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Out of the interview loop

 Recruiting is like a huge vacuum sucking up all my time on campus. But quickly hiring a quality candidate is worth every minute. Luckily, I’m not dependent on anyone for most of the recruiting process. This keeps my candidates rolling through. That is, until the interview loop.

Man, if I could only skip the interview loop, I’d have it made. No scheduling hassles; no multi-week delays for a time slot; no horrible interview questions; no disappearing feedback; no “borderline” hires; no vague, gut-based garbage criteria; no freight train of duplicate thinking; and no last-minute cancellations.

But you can’t skip the interview loop—ever. If Bill Gates wanted a job on my team, I’d put him through a loop. No offense. Just put him through the loop and make sure he’s going to be a successful addition to the team—then brace myself if he’s a no hire.

Blaming the help

Some of you hiring managers may take exception to my statement that I’m not dependent on anyone until the loop. You may say, “What about my recruiter? My recruiter doesn’t give me the time of day. My recruiter hasn’t sent me a resume in months. My recruiter is the bottleneck.” Man, am I glad that I’m competing against you for hires. If it weren’t for you lazy, incompetent fools, I’d have a heck of a time stealing all your strong candidates.

Your recruiter is your partner, your friend, and your resource—not your servant. Recruiters have WAY too many positions to fill. Unless your VP thinks your open position is critical, your recruiter cannot do all your grunt work. So get over yourself, get over to your recruiter’s office, and get all over their stack of resumes. Otherwise, move over while I get my positions filled.

Eric AsideToday all the resumes are online, of course. (They pretty much were back then too.) However, the point remains that if you don’t find your own candidates, your candidates will find some other job.

Ninety percent preparation

Now, back to the interview loop. (I’ll have to save general thoughts about recruiting for a future column.) So many hiring managers get the interview loop process wrong that I’m just going to lay it out for you. A successful loop is 90% in the preparation, and the rest lies with your As Appropriate interviewer. The preparation falls into three steps:

  • Prepping the interviewers.
  • Prepping the recruiter.
  • Prepping the interviewers again.

Anyone who can interview should prepare in advance by

  • Taking interviewer training.
  • Developing strong interview questions.

Without interview training, your junior people won’t learn the proper technique and your senior people won’t learn what bad habits they’ve acquired. Without strong interview questions, you might as well hire Jason Voorhees.

Eric AsideMicrosoft internal interviewer training is now available as a two-hour online course. There’s no excuse—everyone on your team should be prepared.

That is the question

Ah, the interview question. What makes a strong interview question? After many years of interviewing, I’ve decided there are only two types of worthwhile interview questions:

  • Questions that expose personality traits.
  • Questions that demonstrate how the candidate will perform on the job.

Brain teasers are worthless, background questions are a yawn, and “How would you do this job” questions are mindless regurgitation. Rarely do these types of questions directly expose personality traits or truly demonstrate performance. That is, unless you use the very best follow-up interview question of them all, “Why?” Not once or twice, but repeatedly until you get to that key personality trait or performance characteristic.

Even better, start with a “why” question. For instance, “Why do you want this job? Why are you leaving your old job? Why are you still working for Microsoft? Why do you want to work for Microsoft?” Again, these questions are useless if you stop asking “why” after the first response.

You are looking for how this person aligns with our key competencies, particularly passion, follow-through, flexibility, integrity, and professionalism. Anyone can show these on the surface. Keep asking “why” to get below the surface and find real evidence one way or the other.

The whiteboard compiler

Aside from “why” questions, there are coding questions (or other similar technical problem-solving questions) that try to uncover how candidates will perform on the job. These can be strong interview questions. The issue is coming up with the right questions.

Rather than bore you with countless examples of bad, overused, web-publicized questions, I’ve got a step-by-step guide for coming up with your own great new questions:

  1. Choose two or three real problems that you or your team have worked on over the past 18 months. The solutions should fit on a single whiteboard and involve at least three different variables. This ensures that you are selecting challenges with short and nontrivial solutions. In general they are small functions, pieces of a design problem, or particular test cases.
  2. Break down each problem into a simple core issue, and use that as the first question. As a candidate builds confidence, add more complications that increase the difficulty. For instance, have the candidates look for more optimal solutions, introduce new cases, or ask for a more robust “production-quality” solution.
  3. Call out areas that are gray in their analysis, and push the candidates for answers to see how they respond to questions outside of their safe zones.
  4. Be prepared for multiple problem solutions, and point out real issues from your real problems.

Discard problems that are over two or three years old. You always encounter new problems, so rotate old problems out. It makes interviewing more fun for you and more relevant for the candidates. It’s also much harder for candidates to read the answers on the Internet.

Eric AsideThere is a huge tendency to hold onto old problems because it’s easier and you’ve already learned how to gauge candidates’ solutions. Get over it. Recent problems are better.

The goal is to see how each candidate approaches and solves the problems, not to get the right solution. There are a wide variety of things that could keep great candidates from finding a solution during the few minutes that they have with you. Instead, look for how they display core competencies while they are problem solving, such as the following:

  • Did they identify if a strategy isn’t working?
  • Are they asking you questions to help them get on the right path, and do they listen to your hints?
  • Did they analyze their process and results?
  • Did they apply multiple strategies?

Be present in mind and soul when each candidate is at the whiteboard. You aren’t looking for the answer; you are looking for how they get there.

Much of this information can be found in the Interviewer Toolkit, a great resource that HR put together with the help of a number of dev managers, including myself. You can also share and critique questions with your friends and dev team, but be careful not to duplicate their questions or soon the solutions will be published on the web.

Eric AsideThese days I often need to assess competencies that don’t lend themselves to whiteboard problem solving, so I use role playing instead. The basic premise is simple: if you want to evaluate how well someone can code, have them code; if you want to evaluate someone’s confidence in their decision making, question their decisions.

Prepping the recruiter

After your interviewers are prepared with potential questions for candidates, you must prepare your recruiter. Send your recruiter the job description (including title and level information) and a long list of prepared interviewers. The longer the list, the easier it is to schedule interviews.

If you are just staffing up, borrow interviewers from your peers’ teams and spread around the interviews to avoid creating a high burden on any one individual. Then be prepared to pay back the favor. Regardless of how you find the potential interviewers, let your recruiter choose from many names.

Present your interviewers like a menu: For the first interview, choose from one of these fine selections; for the second interview, indulge in one of these excellent choices. And so on. You can repeat names and be creative, just make it as easy as possible to schedule and you’ll get more loops scheduled faster.

Prepping the interviewers (again)

Finally, the day before the interview comes and, with it, the interview feedback instructions thread. Reply to this thread right away with your instructions for the interview loop. Tell your interviewers about the position, what you are looking for in this particular candidate, and how you want the interviews conducted.

Each candidate can bring different things to the position. Each candidate may interest you in different ways. You must describe this to the people in the interview loop as well as describe your sense of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Next, tell the interviewers what type of competencies you want each of them to focus on. Each interviewer should have a clear mission with as little overlap as possible. Leave room for a late interviewer to follow up on issues raised earlier in the day, but make sure every interviewer has a role. This prevents repeat questions, wasted time, and painful oversights.

A gentle reminder

Finally, remind the interviewers of the following:

  • Speak briefly and privately to the next interviewer before that interview starts. Talk about the candidate and your hire/no-hire decision. Let the next interviewer know what kinds of questions you asked and what kinds still need to be asked.

Eric AsideGiven that interviewers each have a clear mission with little overlap, you may wonder why it’s necessary to tell the next interviewer your impressions or what you asked. It’s because life is unpredictable and humans are human. Maybe your interviewer changed things around. Maybe the interview got off on a tangent. Maybe some interesting character trait arose that deserves special attention. Who knows? Being flexible is a good thing.

  • Write and send feedback promptly after the interview.
  • Start with your hire/no-hire decision.
  • Follow that with a short summary of your impressions, both gut and substantive.
  • Add concrete examples from your interview that back up each of your impressions. Quotes from the candidate are especially useful.
  • Include what questions you asked and what questions still need to be asked.
  • Conclude as you wish.
  • Do not use the word “borderline” in your hire/no-hire decision; make your choice and then defend it. By default, a borderline hire is a no-hire.
  • Do not be afraid or embarrassed to disagree with the prior interviewers. Say what you really feel, what you really saw and heard.

The last puzzle piece

With this preparation, the people on your interview loop should be ready to give each candidate a strong interview and reveal real insight into how successful the candidate could be in your open position.

The last piece of the puzzle is your As Appropriate interviewer, the last interviewer in the loop. Like the rest of the loop, you should have a few As Appropriate interviewers available on your interview loop menu. The As Appropriate should be

  • At least as familiar with your position and expectations as your recruiter. Ideally, you should discuss the position with the As Appropriate personally.
  • Engaged in the interview process all day, gathering late feedback, correcting and illuminating poor feedback, and focusing on trouble areas.
  • Prepared to sell your position and the team if the candidate is a strong hire.

Eric AsideThe last interviewer at Microsoft is called the “As Appropriate” because he or she is a senior person and will do the last interview only if it’s appropriate—that is, if the candidate shows real promise.

With a good set of interviewers, strong preparation on all fronts, and an aggressive recruiting effort, your interview loops will become your strength instead of your weakness, your propellant instead of your weight. You’ll get your positions filled quickly, with great people, and be back at full strength, ready to deliver.

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