What I learned about interviews after sitting on the other side of the desk

This week, I interviewed another programmer for the first time. Even going through this process a mere one time has given me a lot of insight into the hiring process and why it is really, really difficult to judge a candidate based on only a short period of interaction. Because my experience is new and fresh enough to remember what it’s like to not know this now-obvious information, I’m going to share my thoughts for those who haven’t experienced it.

When you bring someone in for an interview, you think they might be able to fill a team role you need, but you’re not completely sure. On a scale from “hire” to “don’t hire,” the candidate sits right at “maybe”. After the interview stage, you no longer get to pick from shades of grey: you either hire them, or you don’t. Your time to give an interview is extremely limited, so any questions you ask have the goal of converting that “maybe” to a yes or no. With that in mind, there are only a few reasons you decide to ask a question in an interview:

  1. To learn something new about the candidate: “How does he feel about working with [this technology]?”
  2. To confirm a suspicion you have: “I think she understands programming, but I get the impression she doesn’t know 3D math at all. Is that accurate?”
  3. To clarify something you’re unsure about: “He says he worked on [this project team], but what part of it did he actually create? Was it a meaningful contribution?”

What if you’re still sitting at “maybe” at the end of an interview? The safest decision is to interpret “maybe” as “no hire”. Bummer.

What can we take away from this knowledge as a candidate rather than as an interviewer?

The person interviewing you wants to hire you, they just need to confirm you can do the job. You want to prove you’re at least as skilled as they hope you are, and you need to assuage any fears or uncertainties they might have about you. If you fail to do either of these things, even if you seem like a great person who is super charismatic and fun to be around, your “maybe” status is still a “maybe,” and as I just mentioned above, maybe means no hire. If you get rejected after an interview, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t good enough; it might simply mean you did not give enough information to swing your interviewer from “maybe” to “yes, hire her!”.

Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely an interviewer will be direct and declare “I can tell you’re smart, but I’m not sure about how quickly and efficiently you’ll be able to get work done. Prove to me you can work quickly with examples from your past.” (In defense of interviewers, this is hardly a friendly or charismatic approach, and people are pretty bad at answering unexpected open-ended questions) Instead, they’ll probably say things like: “Tell me about your work on Interesting Side Project. How big was the team? How long did the project take to create? How did you handle keeping the scope of the project in check? Did you have to cut features?” As an upside, these questions are a lot easier to answer because they’re specific and direct; however, there is also a slight disconnect between what is being asked and what the interviewer actually is trying to figure out.

When reflecting on an interview, don’t just think about what you were asked, try to figure out why you were asked those questions. If you’re lucky, your name is Professor Charles Francis Xavier and reading minds is something you do on a daily basis. For us mere mortals, the best we can do is try to give it our best guess. If interviewers tend to focus on a specific section of your work experience, it could be because it’s the most impressive and interesting! …or maybe it’s the most unclear part of your resume and they’re not confident that previous job was adequate experience to prepare you for this new one. If you’re a fresh college graduate and you keep getting asked a lot of questions about your degree’s curriculum, they might be trying to figure out “I’ve never heard of this college. Is it a good program, or did they go to one of those borderline scam for-profit schools and not actually learn anything of value?”

At the end of the day, though, interviews are difficult for everyone involved. Both participants are trying to make a decision that will impact the next several months or years of their life based solely on a short 45-minute conversation. It’s far from a perfect system, and everyone’s going to make mistakes, but it’s the system we have, so just work with it as well as you can.

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