Sam Jarman

@samjarman

How to Get Started with Interviewing

This is the 8th post in my Junior Developer Diaries blog series. I’m writing more every week, and you can sign up to hear more and read previous posts on my website.

As a junior or intermediate developer, you might be asked to give an interview. I remember the first time I was asked to interview some candidates, and quite frankly, the idea of that scared the crap out of me. Who was I to determine someone’s ability as a software engineer? Why does my opinion matter? Isn’t this a Seniors job? Well, typically, yes, but it’s totally appropriate for a candidate to be interviewed by anyone in the team. Why? Well, you’ll all be working with them, so why not get a range of people’s opinions? Lets look at some good strategies to interview with confidence.

Prepare Prepare Prepare

The first bit of advice I have for conducting interviews is prepare, prepare, prepare. So what do I mean by this? Well I think we’ve probably all been the recipient of a poorly prepared interviewer. They skim your CV in the meeting itself, the conversation doesn’t really flow or go very deep, and the impression the candidate gets is pretty poor. Remember, these candidates have spent a few hours on your company already, preparing a CV/Résumé, writing a cover letter, prepping for an interview, etc, so how much disrespect have you show them by not doing some prep? A lot.

Thirty minutes is all it takes, and it revolves around what they present. Their CV/Résumé, cover letter, portfolio (GitHub, Blog, etc). Go through all of these, find tidbits that interest you, prepare a list of leading questions to learn more about these things. Examples: “You mention here you scaled the platform at company X from 1,000 to 1,000,000 users? What sort of bottle necks did you find and fix? Because here we found….” or “I see here you launched an app to the app store, tell me what you did for marketing and launch week?” This is the time where you can really find out from the candidate if they have the skills or experience you’re after for the role.

On the Day

Arriving for an interview can be stressful, as I’m sure you remember. Tell your team someone is coming in for an interview today, so they’re not greeted with “uh, who are you?” stares. Greet them, make them feel comfortable by asking how their day was so far and offering them some refreshments. If you know the person they’re interviewing with to isn’t ready yet, just have a conversation with them until they are, try not to leave them in a waiting area because that sends an odd message, especially at small companies. If you have an HR person or team, they might offer to do this for you. Work with them for this, they’re awesome for that. They’ll explain to the candidate what the process for the interview(s)/day looks like and put people at ease.

Remember, unless it’s a technical test interview (a topic which is fairly controversial, that I’ll avoid it for now), it’s just a conversation about who the person is, what they know and what they’ve done, and there isn’t any reason for it to be stressful. Keep it casual, keep it friendly.

Check Your Biases

Deep down, whether we like to admit it or not, we all have some biases of people we like to work with. Maybe you share a first language, maybe they’re around your age, or similar to you in some other way. Well, forget it. It doesn’t matter. Assess their skills and experiences for the job, not as your friend. Sure, they need to be able work in a team, but guess what — anyone from anywhere can work well in a team. Check your biases at the door. If you’re still unsure, I’ll repeat myself: Assess their skills and experiences for the job, not as your friend.

A lot of people like to try find out a bit more about their candidates under the goal of “Culture Fit”. While I think this started off a genuinely good idea; relating to teamwork, work ethic, product-minded (or whatever!), it has kind of morphed into an excuse of hire more people who think like you. That’s not really a great idea. People confuse diversity as some sort of Bingo board of skin color and gender. It’s not really that, for me it’s about diversity of thought, and that’s where we fall down. Hire for new ways of thinking and solving problems, not just another person who can type out code with the rest of you.

Instead, of “Culture Fit”, try to think of “Culture Add”. Ask yourself, what could this person add to our culture. What would they challenge us on? What would they inspire us to do differently, and are we, as a team, open to that? How would our product get better as a result of this hire? How would our customers benefit? Would that lead to a healthier company?

This is worthy of an article on it’s own, but it’s topic I don’t know much about, so I’ll stop talking here, as I don’t wish to overstep. There are plenty more people who know more about it than me and are by definition are more affected by people Doing It Wrong than me. Have an open mind and go listen to them. Good luck.

Get Some Training

Adding to the above, Your HR team will be useful, if you haven’t already had some training from them on topics like this, ask for some and they’ll provide. It’s important to know, that for example, if you’re in the USA, it’s illegal to casually ask someone about their wife or husband. Something very easy to do if you’re trying to create a rapport at the start of an interview, especially for New Zealanders who are just so casual about everything. “Hey man, how’s it going? Oh that’s good, yeah I’ve been getting no sleep lately, my wife and I just had a baby. It’s tough! You married?”

Your HR team will know the laws around this in your country and are the people to consult if you have any doubts. Generally speaking, keep it technical to avoid too many difficulties.

Take Notes

So the conversation is going well, but are you going to remember all of it? It might be hard or jarring to take good notes during a well flowing conversation, but good notes let you review easily after the interview with yourself and other interviewers. Make note of any worrisome or awesome things the candidate says. Perhaps interviewing in pairs is a great idea here, with some sort of shared notes app, like Google Docs. That way it doesn’t feel too stop/start for either of you.

No Hires

So most times, the interview will go fine, but this time it just isn’t. We’re about 5 minutes in, and this person just is a no-hire. Flat. Logically you could end the interview there, and review on how they got to interview stage (a useful exercise in candidate pipeline improvement), but you’ve got 30 minutes, they’ve given up their time, you have too, let’s try make it good. I sought some advice from a mentor when this happened to me for the first time, as I was quite baffled by the experience. My mentor said try have the candidate leave having learnt something and feeling good. Lower the intensity of the questions, perhaps focus more on what they have done. Change approach and change it up. You might even see a different angle which a hire could become possible again. Ideally, you want the candidate to leave happy, but aware that it wasn’t a good fit. Don’t forget that just because you don’t hire them, doesn’t mean they’re a totally useless human being and they’re unhireable. They’ll find something somewhere else. It’s also not totally unusual to refer them onto your network. I like to think we’re all nice people who can help each other out when job hunting.

Interviews take work on both sides. With the correct mindset, some people skills and a bit of training, you’ll become better and better at interviewing and finding out if candidates are right for your team. Your first interview won’t go great, but your 10th might and your 100th will go swimmingly. Good luck!

This is the 8th post in my Junior Developer Diaries blog series. I’m writing more every week, and you can sign up to hear more and read previous posts on my website.

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