Technical Assessment Styles in Engineering Interviews

Technical Assessment Styles in Engineering Interviews

Technical interviews gauge a job candidate’s technical skills. Every engineering jobs require different skills, and so every interview is unique. Despite this, all technical interviews are essentially a series of assessments.

Generally, every assessment can be categorized into one of the three styles, each with its advantages and disadvantages. It’s common for interviewers to use a combination of assessments at various interview stages.

The three technical assessments styles

In technical engineering interviews, assessments can be boiled down to one of the three styles:

  • Presentation
  • Short-answer
  • Explanation

What makes each style unique is its goal and how it challenges the candidate.

Presentation

Technical presentations assess how well a candidate can express complex, technical topics.

Presentations for technical interviews:

  • Are assigned ahead of time, a few days before the interview
  • Usually have a set time limit
  • Sometimes offer flexible with the technical topic
  • May require visual aids such as a slide deck or pamphlet

If you are given the freedom, choose topics that you are very familiar with, such as previous projects. This is because follow up questions are almost always part of the presentation and you need to be comfortable with your topic.

Examples of presentation-style assessments

  • You are assigned a case study and must present your findings during the interview
  • You are asked to prepare a presentation on a technical topic of your choice
  • You are must design a solution for a given problem and propose it as an elevator pitch

Short-answer

Short-answer questions are purely knowledge-based questions.

These questions are like trivia because they have a “you-know-it-or-you-don’t” element to it. If you don’t know the answer right away, you won’t be able to answer it.

These questions are often asked by non-technical interviewers. Answers can easily be verified with the help of an answer key provided by their technical colleagues.

Since the interviewers who ask these questions are often technically unqualified, short-answer questions can be very frustrating for several reasons. For one, if there are ambiguities in the question, the candidate can rarely ask for clarification. Also, in the rare case where the answer key is incorrect, it would be difficult to correct the interviewer.

While short-answers are quick and simple, they are not the best judge of one’s technical abilities. Thus, heavy reliance on short-answer technical questions should be considered a red flag.

Examples of short-answer-style assessments:

  • “What is the definition of […]?”
  • “List 3 examples of […]?”
  • “What is the keyboard shortcut for the command […]?”
  • “What does the acronym […] stand for?”

Explanation

Explanation questions gauge critical thinking and the ability to work under pressure.

This style has both elements of presentation-style and short-answer-style. Similar to a presentation, these questions require you to go in more detail about a technical topic and may come with follow up questions. Like the short-answer questions, the topic is not given ahead of time so you will need to draw from the knowledge you already have.

The topic of explanation question can range anywhere from hypothetical case studies to details on your resume. The special thing with explanation questions is that there often isn’t one right answer.

When answering these questions, walk through your thought process out loud. Many times, the interviewers will guide you in the right direction or question your thought process if you’re straying too far from the main point. For advanced technical questions, writing down details can help a lot as well. Don’t be scared to jot down the question, many interviewers will encourage it.

Examples of explanation-style assessments

  • You are given a problem and must write the solution out on a whiteboard
  • “What was the most challenging problem you solved while working on the […] project?”
  • “What material would you recommend for […] and why?”

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