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I'm about to do my first phone interview in a few days (I'm the one who is being interviewed), and am wondering about how to approach it (how to prepare, what to expect, and so on...). The job is for a software engineer.

How do these things usually go? What would you advise for someone about to do a phone interview?

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Don't drink prior to the interview. –  Neil May 16 '11 at 8:51
@Neil, non-alcoholic beverages are hopefully ok? –  user1249 May 16 '11 at 13:04
Have a back-up plan. Once I had a phone interview that I had to do on my cellphone and that was the one day when my provider was having major issues and dropping calls like crazy. Have Skype with some credit on the account or a backup line handy just in case. –  Anna Lear May 16 '11 at 13:55
@Thorbjørn: not unless you're willing to say "hold on a sec, need to go to the loo" to the interviewers ;-) –  vartec May 16 '11 at 13:56
I would say no to drinking coffee, but it's of course your preference. I think the interview makes me nervous enough without being loaded with caffeine. –  Neil May 18 '11 at 13:16

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Excellent advice on phone interviews for software engineers has been distilled into five questions by Steve Yegge, he once wrote a rather extensive piece on it (based on his own experiences): The Five Essential Phone-Screen Questions.

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"Steve Yegge" and "wrote rather extensive" is a tautology :) –  Benjol May 16 '11 at 10:10

Other useful advice borrowed from telesales. Stand up while you're talking to them and smile for as much of the interview as you can. They can't see you, but it changes your voice and instils energy, confidence and cheeryness. It might sound daft, but people can hear you smile even if they don't register it as that.

As for what to expect. It will be a screening exercise mainly, they usually just blast you with technical questions relevant to the job with the intention of spotting chancers.

It's fairly time critical, so don't hesitate, if you really don't know the answer, say so and move on, if you know most or some of the answer, don't waffle, try and get as much of the answer out as possible.

And keep smiling.

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Standing up and working for 30 mins at least? no thanks. Better relax in a comfy chair. –  quant_dev May 16 '11 at 11:29
+1 for "stand up". I do that on regular phone calls at the office too; oddly, it does indeed give a different perspective (and not just because I can see over the cube walls!) –  sdg May 16 '11 at 12:38

For all the phone interviews I have done for an entry level programmer they usually ask you some basic questions about concepts in general, features in your language, your background with other technologies, and some behavioral questions.

From my experience they usually last about an hour and usually consist of drilling in you a variety of areas covered below. If you know when your interview will take place, I recommend you have the area cleared of all distractions (kids, loud noises, cellphone). I also recommend if you get nervous being put on the spot, print out some practice questions and have a friend or family member practice drilling you on those questions.

OOP: What is a class, interface, abstract class, inheritance, polymorphism,encapsulation ... etc.

Design patterns: Can you name a design pattern and when you would use it?

Algorithms: What is the difference between merge sort and quick sort? What is Big 0 notation?

Language specific questions: What is a delegate? Can you tell me how many bytes an int uses? Can you tell me what keyword X does in this language?

Behavioral questions: How do you go about solving problems? Do you brute force it or do you Google it? Do you like working alone or with a team?

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  1. Use a landline, cell phone call quality is still sub-par.
  2. Have a quiet room just for yourself.
  3. Have some paper and pens at hand.
  4. Don't count on looking up stuff online/in books while you're talking - it's quite easy to tell on the other side.
  5. Don't be afraid to ask them to repeat their questions.
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"cell phone call quality is still sub-par"??? –  vartec May 16 '11 at 13:58
@vartec: In my neck of the woods, cell phone coverage is spotty at best. I expect to lose about 1/4 of every conversation I have on my cell. And (purely subjectively), I really dislike the sound quality of every cell phone I've ever used. YMMV, of course. –  PSU May 16 '11 at 15:03
@PSU: I'm fine with "in some areas coverage is sub-par", but I do not agree at all with statement, that it's generally sub-par. At home I get 5/5 for 3.75G signal, call quality on mobile is much better than landline. –  vartec May 16 '11 at 15:43
OK: it's sub-par in the centre of London. –  quant_dev May 16 '11 at 21:14

There are two types of phone interviews:

  1. The HR "can he string a coherent sentence together" interview
  2. The Technical "is it worth everyone's time to bring this guy in" interview

In my experience the HR phone interview is rather short. They will ask you some basic HR style questions to get a quick feel about you and if you're a good fit for the company. Speak clearly and confidently. Ask a few questions yourself about the company culture, dress code and the like.

The technical phone interview is slight more tricky. In my experience they are longer, about a half hour to an hour sometimes. They ask a series of questions designed to see what you know. There might be a longer problem solving problem, but probably not as difficult as what you'd experience in an in person interview.

For this interview I'd suggest you have a pen and some paper ready. The person you're interviewing with is probably someone you'll be working closely with, so try and communicate as much as possible.

Phone interviews are harder b/c you lose the body language element, so you have to make sure you communicate clearly what you mean when you speak.

For either interview I'd suggest keeping your resume and a pen and some paper close at hand. Also, find a quiet room where you can talk at a normal voice and they will be able to hear you. Talk with your head up and clearly so that you don't sound like you're mumbling.

Again, being confident and collected is the way to go. Answer the questions to the best of your ability, don't ramble or mumble and ask your own questions at the end.

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