Top behavioral questions for software engineers and how to answer them

May 3, 2024

Interviewer posing with glowing question marks, software engineer concept

Picture this: You're sitting across a tech recruiter, and the conversation turns to your resume. They admire the depth of your credentials, commending that it stands out in a sea of AI-generated applications. Your expertise and educational background leave a lasting impression, as did your performance in a recent coding challenge.

However, the dreaded behavioral interview questions for software engineers await.

Have you ever considered the origins of these common questions posed to software engineers? In this article, we will unearth the root of these queries and strategise how to excel when answering them.

Table of Contents

Your worst enemy during job interviews: Stress 

Illustration of stress impact on software engineer interviews

The study “Does Stress Impact Technical Interview Performance?”  shows that stress negatively affects software engineers' performance during technical interviews, particularly in whiteboard coding sessions. It was found that engineers perform better in private settings than in public ones, indicating that audience pressure and the need to verbalize thoughts can impair problem-solving abilities.

While further research is needed to identify the precise causes of interview stress, casual reflections on personal and colleagues' experiences highlight common hurdles like impostor syndrome, expert evaluation, and personal issues before interviews.

Undoubtedly, stress is a constant in many software engineers' interviews. Recognising this, we can focus on developing effective strategies to manage and reduce interview stress.

Your weapon to fight back: Resilience

Graphic of a woman managing stress, engineering interview strategy 

According to the above study, candidates who exhibit resilience and effective stress management techniques under observation might perform better in traditional technical interviews.  

And here’s the silver lining of behavioral interview questions - they give you the opportunity to talk about your strategies for handling stress and anxiety, thereby demonstrating your ability to grow and adapt in demanding situations.

Therefore, this brings us to the three pivotal categories that form the basis of (almost) all behavioral questions for software engineers. 

The three categories of behavioral questions for software engineers

Circuit-themed questions over an audience, software engineer interview tips-2

In a 2019 study on software engineers conducted by researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington, findings revealed that recruiters prioritise these five attributes in software developers:

  • Coding competence
  • The ability to optimise the value of your work and those around you
  • Informed decision-making capabilities
  • The ability to enable others to make decisions efficiently
  • A commitment to continuous learning

With this in mind, let's reverse engineer these qualities to determine how recruiters can decipher if a candidate possesses these traits by asking ourselves:

 What questions should recruiters ask to discover if a candidate posesses any or all of the above qualities?
We identified three main categories of top behavioral interview questions for software engineers that can best provide insight into these qualities. Let's jump right in.

Category 1: Coding expertise and strategic execution

Software engineer pondering with a digital backdrop and question mark

In this category, recruiters are typically looking out for the following attributes:

  • Your competence as a coder
  • How you maximise the current value of your work
  • Your ability to make informed decisions

Here are some example questions based on this main topic and appropriate responses for a hypothetical situation involving tech recruiters. 

"What motivates you to join our organisation?"

Answer: I’m deeply inspired by your organisation’s mission to democratise education and provide tailored English content to empower individuals seeking better opportunities abroad. My passion for technology matches my belief in education as a transformative tool. I’ve been actively involved in developing adaptive learning systems using machine learning to personalise content delivery. This technical expertise and my volunteer work teaching English to non-native speakers align perfectly with your goal of creating impactful educational experiences. 

"Can you share your experience fixing a complex issue in the past six months?"

Answer: In a recent sprint, I was assigned to address a critical performance bottleneck in our RESTful API. The latency was unacceptable, especially during peak load times. By implementing a combination of Elasticsearch for faster data retrieval and Redis for caching frequent queries, I reduced the response time by 40%. This involved refactoring the data access layer and optimising the serialisation process of JSON payloads. 

"Can you describe a project you are deeply passionate about or where you performed exceptionally well?"

Answer: One project I’m particularly proud of is developing a real-time analytics engine for financial markets. I led the design and implementation of a low-latency processing pipeline using Apache Flink, which allowed us to process and visualise complex market data in near real-time. My contributions significantly improved decision-making for traders and resulted in a 30% increase in user satisfaction. 

"What have you had to advocate for in your past projects?"

Answer: In a past project, I had to advocate for adopting containerisation and orchestration to improve our CI/CD workflows. Demonstrating the benefits of Docker and Kubernetes convinced the team to transition from a monolithic architecture to a more scalable containerised approach. This shift streamlined our deployment process and reduced our cloud infrastructure costs by 25%. 

"What strengths do you believe are essential for this role?"

Answer: For this job role, I believe essential strengths include a solid understanding of software design principles, proficiency in multiple programming languages (such as Python, Java, and Go), and experience with DevOps tools (like Jenkins, Ansible, and Terraform). Additionally, strong analytical skills, the ability to work collaboratively in a team, and a passion for continuous learning are crucial to drive innovation and deliver high-quality software solutions.

The purpose of these questions is to assess how candidates:

  • Tackle challenging coding tasks.

  • Ensure the reliability and maintainability of their code.

  • Adapt their strategies in response to unforeseen issues.

  • Focus on delivering work that provides immediate value, ensuring quality and relevance.

  • Make decisions based on data, trends, and informed predictions to enhance the value of their work.

This method recognises the fundamental importance of technical skills while delving into the candidates' problem-solving approach and their ability to handle complex software challenges. 

Essentially, the focus is not on what you've coded but how you've done it.

Category 2: The apprentice's mindset

Open book with tech and nature elements, questioning concept

The qualities prioritised in this category are:

  • Your commitment to continuous learning

These behavioral questions aim to uncover candidates' dedication to personal development by exploring moments where they embraced new technologies or methodologies to overcome project challenges.

"What aspects of your work excite you?"

Answer: The most thrilling aspect of my work is the perpetual learning curve associated with devising sophisticated, scalable solutions to intricate challenges. I’m passionate about refining data algorithms to manage extensive datasets with utmost efficiency. Witnessing a system I architected seamlessly processing data in real-time and yielding practical insights via machine learning models is profoundly satisfying. Moreover, the dynamic of working collaboratively, where I can exchange ideas and cultivate my craft alongside peers who share my enthusiasm for software development, is something I eagerly anticipate.

"What elements of your previous job do you find frustrating?" 

Answer: In my previous role, what I found particularly frustrating was the lack of a robust approach to automated testing and continuous integration. This gap often led to unnecessary mistakes and delayed product releases. My commitment to continuous learning and improvement makes me a fervent proponent of the essential role that comprehensive testing frameworks and CI/CD pipelines have. They are not merely tools for maintaining code integrity but are pivotal in creating a development ecosystem that is resilient, agile, and continuously evolving to meet new challenges.

"What’s the most constructive feedback you’ve received in your career?"

Answer: During a code review, a senior developer pointed out that my use of synchronous I/O operations was causing thread blocking and suggested asynchronous patterns. I took this to heart and refactored my code using async/await patterns in C#, which not only improved performance but also made the codebase more maintainable. 

"Tell me about a task that required perseverance over several months."

Answer: The migration of our legacy monolithic application to a microservices architecture. Over several months, I led the effort to break down the monolith into individual services, each with its own Docker container. It was a meticulous process that involved redefining the API gateways, setting up service discovery, and ensuring zero downtime during the transition. The perseverance paid off when we saw improved modularity, scalability, and a significant reduction in deployment times. 

"Discuss a time-management skill you’ve learned and applied in the workplace."

Answer: That's easy. The Pomodoro Technique. I've maintained high productivity levels without burnout by breaking down my workday into focused intervals of work followed by short breaks. I’ve also applied this technique to manage team sprints, which has helped keep the team energised and on track with project milestones.

These questions assess a candidate's ability to navigate the rapidly evolving software development landscape. They confirm what is most important: the mindset of an eternal apprentice who is forever curious.

Category 3: Collaboration and team dynamics

Busy tech office scene with workers and central question mark

Qualities looked for in this category:

  • Your ability to foster collaboration and encourage efficient decision-making in others

Lastly, the ability of great engineers to positively impact their teams and projects suggests another valuable angle for behavioral interviews.

Candidates could be asked to describe situations where they facilitated team decision-making, helped resolve conflicts, or contributed to a project in a way that significantly improved team dynamics or project outcomes. 

"Can you describe an instance when you had to resolve a disagreement with a colleague?"

Answer: On a project to optimise our database systems, I disagreed with a colleague over whether to use NoSQL or traditional SQL databases. I advocated for NoSQL due to its scalability and performance with large, unstructured datasets. To resolve this, we conducted a series of benchmarks comparing MongoDB against PostgreSQL. The data showed that NoSQL was the better choice for our specific use case, and my colleague agreed to proceed with it. This experience taught me the value of data-driven decision-making in resolving technical disputes. 

"Can you recall a situation where you needed to persuade someone during a conflict?"

Answer: During a conflict over the choice of front-end frameworks, I had to persuade a team member to consider React over their preferred choice of Angular. I prepared a demo showcasing React’s simplicity and component reusability, which would speed up our development process. I also highlighted the vast community support and the future-proofing benefits. My colleagues were convinced when they saw how easily we could integrate React with our existing backend services. 

"Can you tell me about a time you disagreed with your supervisor?"

Answer: I once disagreed with my supervisor on implementing a new feature that required real-time data synchronisation across devices. My supervisor suggested a more traditional polling mechanism, but I was convinced that a WebSocket-based solution would provide a better user experience. I presented a prototype demonstrating the real-time capabilities and lower server load of WebSockets. After reviewing the prototype, my supervisor acknowledged the benefits and greenlit the WebSocket implementation. 

"How would your colleagues describe you?"

Answer: My colleagues describe me as a detail-oriented and innovative problem solver. They’ve seen me dive deep into JavaScript quirks to optimise our front-end code and refactor legacy Java services into efficient, modern Spring Boot applications. They know me as someone always eager to explore new technologies, such as experimenting with Docker to streamline our development environment, and as a person who is generous with time and knowledge when it comes to supporting the team. 

"How do you handle criticism of your work?"

Answer: I treat criticism as a crucial part of the development cycle. For example, when a peer reviewed my pull request and noted that my SQL queries could be vulnerable to injection attacks, I immediately revised them using parameterised queries. I incorporated ORM best practices to fortify the application’s security. 

This line of questioning assesses the candidate's soft skills to collaborate effectively and their potential to contribute to a positive and productive work environment.

Ace your next job interview with the STAR method

Software engineer with a laptop, structured interview approach concept

Software engineers can use the STAR method to structure their responses to behavioral  interview questions effectively. Here’s how you can apply it to the questions we provided in this post: 
  • Situation: Begin by setting the context for the story. Describe where you were working, the project you were on, or the particular challenge you were facing. This helps the interviewer understand the background and the environment in which you were operating. 

  • Task: Clearly define the task or the problem you were responsible for. This could be a technical issue, a team conflict, or a project deadline. Be specific about what was expected of you.

  • Action: Elaborate on the specific actions you took to address the task or solve the problem. This is where you can showcase your technical skills, such as debugging a complex issue, refactoring code for better performance, or implementing a new feature. Also, include soft skills like communication, teamwork, and leadership. 

  • Result: Conclude with the outcome of your actions. Highlight the positive impact, such as improved system performance, successful project delivery, or enhanced team collaboration. If possible, quantify the results with metrics or feedback received. 

Put the STAR method into practice

For example, in the query, “What’s the most constructive feedback you’ve received in your career?” let’s analyse how we answered it using the STAR method: 

  • Situation: “During a code review…”
  • Task: “… a senior developer pointed out that my use of synchronous I/O operations was causing thread blocking and suggested asynchronous patterns.”
  • Action: “I took this to heart and refactored my code using async/await patterns in C#...”
  • Result: “...which improved performance and made the codebase more maintainable.” 

This method allows software engineers to provide structured, coherent, and comprehensive answers that demonstrate their true experience and value to potential employers.

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This post was written by: Raphael Santos, Content Marketing Coordinator