My Worst Interview

A few years ago, I was interviewing for a software position at a large web startup and had the following conversation with a someone in HR during a phone screen:

Recruiter: We have a few preliminary questions we always ask to determine if a candidate will proceed.

Me: Sure.

Recruiter: Do you have J2SE?

Me: Yes, I've worked extensively with Java, Spring, and Hibernate making web applications for...

Recruiter: Yes, yes, but do you have J2SE?

Me: (realizing we were playing poor-grammar-buzzword-bingo) Yes.

Recruiter: Great. Next question.

Me: Ok.

Recruiter: We're looking for real rock stars here. How good are you at programming on a scale from 1 to 10? Just give me a number.

Me: If you just want a number, probably about a 6 or 7. (I had recently seen this Programmer Competency Matrix and fell squarely in "Level 2")

Recruiter: Well, we were really only looking for only 9's and 10's.

Me: Oh (stunned... waiting for the recruiter to make the next move)

Recruiter: Do you have any friends that are 10's that I could reach out to?

Me: You're asking me if I have friends who would rate themselves a 10 as a developer?

Recruiter: Yes, we're really looking for a star-hero developer. (You read right. A star-hero... like Mario)

Me: I wouldn't be comfortable doing that. Sorry. Good bye.

Needless to say, I was not asked back for an in-person interview. This is pretty much as classic as the Dunning Kruger effect gets in an interview. 

Both experiened hiring managers and experienced job seekers have worked with people who think they are much better than they are. Effective hiring managers don't expect candidates to evaluate their own skills on an arbitrary scale. They rely on the interview process, references, code samples, etc. Experienced job seekers are wary of interview processes asking you to self-evaluate your skills because they assume the current team has been evaluated similarly.

There's little (if not an inverse) corellation between people who think of themselves as the absolute best and those who actually are talented. The most effective people know that there's always plenty of room to grow.

Developers, talk to a VC before a recruitment agency

The demand for software engineers in startups is higher than ever. If you're a developer thinking about switching jobs, you have the freedom to aim high with what you expect from your job:

  • Do you want to have more of a product focused role or a more tech focused role?
  • Do you want to be more of a specialist or generalist developer?
  • Do you want to deal with big data?
  • Do you hope no one expects you to call yourself a rock star, ninja, or guru
  • Do you favor equity or salary compensation? 
  • Do you want a job that lets you work on open source software on the clock?
  • Do you want to work at a company that allows some remote work?
  • Do you want a job that allocates an education/conference budget for each developer?
  • Do you want to get as far away from the finance industry as possible?
You might think that it's so hard to find startups that meet your criteria that it may be worth it to talk to a recruitment agency, spell out your requirements, and let them do the work for you. Unfortunately, recruitment agencies don't work for you, the job seeker. They work for companies that pay them 20-30% of what your first year compensation will be.

What happens when you tell a recruitment agency what you want? They simply don't care. Even if they care, it doesn't serve them directly enough to understand your needs, so they focus only on how you fit into the molds set by their clients (the companies). They see you as a pay check, as "talent that can't go to waste," I've been told before. They will do whatever it takes to push you into a company desperate for engineers. Their incentives are never going to be in your favor and are often against the companies' interests too.

How can you get around this and find a great opportunity? Ask a VC about their portfolio companies. VCs work toward the success of their portfolio companies, not a paycheck based on a single hire. They care much more about quality of fit than recruitment agencies do, and they aren't going to make you jump through hoops just to find out the name of a company that is hiring.

The are two strategies to mix when talking to a VC about jobs:
  1. "I love this specific company in your portfolio. I have a background in ___, and I'm interested in doing ___ for them."
  2. "I have a background in ___, and I'm looking for an opportunity where I can ___ (or that allows me to ___). Do you have any portfolio companies like that?"
Basically, you need to quickly convey your skills and what specifically you're looking for. VCs don't have much time to spare, but they will make time for developers who know what they want. 

Here are a few VCs with portfolio companies that are hiring developers and how to contact them (If you're a VC and would like your email listed here, just shoot an email to

When you contact them, include the word "developer" in the subject line.

About Hirelite

Hirelite is on a mission to put headhunters out of business. We host speed interviewing events using video chat where 20 job seekers talk to 20 companies for 5 minutes each. If you're looking to evaluate the software job market or looking to hire, check out We currently host web events focused on NYC, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, and Boston.

Dear Developers, a "Free" Headhunter Will Cost You >$10k

Have you ever felt like a headhunter was stealing from you? Not literally taking money out of your wallet, but something just rubbed you the wrong way?

Well, it could be that your headhunter is doing sleazy things or it could be that they actually are costing you money. Here's how.

Headhunters who recruit software engineers get paid when they place a candidate that gets hired. Companies pay recruiters 20-30% of what the candidate will make in their first year at the company. For an experienced software engineer making $100k per year, a recruiter's fee would be $20k-$30k depending on their agreement with the hiring company.

What does this mean for you, the software developer who just received an offer?

As businesses grow, recruiting costs become a fact of life whether they come in the form of job posts, headhunters, or time spent networking. Over the past few months, I've talked to a lot of companies that are hiring developers (with and without headhunters). Of the companies that use headhunters that I've spoken to, about half of them are willing to pass along a portion of the anticipated recruiting budget to a new hire if that person comes to them without a recruiter. This willingness likely stems from the huge demand for software engineers right now, so your mileage may vary in different market conditions.

Next time you're doing a job search, approach companies directly through your network, through a job post, or through a company's website. When you receive an offer, you'll be in a position to ask for a larger salary or sign-on bonus if you know the company has a habit of using headhunters.


You receive an offer at a job where you will be specializing in Hadoop. (Almost every company I know of that uses Hadoop uses recruitment agencies). If you know that the company has a habit of using recruiters, try to determine who has the most visibility into the recruiting budget. This person will be your best bet for negotiating more money for approaching the company directly. At larger companies, this will be the HR representative who gave you the offer. At smaller companies, this is more likely a hiring manager or CTO.

Go to this person and tell them you approached their company directly because of how much you like the culture, people, technical challenges, etc (this part has to come from you). Then tell them that you understand how much recruiting costs can be for developers, and that you're happy to be saving them money. Then ask, "Would you be willing to take recruiting costs into account with my offer?"

Using this strategy, I've heard of one developer getting a $15k sign-on bonus, and another developer getting a 5% salary bump. With software engineers in such high demand, there's no reason why companies shouldn't pass along some of the money they save recruiting you if you go directly to them.

About Hirelite

Hirelite helps software engineers talk directly to companies by facilitating web-based "speed interviewing" events where developers video-chat with a series of companies for 5 minutes each. Our next event is this Monday, November 1st at 7pm EST. The companies attending are all NYC based, but we're accepting job seekers from around the US who would be willing to relocate.