How to use non-technical interview questions to find software developers who excel—and fit in at the same time
Your product owners will always be able to ask the crucial technical questions that help you unearth the geniuses who can do the work (the market is supersaturated with experience). But if you’re a non-technical founder, you are the perfect person to determine whether or not that genius is also going to be a culture fit.
Knowing the right non-technical questions to ask is a start. Read on to learn how to weed out the social misfits and build a team of talented and unique people (that you actually like hanging out with).
Seven questions to ask yourself before you start interviewing top tech talent:
- What is a non-technical interview?
- How do I assess motivation levels in a candidate?
- How do I assess professional behavior in a candidate?
- What questions can I ask to truly determine experience?
- How can I tell if a candidate is adept at problem-solving and decision-making?
- What’s the best way to determine if someone is action- and goal-oriented?
- How can I learn about someone’s communication style and habits?
Setting yourself up for success when trying to find people who are a culture fit with your existing team is simple. Remember this one thing: If you ask yes or no questions, you’ll get yes or no answers. (So don’t ask yes or no questions!)
Your non-technical questions should be open-ended. And give your candidates time and space to answer. That’s how you learn about their soft skills in their own words and discover whether they truly have what you need.
Let’s start at the top.
What is a non-technical interview?
Exactly what it sounds like—this is where you are trying to find out not what they can do, but who they are. We all know that at the end of the day, if the engineer with the perfect skills has zero idea how to communicate their ideas with the rest of the team, or is an ineffective collaborator, they aren’t the right fit.
That’s why non-technical interview questions for software developers exist. Technical knowledge and technical skills are important, yes. But the non-technical questions are where you dive into the nuances and dig into the intangibles to find culture fit (and avoid culture shock).
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How do I assess motivation levels in a candidate?
One of the things we’ve learned over the years as we’ve worked with developers and other tech talent is that it’s a lot easier to leverage existing motivation than it is to create motivation out of thin air. Determining if motivation exists is your goal here—it will save you some frustration down the road if you can tease it out of them in the interview process.
Different things motivate different people. Some want to be part of a big team and initiative, others want escalating challenges at work and the promise of more responsibility over time. Money is a big motivator for people, but there are some who will choose stability and a chance to express themselves over a heftier compensation package.
The bottom line: Software developers might not be robots, but you still need to find their power source. Hopefully these questions will get you a few steps closer to unlocking the psychology of a candidate:
Why did you take your three most recent jobs?
Learning what they’ve done is one thing—but learning why they took a role is another. You’re trying to understand what motivated or excited them about their last opportunities, not what they accomplished once they were there.
What are the gaps you are experiencing in your current job that makes you open to other opportunities?
This is a great way to get your candidate to reflect on what they’re missing—or what they’re running away from. You can decide if the pain points are positive (“it’s not challenging enough”) or negative (“the company missed our targets and they stiffed us on our bonus”).
Where are you going?
This is intentionally a very open-ended question. If they answer with mostly short-term goals, you know that the candidate may not be fully committed to the team. If they respond with mainly long-term goals, you should then probe what their expectations are for advancement (and whether those expectations are realistic or not).
What interests you about this opportunity and how do you think you can contribute to what we are trying to achieve here?
The answer you get to this question is a telling one. If they can’t articulate how they’ll contribute, chances are they aren’t going to be the right fit. And if their answer doesn’t align with the goals they shared just one question ago, that’s another potential yellow flag.
WANT TO LEARN HOW TO DETERMINE WHAT MOTIVATES A CANDIDATE (AND WHETHER THEY’RE RIGHT FOR YOUR TEAM?) THAT’S OUR SWEET SPOT.
How do I assess professional behavior in a candidate?
These open-ended questions will allow you to learn whether your candidate works well autonomously or if they are a stage five clinger, and whether they scream obscenities at people when they get stressed or just go make another cup of tea. In other words, the important stuff.
Ask things like:
- How do you set daily and weekly goals?
- How do you plan out your work?
- How do you handle pressure?
- How do you collaborate with others?
- How do you manage others and/or lead?
- What do you use to motivate yourself and your team?
- How do you convey complex ideas?
- How do you stand your ground when others disagree with your point?
- How easy or hard is it for you to admit your mistakes and learn from them?
As the culture evangelist for your company, you know what will seamlessly integrate with the way your teams work. The answers you receive will give you a good sense of whether this candidate is going to get a green light and progress to next steps, or if it’s time for them to drop out of contention.
What questions can I ask to truly determine experience?
These questions depend on your business, your product, and your process. Look for apples to apples comparisons—they may have done a great job at something in a former position, but if you don’t do that in your company, who cares?!
So if you need someone to build a team for you, ask them if they’ve ever scaled a team from one developer to ten before. If you need an e-commerce site built, ask them if they’ve done that before.
Follow up with questions to determine whether it was successful, what they learned, and what they might do differently next time to gauge learnings and self-awareness.
How can I tell if a candidate is adept at problem-solving and decision-making?
Here’s where you’ll really open the door to some interesting answers. Keep these questions open-ended and let them talk. They’ll either walk themselves right off the plank or they’ll intrigue you with their wiley ways. Some ideas for questions are:
- Tell me about a challenging situation in your current role. The answer will tell you two things. One, you’ll learn what they view as a challenge. And two, you’ll find out if they learned a lesson as they overcame.
- Tell me about the last time you made a mistake and how you handled it. Listen for a learning mindset and a positive spin as opposed to a defensive or deflection-based response.
- Have you ever had to make an unpopular decision and implement it? Hopefully this question will tease out a story about how they created a common goal and rallied support for it, then showed metrics as proof that supported the decision. If you get an answer more along the lines of “I always know best, and I do it regardless,” it might be time to move on to the next guy.
HAVING A HARD TIME DECIDING IF SOMEONE IS GOOD AT DECISION-MAKING? THIS IS WHAT WE DO, ALL DAY EVERY DAY.
What’s the best way to determine if someone is action- and goal-oriented?
Your questions here (and their answers) are going to paint a picture for you about their cadence and drive. Do they hit benchmarks and exceed expectations or do they just show up to check the boxes? Consider what you need before crafting your queries. Here are a few ideas:
- How do you structure your work day? Most efficient people build a framework and climb up it. If they don’t pull their weight, they become a drag on your other resources.
- What was a goal you failed to achieve in your previous job? Instead of the actual goal and what was missed, look more at the ambition level of the goal and what the person considers a failure. Check accountability, too. Finger pointing is a drain.
- What are you most proud of professionally? This will tell you whether they’re in the weeds or a big-picture contributor and where they place value (do they pat themselves on the back or are they most happy about a team effort?).
How can I learn about someone’s communication skills, style, and habits?
This is a big one. The answers to these questions are going to tell you if this person is going to come in and ruffle all the feathers unnecessarily or if they know how to work respectfully with others. The last thing you want is someone joining the team only to blow it up. Try the following:
- Tell me about a time when you had to set a boundary. This is critical—creating boundaries without creating animosity is imperative. It’s all about team goals, resources, and alignment. It’s not about “I don’t do that.”
- Give me an example of a time when you persuaded someone who didn’t report to you. The ability to communicate cross-functionally, as well as up and down the organization, is crucial.
- How do you explain complex concepts to people who aren’t subject matter experts? They have to be able to make it understandable for everyone. Nobody wants to carry a dictionary around at work.
- Tell me about a time when you had to find common ground with a coworker whose personality differs from yours. This seems obvious, but isn’t for some. You’re preserving company culture, so significant flexibility and diplomatic discussion goes a long way.
To sum it up, the technical savvy will be way more obvious than the social savvy. Hold onto your company culture—it’s part of why your staff sticks around. Asking the right questions and clicking into the nuance of the answers is going to help you find people who add value and vibe to your team.
We know it’s not easy. (That’s why we’re so busy.)
TurnKey is able to not only determine technical expertise, we can tune into your unique company culture and work with you to find people who will add to it..
What is non-technical interviewing?
Non-technical interview questions help you learn about candidates beyond their technical skills. These questions give them a chance to describe their problem-solving skills, communication styles, and goals. Non-technical interviewing is the way to learn whether someone will be a fit with your unique company culture.
How does non-technical interviewing help determine culture fit?
When you learn how someone explains complex concepts to someone who isn’t a subject matter expert, you find out if they are condescending or comfortable helping people around them understand. When you ask someone how they recover from a missed goal or failed initiative, you learn whether they hold themselves accountable or if they’re negative and a finger-pointer. These are some of the day-to-day attributes that will either make or break a new employee’s ability to absorb and add to your company culture.
How can I tell if a candidate is motivated?
Determining if motivation exists will save you some frustration down the road. Different things motivate different people. Ask questions that help you understand why they do things, not just what they’ve accomplished. That will tell you what drives them, what causes them to stall out, and whether they just want to check a box or if they’re really energized around your product.
What determines a good culture fit?
That depends on your unique company. Do your teams thrive on energetic collaboration? Ask your candidate if they’re big on working with the entire team or if they like to work alone. Does your tech team enjoy hanging out at lunch or having fun together outside the office? Then some of your interview questions should revolve around camaraderie and team building. If you hear good answers that paint the person in a positive light, you are probably onto something.