About halfway into his 25-year tech career, Ian Douglas interviewed with a startup. The meeting took place over dinner with the company’s two founders. Just as the trio settled in at their table, another person arrived.
“Turns out they were interviewing me and this other person for the same job at the same time,” said Douglas, director of engineering learning at Stream, a Boulder, Colorado-based provider of chat and activity feed application program interfaces. The setup gave him and the other candidate the chance to outdo each other’s answers. “We were ping-ponging back and forth,” he said.
That situation alone might have been enough to end Douglas’s interest in the job. Then, over dinner, the founders revealed that they hadn’t yet legally formed the business, and told Douglas his compensation would be pure equity with no salary. “At that point I excused myself,” Douglas said, calling the incident “by far the weirdest interview I’ve ever been part of.”
This extreme example demonstrates how wrong tech interviews can go if interviewers free-wheel or don’t prepare for them. Just as candidates prepare for job interviews, so must hiring managers. Douglas and other hiring managers offer eight pro tips for getting the most out of time with a potential hire.
8 Ways to Improve Your Interviewing Techniques
- Prepare yourself and your team before the interview.
- Keep questions legal.
- Get the candidate talking.
- Avoid questions that invite “yes” or “no” answers.
- Present real-world scenarios.
- Ask about communication skills.
- Ask about career journeys.
- Provide feedback to all candidates.
Before the interview, gather the team and decide on questions. Decide who will go first in the process and who will ask what, as few things have the potential to rattle a job candidate more than being asked the same question over and over.
A pre-interview huddle, plus some advance planning, can also prevent nerves from derailing the interviewing team. Consider a three-step “what to expect when you interview someone” walkthrough to prepare team members new to the process.
First, explain why certain questions are asked and what the answer should be. “It’s more than asking a question and hearing an answer,” Douglas said.
Second, have inexperienced interviewers shadow more experienced ones. Explain the situation to candidates: “This person is sitting in and taking notes because we’re training them to do interviews,” is one way to phrase it, Douglas suggests. The employee shadowing should take notes during the interview, so they and the interviewer can compare notes post interview, “just to get feedback on how they might have conducted the interview,” Douglas said.
Third, shadow the newly minted interviewer during their first interview, evaluating the candidate as if you were the lead interviewer and comparing notes afterward. “Give them good feedback on how they conducted themselves, or suggest areas that need polishing,” Douglas said.
Keep It Legal
Interviewers must know what topics are legally off limits — at both the federal and state level — during interviews. Federal law prohibits questions related to a candidate’s race, age, ethnicity, color, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, marital status, and country of origin. Some states prohibit questions about salary history.
This includes questions about pregnancy, plans to start a family, college graduation dates (which could be used to guess the candidate’s age) being off limits. Questions about alcohol or drug use and dating should be avoided, too. To avoid pitfalls, focus interviews strictly on the job, Douglas said.
Get the Candidate Talking
When interviewers clam up, you need to get them talking. “One of my favorite questions in an interview setting is ‘Tell me about a project that you’re most proud of, and explain what your contribution was,’” said James Diel, founder and CEO of Textel, a St. Louis, Missouri-based texting service for businesses. The question lets candidates discuss a topic they are passionate about, and reduces some of the tension that can arise in an interview setting.
Answers also reveal the candidate's skills and prior experience, and sparks a discussion that’s more revealing than a straight-up Q&A. “You can learn all about their competencies, workplace behaviors and technical prowess all under the umbrella of one simple question,” Diel said. “It makes it easier to have an engaging conversation, the kind of environment that helps you learn the most about a candidate.”
Avoid Yes or No Questions
“Ask questions like a journalist would, probing with ‘who,’ ‘what,’ when,’ ‘where’ and ‘why’ questions,” said Trevor Larson, CEO of Nectar HR, a peer-to-peer rewards software developer based in Orem, Utah. For instance, if a candidate’s resume says they were on a team responsible for a certain percentage of their former company’s growth, ask how they achieved the goal and with what tools, Larson said.
Present Real-World Scenarios
Interviewers should ask candidates specific questions about real-world scenarios, particularly problems they might encounter on the job, said Trevor Larson of Nectar. “These questions assess a candidate’s problem-solving ability, which usually tops my list of required skills,” Larson said.
One example: “Interdepartmental collaboration and data sharing is a growing part of the business. How would you work around a digital literacy gap between yourself and a coworker?” Successful answers have ranged from using Loom and other tools to create walkthroughs for colleagues; unsuccessful answers involve finding another person to work with. “That doesn’t cut it at Nectar because we frequently assign people collaboration partners,” Larson said.
Another example: “Integration always introduces complexity, but it is part of our constant drive towards efficiency. How would you, as a project manager, avoid the time delays that are often associated with integrating third-party and custom applications with our software solution?”
Good answers, in Larson’s view, mention improving an understanding of end-user requirements and developing a more rigorous and frequent testing schedule. Less than stellar answers mention working overtime or hiring more people. “We take a preemptive and proactive approach to these kinds of issues and I am looking for people whose answers indicate that is how they operate as well,” Larson said.
Explore Communication Skills
Gauge future tech workers’ communication skills with this question: “How would you communicate something technical to a non-tech savvy person?” said David Bitton, co-founder and CMO of DoorLoop, a rental-property management software company based in Miami, Florida. Bitton, who has about 200 employees, reserves this question for candidates applying for technical positions.
Acceptable responses, he said, summarize the application of technology without getting into the entire process, is free or nearly free of jargon, and uses diagrams or other visuals to aid communication. “We thought it remarkable when a candidate articulated a technical idea from an end user’s perspective and explained what it does in simple words without making their audience feel dumbed down,” Bitton said.
Unacceptable responses are filled with jargon. “This shows a disregard for the person with whom they’re interacting, which isn’t ideal because we’re trying to figure out how well they can adapt their communication style depending on who they’re talking to,” Bitton said.
Ask About Their Career Journey
“How have your prior experiences in this industry led you to this position?” That’s Bill Mann’s favorite interview question, asked of him at the interview for his first IT position. “It helped me think about where my expertise came from and how I was going to employ it in the new position,” said Mann, privacy expert at Restore Privacy, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based service that helps customers with privacy and security issues.
The answer indicates experience and also confidence that they are mentally prepared for the position Mann is offering them. “Even if I’m interviewing a candidate who hasn’t had much experience in this industry, it’s important I know their story and how they decided to apply for this position,” he said.
Give Feedback to Everyone
When the interview process is over and the right candidate gets the job offer, contact everyone with feedback or at the very least, a “no thanks,” said Ian Douglas of Stream. Lack of feedback for job candidates “is definitely something that needs to change in our industry,” he said. "Too many candidates in the tech industry simply get told ‘no thanks’ with no feedback about why, and this leads to lots of frustration and self-doubt in the candidates,” he said.
He allows that interviewers might fear that negative feedback would reflect badly on the company, but it’s not necessary to approach feedback with guns blazing. “Sometimes, a simple conversation is all that’s needed to tell them what they did well and what could have been better,” Douglas said. “Using vague phrases like ‘you need more experience’ is not as helpful as pointing out in which specific areas someone could improve their skills.”
For positive feedback, an interviewer can praise a candidate’s communication skills, and then explain why they didn’t get an offer. For instance: “We were looking for someone with more database background, and ultimately we found another candidate who had that level of experience,’” Douglas said.