Waiting for job interviews

Can’t Get Technical Talent? Mind the Interviews!


Imagine this scenario: your company paid a recruiting firm to find candidates for new technical roles in support of your expanding product portfolio.  Technical talent is rolling in, your team is interviewing them, but nobody is accepting your offers.  You are starting to wonder how this is happening. “We’re a world-class company, with world-class talent and super interesting problems to solve.  Why is nobody accepting our offers?”

A big mistake that companies make when hiring technical resources is in thinking that the interview itself is disconnected from the organization, the culture, the management structure, the current employee pool, and social perceptions.  All of these things are interconnected, and top candidates are thinking about all of them.  You should too.

In this post, I will focus on some key points in the interview process.   Once someone walks into your offices for an interview, the party is just starting and both sides should be prepared to make it a win-win.  Here are some ways to do just that.

Be a Good Host

When you bring a technical person in for an interview, don’t walk them straight into the windowless interview room of death.  Show them around!  If you have an open floor plan, let them soak it in.  If you have a cubicle environment, walk them through.  This person needs to see, feel, touch, hear the environment in which they would work.  If it is a high-energy facility, they may enjoy it.  If it is drab, gray, and seems to be where souls go to die – they might actually like that instead.  Some people will enjoy your environment and others will not.  It’s better that your candidate understands what lies ahead.

I shouldn’t have to mention housekeeping, but it is often ignored in technical interviewing.  When the interview starts, make sure the first interviewer ensures that the candidate has water to drink, knows the location of the restroom, and so forth.  Forcing someone to sit through through multi-hour panel interviews without a break or without anything to drink is inconsiderate and may cost you a great engineer.  The candidate will notice!

Conduct a Self-Assessment

All too often, the normal entry criteria for a technical staff member to conduct an interview with a  candidate is: “Have you done technical interviews before?  Great.  You’re up.”  On interview day, the candidate might be passed around like a hot potato, because the interviewers rightfully have other work to do.

I’ve been there and done that, but this is Doing It Wrong.  As a candidate, I have been in interviews where the interviewers themselves had no idea how long the interview was; one in which the interviewer was falling asleep; in another, the interviewer gave zero time for me to ask questions; in others, it seemed that the only thing the company found interesting about me was my ability to extend a ridiculously impractical interface to perform an academic exercise that I would have Googled in 5 seconds.  Not impressed.

Whoa.  Let’s think about that.  The interview process is the first deep exchange a candidate has with an organization.  At a minimum, the hiring manager should be aware of precisely what is happening in interviews.  It all starts with transparency.  Here are some ways to get direct insight into the practice on the ground:

  • Put a camera in the room to observe the interviewers.  This might be a bit Orwellian for many.
  • Have your most charismatic and engaged interviewer assume a temporary additional responsibility of assessing the other interviewers as well as participating in the process.  This person would follow up directly with the hiring manager or other accountable folk afterwards.
  • Bring in an outside consultant who specializes in tech interview effectiveness, and have them audit the process as a neutral third party.

Once you step back and observe the real process in action, you will almost always find some room for improvement.  Did your interviewers seem organized?  Were they able to communicate the organization’s direction?  Was the interview tense, or friendly?  There are many subtle nuances that are only revealed through direct observation.

Educate Your Interviewers

You should not assume that your staff know how to interview people simply because they have done it somewhere else. Some interviewers love to sit down and talk.  Others do not like to interview at all.  Some like structure, some prefer free-flowing discussion.  Would you want to have your most potent tech evangelist in the interview?  What if that person also enjoys steamrolling other opinions and initiating conflict?  Would you want to involve your quietest introvert, who produces great software but does not like to field questions?  If you make a point to sell candidates on your engineering culture, would you want a recently-added staff member fielding detailed candidate questions on whether your culture is effective?

Ideally, your interviewers would have a planned and coordinated plan that is tailored to the hiring goals of the organization.  An alert candidate can detect unprepared interviewers and misaligned goals.

These are simple elements, but when they are not present, they can add up to a negative first impression.  It might be the only direct impression the candidate has; the others might come from Glassdoor.  Depending on how your company engages with outside social sources, the interview process may have the added obligation to counter outside perception.  Are you prepared for that?

Follow Up Quickly…

It has been my experience that follow-up is frequently non-existent or ignored.  This is most unfortunate, because following up quickly and directly is a great way to learn something important about your own organization, and to make someone feel that yours is an upstanding company regardless of the interview outcome.  Be honest, polite, but be timely.  Waiting two weeks to give feedback?  The candidate might have already moved on, and may have forgotten the name of your company.  Perhaps in that two week period, they’ve already posted their experience online.

…And Directly

If you extend an offer and it is declined by the candidate, you should try to find out why, in as direct a manner as possible.  Direct feedback is important.

As an example, say your business has some analytics problems that require machine learning skills in-house.  You interview three machine learning specialists (who normally have either advanced math, physics, or stats skills, or very niche tech skills, or all of the above.)  All the candidates turn down your offers. Your recruiting partner gives you watered-down feedback about the underlying reasons, but when you call the candidates directly, you hear that none of these highly skilled specialists want to sit in the noisy, boisterous, open floor plan that you thought was a stroke of genius for your millennial UX designers.  Now, will you create a dedicated area where the machine learning team can sit and ponder those difficult problems in relative quiet?  Unless you asked for feedback, you might never know the root cause, or how to address it.

When you talk to candidates that have gone through the interview process, ask about the high points and low points from their perspective.  Ask about the candidate’s experiences and feelings about the interactions with your company.  Listen to what is said, and what is not said.  These things are probably already being discussed between the candidate and his or her own colleagues, so it stands to reason that there is some value to be gleaned from the insight.  It might be surprising, inspiring, or perhaps frightening – but in all cases, it is new information to use.

Look in the Mirror

The elephant in the room is the health of your development organization.  In an interview situation, the candidate is trying to get a sense of what is really like to work in your structure, with your people, and under your leadership. Despite your own biases and assumptions, it’s about what the candidate can perceive in the process.  If your development culture is orthogonal to the skills you are trying to hire, you have a problem. A candidate that does his or her homework might be able to discern this during the interview process.  You certainly would not hire candidates that don’t do their homework, right?

I’ll talk about development culture in a future post, but if there are serious problems in the organization, the interview process could be signalling it for the world to see.

And Finally…

I encourage you to take an objective look at how technical candidates might perceive and interact with your company.  Their perspective could reveal fertile ground for improvement.