A few years ago I was part of a team interviewing a candidate for a technology lead role. We were all clear on the interview process. The candidate had a great education, good communication & problem-solving skills, and interacted well with people.
When it came time for the decision, one of the most senior technology people in the company said, “No way are we hiring that person”. I stood there slack-jawed because it made no sense to me.
Digging a little further, that interviewer’s decision came down to one thing. The candidate did not give a great answer when asked to explain the async and await keywords in a particular language.
It’s scenarios like this that lead to hiring people with encyclopedic knowledge at the expense of communication and problem solving skills. Sure, such knowledge can come in handy if there’s little access to research tools. I remember going through Windows SDK manuals in the late 1980’s to learn as much as I could, because THAT was the modern research tool and it was faster than CompuServe on a dial-up modem*.
So, I asked the interviewer, “What type of answer were you looking for?” They gave a terrific response.
The issue here is not that the candidate didn’t understand the concept. The issue is not in the best interest of the company to use teachable concepts as a hiring limiter. So, we discussed our different points of view and ended up making an offer to the candidate.
Over the years, I’ve helped clients refine their interview process so they hire the best long-term candidates. Below are the top three things to consider in refining your interview process.
Stop the Pop Quiz
For the love of 7th-grade math, stop it with the pop quizzes during interviews.
All a pop quiz does is put someone on the hot seat to regurgitate knowledge that is easily found using this amazing research tool called the internet. I’ve also seen teams purposefully ask difficult questions during the interview process just to see how many they could get someone to answer incorrectly. Nothing better to demonstrate a negative culture to a candidate than a bunch of folks that want to see someone fail. Yes, that’s an extreme, but it does exist. Don’t be that extreme.
I’m not that you ignore the task of validating someone’s technical knowledge. There’s a time and place for that and I think it’s before the in-person interview.
In an early phone screen, it’s easy to test a candidate’s technical knowledge. If you have any doubts about it, there are many online testing tools capable of determining someone’s technical prowess.
I’m a fan of providing an at-home coding assignment that may take 15-30 minutes of someone’s time. This is a small enough task that it’s easy to work into most candidate’s schedules and provides a window into how they structure code. You can even ask them to walk through their thought process during an in-person interview.
Focus on Problem Solving Ability
For in-person interviews, it’s helpful to get a sense for how a candidate thinks through a problem. Asking questions that aren’t necessarily technical, but require a thought process like coding, can prove helpful.
Remember that most technical hires don’t spend all day writing code. They spend ample time in meetings interacting with others, solving technical and process-related problems, and having spirited debate about what approach to take.
One question I received when interviewing was, “You are in charge of designing an elevator system for a 10 story building. There are two elevators that must minimize passenger wait time and provide for passenger safety. Tell me how you’d design the system and what factors are important to consider.”
I spent the next 15 minutes going through the detail. The interviewer answered my questions and occasionally provided a new detail. It was a fun process and obviously one I still remember!
This is also a great way to see how candidates accept feedback. In one interview a candidate was rapidly going down the wrong path. We thought the question may have been misunderstood, so we offered an alternative route. In other words, we were trying to help. We wanted the candidate to do well.
Unfortunately, the help was refused and they insisted on charging down a dead-end path. The result of the interview wasn’t what anyone wanted.
The right questions are the most critical part of the interview. In fact, I’ve pulled co-workers into mock interviews before to see how they’d answer. This is an important step in testing your questions. If a knowledgeable co-worker has difficulty answering or understanding a question, it may not be the best question to ask.
Ask Opinion Questions
I’m also a big fan of opinion questions, whether technical or non-technical. These types of questions are important to see how someone communicates things that aren’t absolutes. There are a ton of situations like this in the business and technology world.
- “I see you have experience with C++ and C#. Tell me which you like better and why.”
- “Tell me about a non-technical interest of yours and what you find fascinating about it.”
Responses to these questions have no right or wrong. The sole reason for these questions is to prove a candidate’s ability to communicate. Find a topic about which the candidate is passionate, and get them to talk about it.
Remember that most technical hires don’t spend all day writing code. They spend ample time in meetings interacting with others, solving technical and process related problems, and having spirited debate about what approach to take.
If you screen for technical ability and spend the valuable in-person interviews learning about the candidate’s problem solving and communication skills, it will lead to better hires.
And better hires lead to a better company.
Continue the Interview Process Discussion
What does your company do to ensure getting the best qualified candidates? What does your interview process look like? Let me know in the comments below or connect with me on LinkedIn! Also, see my other posts on recruiting here. You can also sign up below for my monthly newsletter to get a summary of new posts and other newsworthy items.
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