Prepare for the Software Engineering Phone Interview

These days, many of the large tech companies that people are aspiring to work for, are following a very similar recruitment process that is split up into multiple steps that slowly filter down the applicants to a few final ones.

This process usually looks something like this:

  • Phone Interview
  • Coding Challenge (Either live or using online tools)
  • Engineering Interview(s)
  • Partner/Manager/Team Leader Interview

The steps can vary slightly, but in almost all cases they will always start off by a phone interview with some HR or recruiter where they will give you an introduction and overview of the application process, and you will get a chance to feel each other out and to see if it is a good match or not.

The phone interview itself is rarely challenging and it’s not something that you have to feel intimidated by. It’s usually not even an engineer that is conducting it, so you don’t need to fear some complex technical challenge at this step in the process.

But even though it’s not challenging, there are many things that you should prepare for to make sure that you give the correct impression, get a good start of the process and that allows you to get the correct and proper information of the rest of the process, so that you can prepare properly.

Prepare Your Resume

Since this is an introduction and a first step in the recruitment process, there is a high chance that you will talk about your previous experiences, your education, and your general skills to get an understanding of who you are and what you’re capable off.

Normally the HR is already familiar with your resume, that’s usually the reason to why you got called into a phone interview in the first place, but they are going through tons of resumes and they might not have done a proper deep dive. This is the time where they will probably ask you about things that might not be clear, and to get a good understanding of your previous experiences.

Make sure that you have a copy of your resume next to you during the interview, and go through it ahead of time so that you remember all the details that you’ve written down on it.

What Did You Do? What Did You Learn? What was Difficult?

If you’ve written a decent resume, it’s probably just a single page and it gives a short summary of the companies that you’ve worked at, the technologies that you’ve used and the responsibility and titles that you’ve had.

This might be enough to give a good impression, but in the interview, you are expected to be able to talk more about your experiences than just a few words listed on your resume. Make sure that you create a secondary, private document that you keep with you during the phone interview where you’ve written down the answer to the following 3 questions, for each one of your previous experiences:

  • What did you do?
  • What did you learn?
  • What was difficult or challenging?

For example, the notes of one of the previous positions that I’ve had might look something like this:

What did you do?

  • Ownership of the asynchronous communication using Message Queues between services in a distributed system.
  • Ownership of all DevOps Tasks such as Continous Integration, Continous Deployment, Containerization, and Monitoring.
  • Mentored team members by conducting team seminars in topics such as Unit Tests, 12 Factor Methodology, Docker and Frontend Asset Bundling.

What did you learn?

  • Learned that in future projects where data requirements are vague, we should first finalize and get a good understanding of the data structure before we start building dashboards, tools, and solutions for this data.
  • Was able to expand my knowledge within the field of Data Science and Machine Learning.

What was Difficult or Challenging?

  • Working with a legacy code base that required major refactoring.
  • Scaling the service within the limits of infrastructure and budget that we were given.
  • Remote work with 12-hour time difference made communication difficult.

Imagine that you do this for every position that you list on your resume. This requires pretty deep thinking on your own part and requires you to analyze your own work and abilities. By doing this you will be able to give detailed and informative answers to the interviewer instead of just be rambling and searching for words.

When they ask you what you did, you can list the things you did to them with confidence. When they ask you what was challenging, you can give them a straight answer without sounding arrogant and claiming that nothing was difficult.

Finally, after you’ve answered all of these 3 questions I also suggest that you answer a final one, which one of your professional experiences are you most proud of? This is a reoccurring question that I’ve heard many times, and it is a great opportunity for you to shine with a prepared and thoughtful answer.

Prepare Your Requested Compensation

Answering questions about compensation or salary can feel like navigating a minefield and it can often lead to some anxiety if improperly answered. Did I ask too low? Did I ask too high? Will they take advantage of me?

There are plenty of discussions out there on the internet of how you should actually answer these type of questions. Should you give a range? Should you let them give the initial offer and then you just respond to that?

No matter how you prepare to answer the question, you must at least have a good understanding of what you’re aiming for and what you personally feel is fair. If you don’t know that, and you haven’t prepared for it, it can quickly get awkward and uncomfortable to talk about such a topic.

I suggest you do the following:

  • Look at Glassdoor for what a reasonable salary is. Remember to filter for city, company, and seniority.
  • If you will be relocating, do proper research of the living expenses within that city. This can obviously be very difficult when you relocate to another country where you have no concept of what is “good” or not, so make sure that you spend time on it.
  • Think of compensation in broader terms than just salary. Think of things such as Health Insurance, Stock Options, Bonuses and other benefits that could be included in the compensation package. Perhaps you could accept a slightly lower salary if you had great benefits?

So back to the question of how you answer questions that is regarding compensation. My preferred choice is to give a range. This leaves the door open for negotiation in the future and it’s vague enough that you’re not “locked in” to whatever number you’ve said.

It’s worth to note that there will probably not be a deep discussion of compensation during the phone interview, but the topic might come off and they might just want to get a feeling of what you’re thinking in terms of compensation so that they can filter you out immediately if the number is way off from what they are expecting.

Prepare YOUR Questions

Obviously, the main reason why you’re conducting the interview is that the company want to ask you questions to determine if they want to hire you or not. You are the one applying to them (in most cases).

This does, however, not mean that you should not ask questions back. Especially about the position that you’re applying for and the future steps of the interview process that you’re about to embark on.

Personally, I can feel quite a lot of anxiety when going through an interview process because of all the unknowns. What are they expecting of you? Will they ask you questions about AI and Machine Learning even though you’re experience is mostly related to Web Applications? Will they give you crazy difficult Code Challenges that you have to solve live in front of a jury of your peers?

All of these questions and the anxiety that comes with them can usually be solved and answered by preparing good questions that you can ask your interviewer during the first phone interview. This will make sure that you understand what is ahead of you, what is expected of you, and what the role that you’re applying for really entails.

Great questions to ask might be:

  • What is the timeline of the interview process? Are they expecting you to do the next interview right away or are you allowed to take weeks (or sometimes even months) to prepare?
  • Can they give you a deeper explanation of the role itself and the team that you will be working with? What technologies are they using? What are the normal responsibilities for the engineers in that team?
  • If it’s a relocation position, what is their timeline for relocation? Do they expect you to relocate immediately or are they OK with taking things slower and allowing you to take your time and settle your business in your existing city and perhaps work remote before you do the relocation?
  • How do they determine the level of position or title that you will get? Are you already applying for a certain level or will they reevaluate you throughout the interview process and place you at a different level than initially expected?

All of these questions are things that I’ve personally asked in different to different interviewers. They have given me comfort and confidence to continue forward without having to worry about all the unknowns that might pop up during the process of applying to a new company.


Even though the phone interview might not be particularly challenging and you might feel confident that you will pass, it is still a great opportunity for you to give an impression and to get a great start on the process that you have embarked on.

It is also a perfect opportunity for you to get your own answers which in turn will help you reduce any stress or anxiety coming from your end during the application stages ahead.