Category: Management

Interviewing Right

There are countless online articles that get hits when someone is preparing to get interviewed: “10 things to keep in mind”, “10 don’ts while interviewing”, “How to interview well..”, and so on. This works well for the times we live in. You get people in the door for a typical 4-6 hour interview, they act nice and everyone tries to play by the rules.

What’s wrong here?

Interviewing is a tough skill. Think about the things that the interviewer is doing, within a 45-60 minute window:

  • assessing technical capabilities
  • assessing success potential
  • assessing seniority
  • assessing team work capabilities
  • assessing <insert buzzword here>

That is a lot to assess. Relevant signals from the candidate can get lost. Depending on the interviewer, they can become too critical or too positive and amplify signals that are one-offs for the candidate, or play down those that give more insight into a candidate’s nature.

Additionally, the clock. Less than an hour to go, and so much to discover in an interview. Possibly, more time is spent on the right car to buy (reviewing, comparing, discussing etc.), than on a likely co-worker.

Then again, not all interviewers will take extensive notes. This leads to lost information, and sometimes, to distorted memory about the candidate. A common trap to fall into is the gist-based memory and associative memory errors (see this article).

Interviewing skills get better with experience. Not being true for everyone, some are good at assessing others while others will just never be good at forming reliable opinions in small time windows. Since there is a learning curve here, it will have to unfortunately come at the cost of hiring misfires.

Given that interviewing is conducted by a panel, the idea rooted here is that judgments passed by a group are less likely to be at fault. Though, more senior or well-respected interviewers tend to dominate the jury.

Referrals by current employees, of past co-workers, is a popular hiring method. Referrals (mostly) get interviewed in the standard ways.  Yet, employee referrals have an added data point. This makes a  difference.

To summarize,

  • interviewees may not be themselves
  • too many skills / behaviors to assess
  • not enough time to appropriately assess
  • not enough record of the interviews conducted
  • interviewers gain experience at a cost
  • interview panels may be dominated by seniors
  • referrals get a bias

Avoidances

What follows is a list of some of my personal practices to avoid these problems.

Pre-interview notes on the candidate

  • Decipher the candidate’s resume, to highlight their strengths, !strengths and anything else of note to brief the interviewers prior to the interview. Your help with this will set the stage and prime interviewers’ experience with the candidate. It is important to get it right and not (bias it).
  • Job descriptions help, but often, the panel needs to be reminded of what exactly is it that you are looking for. Think outside the job description – personality traits, seniority levels (for real), specific personas (like someone with a customer oriented mindset, or someone who’d be more heads down).
  • Keep “referral” biases out, as much as possible. Instead, talk to the person who referred this candidate, and include notes in your pre-interview notes.

Develop focus areas for interviews

  • As a hiring manager, a lot of thought needs to go into the kind of person needed on the team for a position. Some times, when you are building a team, you need to create a few different personas.
  • Every interviewer gets a couple different focus areas. The tricky part is to match the focus area for the interviewer as well. I typically read through past interviews from these interviewers to determine what they naturally focus on.
  • Although interviewers give additional feedback, appreciate it, but remind them to “concentrate” on their areas
  • Keep them real. Write out focus areas for what the team is actually doing over 3-6 months, instead of asking for things that lead to optimizing the number of triangles within 5 overlapping circles.

Share focus areas with the candidate

  • Well, why  not? You want to earn the trust of the candidates so that they can be themselves.
  • What if they make up things? If someone can make up a fantasy about an architecture that they never worked on, or only read about, and explain it well, you probably want someone like that.
  • Won’t everyone just know what we ask? Every interviewer would have their own set of problems and will be discussing very different scenarios. The idea is to make the candidate comfortable and forthcoming.

Make note-taking easy

  • I’ve printed out focus areas in the past, on paper, and given a page of blank space that has multiple of following markers (to interviewers) under each focus area:
    • Asked – what the interviewer asked. 
    • Response –  what the candidate talked about.
    • Analysis – refers to notes that the interviewer is encouraged to write out their analysis for the asked/response pair (under that focus area).
  • Interviewers should be encouraged to go back and fill in the analysis after the interview is complete so that they can fill out as much information as they can before their cache expires.

Keep information flowing

  • Most importantly, during the interview. Having brief discussions while the interview is in progress with the interviewers, helps to adjust focus areas. Additional context is added for incoming interviewers to re-evaulate certain areas. Orchestrating the feedback so that it flows to and fro, helps.
  • The slight downside to this is that bias from earlier interviewers can flow to and fro too. Conscientious effort is required to avoid this.

 Post-interview debrief and go/no-go

  • Many organizations have a central committee that decides the outcome. This committee’s judgment is only as good as the feedback captured, the hiring manager’s overall note and the focus on what you need for the position v/s what the candidate has to offer.
  • Sitting down with all the interviewers for a brief amount of time and discussing everything with the panel is very important. It highlights the panel’s own performance, along with the interviewee’s.

Other Problems

Reading through interview reviews on sites like glassdoor, I’ve often seen many other problems that interviewees bring up. Common themes are, interviewers that…

  • …aren’t empathetic
  • …dominate airtime
  • …don’t give enough context
  • …lean into the candidates
  • …never smile & keep things tense

My approach is to find the best way on how to use such personalities (with these unique qualities), such that the interview process is not affected. Often, it means, not using them.

Final Note

After a few cycles of doing this rigorously, this was easier (mostly cloning prepared documents for ongoing interviews). In the beginning, I had detailed focus areas . Later on, I would compress the focus areas to be brief.

There is a lot that can be improved, and I’ve not yet seen all the pitfalls. There’s a possibility that some of the techniques above have serious downsides, but this has worked better than anything else thus far. Well, there’s definitely a better way…

This is all good “for the times we live in.” Interviewing today, is still constrained in a short time window that an interview is conducted in. The future of interviewing will probably not look like any of this. Take home assignments, short projects lasting 1-2 days, contractual work leading to permanent roles and may be even (crazy idea) separate organizations acting as frontiers for people who could to try things out.

I’ve been surprised a couple of times on how certain people who were hired, turned out to be really good at what they did despite shaky panel feedback and an almost “no hire”. There are probably many more that were never interviewed, not hired due to process flaws or hired but weren’t the right fit. This has to change.