Top Interview Questions to Identify Exceptional Programmers

4 min. read

When it comes to hiring exceptional programmers and software developers, you need a competitive edge. Exceptional programmers care about WHO uses and maintains their code. They care about the PROCESS, not just the PRODUCT. They care about shipping code to production with minimal chances of regression and are able to spot problems before they happen, because of their past experience. But how do employers find these so-called “unicorn” software developers and programmers?

There are many things to consider - their skills, their experience, and whether they'll be a good fit for your team, but one of the best ways we have found to uncover meaningful insights into a developer's skill level is to get them talking. And the best way to get a candidate talking is to ask the right questions and be a good listener. This blog will give you some helpful interview questions to identify exceptional software developers by understanding more about their methodology, programming style, and problem-solving approach.

1. Tell me about a recent project you worked on that you are proud of.

This question is simple, but it gives the candidate an opportunity to share a recent project and allows you the opportunity to further delve into their expertise with follow-up questions. We like to ask candidates to describe the project team, how many people worked within that team, and how they interacted throughout the project. Did they lead the project or just contribute? Did they interact directly with the client or end-user? Additionally, ask how they prefer to work within a project team. Are they silo contributors or thrive on team interaction? Discuss how that will translate and if that will be an ideal fit if the candidate decides to take a development role at your company.

2. How do you stay abreast of the latest technology news and announcements?

The best and brightest programmers want to know the latest news about their favorite tech stack, so this question should be easy for one to answer. For example, Angular developers might have a favorite blog or subscribe to an industry-specific newsletter. What about their favorite social media platform? What is the most recent tech conference or meetup you have attended or would like to attend?

By understanding how a developer keeps up with the latest technology trends, employers can get a better sense of their dedication and passion for their craft.

3. What is your favorite programming language and what do you want to learn?

Ask about a developer's favorite programming language and you’re sure to get an earful. People like talking about what they are passionate about and hopefully, this question can give you a sense of what kinds of projects and technologies they're most excited about. The key here is finding out what they want to learn. Continuous learning is a trait that sets apart exceptional programmers from the rest. Formal education shouldn’t be a requirement for hiring programmers because many of the best developers are self-taught.

Are they front-end by trade and enjoy learning and teaching themselves about back-end solutions? Tell me about the last coding boot camp or conference you attended. Are they versed in Python but curious about React development? Or maybe they’ve always wanted to program in NestJS? One characteristic of exceptional programmers is their eagerness to learn, so this question can be a very useful gauge to identify talent.  

4. What is your favorite unit testing framework?

Above-average programmers understand the importance of test-driven development. Performance and quality should be the big picture in their mind even before coding starts. We feel strongly that exceptional developers write their own unit tests or utilize one of the many unit testing frameworks to identify bugs and fixes before deploying code. Ask them about any processes they have experienced when shipping code to production. Were there verification layers in place to catch bugs before making it to production? What about having someone review their code before it's pushed? Did their previous team run integration tests or end-to-end tests before deployment? Knowing about their processes and previous work experience will you identify exceptional programmers from the rest.

5. What do you do when you can’t solve a problem?

Asking a candidate how they approached solving a particular problem is one of our favorite questions to ask. This question can help you get a better sense of how a developer thinks through difficult challenges to discover their methodology for solving tough problems. It also reveals whether a developer will ask for help or troubleshoot in their own way. Do they turn to Google to find answers? Do they pull out the documentation manual or start reading tutorials?

You want to avoid hiring a developer who ends up staring at a blank screen until your next stand-up meeting and giving excuses as to why they have been sitting idle. Learning more about their problem-solving approach will help you pick above-average programmers.  

6. Are you a Front-end or Back-end developer and which do you prefer?

This question will often yield a philosophical answer from an exceptional programmer. Both types of developers are vitally important, but dexterous programmers are exceptional. Developers are usually either Front-end or Back-end and rarely both. An exceptional back-end developer will appreciate the art of a good front-end design, and front-end developers wouldn’t exist without a skillfully built and maintained back-end API. It is useful to know which type of development work the candidate prefers, but appreciation for both front and back-end development is ideal.

Final thoughts

We aren’t saying this is a complete set of interview questions. We recommend having a skills assessment test and practical code reviews as part of the interview process, but we have found that these questions increase your chances of finding exceptional programmers.

Are you looking to hire an exceptional programmer?  Do you need help building a custom application or software development? Share your answers with us on Linkedin or Twitter.