedback on their interviews, we wanted to provide a setting to the mock candidates where they’d experience how interviews should feel. Interviews should be challenging, and maybe even a bit stressful, but the interviewers themselves should be kind and respectful. We hope that by giving them a realistic experience, they’ll be empowered to treat future interviews as a 2-way conversation.

At the end of the day, our guests packed up their notes and coffee mugs and headed home, awaiting the results of their interviews. Our interviewers put the final touches on their notes, and we started thinking about how we could offer similar events to other communities.

Looking ahead, our Recruiting team is organizing one such event in September at the Grace Hopper Celebration, which will focus on mentorship. And later this year, we’re working with Friends of Refugees to offer practice scenarios for interviewing at American companies. Here’s to making that process a little less terrifying, one practice conversation at a time.

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