Have you ever been in a job interview where someone has said, “Tell me about yourself”?

How did you react?

Were you caught off guard?

Did you start talking only to realize a few minutes later that you were rambling and needed to quickly figure out how to wrap it up?

Well, there’s a better way to respond than just winging it.

When an interviewer meets you for the first time, they’ll want to get to know you beyond what’s on the piece of paper in front of them. Sure, your resumé should tell a story, but in a different way than having an in-person conversation with you will. That’s why it’s important to prepare for this type of question when you’re interviewing for a new role.

This question comes in many forms. It can be as open-ended as “Tell me about yourself” or as specific as “What made you decide to learn to code?”. There’s a wide range, which is why having a great answer in your back pocket is important.

Answering this type of question well shows your interviewer that you can communicate and it gives them a sense of who you are. It’s an opportunity to let your personality shine and give them a bit more info about your background. You have to be able to sell yourself and talk about the great work you’ve done, but without bragging. Interviewers want to make sure you have the technical skills required for the job, but they also want to make sure you’re a good fit for the role, team, and company. Being able to tell your story well is the perfect opportunity to showcase why you are!

Additionally, if you’re someone making a career transition into engineering, whether self-taught or from a bootcamp, you bring a unique perspective to the table, and it’s important to highlight that. The fact that you’ve chosen to take the leap into learning a challenging new skill says a lot about you already – you’re likely someone who works hard and has the grit needed in order to handle the copious amounts of frustration that comes along with programming. On the flip side, if you’ve been coding since you were six years old, that’s also a great story!

Your story

So, how do you craft the perfect answer to this question? You want to take your chronological work history and turn it into a riveting “about you” pitch that highlights the right things. This is often called an elevator pitch because it should be about the length of an elevator ride.

To demonstrate, I’ll use myself as an example. Before I decided to learn to code, I worked in the fashion industry. While I learned a lot over the course of several years and a few different jobs, I found that my learning quickly plateaued, and realized I wasn’t truly enjoying the work I was doing. This motivated me to make a career change; since I have a lot of friends who are engineers and was often around them, I thought learning to code would be an exciting shift.

So, here’s what I could have said when interviewers asked me why I wanted to become a software engineer:

“Well, I was working in the fashion industry, and I didn’t really like it. I had kind of fallen into it, and I didn’t see much of a future in the industry for myself. I found my job boring, I wasn’t learning anything new, and I didn’t like the work I was doing. I also wasn’t making very much money and felt I could barely make ends meet. I decided I needed to do something different that would open up more opportunities for my future and career. I have a lot of friends who are engineers, and was always interested in what they were talking about when I overheard their conversations about work, so thought I’d give coding a try.”

Now, there’s a lot of truth to this answer, and it isn’t all bad. But, I can definitely improve it to tell a more compelling story. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t enjoy about my past experience, I’m instead going to focus on how the skills I gained will help me in my new industry. This is a simple shift, taking something that I originally described somewhat negatively and putting a positive spin on it. While it’s important to be honest, it’s also important to highlight the positive aspects of your career transition rather than dwelling on the negative. You don’t want to come off as someone who is always walking under a storm cloud in an interview. You want to be excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity.

Here’s a revised version of my pitch:

“Before learning to code, I worked in the fashion industry as a product developer. I learned a lot about physical product development, but realized that I wanted to be the one making things rather than coordinating outside vendors. To me, learning to code seemed like a great opportunity to learn a new set of skills for making and building things, just using a different medium. And, due to my prior experience, I have a great understanding of what goes into making a fantastic product (previously men’s and women’s apparel), which allows me to bring a unique perspective and appreciation for great product and design thinking to my engineering work.”

As you can see, this version of my pitch is quite a bit different. I tried to focus more on the positive aspects of my former career and what I could bring from those experiences into my new role. I also left out the negativity about my job being boring, not learning, and my low pay.

Over the last few years and several interviews, I’ve had the opportunity to refine my pitch again and again to make it a more compelling story. Here’s the version that I like to tell people today:

“Before learning to code, I studied fine art and worked in the fashion industry as a product developer. In my past roles, I was in coordinator type positions. I was doing well, but quickly realized that I wanted to be in a do-er role. My initial fascination with programming began with the browser – I wanted to build websites and create fun interactions using Javascript. As a formally trained artist, I am naturally a do-er and maker so I view programming through an artist’s lens: to me, learning to code is like learning a new medium. My prior experience allows me to bring a unique perspective and appreciation for great product and design thinking to my engineering work. I love working with product managers to build features to spec and working with designers to make features pixel perfect.”

This version takes the good parts of the second draft, but brings them to life by adding additional backstory and color. Both of these versions are useful depending on the siutation and audience.

Action Steps

In crafting your own story, here are my three suggested action steps:

1. Write a draft

2. Refine it!

3. Practice and polish


1. Write a draft

Think about a very basic story for yourself and just get it out there! It can be a really bad first draft or a really lengthy description of your work history. It doesn’t matter, just do it. You could explain what you were doing prior to learning to code, and what first got you into coding. Was it a specific language? Did you just want to build websites? Did you want to learn how to analyze data? Whatever it was, just write a short paragraph like I did above. It’s much easier to edit than to write, so focus on writing your basic pitch without worrying how it sounds. You’ll have plenty of time to improve it during the editing process!

2. Refine it!

Once you’ve written a first draft, take some time away from it, then come back to your draft and tighten it up. Cut out the fluff, and keep what counts. If you notice a negative tone anywhere, think about how you can flip the tone to be positive and figure out how you can inject more passion into your story. Are there any specific details that will make your story more compelling? Think about what you can highlight from your past experience too. Are there any skills that you learned in prior jobs that will help you excel in programming? For example, are you super detail oriented or passionate about design? Figure out how to work what’s unique about your perspective into your pitch.

3. Practice and polish

Practice telling your story! Practice in front of a mirror or with a friend. This will help you work out the kinks, edit it down, and polish it up! Practice until the point where you’ve almost got it memorized and it flows naturally – you don’t want to sound like you’re just reciting a speech from an index card. Practice until you feel like you’ve got a tight and compelling story to tell when someone says, “Tell me about yourself.”

Conclusion

As you can see, with a little bit of time, patience, and practice, I was able to take my negative, lackluster story and turn it into a much more positive, engaging pitch, perfect for interviewing. Regardless of whether or not you’re currently interviewing for a new job, it’s important to be continuously refining and updating your pitch, as there are other scenarios where it can be useful like attending a conference, meetup, or networking event.

What’s your answer when an interviewer says “Tell me about yourself”? Do you enjoy or dread answering this type of question? Has this post helped you craft or update your story? I’d love to hear about it! Email me at jane@fullstackinterviewing.com.