Pleo Engineering
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Pleo Engineering

The interview tangle

For most people, being interviewed is not fun. There’s the pressure of giving a good first impression, performance anxiety along with the uncomfortable feeling of being observed and judged.

Employees don’t necessarily enjoy running interviews either. It’s outside the comfort zone of many, it drives away from scheduled work and they may not even know what to look for in a candidate.

There isn’t a simple magic recipe for conducting interviews. But if I had to pick a guiding principle, it would be that the experience be inspiring for both parties. Candidates need to leave the interview more excited about the company than when they entered.

I’ve developed a technique over the last 10 years with that principle in mind. It is divided into 4 sections.

1. Building trust

Your first responsibility as an interviewer is to build trust with the candidate. A study showed that the stress of being interviewed is enough to reduce performance by 50%. And while it may not impact everyone in the same way, stress will skew the results of your assessment.

How can you, as an interviewer, build trust and potentially reduce stress? Think of how you would act if the person that you are interviewing is an old childhood friend you haven’t seen in years. You may not know who that person is anymore, but you are eager to find out.

Open with a warm smile, a handshake (if it’s currently safe to do so), inquire if the directions to the office were sufficient, if they need to go to the bathroom, or if they want something to eat or drink.

After everyone is set, I like to take a page from the 5 Dysfunctions of a team: Be vulnerable, share something from your past, something personal. It could be how you got into programming, an anecdote about your nickname or something similar. This is a great way to break the ice during introductions and often creates a visual imagery to help candidates associate with the interviewers and can also help them to remember your names more easily.

Trust building does not stop at that point, though. Trust is built in drops, but lost in buckets. Staying aware of your tone and your body language throughout the interview can help you preserve this bond.

2. Setting expectations

The second aspect of my approach is to set clear expectations for everyone, starting before even posting the job offer online. What is your team looking for in terms of immediate competencies? Where do you see a potential new hire in 1… 2… or even 5 years? Do you expect them to be in the same role, to grow into a domain expert, a manager, etc.

This projection of a candidate’s growth inside a company, or “upside”, is crucial in finding candidates that will grow into key people in the organization. They should be motivated by the company’s mission and its challenges.

Stepping into an interview, the candidate should have a clear idea of what the mission is, and what the company’s challenges are. You can take a minute to assess this at the beginning of the interview. What skills are required in the short term, what is expected of a person in that role after X months or X years with the company. Check to see if there’s alignment with their own career goals.

Be honest and transparent. Ask questions about what is important for the person in the work environment and try to highlight aspects of the company that might be most relevant to them.

3. Leading the conversation

Interviews can be awkward with interviewers asking narrow questions and expecting neat answers. That’s not usually how people interact in real life.

To combat this, try to frame the question with some premise, or some context. For example:

“Here at Pleo, we make good use of kafka, it’s how we tie most of our services. I see that you have some experience with it, can you think of a way to re-consume events?”

This way, the candidate has a better idea of where the question is coming from, making the conversation sound more like well… a conversation. Meaning that if you want to ask follow up questions based on a candidate’s answer, it won’t stick out too much and put them on guard.

And you should absolutely ask follow-up questions. They help in confirming whether or not the person just memorized the wiki page on a topic, or if they have a meaningful understanding of it. Some of my favorites include:

  • Do you know of similar technologies, processes or alternative ways to address the problem?
  • Can you think of situations where you should or should not use a given pattern or technology.

Beyond technical competencies, you may also want to ask follow up questions to evaluate soft skills, such as Curiosity, Collaboration and Humility. Questions like:

  • Are you familiar with how this technology works, under the hood, or why it came to be developed
  • How would you break down a project for you and your team, implementing this technology
  • Do you have any war stories about working with that technology and what did you learn from it?

Keep your questions not overly specific, remember that you want to evaluate the communication, humility and passion of candidates, not just their technical skills.

4. Whiteboarding

There are a lot of critiques of whiteboard interviews and most of them are valid. You will never have to code on a whiteboard or be asked to solve a problem without being able to use StackOverflow.

That being said, whiteboarding is something that we do every day as part of our work. We have dry-erase boards in meeting rooms and sometimes entire walls or windows, we go through large stacks of lined paper, post-its, etc! The difference is that we don’t use these tools to code, we use them to explain. Thus, their communication skills are exactly what we should evaluate when candidates are on the whiteboard.

Give them a problem to solve, tell them that they can use whatever language or syntax they want. The intention here is that you simply want them to run through the problem in as much detail as possible.

Give them 10–15 minutes to do the exercises, reminding them to be communicative all through the exercise and to explain the problem, edge cases and potential solutions with the interviewers.

Conclusion

With all of these tools, you should enter interviews with more confidence and notice a positive impact on how candidates behave and succeed throughout the process. You may want to monitor online reviews, like Glassdoor to see how your interview process is perceived and what areas you should work on.

One last thing: Take comprehensive notes on the interview for your peers to review after the fact. Make sure to not only include technical aspects and responses, but also soft skills and attitude of the candidate. This can be useful to identify which areas to cover in future interviews.

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Technical and non-technical writings on how Pleo approaches engineering.

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About me in detail

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frederic charette

frederic charette

Building engineering organizations, one commit at a time.

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