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Conference room with video conferencing setup
Conference room with video conferencing setup

On Remote Interviewing

Advice for Interviewing in an Age of Remote Work

Justin Binns
Mar 10 · 12 min read

One key activity for every company is recruiting new talent. Interviews are an important part of recruiting, as everyone knows, and the best interviews are always held in-person. Traditionally, at least for most modern tech companies, a day of on-site interviews has been the gauntlet that candidates must make it through to be considered for a position. There have been countless articles written about interviewing in this model, from both the side of the interviewer and the perspective of the candidate, and the overall strategies for behavioral interviewing are well understood.

Now, however, we find ourselves in a somewhat novel environment. Due to challenges facing the globe with the rise of COVID-19, the trend towards remote work has accelerated in recent weeks. Many organizations are encouraging entire teams to work from home out of an abundance of caution, and offices that were once teeming with prospective interviewers are now virtually empty. How are we to adapt? What changes does this new set of circumstances entail in the process of interviewing candidates? How can we gather the data we need, that has always been a part of the onsite interview, when it’s not on site, but remote instead? And as a candidate, what new and different preparations and expectations will help lead to success?

I have spent more than two decades in the software industry, in a variety of IC roles, and have many hundreds of interviews under my belt. In my time I have done interviews remotely, I have been a candidate for remote interviews, and I have worked with many types of interviewing strategies. Through all of that, I find myself also in new territory. Never before have I faced a situation where over a period of weeks or months, every interview is 100% remote. As we face these challenges together, I would like to offer some thoughts on how Compass is approaching remote interviewing, how I believe interviewers can still gather the data they need, and how candidates can best prepare for success.

Compass Interviewing Fundamentals

To start with, Compass is fairly standard and transparent in the interviewing process that our candidates go through. As with most technology companies today, Compass focuses on behavioral and functional interviewing, mixing skills tests with discussions of past choices and challenges in order to gather the best data possible to make a hiring decision. One key component of this approach is that there is no “secret sauce.” Since the focus is on an individual candidate’s experience and ability to solve problems, no amount of pre-knowledge will prevent skilled interviewers from gathering the data they need.

For most technology role on-site interview loops, whether for an individual contributor (IC) role or a technical management role, three primary areas will be probed, including how well the candidate embodies our , technical background and experience, and system design. In addition, for IC roles (and some management roles), coding ability is an important criterion for evaluation. The depth and focus of each of these areas will vary depending on the level of the role being considered and the past experience of the candidate. In this article, we will focus on the three primary areas of evaluation, as coding interviews are generally well understood in a remote context with the use of tools such as CoderPad.

Embodiment of Compass Entrepreneurship Principles

The first topic I will discuss is also in many ways the easiest. When interviewing to evaluate a candidate’s embodiment of our (CEPs), an interviewer will often be looking for specific instances of past behavior, and probing to determine details of behavior or choices. Candidates are encouraged to have several examples from throughout their career in order to be able to engage in a variety of ways as the interviewer attempts to gather data on how well a candidate embodies our CEPs, and how they have developed that embodiment over time.

While this is often a challenging interview experience, both for the interviewer and the candidate, it is the least impacted by the advent of remote interviewing. A large aspect of any communication is non-verbal, and this non-verbal communication is especially important in relating stories of past experiences and discussing decisions and actions. However, modern video conferencing and familiarity with remote technologies have given us as technologists a lot of experience and comfort in having meaningful discussions via video. Since most of the data we are looking for in this type of interview is from stories and discussion, video conferencing provides a reasonably straightforward medium. Even so, there are several things both interviewers and candidates can do to improve the experience for everyone.

Suggestions for Interviewers

  • Offer the candidate an opportunity to take a couple of minutes to use the restroom or get a drink at the beginning of your interview slot. Also, try to do the same at the end, but recognize that many interviewers will be running up against time and may not have the time available at the end of their slot. The candidate’s comfort is a huge part of having a positive experience and gathering high-quality data.
  • Enunciate, speak slowly, and be gracious about repeating yourself or clarifying. Communication over technology instead of communication in person has challenges — everything from glitches and audio cutouts to simple misunderstandings. It is your responsibility as an interviewer to ensure that the candidate understands your questions and that you understand their answers.
  • Give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. If something is said that you don’t understand, or disagree with, or you think you hear something outrageous, ask for clarification, ask a question, double-check, and be gracious about it. Recognize that communication is limited when non-verbal cues are limited, and asking for clarification before taking offense or making assumptions is vital.

Suggestions for Candidates

  • Take the opportunity to have a bathroom break or get a snack or drink if offered. If you need a break, and aren’t offered, don’t be afraid to ask. If you are comfortable as a candidate, you will do better and your interviewer will get better data.
  • Have some paper and a pen handy. Even though you won’t be sharing written notes or diagrams (most likely), having the ability to sketch down notes, or remind yourself of things, can be very helpful.
  • Ask questions. Clarify things if you are unsure, and always be gracious about miscommunication. The interviewer will hopefully be trying to work with you so that you both understand questions and answers, but don’t be afraid to push for clarification. If you don’t feel like you are being understood, try re-stating, or asking the interviewer to summarize what they think they heard. Communication is limited without non-verbal cues, so taking the time to make sure you are understood is vital.
  • General advice for this type of interview applies. In summary, have several experiences from your past in mind, with reasonable detail, in order to be able to provide examples of times when you have embodied the s. Be ready to talk about your successes, your failures, and your learnings. Be honest.

Technical Background and Experience

The purpose of a technical background and experience interview, sometimes referred to as a ‘Tech Deep Dive,’ is to gather data on what types of projects or systems with which a candidate has worked in the past, how deeply the candidate has understood their projects and systems, and to gauge how much the candidate has learned through their experiences. While there are many different ways of approaching this question with candidates, my approach tends to involve picking a project the candidate is comfortable talking about, preferably a project that had real customer impact and which the candidate contributed to substantially, and then working through as much detail as possible. As stated, the goal is to understand the depth of involvement, understanding, and investment from the candidate in a real, practical example from their past, and then to follow up with learnings and experiences the candidate derived from that investment.

Technical background and experience interviews are more difficult to conduct remotely than in person. It is often very difficult to communicate highly technical concepts and decisions without access to a whiteboard. Often candidates will want to use gestures and emote to describe their thoughts and experiences, and this is difficult when confined to a chair on a video conference. While it is undoubtedly better to have an in-person experience for this type of interview, it is important to remember the type of information being sought. Essentially, the goal is for the interviewer to understand, from concrete historical examples, how the candidate has previously approached a technical problem, how much depth that candidate has explored within that problem space, what decisions they made, how those decisions impacted the solution, and what the candidate ultimately learned. All of this data can be gathered verbally, albeit with some care and consideration for the limits of the communication available.

Suggestions for Interviewers

  • All of the suggestions from the Embodiment of Compass Entrepreneurship Principles discussion apply here equally well.
  • If you, as an interviewer, have a tendency to work with diagrams as part of your question and answer process, have a pad and a pen handy to draw diagrams you can share over the video connection. While this is far from ideal, it can help bridge a communication gap in a lot of cases.
  • Focus on the data you are trying to gather. Ask clarifying questions. Ask questions focusing on details. Don’t focus on the system-level description as much as the specifics of how particular parts of the problem or solution worked, what the candidate impacted, and what they learned. As you move to depth, focus on the behavior the candidate exhibited, not the specific choices they made.
  • Encourage the candidate to sketch things on a pad and share them with you via camera. This is far from perfect, but is often better than nothing.

Suggestions for Candidates

  • All of the suggestions from the Embodiment of Compass Entrepreneurship Principles discussion apply here equally well.
  • Having a pad and a pen handy is even more important for this type of interview. Conveying complex concepts can be difficult without a diagram at times, and while sharing sketches via a video camera is far from ideal, it can be better than nothing.
  • Take your time, answer with clarity and completeness, and work on using words to convey your ideas. Even after the interview, the modern technology world involves collaboration around the world on a regular basis; being able to discuss complex technical concepts over a video conference is a skill that cannot be overvalued.
  • General advice for this type of interview applies. Have at least two technical accomplishments prepared for discussion, if possible. Be prepared to answer detailed questions about your contributions, as well as about the project or problem space as a whole. Be clear about what you contribute versus what your team did, and be proud of your specific contributions; they are what tell your story in this type of interview.

System Design

A system design interview is, in many ways, a forward-looking version of the technical background and experience interview. In a system design session, the interviewer is looking to gather data on the ability of a candidate to understand a problem from a systems perspective, incorporating the various requirements and ultimately developing a set of components that can interact together to solve a problem. The key data here is really about problem-solving, and the candidate’s ability to support their decision-making process. It is certainly valuable for a candidate to know about core concepts and key technologies, and without some basis in the components used to design systems it is difficult to come up with a system design. However, the purpose of this interview is not so much to test whether or not a candidate knows about specific components, but rather if the candidate knows how to decide which components to use, where, and why. When an interviewer probes for the rationale behind a choice, remember that the goal of the system design interview is to understand how a candidate arrives at their choices, and how well that process will fit with the requirements of the position and the company.

System design interviews are perhaps the most difficult to conduct in a fully remote setting. The very beginning of most system design questions involves defining several components that make up a system, and many of us in the industry use diagrams and whiteboards for this part of the process in our daily work. However, describing system designs and component interactions without the aid of a whiteboard is a skill that is invaluable since it is growing more important in the industry to be able to collaborate with our peers across the globe. Also, as with the technology background and experience interview, it is important to remember that the data being gathered is not the specific solution a candidate may arrive at, but rather the process by which the candidate develops a solution. The key conclusions for the interviewer are about decision making, problem-solving, risk evaluation, and the ability of the candidate to support their conclusions, all of which can be discussed in detail without whiteboards or diagrams.

Suggestions for Interviewers

  • All of the observations so far apply equally well here.
  • Begin with a large, abstract question, such as recreating a popular video streaming service or implementing a social network. By starting with something very abstract, you can quickly shift into a specific vertical and move to more detail without getting lost in context. The candidate can provide some high-level designs and requirements, some basic components, and then move quickly to specific choices.
  • Focus on decisions, assumptions, and requirements. Understand the ‘why’ of the decisions and assumptions a candidate makes. Challenge the candidate to support their decisions, without judging their “correctness” independently, and remember that the data you are gathering is about technical reasoning and problem-solving.
  • Be forgiving and empathetic. This is a difficult interview for you to conduct as an interviewer, but also a difficult interview for the candidate. Provide lots of room for clarification, questions, and out-of-the-box thinking, both in solving your problem and in communicating about the solution.
  • System design interviews should be fun. The exercise of working with another intelligent person to solve an interesting problem is why many of us are in this industry to begin with. Do your best to conduct this session as a fun exercise in problem-solving, in reasoning and judgment, and not as a test. Remember that the solutions you have to the system you are discussing may not actually be the best solutions possible, no matter how much experience you have with the subject.

Suggestions for Candidates

  • All of the observations so far apply equally well here.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions, seek requirements, and search for the boundaries of the question being asked. If challenged to come up with requirements yourself, don’t be afraid to try, or to ask for more information if you really don’t know.
  • This type of interview is a great opportunity for you, as a candidate, to gather data on whether or not this is a place you want to work. The way the interviewer approaches the problem will tell you a lot about how collaboration works within the company. Focus on keeping it upbeat, solving the problems presented, and thinking through both the pros and cons of every choice.
  • Having a pad and pen available for sketching can be very useful. Don’t be afraid to draw diagrams or outline your thoughts in some comfortable way even if you don’t show those diagrams to the camera. Sometimes just having a visual can help you work through a problem from a more abstract perspective.
  • General advice for this type of interview applies. Study basic systems design, and for an internet company like Compass, brush up on distributed systems. Be prepared to talk about how you might solve a problem you have never encountered. Double-check your assumptions before stating them, and don’t just pick the first answer that comes to mind for every question. Think through your answers, and if you really don’t know, say so.

Final Thoughts

We are all working in a remote world, every day. All of the big technology companies have distributed engineering teams across cities, countries, and continents. Even smaller companies have remote customers, third-party vendors, and others they must work with who are not in our offices every day. And even those of us who are normally at our desks may need to work remotely for a few days or weeks. While fully remote interviews are a new thing for Compass, they are likely to be a growing part of the landscape. We all recognize that they are not preferred; that in-person and on-site is a better experience for everyone. When that is simply not possible, however, hopefully the above guidelines can help both interviewers and candidates achieve success.

Compass True North

Compass Engineering & Product Blog — An inside glimpse at…

Justin Binns

Written by

Justin is a Senior Staff Engineer at Compass, with more than 20 years of software engineering experience spanning industry and research.

Compass True North

Compass Engineering & Product Blog — An inside glimpse at our technology and tools, brought to you by the engineers of the game-changing real estate platform, Compass. Hiring at https://www.compass.com/careers/

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