Avoiding the Anti-Interview

19 Jan

imageRight now I’m betting a number of you are thinking about interviews.  Either you are actively looking, or fear you might be soon; this isn’t a stable time for the employed.  That also means is it’s a good time to be hiring people as supply is far exceeding demand.

I’ve been both the interviewer and the interviewee.   I honestly prefer to be the interviewee – it’s easier.  In this post I’m going to pick on Dave Donaldson’s post The Art of Interviewing because I think he does a good job representing one style of interview.  I’m not saying he’s wrong and I’m right with this post, and full disclosure here, I’ve interviewed with Dave in the past and would strongly consider a role at Telligent if offered.  I’m simply outlining some counter points that worked very well for me as the interviewer.

Skill Set

When interviewing a candidate you are really just looking for skill set.  The error most often made here is looking at only a technical skill set.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about people with an IQ of 120 or greater (as high as 200).  Below 120 an IQ score can be very predictive of performance; if the person will complete high school, finish college, land a job, etc.  Beyond 120 IQ has no impact on success.  An IQ of 180 is no more likely to win a Nobel prize than an IQ 130.  Einstein is reported to have an IQ of 180, so the man with the 200 IQ – smarter than Einstein?  He is just an average middle class worker, doing nothing special.

The concept Malcolm is showing with IQ is a “floor” metric – once a person is above a certain level in one area, further gain in the same area isn’t as important as that person’s score in other areas.  Malcolm goes further to illustrate the floor by looking at the careers of students placed at law school through affirmative action programs.  These students didn’t meet the high standards of the law school on their own, but because they were classified as a minority were accepted.  One would expect these students would make less, and have less successful careers than their classmates who scored higher on the entrance and LSAT exams.  The reality is both groups have the same level of success in their careers – there is no difference.  The lower scoring class still scored higher than the floor, and thus the difference in score beyond the floor didn’t matter.

So what does this mean for developer interview?  Knowledge of frameworks and languages only matter to a point.  After that point, a.k.a. the floor, other skills matter more to determine if the candidate will be successful.  In my interviews I looked for excitement as a sign of passion.  I would ask about their favorite project or code they had written, and then listen to the way they described it.  I believe a candidate that can “full on geek out” over a program and the act of development is worth 10x more than someone who can describe in intimate details of each stage in the garbage collector.

Another behavior I liked to see was someone taking a different view than me in an interview.  When talking about a methodology or practice, I will slip in my opinion.  A potential candidate will at some point object (usually subtle) and I will ask them to expand the point.  This is a good sign of critical thinking, and that this developer won’t sit quite on a project while an epic design fail is chosen.  It also tells me this developer will be likely to introduce the team to new ways of working that may not have emerged before.

Ignore Personality

This is a rough one.  We are products of our experiences, and this shapes our interaction with other people.  In Dave’s post he talks about “finding the breaking point” by driving a line of questioning until they person being interviewed can’t handle it anymore.  He uses this to gauge how someone will handle the pressure of a deadline.

A person who has mostly an IT department / large corporation background will have learned to avoid exposing a lack of knowledge.  This is a form of group think, and a byproduct of having a necessary layer of middle management who use this information to determine who goes on a project, and possibly who is laid off and who remains.  Dave’s method of following up a “soft” answer by asking more and more follow-up questions is a good approach with this type of personality – though not because I believe it shows a gauge of reaction to stress and more that it shows how far a person will go before admitting they don’t know.

In contrast, my background is small companies and contracting.  My experience has been brutal honestly upfront saves long term, project killing, issues.  So when Dave asked me if a .Net assembly could be partially loaded or not, my immediate response was “I don’t know, never had a reason to try.”  Dave pushed me to guess, so I did some out loud thinking and guessed (incorrectly).  I recall at the time it was odd how he kept asking “so, in that case can you do X” and remember interrupting one question to state I wasn’t sure if my first answer was correct, so these follow on questions might be moot.  From Dave’s view, I broke pretty quickly.

The lesson here is to adapt your questions based on the type of person you are interviewing.  Dave’s “stress test” for me might have been better asking me to decide on some hypothetical project what to cut to make a deadline – something that never has a correct answer – then grill me with the consequences of my choice.

Interview For the Position

Dave makes a good point to only hire when you truly have a position that needs to be filled.  I want to add to this something that may seem obvious, but is almost always overlooked: ask questions related to the position.  I initially applied to Telligent because I saw they needed someone with Oracle and Lucene experience in .Net.  I have both and use them in my current role (freaky, I know), but there were no Oracle or Lucene questions in the interviews.  I felt I was interviewing for a “template” job, instead of a specific role.

Giving Props

I want to end pointing out the items I whole hearted agree with Dave’s post.  Don’t settle just to fill the role, avoid trivia questions (but having a few is okay),  and the best interviews are conversations.  I will also agree with trusting your gut, but back up your gut feeling by asking others what their impressions were.  I’ve had bad first impressions that turned out to be false and talking about the candidate with others help me avoid making a mistake.  At the same time, if everyone has a bad vibe but can’t pin point it, there is probably a reason.

So, as an interviewee, what do you do in an interview that isn’t highlighting your qualifications?  I’ll let you know when I figure that one out!

  • A well-placed wandering foot under cover of the table can work wonders!

  • I’ve found that if they aren’t asking the right questions, or none that relate to your specific skill set; basically the "template job" interview you mentioned; just start telling them about your skills they aren’t asking about as asides to the questions they do ask. Answer the question, then say "..and by the way…" and go on to explain further in a way that highlights your specific skill sets. If you don’t tell them you know something, they will alway assume you don’t know it. You don’t want to sell yourself short in a job interview, tha’ll be a sure fire way to Not get the job.

    I’ve done this in previous job interviews with "job offer" success.

    Also, an interview isn’t often considered to be two-way, but you can’t forget that. It’s not only a time for them to interview you on how well you’ll fit their position, but it’s also a chance for you to interview them as your prospective employer. Are they a good fit to be your manager?