3 Essential Ways for Engineers to Stand Out During the Startup Interview

Getting an offer for a startup technical position is hard.

Product and developer roles have always been competitive, and they are becoming more competitive as companies opt for remote cultures and expand their candidate pool.

So, how can you make yourself a stronger candidate and stand out in the startup interviewing process?

Shawn Vo, Co-Founder and CTO of fintech startup Denim, has some tips.

Between nearly a decade of experience working in financial consulting, building financial technology, and founding Denim, Vo has gleaned a wealth of knowledge on how engineers can impress hiring managers and differentiate themselves from other candidates.

In this article, we delve into three ways developers can leave a tremendous impression while interviewing at a startup.



1. Show You Possess Strong Technical Skills.

While fairly obvious, this first one can’t be overlooked. Do you have the skills to actually do the job?

In the startup space, things move fast. There’s not much time to teach new hires or bring someone up to speed who doesn’t have the relevant skills. Technical leaders will try to bring on team members who can hit the ground running.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need a CS degree. In fact, many startups are finding value in building their engineering teams from bootcamp graduates. What matters is that you’ve cultivated the technical know-how and that you’ll be able to fulfill the requirements.

Note to new engineers: This is the area Vo is least concerned about when it comes to hiring a developer. In general, he’s found that most candidates have the necessary technical skills. If they don’t, “we can train them as long as they fit our team culture and really want to do the job.”


How can you stand out?

Tip #1: Provide examples

Having a solid open-source presence goes a long way. If you can point to any examples of your work in the workplace or even cool projects on GitHub, you’ll be able to quickly prove you have the relevant skills. Bonus points if the work is a real-life project that’s in production.

Tip #2: Practice explaining your previous work

Before the interview, walk through your resume or technical portfolio and practice explaining the projects you’ve worked on. This will jog your memory on past projects and you’ll easily be able to bring up relevant examples during the interview.

Don’t forget to make sure you can articulate the why behind your work. Startup tech leaders will be impressed if you not only demonstrate you are capable of writing code, but also understand the purpose of your work.

Tip #3: Prepare for the tech assessment

If you don’t have many previous examples to point to, then doing well on any technical assessments will be even more important. Ali Spittel’s tips for acing the technical interview will be a valuable guide as you prepare.


2. Show You Genuinely Want the Job.

Hiring a new employee takes a significant amount of time. If a startup goes through the process of hiring an engineer only to find out that person doesn’t really care for the job, then the company is going to take a hit. They need to know you’re truly motivated and excited about the opportunity.

After all, they don’t just want to get you in the door.

These hiring managers will potentially become your co-workers – the people who you communicate and collaborate with daily. They want to make sure you’re going to enjoy the position, be able to grow and develop there, and be motivated to make a significant contribution.

On your end, you want to make sure this position is the right fit. After all, you’re interviewing the company just as much as they’re interviewing you. Research the mission, the core values, the problems their solving, and the people they’re helping. Get a feel for the work you’d be doing and whether you’d fit in with their team.

If you like what you learn about the company, then it’s time to convey your enthusiasm.

(Not sure what questions to ask? No sweat. We’ve compiled a list of 16 questions to ask while interviewing for a startup position.)


How can you stand out?

Vo recommends taking these steps to communicate you’re truly interested in working at this startup.

Tip #1: Research the startup

It’s one thing to say you’re interested in a position; it’s an entirely different matter to prove your interest by displaying a solid understanding of the company. Look up the story of how it was founded, what stage it’s in, how large the team is, who the target audience is, what product they’re building and which problems they’re solving.

Tip #2: Find out what to expect in the interview

Ask the startup hiring manager (or your recruiter) what the interview will cover. A lot of times startup interviews can vary in purpose and style, and the calendar invite won’t necessarily indicate what to expect. Reach out and ask them what the interview will encompass, who you’ll be speaking with, and how you can best prepare.

Tip #3: Know your interviewers

Research them on LinkedIn or look for an online portfolio. If they have projects on GitHub, then take a few minutes to check them out. You’ll likely find common ground or ways you can relate.

This research will help you prove that you care about them as individuals and want to get the most out of your conversation. If you can geek out about the same passions, then the interview will be way more fun for everyone involved!

It also ensures you’ll make the most of their time by asking the right person the right question.

Tip #4: Prepare Your Space (and Yourself) for virtual interviews

If you’re interviewing virtually, take a few minutes to prepare your office so it looks presentable. Test your video and audio set up. Put on a nice outfit, choose a comfortable chair, and have your resume handy.

It’s also helpful to remove any distractions by silencing alerts on your laptop and putting your phone on DND mode.

Tip #5: Arrive early for interviews

This extra time allows you to collect yourself and mentally prepare. You can also avoid showing up stressed because it took longer than expected to find parking.

If your interview is online, setting up early will help you relax and get in the right mindset.

Tip #6: Connect with others in the organization

Don’t just talk to the people interviewing you. Reach out to other engineers to get a feel for their tech culture. You can even connect with people from different departments to learn about the overall company.

If your interviewing team discovers you’ve been reaching out to others at the company, they’ll be impressed by how thorough your research is.

Tip #7: Over-communicate

Ask questions, both during and after the interview. Send follow-up emails. Respond to communication from the hiring team. Be sure to send a brief thank you email following each interview.

Strong communication will assure them that you’re serious about the position.


3. Show You’ll Boost the Company Culture.

“Culture-fit is a hill we’re willing to die on. Within a small team, one spoiled apple can ruin the whole batch. As soon as there’s a negative mentality, it spreads to the entire team.” – Shawn Vo

Vo explains that his team looks for new members who will succeed in the startup environment. Since their team is so small, it’s important that the people they hire bring value to the culture, instead of pulling it down.

For his team, that means finding someone who possesses curiosity, tenacity, transparency, empathy, and a team-first mindset. These are the traits that enable his team to thrive.


How can you stand out?

Tip #1: Research their core values

Before you even get to the interview, research the company’s values. Do you agree with them? Does the idea of pursuing them excite you?

If the answer is no, then you might want to keep looking.

If the answer is yes, then this company could be a great fit.

During the interview, mention the company’s core values and share examples of times you embodied those values.

Remember they’ll want to know that you are both passionate about the company’s values and that you’ll be able to drive their team culture forward.

Tip #2: Listen during the interview

You may think you’re supposed to do all the talking, but don’t underestimate the power of listening. Pay attention to the room, try to read the others, and respond accordingly.

By showing that you have the skills to listen and respond, you’ll indicate that you’re flexible, open to new ideas, and willing to hear differing opinions (all critical skillsets in the startup world.)



Standing out and progressing through an interview process is a skill that can be learned through practice.

If you don’t know where to start, begin by choosing one tip from each section. That’s three steps. Incorporate them into your job search and you’ll quickly start to stand out.

If you’ve already started the interview process, it’s not too late. You can still send a thank you email to those who have interviewed you so far. Then try sending a few connections to others within the company to show you’re serious about this opportunity. They’ll take note.

Happy interviewing!

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