16 min. read

March 15, 2021

The 7 Stage Interview

This is a cautionary tale to help newcomers entering tech identify warning signs and red flags of companies they should avoid, so you can identify toxic work environments in the interview stage and save yourself a lot of hardship.


Nadya Primak, Software Engineer

There was a consulting company I interviewed with for a developer position early in my career which suffered from serious indecision. I was working with a recruiter who helped me find this consulting company but I was often waiting weeks if not months for communication from them. There were multiple assessments that left me drained and feeling inadequate. It did a number on my self-esteem and also wasted a huge amount of time. 

The first interview set the tone and should have been a warning sign. Due to technical issues the company wanted me to call the interviewer on my phone while also connecting to video on my computer. I had gone inside a Target across the street from my job where I knew there was WiFi. What I hadn’t accounted for was that there was very poor cell phone reception because the Target was partially underground. When I realized this I had no choice but to go outside in the pouring rain and run down the street to a Panera. There I had another problem: the WiFi wasn’t working. After an incredibly frustrating half-hour, during which I got completely drenched, we ended up having to reschedule the call. 

After the initial interview, there was a technical interview scheduled which was probably the most humiliating technical interview in my entire life. Perhaps I should have expected this because the position was senior and I was in no way senior. However, their job description did not indicate a senior skill set requirement in any way. It simply stated that they wanted someone who was familiar with AngularJS, which I had been working with for almost a year. So I was a bit shocked when the interviewer grilled me on all sorts of advanced AngularJS concepts that I didn’t have the slightest clue about.

I’ve always struggled a bit more with terminology as a self-taught developer. It’s still probably my biggest gripe with the tech industry. Much like lawyers, developers tend to use all kinds of jargon that makes what they are talking about completely incomprehensible to the layperson. A lot of times the same terms are used for multiple different things depending on the context, which adds to the confusion. Things like “please demonstrate how to use dependency injection when defining a component,” can mean multiple different things depending on the context. In many cases, I had actually coded something along those lines, but I didn’t know the vocabulary.  

Whenever I got the answer wrong the engineer would just bluntly call me out on it. “No, that is totally wrong.” Or “how did you think that would work?!” He also seemed to get more exasperated with each question, acting like he was trying to think of the easiest questions and asking me to confirm how many years of experience I had as if he believed I was lying. 

Needless to say, I felt like garbage after the technical interview. Even though I tried to make up for every concept I did not understand, I had never had a developer make me feel like such a moron before. Shocked does not even begin to describe how I felt when I found out I had passed the technical interview. It felt like a cruel trick like they were telling me this so they could laugh at my reaction and humiliate me further. But no - it turned out I really did pass.

Typically after a technical interview and a phone conversation, you go to an in-person interview, but this company also wanted me to speak to a project coordinator to discuss other aspects of the job that were not Angular-specific. This interview went better than the first since the project coordinator was friendlier. That was until I discovered I was going to receive a take-home assignment as if the technical test wasn’t stressful enough. They gave me a mockup of a website and told me to write the HTML and CSS code to make a functioning version. It took me several hours, especially because I wanted to go above and beyond to make up for the technical test. By the time I finished, I had dedicated over 5 hours to the company and was only halfway through the process. 

Finally, they invited me for an in-person interview. At the time I lived in Virginia and the company was located in Maryland, a full hour’s ride on the metro. I had a lot of time on the way to think about the company and how I felt about the position. A creeping feeling of doubt had set in after my negative interview experience with the engineer so I decided to look up reviews on Glassdoor to see what other people had said. 

Doubt quickly turned into alarm as I read headlines like “RUN don’t walk from this place” and “threatens you with financial ruin.” I remember texting my recruiter mentioning these reviews and she was very dismissive, basically saying that you can’t trust Glassdoor because only people with extreme opinions ever post on there. Certainly, you have to take Glassdoor reviews with a grain of salt, but when there are more negative reviews than positive and many of them echo the same sentiment, I daresay it may not be worth the risk. What was the point of going through this long interview process if it wasn’t even a good job?

In the end, I listened to my recruiter because I wanted her to be right. This was in part because I was bored out of my mind at my current company and in part because I was very excited about having the opportunity to do both design and development. I was also nervous that I was going to lose the technical skills I had invested so much effort into learning because my current company was not giving me any assignments. 

The in-person interview set off even more alarm bells! One important person was missing. The director of the organization had something come up at the last minute and could not be there. The other interviewers, a UX designer and a project manager, kept stalling in the hope that he would arrive. There was a lot of tapping of pencils and small talk with glancing backwards at the door and checking their phones until they finally gave up. We started talking about the workload. The project manager said that there would be times when there was very little to do and other times when there was way too much to do, depending on how many government contracts were in the mix. He also told me that they worked in a matrix environment, a somewhat unusual structure where you have a different manager for each project you are assigned. Meaning there isn’t really one person you can go to that has your back — and creating more possibilities for miscommunication.

At the end of the interview, the project manager informed me that they would be setting up a phone call with the director so I could talk to him 1:1. Even my recruiter was annoyed by this point, telling me that it would be totally understandable if I was fed up with the process and wanted to look elsewhere. I considered her suggestion but eventually fell for the sunk cost fallacy. It felt like I had already invested so much time that getting out now would be a waste.

My chat with the director did not really involve a lot of deep conversation. As far as I could tell, he just insisted on screening every candidate for personality. He wasn’t technical so we mostly just discussed more details about the job. He seemed to look down on developers' contributions in general, calling it “grunt work” you had to do until you could get promoted and become a manager. Another red flag to add to my growing list, but I figured he was probably not someone I would need to interact with too often. 

You’re probably noticing a trend by now. No matter how many red flags I come across, I continued to find an excuse to dismiss them. The problem is that it's much more difficult to find a job when you are still new to the field. While I had a few jobs under my belt, most of them were short-term and I didn’t have a lot of interviewing experience. If I had ended up working at this company as my first dev job I probably would have considered leaving the tech industry. 

At this point, I’d racked up 6 interviews due to a combination of bad tech, poor communication, and general disorganization of the company. I had been stuck in the interview process for well over a month. This is with a recruiter who has the ability to call and pester them as often as she pleases, so without a recruiter, it probably would have been even longer. To this day, I do not know why they felt they needed a 7th interview, which consisted of speaking to the UX designer (again). All of us were outraged but in a way, it almost felt inevitable that there would be another stage. After all, they had demonstrated quite clearly how indecisive they were as an organization.

The UX designer was just as baffled as I was, telling me he didn’t think another interview was necessary either. He did ask me some new questions, mostly about my design experience which hadn’t come up as much because the focus had been on my technical skills. I was so sick and tired of it all that I just answered his questions as quickly as possible and tried to get to the point. Do you want to hire me or not? I was certainly a lot more patient than I should have been. 

The answer was yes, and at first, I was overjoyed. Such a relief after all that effort. That relief was short-lived because the reviewers on Glassdoor were right, and the company was incredibly toxic. I lasted there for 6 months. Shortly after that many of my coworkers were laid off because the company lost a huge contract. I couldn’t believe I had spent so much time and worked so hard to get a job offer for a position that I ended up staying at for such a short amount of time. 

Was it that bad for everyone? Naturally during my time working there I asked some of my coworkers about their experience. It turned out they did not have nearly so many stages! So then what could it be? The easy guess would be that it was my gender because it is harder in the tech industry for women. But other women I spoke to in the company didn’t experience the same level of nitpicking that I had. You could chalk it up to bad luck, but that is kind of a cop-out. My best theory is simply that I am not good at projecting outward confidence. It is the one biggest piece of advice I would give anyone reading this article. Your skill is not the most important attribute when you are interviewing. I had the skills, but that did not stop my interviewers from questioning me constantly. If you have the skills but lack the confidence, you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself.

To be clear, I am not dismissing the idea that my gender had something to do with my experience. I think if I had been a man who lacked confidence I probably wouldn’t have needed to go through a 7 stage interview. It is the combination of my lack of confidence with being a woman, where negative assumptions are made based on my gender that is reinforced by my lack of confidence, meaning I have to overcompensate by proving my skill over and over. I’m happy to say I’ve gotten better at showing confidence over the years. However, like all things in life, it is a work in progress.

Nobody likes wasting their time in the interview process. Especially when time wasted is compounded with added stress and self-doubt. Watch out for the warning signs so you never find yourself in the same position. Prolonged delays, unprofessional behaviour such as interviewers showing up late, lack of social skills or general disrespect, repeating questions that you’ve already answered, and multiple lengthy technical assessments are all red flags that should have you questioning whether it's worth it to continue interviewing with a company. 

Hopefully, with these tips, you’ll never have to experience anything like my 7 stage interview.