What I’ve learned interviewing 500 people: the interviewer skills ladder for high growth software companies

  • Attracting talent — making the candidate want to work with you
  • Spotting talent — accurately assessing whether you want the candidate to work with you

The Beginner

At the very earliest stage, an interviewer’s first and primary goal is to avoid a bad candidate experience, handle the social graces and customs of an interview and create the right conditions to evaluate a candidate. Have you ever left an interview confused about what the interviewer was even trying to get out of it? That’s the experience of interacting with a beginner.

Reaching competency

As an interviewer develops competence, they move from being a pure liability to, sometimes, an asset — creating neutral to positive experiences for candidates, keeping the interview on schedule, and engagingly explaining their work at the company.

Gaining proficiency

Proficient interviewers are where you start to separate from the pack — creating compelling candidate experiences, connecting with the candidate over common ground, and building rapport through honest answers to tough questions. Proficient interviewers are also better at evaluating candidates — they’ll know when someone is just taking an off-beat track and how to probe the candidate in a way that feels constructive, rather than aggressive. When a candidate is spinning out, they’ll know how to pull them back and give them a shot at showing what they can do.

Becoming an expert

At Dropbox we had one interviewer candidates would consistently name as the person they met during the interview process that they really wanted to work with. It was amazing — and it worked really well for her because she’d sometimes end up having candidates ask to join her team instead of the role they were initially interviewing for. One coworker I talked to about this person said that he literally stopped interviewing at other companies after he met her. She brought the incredible energy and candidate connection of a true talent magnet.

How does it all fit together?

While the descriptions above capture most of the key behaviors, there are a lot of specifics. The sections below lay out a more detailed breakdown and show how each level of skill compares.

  • Find a bullet point you’re not good at
  • Work at improving it, until you’ve mastered it
  • Find another bullet point to tackle
  • Collect all the bullets within a level and then move up!

The ladder

Attracting Talent

Beginner

  • Learning how to create a neutral to positive candidate experience throughout the interview while evaluating the candidate — sometimes negative reactions may leak through
  • Handling the basic social graces of the interaction — physical comfort, greetings and candidate handoffs, eye contact, etc.
  • Learning how to talk about the company and the interviewer’s role in an engaging way — e.g. may get into too many details
  • Ability to create a neutral to positive candidate experience for most candidates
  • Keeping the interview on a schedule that allows the candidate to reach a sense of closure at the end, even if they struggled with the question
  • Able to convey an engaging description of the interviewer’s own role and reason for being at the company
  • Able to avoid sending out negative vibes to struggling candidates
  • Ability to create a consistently positive candidate experience
  • Able to connect with candidates over common interests or experiences
  • Can answer more challenging questions from candidates (e.g. about the negatives of a company) without improperly setting bad expectations for the candidate
  • Ability to consistently frame questions and probe the candidate on their knowledge in a non-confrontational way that feels engaged, collaborative or curious
  • Talent magnet — able to get candidates excited about the role, the company, and the potential to work with the interviewer
  • Often brings a great deal of positive energy to the interview
  • Usually good at sussing out a candidate’s interests and connecting with them on a personal level or using that knowledge to frame the role or company
  • Well aware of what does — or doesn’t — resonate with candidates and adjusting the pitch over time

Spotting Talent

Beginner

  • Learning to create the conditions for an effective evaluation
  • Learning some core interview questions and the rubric for evaluating those questions
  • Able to set the right up-front expectations for the interview structure and expected nature of answers so that the candidate is set up to shine
  • May let candidate spend too much time in the wrong areas of a question
  • Able to capture high level notes and summarize the flow of the interview along with a tentative conclusion
  • Likely only peripherally aware of possible unconscious biases
  • Able to evaluate typical candidate responses effectively
  • Solid grasp of several core interview questions and ability to consistently apply the rubric to them
  • Effectively managing time by keeping the candidate from getting bogged down in the wrong places or for the wrong reasons
  • Knowing when to hint, and when not to, to set the candidate up for success
  • Taking thorough notes without detracting from interactions with the candidate
  • Summarizing the results of the interview into a clear, evidence-based write-up that explains the rationale for a yes or no
  • Awareness of own unconscious biases, and factoring into decision making
  • Able to evaluate non-standard candidate responses effectively
  • Strong grasp of a number of interview questions and their rubrics, as well as the ability to consistently apply a meta-rubric of general expectations across all interviews, and use it to evaluate candidates who go take unusual approaches to a question or who demonstrate patterns of behavior, either positive or negative, that aren’t captured by a formal question write-up
  • Dealing appropriately with struggling candidates or difficult candidates (e.g. who talk a lot, or go off-track)
  • Starting to shadow and reverse shadow interviews that require more subjective evaluation (e.g. behavioral interviews) or have a more open ended problem space
  • Detecting ambiguity and asking the right follow-up questions while also creating the appropriate amount of “space” for the candidate to show what they know
  • Consistently accounting for own unconscious biases
  • Keen sense of what skills the organization requires; able to explain hiring recommendations by putting the candidate’s abilities in the context of the organization or team’s needs
  • Able to evaluate a large range of candidates effectively, including senior roles or roles that the interviewer herself hasn’t held
  • Able to evaluate questions where there are no single clearly correct answers and subjective judgment is required on a case-by-case basis to assess whether the candidate did the right thing
  • Objectively evaluating subjective interviews and understanding how to separate a candidate’s presentation/speaking skills or environment from their actual job skills and personal contribution

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Alex Allain

Alex Allain

CTO @ U.S. Digital Response; ex-Dropbox; Creator: cprogramming.com, Author: Jumping into C++; C-host decodingsalespodcast.com