Category: People

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.

Sanity

About 20 or so years ago, I had the privilege of having a guest at our place. Amazingly enough, we would almost always have dinner on the dinner table, unlike how I’m used to with my kids (on the couch, bed, standing and sometimes, on the table meant for this exclusive function).

This guest was from a part of India, now known for its exceedingly high PM2.5 (particulate matter). The air pollution itself is responsible for lung and neural diseases. Add to that the fact that you have sewage seepage into drinking water pipes and we’re talking serious long term damage to the brain and lungs.

Cut: back to the guest at our dinner table. As is customary, you serve your guests (with generous portions of food), and acting the good boy, I started doing so. Taking the lid off of one of the bowls, I kept it facing down on the table. “WHAT are you doing?” said the person, very perplexed and a bit chidingly. Looking confused, I asked, “What am I doing wrong?” – as that was obviously the question instead. “Don’t put that lid facing down on the table, ‘germs’ will get back into the ‘daal’ from the table when you re-lid it.”

This was a lesson that I haven’t unlearned since. The transfer of biological hazard from a dining table that looks clean, but really isn’t – through a lid’s internal surface. It made total sense. My father did laugh in a way that made me think that he disagreed with the phenomenon, but didn’t want to argue unnecessarily.

Many many years on, an offspring of this guest was infected with Typhoid. If you don’t know, the only reason you can get Typhoid, is when you have consumed human fecal matter. The only sane way for that to happen, is through contaminated food or water. The only places with the highest reported typhoid cases in the world, are Africa and India. Note, “reported.”

As I was reading an article on Delhi’s PM2.5 levels (close to 1000 now), and the mention of contaminated drinking water, I realized something.

People often obsess over things they’ve been brought up with. There is a lot more to be obsessed about, but the key learning for me and my kids is to constantly evaluate your obsessions. This guest’s freak out, made a lot more sense in 1970s may be, but there are way more things to worry about in 1996 – and the perspective changes even further, in 2015.

The last place to get bacteria in your food is from the dining table. FWIW, those bacteria are probably going to help strengthen your immunity. Worry about the lavatory more, or, if you’re in Delhi, about the sewage pipe running next to your water supply. Welcome to sanity.

The Hero from Madurai

It’s unfortunate that people sleep hungry and even more that I (and possibly you) know that. Few change the aforesaid statement – and only fewer succeed. Narayanan Krishnan is one of the fewest people alive that put other people’s misfortunes to shame. Please vote for him on CNN Heroes and read about his extraordinary feat here.

Update: Anuradha Koirala was finally called out as the CNN Hero of the year; she indeed deserved it though there’s no belittling of the efforts of every one else. Koirala fights sex trafficking in third world countries, something that requires a brave heart and tremendous efforts (you won’t ever find out what she’s going through).

PoliceWale

This interview on policewala.in is the harsh gust of reality and fate of Indian police personnel. Since this interview is in Hindi, here is a short summary (all credits due to the interviewers at policewala.in and Amitabh Thakur, IPS).

  • Mr. Thakur is of the opinion that the long standing convention of “thinking like criminals” has affected the police adversely, turning some of these men to be more dangerous than the criminals themselves
  • He observes that there are two corruption situations to be dealt with separately, one that are of the grievous and serious kind with deep rooted problems – and the other that are notorious and on the street
  • He observes how the police personnel are deprived of family life, living in harsh and mentally frustrating situations – and how all police men and women come to appreciate each other and develop a bond since they are victims of the same injury
  • Another very important thing brought up was the fact that lower ranks don’t have a career path towards higher positions – the sepoy to  inspector ranks are basically stagnant. This is the most serious issue with the system right now since it cuts off the most basic form of self-motivation.

Uncorners

I have come to believe, that life isn’t sweet as much as it in the unexpected corners. So let’s “uncorner” those things that get ignored just because they are not perfect. I mean, you can make every thing nice and square, but then what’s the fun?

So see this comment, and if you have a little more time, read the whole post (and the comments). I leave it to you to decide on when you want to stop laughing. No rules. No offenses either, just laugh and forward err, forget. ;)

This is some blog-ham, if you don’t mind. Heh.

Pizza Incident

Ok, this doesn’t have anything to do with Pizzas, but with a party I threw out in Pizza Hut a long while ago. Since I have changed a lot of bosses now, I am sure nobody remembers who this ex-boss really is (unless you come picking on me). Here it goes:

Me: Has been 25 minutes already, if they don’t come back with the order in another 5 minutes, we’ll get it free.
Ex-manager: I’m looking at that guy in white shirt, he’s the most useless guy not doing anything at all while these folks serve..
Me: Well, he’s the manager.
[laughter]
[choke] [choke]
[laughter]

Not to be politically correct, but this was really all in good humor. ;)

Dhanushkodi: Annular Eclipse

Moon's shadow on EarthWas my first time at an annular eclipse (with 100% contact – have been in partial contact once in 2005). Just to be clear, an annular eclipse, contrary to a total eclipse, does not induce darkness due to the increased distance of the moon from the earth. To understand further, you might want to see this image (preview on the right).

Pavan (an active volunteer of BAS) was accompanying me and Raghu on this trip. We drove to Dhanushkodi via Madurai and Rameshwaram (the oncoming two/three wheelers on your side of the lane deserves a separate post). We almost got killed by an oncoming Ambulance. A day’s stop in Madurai on Jan 14 and Jan 15th saw us in Dhanushkodi (DKD). DKD is right across Pamban bridge, some 10 Kms from Rameswaram. It’s a small island, surrounded by the ocean on two sides and extends to the last point of India that just touches Sri Lanka.

Annular Eclipse Phases - (click to view larger: in a new window/tab)

Contrary to expectations, DKD was free of an enormous crowd. The Tamil Nadu Science Society was organizing an event there (and quite a few folks from Assam – the Guwahati Planetarium, Gujarat, Bengal etc. were to be seen). Photos were being clicked as the “Media” approached us and we shyed away. Though we were carrying a telescope, due to lack of a filter we could not set it up and missed  the oppurtunity to use it. Pavan got a filter for his camera right on time (though I carved out something with an X-ray sheet, but the mylar sheet filter was definitely a better bet).

First contact of the eclipse was at 11:15 AM – as we put on our eclipse viewers, the sight was stunning.  The intensity of the sunlight decreased by as much as 75% (approximately) and the temperature certainly decreased by at least a couple of degrees (if not more). The sea wasn’t very rough, but the tide certainly had increased a lot more than what it was in the morning.

At about 1:20pm, we saw the ring – a beautiful sight as I kept gazing at it. There’s still a lot of light around you, just that it is white and not the usual yellow light and the intensity is nothing like a sun in a clear sky. The sky was spotless during the maximum eclipse around the sun, but it felt like there’s a cloud covering. Something very unusual, but a characteristic property of an annular eclipse on the ground. To understand how the eclipse traces the path on the ground, see this image.

We came back to Rameshwaram, stayed on till night and hopped back home the next day.

Interestingly, Raghu pointed out that I ended up following the popular superstitous Hindu activity of:

  1. not eating anything during the eclipse (though I drank some water and ate peanuts – which he discounts as: “even monkeys eat them“),
  2. taking a bath post-eclipse (we found a room at Rameswaram only in the evening, so I took a bath ASAP),
  3. visiting a temple post-eclipse (we went to hog – but couldn’t find anything since Rameswaram halts between 5pm and 6.30pm – so we had to go into the temple to make the most of our time)
  4. eating only after a bath (we were forced to take another 22 baths in the Kunds in the Rameshwaram temple – and then we hogged Dosas).

Heh, I broke (1) though, while Raghu/Pavan somehow broke (1) and (2). So glad I am.

Intezaar

One of those things that nobody likes. Something that irritates the hell out of humans. The one thing that usually brings an end to relationships. It’s waiting for something or someone. Dadi had tremendous patience whenever I saw her waiting for an event. It took years for certain things to happen, and she waited on. Somethings never happened while she was alive, although she still waited for them. They didn’t happen even after she died.

There was this crazy talent-finding bug I had caught where I’d try out different things to see what I was good at. I was trying hard to be a good artist and made Dadi sit for about an hour (may be longer) so that I could sketch a portrait. She sat there waiting for some result. I am one of the worst people at anything drawing or related to art. At least that is one thing I am sure I will never be able to do. After spending about an hour something, I told Dadi that all I did in this whole while was her face. She looked at the crap I had produced and of course thought it was the best piece of art ever. I looked at it again and kept it aside until she went back to doing whatever I had interrupted her in. My agony suddenly increased not at the vacuum of art in me, but at how Dadi was unnecessarily waiting for something she was least interested in.

A few years later, she had a wish to come back home to Lucknow. She waited for it all that she could. When she told me about it, I knew that she probably wanted it more than anything else ever – and she had waited for it to happen for about nearly an year and half. It was the simplest wish ever: get back home. Doesn’t take more than a few thousand bucks and just one night. But, as humans, there are complexities involved – and people have priorities. Finally, her wait came to an end as my mother fulfilled her wish. Probably her last.

One of the simplest goals in life: to see everyone around happy, was what I learned from Dadi. Well, there were hiccups in achieving that, but it is incredibly simple and effective – and requires patience obviously. Although it meant that people misunderstood her at times, but she persisted on what she did – making sure she didn’t make herself look stubborn, and giving in at the right time. Even for patience, she made sure that it was truly patience and didn’t extend to lethargy or procrastination – efforts where needed. Some lessons I picked up.

Today marks the 6th year since Dadi was over phone with me the last time. Yep, I can still hear that you are alright.

Daughters!

Pretty recently, three people I know became fathers to their lovely daughters. I feel so joyous about this fact that I couldn’t help writing it up here. About an year and a half back, another close colleague fathered his daughter and that gave me unbound joy.

The scientific fact is that daughters are beneficial to the society in more ways than one (if you can please keep your sexist prejudices aside). This article from NY Times talks about how an increasing male population of the society can actually harm the internal stability of a country. Not surprisingly, both India and China feature in the top two such societies that want more male population than female. Uneducated people are not the only ones though, it’s the socio-cultural fabric which makes this demand from the people. There are highly skilled people who would prefer male over female because of social and religious shit.

There are some spurious (or seemingly so may be) studies too that say that “attractive people are more likely to borne daughters”. This article from associated content talks about one such study and it’s numbers. I feel the numbers are too convoluted and the theory is too good to be true. This other article talks on how evolution is going to make women more beautiful. “But the forecast isn’t so rosy for men.” Heh.

Well, for the close friends and colleagues, I am confident that these daughters would take their families much further ahead than anybody else could. May they always prosper, grow and beat all the guys! (BTW, I don’t have anything against guys. Just that my preference is for the girl child.)