After the Tower of Hanoi discussion, I was trying to think about other tricks I’ve picked up over my career that aren’t really taught anywhere. We’ve been filling an open position at work and I had the opportunity to coach the process, and I thought that would be a good topic to share. I’m going to try to have this discussion from both perspectives, the person looking and the person hiring, and point out how each can contribute to a better outcome.
There are two sides to the hiring process - the person looking for the job and the person who is trying to fill a job. We’re going to approach this discussion from both sides to understand (my opinion) of how each of those people can help the other. There are a lot of other people in the middle - recruiters and HR for instance - but their job is to define the broad band of acceptability. As a job seeker, the whole point of your resume is to get through this filtering. As a hiring manager, your job is to make sure that the automated processes used here don’t filter out good candidates.
Both sides are under a lot of stress. The hiring manager is worried about only getting to talk to someone for an hour and then making a decision about hiring. Done poorly, it’s like speed dating into marriage! Keeping in mind that we spend more time with our co-workers than our spouses and it’s easy to see that making a bad decision will make everyone’s life some shade of miserable. The job seeker is worried about landing a job, particularly if they are unemployed. The seeker doesn’t always realize that the only thing worse than getting a job is getting the wrong job.
Story time: One of the best hires I ever made, a man of deep experience who has a real love for helping people, drove the office nuts. He was a talker, and our office was a bunch of introverts who liked to keep the lights off and stay in their cubicles with their heads down. Everyone involved in this story are good people, but throwing an extrovert into a pool of introverts made everyone uncomfortable. This is the classic example of the importance of finding a good fit.
A story from the other side: I once interviewed for an IT Director position at a hospital. It went well, but the CIO told me he wanted to fire everyone in that department and have me re-hire from scratch. That was a heck of an opportunity and would have been a somewhat prestigious position, but what they wanted just wasn’t me. When I think about the person I want and try to be, I see myself as a teacher and mentor. Cutting an entire department as soon as I walked in the door would have been tough and it would have left me with a target on my back that I’m unprepared to handle. We had some discussions about alternatives approaches but I couldn’t get the CIO to at least give me time to do an evaluation. In the end I withdrew, and I am thankful that I had that insight into the organization and was able to back out.
In my opinion, the goal of an interview isn’t to get hired. It’s to find a job where you and the organization can be successful together. Yes, part of that is talking about your experience and the programming languages you’ve used, but that should be the smallest part. Your resume and all those intermediaries should have filtered out the people who didn’t have the right set of buzzwords. By the time an interview is happening those hurdles should be mostly past.
When I interview, whichever side of the table I’m on, I want to understand the people I would be working with. Would I be comfortable working with them for a long time? I also want to understand the culture. Culture can be overused and become an empty word, but I’m trying to describe the constellation of things that describe the work environment. Here’s a quick set of examples:
We’ve all had them. I once sat through an hour long interview where the guy barely asked a question. He got wound up explaining the job, talked for an hour, then shook my hand and offered me the job. I thought, “Wow, what makes you think I’d be a good fit?” I’m positive that readers have their own tales.
There are a lot of stock questions that can be used. Job seekers can (and should) have a canned response to these. What is your biggest failure? Give me an example of a good team you were on? Really, the whole process of sitting down at a desk and going over a resume is pretty predictable. The biggest thing either side learns is how prepared the other was.
Bad interviewers, in my experience, basically hire at random. Most of the work is done by the HR screening. Even if you are a good hire, there’s a good possibility that other people in the group aren’t. If you are unsure of what kind of interviewer you are, just think back to who did most of the talking and how much actual memorable information was shared. I have no advice for the interviewer here - until they recognize the issue the advice is wasted. For the job seeker, when you experience this kind of interview then assume the job is a bad fit until proven otherwise.
I’ve worked in the industry for 30 years and been interviewed a number of times. I’ve hired people on five continents and from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve learned from a variety of places and people. I hesitate to say that my way is the best, but I think it’s teachable and reliably pretty good at finding people who are good fits.
The first thing I suggest is breaking the format. Don’t sit down at a desk or in a conference room. Conduct the interview while doing a plant tour or while walking around the office and introducing the person. Go for a walk outside. I once drove someone around to show them the area and talk about housing while we did the interview. Do something to get out of the programmed responses. If you are the job seeker, ask to be shown around to try to get out of that stilted situation.
The second thing I suggest is to start with some soft questions that just re-iterate the basics. Sometimes there’s a story that the needs to be shared, and this presents a great opportunity for getting that off the chest. This is reciprocally true - both sides have opening statements they want to get out.
The place I try to work to and to spend most of the interview is “joint troubleshooting”. I take an example of a recent issue, simplify it, and present it for discussion. I’ve found this works really well when I don’t know the answer - we’re trying to collaboratively turn the problem in different orientations and think it through together. This gives me an idea of what the person is like to work with and how they think on their feet. When it doesn’t go well, I still get some ideas. As a job seeker, the agenda of the interview is outside your control but you can sometimes prompt this kind of discussion with a question such as “Tell me about your most worrying issue. I’d like to hear about the kind of problems you face and how you are working through them.”
This is my final thought on this subject. As a manager, I hope that I’ve done a good job of hiring good people who are invested in our success. I try to reiterate to those folks that hiring good people is the #1 thing we can do to improve the work environment. If I’ve hired good people and they understand how important it is to bring in new employees who “fit” and who add value, then it’s the height of chutzpah to believe that I’m going to learn something in an interview that trumps a recommendation. Many times, people recommend folks that they worked with for years. These are folks that they’ve had good and bad times with and they still recommend them. I’d rather have a referral from a trusted co-worker than a perfect interview.
Regardless of which side of the table you’re seated at, I wish you the best and hope these ideas are helpful!