Written April 12, 2014

The Interview - Part I

Every few months a new article on interviewing or on being the interviewee goes viral, finding its 10 minutes of fame; I hope this one is no exception.
Interview articles often focus on what kinds of questions will be asked or inside lines on how to answer behavioral questions, etc. etc. For the most part, all of it is crap. Most interviews are crap. Most managers and team members don’t know how to interview for their teams and most prospective employees don’t understand their part in the encounter. Hell, these days getting to the interview at a large corporation is less about who you are and more about your resume’s SEO. What follows is the first in a series about interviewing, being interviewed, and team building/development.

Over the years I have worked to develop the “un-interview.” It goes a little something like this:

I walk into the room, extend a firm hand shake and wait for the interviewee to introduce themselves.

Interviewee: Hi I’m (fill in the blank). Me: Hi, I am Bill. (pause) Have a set. Let’s get started.

We are 15 seconds into the interview and this is my first chance to get a feel for how things are going to proceed. The binary tree is, Interviewee is nervous or Interviewee is not nervous; but they are actually a bit nervous, unless they plain don’t want to be there. If its clear they don’t want to be there, I will spend 15 minutes tops and end it; I have crap to do. For the sake of having a post to write, let’s focus on the nervous and slightly nervous interviewees.

First goal is to make them comfortable, and the easiest way to do that is to talk. I spend between 5 and 10 minutes covering the following points:

  1. What I do for the company
  2. How long have I been in my current position, and the path I took to get here.
  3. What are some of the things that the company does well.
  4. What’s the biggest challenge that I have had to overcome while working at XYZ

Since I am on home turf and have the power in the room, this conversation time will help even the playing field. The goal here is to provide context to the interviewee that can be leveraged later in the process. I will discuss what the company does in detail later; so for this first segment, I keep the point meaningful, but somewhat innocuous.

The final bullet, the challenge story, is something that people can relate to. I typically rely on one of my handful of screw ups where I thought for sure I was going to be fired; like pack a box fired. And yes, I admit I have felt this way on more than one occasion. I would wager that most people have a hard time being this honest and airing their dirty laundry with someone they just met; if you can, your risk will almost always be rewarded.

Me: My point is to set the stage for you and give you a feel for life here. Both the positive and negative sides. So can you tell me a bit about where you’re at right now?

In every case where I have ended up with someone that I truly enjoy working with, this question has been the turning point in the interview. It’s where things pushes past the usual formalities and on to an honest and open conversation. With this question, you will find out if the interviewee is involved in drama at their current company, has some difficult to manage baggage, or perhaps even better, has a story that you or a co-worker can sympathize with. Sympathize, not empathize … thats key here. If you find a connection at this juncture, explore it with them. You don’t need to dig deep or make things overtly personal. This is your opportunity to listen and let them openly tell a story.

Too many interviewers love asking the behavioral questions. Don’t get me wrong, they can be a powerful tool to learn more about someone. The problem is that if the context is not established correctly, an adequate amount of intimacy developed, the answers you are going to get will be shallow and meaningless. By breaking the barriers down and getting personal, you can get past the bullshit answer that both of you know is coming:

Interviewee: Oh there was this person in the department that was really hard to work with and blah, blah, blah…

Without the intimacy, this interaction and further behavioral questions are useless, and a waste of time. I don’t interview for stock answers and and neither should you. If you are guilty of this … for everyone’s sake, stop.

At this juncture it’s possible that I am not feeling positive about the candidate or could not solidify the intimacy enabling them to open up. Thats OK. Regardless, I favor pivoting to topics like hobbies, or where are they living now. This shift can be more natural if you have some background information on the interviewee. Either way, the goal is to either cool off a deep conversation or tease things along until you can find some common ground again.

After the reset, I will turn focus back to the company and the team. Give details about what the company does and how it works. Talk team structure.
Organizational structure. Tenure of employees. Hours per week. Length of projects. Time off, flexible work hours, etc. While I can hope that the interviewee has done research about the company, it is unlikely that they will know this level of detail about how we actually operate. I do not offer HR level specifics; but rather, my personal take on these values and thresholds.
Additionally, interviewees will often plainly forget to ask for this crucial data. Once these topics are laid out, I ask the interviewee how it compares to their current situation.

Me: Given how we work, our organization and everything, how does this fit with your experiences and does it sound like we might be a fit for you?

Again, I have used talking time to bring intimacy back to the conversation. With this question, I am engaging and empowering the interviewee to do “on the spot analysis” and cognitive pattern recognition. I am looking to see if they can they quickly intake an understanding of our process (listen), compare/contrast that with their experiences (analyze) and communicate their analysis back to me. Additionally, I am getting more information about how they like to work, which can help my analysis of their fit into the organization and the team.

As we near the end of the interview I open things back up by peppering the interviewee with a flurry of short questions:

  1. Do you think you can manage the commute/hours/stress level?
  2. Does the work seem interesting to you?
  3. Given what I have told you about the team do you think you can fit in?
  4. Can you show up everyday and …
  5. Learn something new?
  6. Teach something new?
  7. Do you think you have skills, and energy to really sink your teeth into this opportunity?

Asking these questions with an upbeat and aggressive cadence will reveal wether or not the candidate is engaged, and excited about the opportunity. If the interviewee has bitten and is excited, I end the interview with my gut instinct, telling them I hope to see them around the halls. If I am not excited then I will not be mean; but, I will be honest. I will tell them that I appreciated the opportunity to meet them and wish them luck on their journey. Even though I am not typically the one making the final decision, revealing these subtle clues can help the interviewee gage how they performed.

With the interview out of the way, lets discuss the thought that’s probably crossed your mind. I never asked a single technical question. Let me repeat that in italics and in bold for emphasis, I never asked a single technical question. This is true of 80-90% of the interviews I do. Write me off as being crazy; but, I have a few reasons as to why this works great in the end.

Put a person in a room for a few hours to be grilled by random strangers about their past, present and future selves and even smart, amazing people choke on the simplest of technical questions. Why? For the same reasons that we all hate being interrupted when in the “flow” zone. It takes times to center one’s self, get into a technical mindset and really engage. If you can’t work with perpetual context switching, why subject a candidate to it during the interview process?

Running a technical interview requires a commitment on the interviewers part to structure it, provide a smooth entry and easy grading up to the difficult complex topics. Think about how you learn, how you like to work, and structure the interview to give the candidate the best opportunity to succeed. Anything less, and no one wins. The interviewee gets stressed, they can’t put their best foot forward and you completely miss an opportunity to hire an ace. That’s not their fault, it’s yours.

Building a technical interview curriculum is challenging and a lot of work.
Additionally, if it requires a deep understanding of the domain or the business, there is honestly zero chance of success with the approach. One simply cannot get a candidate up to speed, fairly, to truly gage their aptitude. This is why I try to focus purely on behavioral and emotional interviewing after establishing a relationship with the interviewee.

In my experience, successful employees fit the team based on a few key factors: ability to listen, fair to decent communication skills, learning new things, teaching new things, and most importantly, emotional intelligence.
Pretty much everything else can be taught. The point of this interview style is to reveal the candidate’s capabilities in these key areas.

With all that said, there are some drawbacks to this approach:

  1. It requires a one on one interview format. If I have other people in the room, I won’t be able to build the intimacy.
  2. It is easy to fall into it; but, do not be manipulative. One has just a handful of moments to model a candidate. Being anything other than open and honest with them, will just serve to cloud your judgement and analysis.
  3. Finding the right fit for a team is also a two way street. So few people focus on selling the company, the team and making sure that the candidate feels like they belong there. Don’t hire someone on false pretenses - make sure they are as committed to the relationship as you.
  4. Have fun. Interviewing and being an interviewee is a stressful interaction. I repeat have fun. Remember you are looking for someone to spend 40 hours of your week with, week after week, month after month, year after year. Make it count. Happy Interviewing.