Careers advice

What do employers look for software engineers? Tips from Trade Me's Head of Engineering

Some advice from our Head of Engineering.

Great software engineers have been in demand in NZ for years, and this trend is only being intensified by the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With New Zealand’s borders closed, companies are willing to go to great lengths to secure the best IT and tech talent. In other words, it’s a great time to be an engineer.

However, savvy professionals in this sector are aware of these trends, meaning it’s very possible we’ll see serious competition for jobs at great NZ companies.

So, how can you make yourself stand out? To learn what employers look for in software engineers, we spoke to Amir Mohtasebi. Amir is the Head of Engineering in the Consumer Experience and Marketplace department here at Trade Me. Here’s what he looks for when making additions to his team.

What employment experience do you look for?

“It’s different from project companies to product companies to service companies to agencies,” Amir explains.

At product companies like Trade Me, he says, the job isn’t just about releasing code by a specific deadline and then forgetting about it. “We care about several things that aren’t 100% technical. For example, customer intimacy, working with product and design teams to refine the product, and the culture are all really important to us,” Amir says.

Of course, coding ability is important too, he says. Candidates need to hit certain criteria in the job description to get hired, but Amir says: “That’s only half of the story, equally important are things like stakeholder management, working with other teams, and customer intimacy.”

When it comes to customer intimacy, Amir explains: “You can see that some people really care about the customer, and apply for the role specifically because they want to make the community better.” It's common for engineers at Trade Me to attend user testing sessions to listen to customers and discover their principal pain points. This allows the team to have these concepts in the back of their minds when they’re developing solutions to common customer problems.

Teamwork and communication skills are just as important as coding ability for many modern companies.

What soft skills do you look for in someone applying to be part of your team? And how can a candidate demonstrate these?

Amir believes that the most important soft skills for software engineers are the ability to work effectively in a team, communication, and conflict resolution.

“It’s really important, in a strong team, to focus on the goal and purpose of what you’re doing. Sometimes, this means people have strong opinions. This can be a really positive thing, people can have disagreements, but they need to be able to talk these out and find a solution that’s aligned with the overarching goals,” he says.

Is there anything a candidate absolutely should or shouldn’t include on a software engineer cover letter/CV?

“It’s not an ideal situation, but often hiring managers are dealing with many different applications, so they have limited time, and it’s important candidates remember this and keep things short and relevant,” Amir says. “Please don’t list 25 different types of software you’ve worked with at the top of your CV. Instead, do your research – what technologies does the company use? Only mention these.” This means you can’t use the same cover letter or CV to apply to two different jobs at different companies, you’ll need to tweak them each time to highlight how your skill set fits the company's needs.

"Please don’t list all the different types of software you’ve worked with at the top of your CV, especially if they’re outdated.”

Amir’s second key piece of advice is to put more focus on the outcome of your work, rather than your output. There are some exceptions to this, for example if you’re applying for roles where speed and deadline hitting tend to be core attributes. However, generally, companies will want to know what impact your work had, rather than the volume of code you created.

Finally, Amir comes back to the importance of soft skills. “Some engineers completely remove soft skills from their CV,” Amir tells us. “But, as a hiring manager in a good company, soft skills are as important, if not more important, than technical skills. If you have something different you can bring to the team, from a product, project management or agile point of view, you should mention it.”

Do you have any questions you particularly like asking in job interviews?

Amir says there are three question responses he’s always particularly interested in from candidates:

  1. Which company did you have the biggest impact in, and why?

The idea behind this question is getting the candidate to talk about outcome over output. It’s also a good way to get the person to detail projects or achievements they’re particularly proud of.

  1. Do you think your values align with our company’s?

Before the interview, Amir sends candidates a pack including details of Trade Me’s core values so the candidate can review these prior to coming in.

“We’re careful with this one. We don’t want to rule out people who bring new values to our company, but also it’s important for both sides to understand there aren’t any clashes in respective beliefs and values,” says Amir.

  1. Why did you choose our company?

This question is the perfect antidote to the standard job interview questions based around technical competencies (which Amir also asks!). It allows the head of engineering and the other interviewers to see what motivates the candidate – is it around the technologies we use, the products we build, or the community of members we’re trying to support?

Be prepared to talk about why you want to work for their company.

Do you set tasks as part of the interview process?

It depends on the role in question, Amir says.

“For entry level engineering roles, we don’t tend to give them a task, the interview is more about understanding their ability to learn, and how quickly they can pick up how things work at our company,” he explains.

For intermediate and senior positions, candidates might be asked to do a basic coding exercise, or given a hypothetical situation to approach and solve as they see fit. “We tend to give people tasks to do at home, because we don’t want to put pressure on them, and then we discuss their approach in the interview,” Amir says.

What might raise a red flag to you about a candidate in an interview?

Amir starts by saying that an open mind is key for interviewers when meeting candidates, so there aren’t heaps of red flags. However, a couple of things he watches out for include:

“If the candidate is only addressing one person on our interview panel, that can alert us,” Amir says. He explains that, when interviewing candidates, he always tries to have a diverse panel, in terms of both technical abilities and demographics. So, if the candidate is only interacting with one member, he’d be keen to understand why that is. It’s important for Amir that members of his team are able to work with people from different backgrounds, and with different specialties, so the team fit is crucial.

Another potential problem can be if it becomes apparent that the candidates values aren’t aligned with the business’ “If we see that someone’s values aren’t aligned, we’re very open about this in front of them. We need to make sure that both parties are happy from a value alignment perspective, to ensure we’re not contradicting each other.”