Lessons Learned from Conducting more than 200 Technical Interviews

Too often we find a team leader or a manager and just expect they’ll be able to hire new employees effectively. After all, they’re successful, they should be able to clone themselves, right?

Hiring is a skill that needs to be developed. It’s not just the interview, though. It’s the marketing of the job, the job description, the process and interview, the followup and the on-boarding of the employee. Hiring is a whole discipline in itself. Each of these areas warrants its own entry, but we’re just going to focus on the interview process for this one.

I’ve been hiring developers for the last decade. During this time, I’ve hired for various levels of positions at a few different companies. My most recent position has really upped the number of interviews because we have double digit job openings. As I’ve worked to help others come into the fold of interviewing for our company, I realized there are a lot of things that I now take for granted. But after more than 200 interviews (honestly, I’ve lost count), I’ve learned a few things that I think are worth sharing.

It’s About Empathy

When people start hiring, it’s common to see the power dynamic shift drastically. Suddenly, it’s all about the high-hand against this incoming newbie. There’s a subtle and maybe even unconscious bias that is developed. “I am secure, I am powerful, and you’re lucky to come join my company. I am the gatekeeper, grovel to me.”

Remember, you were here once.

I can think of many times I’ve messed up an interview. Yet, I was accepted as a valued employee anyway. The same thing probably has happened to you at some point. You should be considering this new applicant with an empathetic spirit. Show respect. Remember and understand that they’re nervous. You’ve been here, did you always hit it out of the park?

The next time you interview for an open position (or if your memory is great), think about this: would you rather work with someone who came along side of you, or who wanted you to fail? Hiring is about finding the right person, moving them in, not destroying them and proving why they’re wrong. That leads me to my next point actually quite well.

Be Success-Focused

Hiring shouldn’t be about searching out failure or trying to disqualify people. (Maybe this idea developed years ago when there was a glut of applicants for positions, but that isn’t the case anymore either. We have many more open programming positions than we have candidates. But even so, that shouldn’t matter.) If you’re searching for failure, you’re likely to find failure. You can see hints of this when you find yourself doing a knee-jerk reaction to something in a candidate’s interview. Maybe you’re looking at the code and think “I wouldn’t do that” or you hear an answer and think “that’s a dumb way to solve it.” That’s an indicator that you’re being failure-focused.

Success comes in many forms: alternative skillsets, potential, etc. We want a successful person for the position, for the company, but if you think you know exactly what that person looks like, that’s hubris. Hiring mangers should consider that they want to remove bias in the process and just focus on key indicators for success. Remember, you don’t want a mini-you. Instead, focus on the positive. Think about how the candidate’s answer or experience shows potential, shows a different way of doing things, or could be developed. Your final measurement of the candidate should be summarized as “they only had a few successful characteristics” vs “they had these few negatives or red flags.”

Another challenge is hiring people who might be smarter than you. Finding this candidate is the holy grail. Don’t take it as a challenge - instead understand your position, your role as an interviewer (and possibly manager), and try to bring this person into the fold. This is how you build success, you bring in all kinds of people. You should be diverse in your hiring process, and be transparent about your goals to find the most successful team members.

Transparency

Speaking of transparency, let’s talk about where it falls in the interview process. Remember (back up to empathy), there’s a lot of unknowns here. You hold a lot of the power in the form of information. To reduce stress and give everyone the best chance, it’s best to be transparent. I’d rather someone know more now than later. Being transparent builds trust, and also helps determine if someone’s a fit sooner than later.

Be transparent about the salary ranges for the position. (If you can, post it with the job description.) This area warrants a whole discussion as well, but let me summarize. Salaries are no longer a big secret. There are many pushes to have complete salary transparency. Consider salary transparency to be a utility to help demonstrate the quality of work you want from someone (if you pay more, you expect more), as well as an indicator of your budget. If someone knows they need more than your budget, and you’re not allowed to move it, then why waste everyone’s time?

Talk about the process of the interview. There’s nothing worse than ending an interview and not knowing what happens next, what the timeframe is, etc. Good candidates will ask this question, but it’s kind of a waste of everyone’s time then. They should be focused on asking real questions, ones about the day to day work, company vision and your management style. If you’re not transparent about the process, they have to waste some of their questions on this. Tell them the process, timeframes, etc. You’ll find that they’ll return the favor by being more transparent with you about their needs or if they’re interviewing with other people. (In my experience, very few candidates use other interviews as a bargaining chip. In fact, you can often tell how eager - or dare I say desperate - they are to get into a position by this information.) Save everyone time, increase communication, and give more information about the process.

Some candidates will ask soft-ball questions like “what do you like about working here?” Take this as an opportunity to be transparent about the good and bad of working at a place. The worst that you want is someone leaving after 3 weeks because they discovered something ‘bad’ that everyone knew about. For example, if your work weeks go in feast/famine rotation, be honest about that. Some people are ok with this - others might crumble. It’s best to tell them now to give them the chance to consider if this is good for them. Share the good and the bad of working at a place, be transparent. Try really hard, though, not to get too emotional about the “bad” things. You’ll find people will appreciate and trust you a lot more if you’re willing to volunteer real challenges. This is the new and reversed version of “what is your greatest weakness?” Don’t fall into the same trap and give fake “bad” things. Just be honest, and transparent.

Measurement and Metrics

Sadly, I’ve allowed feelings to help me pick candidates over the years. I’ve heard it from other managers as well. Don’t get me wrong, a gut feeling or reaction can be part of the piechart for this candidate, but it shouldn’t be all of it. Feelings might lead you to success if you’re hiring a person here and there. But if you have 15 open positions, you have to lock that down. Plus, feelings can lead to biased hiring, which is not a good thing.

Add metrics to your interview process. When you’re asking questions, try to make them consistent and develop metrics around them. Were they right or wrong? Were they confident or not? Did they accidentally get it wrong/right (did they guess right, or did they screw up the words but have the concepts correct)? How important is this answer compared to another answer? Use these metrics to add to the picture of this candidate. Feelings are just not enough. You have to have measurements.

Taking notes about interviews is important as well. I used to not think this was important, especially in small-scale hiring. But, from a pure human resources point of view, you should be taking notes about everything. Should a candidate try to sue you for discrimination, you should have a documented list of questions, answers, reasons, and details to indicate why that client wasn’t hired. If you can’t point to reasons on paper, you might be more biased than you realized and might actually be guilty.

But taking this further, notes are good because they should also be used to compare candidates. After talking to three or four strangers, it can really be hard to keep their stories straight. Reviewing notes along with your metrics should help you figure out the best fit after the interviews.

Special bonus tip: after you hire a person, there will probably be some delay before they join the team. You can look back at your hiring notes when they start to help develop a plan for their growth. If they got some answers wrong, but were good enough to join the team anyway, now you have a blueprint of what they need to improve upon. You don’t have to wait for weaknesses to be demonstrated, you already measured it.

It’s Important

The interview (and the hiring process in general) is important for two big reasons. First, its important to the human you’re interviewing. You’re talking about the next group of 40 hours a week for the next few years - 1/3rd of their weekdays is in your control: how they spend them, how they get compensated, their human and emotional needs, their fate. This is something not to be cavalier about (again, empathy: you want people to care about you, you should care about them equally as well). This is an important, scary part in someone’s life. Treat it as such.

Second, this is an important part for your company. You’re being success-focused and trying to find the right person for the team. Your company needs good talent to move forward, to innovate, to evolve. It’s important to get the right people in the seats - this isn’t just an exercise to hit some numbers.

End Notes

As the years pass and I build a larger and larger history of technical interviews, I realize that a lot of the things I’ve learned boil down to just a few key concepts. These surround empathy, a focus on success and acknowledging the importance. The day-to-day can creep in and make hiring and interviewing seem like a hassle, but don’t let that make you slip up and forget these concepts. Treat candidates with respect and empathy, try to find someone to fill the spot (as opposed to trying to disqualify people), and understand the gravity of the situation of being trusted to interview and participate in hiring.

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