Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Interviewing

All right folks, hopefully some of you seasoned business owners and non-PHB managers can help me out.  I am a one man show with too much on my plate at the moment,  so, its time to grow the business.  Pretty exciting, but I have never had to interview anyone before.

I read Joel's thoughts on the matter, and they seem pretty solid.  Now, perhaps I could get some musings from the rest of you.  In short, some comments on the following might be good:

[1]  How do you personally, stucture your interview.  Joel proposes a nice agenda, but alternatives are always nice.

[2] Favorite interview questions both tech and otherwise.

[3]  Ever have an interview go horribly wrong with a candidate you really liked?  What did you do to win him over?

As always, any and all comments welcome ...

canuck
Friday, July 11, 2003

canuck,

Before I can say something like, "Look for someone who is willing to work for low pay in exchange for being mentored", you will need to provide us with more information.  What will the new hire be required to do (on a day-to-day basis, occassionally, etc.) for you?

Most of the questions you ask in a phone or face-to-face interview should be based on whatever work criteria you come up with.

As for the technical part of the interview, the most important thing to do is to ask probing technical questions. 

If you feel that asking questions is simply not "good enough" then I suggest you give potiential candidates some choices.  For example, you could:

* Have them take a written test
* Have them take an online test
* Have them create something simple for you on one of your PCs
* Ask them to show you software they wrote on their own time

If you are really paranoid about hiring someone who quickly turns out to be a lemon than you should think about hiring someone on a contracting basis (you pay them when you have work for them).

The best advice I can give you is to be brutally honest with the people you decide to interview and act like you normally do when you are in work mode.

One Programmer's Opinion
Friday, July 11, 2003

I do loads of interviewing in a different field and I always ask about things lacking in the CV - though dealing with intorverts this might not be a great idea!

Interviews have never been shown as more reliable selection methods than tossing a coin, so treat them as a social occasion intended to get the guy out of his shell.

Stephen Jones
Friday, July 11, 2003

> Interviews have never been shown as more reliable selection methods than tossing a coin

Interesting, do you have data to back this up, I'd love to see it.

www.marktaw.com
Friday, July 11, 2003

They did research on this some years back. Presumably the groups would have been culled beforehand.

With programming you might need the interview process to weed out BS more than in other jobs.

No direct links to give you I'm afraid. The data just stuck. Incidentally all the managers involved in the interviewing process considered it the best way of selecting candidates!

Stephen Jones
Friday, July 11, 2003

My interview structure is

1)  Get them to relax.  Offer coffee, soda, a bathroom break, etc.  This is 2-3 minutes.
2)  Start out with softball questions.  One or two easy questions lets them regain their confidence.
3)  Now start asking the hard stuff.  This is the bulk of the interview.  My questions get progressivly harder, the only people that make it to the end of my list in the allotted time are those who can't answer any questions.
4)  Let them ask you questions.  This is 30 seconds to 10 minutes, I just let them ask questions until they're done, or I have to be somewhere else.

All of my programming questions require them to write code.  I'm not looking for piddly syntax errors, I'm after how they approach the problem, and the algorithms they use.  I've also interviewed a lot of people for other departments that use languages I don't know.  I find I can spend 10 minutes before an interview to get the rudiments of the language enough to know if that Python script is in fact lisp.

snotnose
Friday, July 11, 2003

There's an interesting article on artima.com about a panel discussion on how to interview a programmer.  Techniques differed among the panel members, so there's no one "best" way, but the responses are interesting.

See http://www.artima.com/wbc/interprog.html

Nick
Friday, July 11, 2003

Thanks for the link, Nick.

Very informative ...

canuck
Friday, July 11, 2003

Canuck,

I did something interesting in my latest round of interviews. In the job posting I asked them not to send their resume, and instead asked for a short writing sample answering questions I posted in the job announcement.

Over 75% sent their resume, with no other comments.  In effect, they spammed their resume to me. They didn't even try to follow instructions. Attention to detail is important.

Also, if your salary range is low, tell them up front what it is, you then won't waste your time interview those who cannot afford the low salary.

Finally, I sent them a written test to show their coding skills on some 2-4 day tasks. Many promised it by a certain time, but instead sent nothing. Many attempted the problems, but really couldn't finish.

There was great variance in the solutions presented by people who finished the test. In the interview, the test provided over an hour of discussion on what they were thinking. The only think that bothered me is that only one of the candidates asked me any questions about the deliberately vague test questions, the rest took it upon them to slaughter the answer. Some sent 5-10 days worth of code that did not represent the question at all. Way in left field. Is that how they intend to work for me?

In the end, the person I ended up hiring was in my salary range, didn’t spam their resume, made an effort to understand our company, found a bug in my code, asked reasonable and relevant questions about the test, and even made suggestions about process in my company.

What else can I ask for?

Also, are you in the Phoenix area? Are you hiring? :)

--
ee

eclectic_echidna
Friday, July 11, 2003

Don't forget the importance of personality compatibility. Particularly in a small office with someone who you'll be working closely with all day. As the owner/sole decision maker, you have the wonderful luxury of hiring exactly who you want and not having to justify the decision to anyone (I assume).

So put extra effort into finding someone that you'd like to work with. That may very not be the most technically qualified person. Not that I'm saying you should hire an idiot that you get along with, but having a jelled team is much more important than having a bunch of super-stars who are a team in name only ("chickens with lips are funny", etc).

But how do you determine compatability? Unfortunately the only way I know is time. So I'd recommend conducting much longer interviews than normal and, if possible, include some sort of relaxed social component. For example, set up the interview for late morning, do all the standard interview stuff, then, if you like the candiate so far, invite them out to lunch.

Bill Tomlinson
Friday, July 11, 2003

ee,

Thanks for the advice!  Those are some creative suggestions.  The kind of fresh perspective I was looking for.

---
Also, are you in the Phoenix area? Are you hiring? :)
--

I'm in Canada, near Toronto ... hence the moniker.  If the commute is not too much for you, send a CV my way. ; )

canuck
Friday, July 11, 2003

Where if anywhere will you advertise for candidates, canuck?

The phrase "One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to recruit from a shopping list" from http://www.artima.com/wbc/interprog.html was remarkable, given that every advertisement I see has just such a shopping list.

Christopher Wells
Friday, July 11, 2003

http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mbehavioralint.html

Seth Gordon
Friday, July 11, 2003

I have an ad in the Saturday edition paper of the largest area paper.  Its due out tomrrow, so I am rather interested to see what the response will be.

It does in fact have a 'shopping list' in the ad, but its quite short, so as to attract a diverse field of candidates.

The prospective candidate will be immersed in thick client, web, .NET, wireless handheld, higher order mathematics and database work.  So, flexibility and aptitude rank highly as desireable skills.  Programming experience in a particular language will not be a limiting factor.

Despite this, I can't have my head in the clouds.  I do have deliverables that my clients are expecting, and it has to be quality.  The candidate in question must have some foundation in the things that are expected to be done.  Most notably, Windows development and SQL concepts.

canuck
Friday, July 11, 2003

Dear eclectic,
                    Your approach of expecting people to go to the effort of writing out indiividual answers to your questions is both inconsiderate and short-sighted.

                      Why should a candidate go to all that individual trouble for you if all you have done is place an ad? You will automatically miss the applications of those who are rightfully warned off by this example of inconsideration for employees.

                      For your initial ad ask for the generic resume; many will have various tweaked versions or will tweak it anyway. Then for the subset you are interested in mail them back and ask them any additional information you need. If you are taking time to answer them individually, they will do the same for you.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, July 12, 2003

I think echidna's ad has the advantage of looking "creative" and more importantly makes one feel as if it's less random and arbitrary than most selection processes.  For someone who spends time online, it's fairly natural to write a small answer.

But a 2 to 4 day test project?  What does that mean, 16 to 32 hours of work, or something that you might think about a little bit for a couple of days before implementing?  If the former, it's pretty onerous.  Otherwise, sounds like fun, programmers like coding small things that aren't boring as long as you're not taking advantage of their work.

anon
Saturday, July 12, 2003

I don't think interviews are any more necessary in this field than in others.

I agree that personality compatibility is a huge factor.

Has anyone read Ernest Shackleton's book?  Before going on a voyage across the Anarctic, his interviews were routinely based on gut feel and whether or not he thought he could work with the person.

The process he went through is quite amazing.  You want to tell me having the best engineer isn't important to someone like that, compared to writing something like a database application?  The two don't even compare.

I agree with the earlier comments about using the time to get someone out of their shell.  Personally I tend to ask a lot of "Tell me about a time when..." comments.  This gets their ACTUAL response in ACTUAL situations in a past.  They don't have any room to BS you about "oh in an ideal world I would do X, but ..."

- Rick

Rick Watson
Sunday, July 13, 2003

So, are you getting a good response? I didn't see your ad in the Toronto Star. If you like, another place where you can advertise (for free, and unlimited length) is in the "tor.jobs" (or "ont.jobs") newsgroup.

Christopher Wells
Monday, July 14, 2003

Christopher,

I am actually in London ... so, I advertised in the local Free Press which reaches about  ~150,000 people on Saturdays.

I recieved about 30 or so resumes, about what I expected.  What did suprise me however, is that at least half of them were quality candidates (well at least on paper!).

I have about 10 interviews scheduled for this week. 

Should be interesting ...

canuck
Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Canuck:

Can you give any more details?  I lived in London for a while (went to Western) and would love to move back but the number and quality of high tech jobs was low so I moved to TO.

I checked the online free press but I didn't see you ad...

Billy

Billy Boy
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Billy Boy,

The job opening is a 4 month contract involving web, database, handheld and app development.  Send me your info if you wish, but I have a sneeking suspicion that this might not be enough to entice you to move back to London ...

canuck
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

No, I wouldn't move just for a 4 month oppurtunity.  Oh well, its always nice to dream about getting out of the big city.  Maybe I'm also remembering London with rose coloured glasses.  It was university and my first real job and also included by first real PHB (yes Philippe this is you, you french idiot) and my first real layoff.

Still I do remember a city with lots of trees, green space and nice paths by the river...

Billy Boy
Thursday, July 17, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home