The Problem With Interviews – Part II

This article is a part of Steve’s Guide to Conducting Software Interviews.

This post follows up on the list of some general difficulties that impact all interviews, which I started in the last post. In the next posts I’ll go through my interview template and explain my thinking behind each piece.

The Balance of Power

One of the biggest problems with interviews is that the interviewer and the interviewee are in drastically different positions with respect to the balance of power in the room. This is a dynamic that a pro interviewer needs to understand and mitigate against if they want to conduct an effective interview.

When interviewers walk into the interview room, they hold all the cards. Beyond just having decision-making power over the candidate’s application, they are also much more informed about everything related to the position than the candidate. They have intimate knowledge of the company environment, the business, the technical aspects of the job, what skills are required and why, and so on, and so on.

By contrast, the interviewee knows almost nothing. In most cases they have never been exposed to the company’s environment, employees, or systems. While they may have some general domain knowledge depending on the situation, they certainly will not have the in-depth knowledge of the employer’s specific problem domain for which the hiring is being done. Also, while both employer and candidate want to present themselves well, the onus for making a good impression falls much more heavily on the candidate’s shoulders.

So all of this results in a drastic power imbalance between the parties. Both parties are keenly aware of the fact, and this dynamic is sure to affect their respective behaviours. We are all human, and it’s normal that when we find ourselves in an imbalanced social situation our behaviours tend to reinforce the imbalance and amplify the social dynamic.

For the candidate, the power imbalance results in a bad case of nerves, which I discussed in the last post. However the interviewer will react equally in the opposite direction, which is to feel pretty good about themselves. To be clear, what I’m talking about here is the ego of the interviewer, and it’s a major influence on any interview.

This effect is strengthened by the surrounding circumstances as well. Since the company is clearly hiring, it’s safe to assume that their business is probably experiencing success and growth, which would serve to make any committed company employee proud of their company and of their own role in its success. Also since the interviewer has been selected by management to conduct the interview, it’s reasonable to suppose that their personal career is probably doing just fine as well, and were maybe even recently promoted. In fact, many employers use the granting of interviewing responsibilities as a reward for past performance, because it demonstrates a willingness to grant extra responsibility to the employee who gets it (I also think this practice has very negative consequences, and will re-visit it later).

So to recap all of this, the common interview dynamic is that the interviewer is experiencing a swirl of ego-reinforcing influences, and the interviewee, who is under scrutiny, is experiencing stress. The result of all of this is that, being human, it is often incredibly easy for the interviewer to take advantage of this imbalance, probably unintentionally in most cases, and make the interview about him or herself, rather than about the candidate and the position.

You can tell that this is happening when the interviewer spends a lot of time talking about themselves and their recent successes, and what their expectations are. Also it’s common that the interviewer will be treating the job as if it is some kind of prize that the candidate is trying to win, and as a result grilling the candidate about all sorts of questions taken from the employer’s problem domain (which of course the employer knows more about). In short, the interviewer will be projecting a feeling of “Are you good enough to work for us?” as opposed to “Tell us more about the value you could bring to our team”. The former has the effect of keeping the candidate on the back foot – that is, reinforcing the power imbalance in the room, which is a strong indicator that that has become the focus of the interview, rather than exploring the candidate’s fit.

A secondary consequence of this effect is that the employer will fail to show respect for the candidate. If the employer doesn’t value the experience, skills and knowledge the candidate is bringing to the table, then why are they wasting their time and money investing in this person’s interview? Hiring is a negotiation and therefore a two-way street. Interviewers that forget that may end up making themselves feel pretty good at the expense of losing out on valuable talent, for example if they dismiss candidates for the wrong reasons without having effectively assessed them, or the candidate goes elsewhere where they feel they are more valued. It’s also just bad form – for the sake of professionalism any employer should show respect for the time the candidate is taking to come and interview with them, even when they decide not to hire the candidate.

I’ve been to so many interviews where this dynamic is prevalent that I feel it is a massive influence on all software hiring processes. Can you find a good candidate by interviewing without dialing back on your ego as an employer? Undoubtedly you can in some cases, but it’s clear to me that exacerbating the power dynamic does nothing to make your job as an employer easier, if you are concerned with achieving a quality outcome. Making your ego the focus of the interview will certainly make you feel good about yourself, but that’s not what the company is investing in when they pick you to do the interviews. At the end of day, no matter how you interview you will end up with some kind of candidate, but if you haven’t done your job well then you are rolling the dice when it comes to whether they will perform well in the role or not.

So I believe that an enlightened interviewer needs to be very self-aware in order to be effective, and must take steps to mitigate their own emotional needs and proclivities in order to make a sober assessment of their candidates. By the way, doing this well is really hard and is one of the big reasons why not everyone is great at interviewing. What are some ways to reduce the effects of ego and nerves in an interview? I’ll discuss these more when I get into the details of my interview template.

No Quality Control

As I alluded to in the last section, I believe strongly that interviewing is a difficult and valuable skill, and the reality is that not everyone is good at it (at least not initially). However there seems to be little recognition of this reality in the industry, and usually the responsibility to conduct an interview is assigned to random team members for all sorts of reasons other than their abilities in this domain. I find companies’ negligence in this area mind-boggling when you consider the massive costs to any organization of hiring someone who turns out to be a mediocre fit for the position, not to mention the opportunity costs of letting a better candidate walk away.

So how do you know if someone is a good interviewer? I’m sure this is a question for someone much more knowledgeable about Human Resources Management than I. It seems to me that track record would be an obvious indicator, however I’ve never heard of a company that puts measures in place to track people’s success in hiring. For example, if an employee routinely receives poor performance reviews at his/her job, have you ever heard of that tracing back and reflecting on the hiring performance of the person who hired that employee? I haven’t. And yet it stands to reason that the interviewer responsible for choosing to hire that employee probably didn’t do a stellar job in that instance. However in every company I’ve ever worked at nobody remembers who hired anybody, and as a result somebody who is being ineffective as an interviewer will probably continue to be asked to do interviews, inviting more poor hiring decisions for the company, and compounding costs.

The reality is that hiring is an art and a science, and it takes an individual with knowledge, technique, empathy and judgement to do a really great job at it. In addition to this laundry list of qualities, which is a big ask to begin with, tack on an in-depth domain knowledge related to the position as well. So it should be clear that many, many factors need to come together to make someone an effective interviewer, and the chances that this will be the case for random team member X, regardless of whether he/she is a strong technical asset, are not great.

It seems to me that companies should be getting much more serious about finding ways to identify this skill set and leverage it, since any effort to do so would undoubtedly have a huge effect on….everything! Investing in the quality of your team members has to be one of those fundamental business decisions that would ripple quality throughout your organization.

But despite my feeling that is shouldn’t be so, clearly it is the industry norm to treat the role of interviewer with nonchalance. As a consequence when you walk into a room to do an interview, you never know who’s going to be sitting across from you. Chances are their only qualification is that they have some technical proficiency at a similar job for which they are hiring. If you’re lucky, it’ll be someone more senior who has performed many interviews in the past and has managed to pick up a bit of skill through experience and repetition. Almost certainly the person will have received almost no formal training in how to conduct an effective interview.

If you are unlucky enough to get an interviewer who has little to no hiring experience, then how the interview will transpire is anyone’s guess and, in my experience, tends to seem pretty random. For instance, if the interviewer is failing to effectively assess you with their questions, then the onus is on you as the candidate to try and guess what they’re looking for and present them with the best information about yourself that you hope will address those requirements, and keep your fingers crossed that they will listen to what you’re telling them. If you guess wrong about what they’re looking for then your candidacy will likely be dismissed out of hand. Actually, because of the power imbalance issues discussed in the previous section, there can even be an incentive among inexperienced interviewers to dismiss your candidacy out of hand in many cases, because to do so implies that you “weren’t good enough” in their assessment (corollary: they are better than you at your job). So that could very probably happen unless you manage to figure out what they’re looking for and really impress them.

Perhaps some people think that managing to get past the interview is your first test as a candidate – in other words, that success in charming and convincing your interviewer will somehow be an indicator of your superior job ability. As with testing you on your ability to public speak (as discussed in the last post), this is a red herring. These two skills, especially for most technical jobs, are unrelated, and therefore allowing this “test” to determine the outcome of the interview is a poor (and usually unintentional) technique for effectively assessing a candidate’s fit for the position. In fact, relying on this test is probably a sign that the interviewer doesn’t have any other tools for assessing the candidate. And it’s in part because I have seen this way too often that I have attempted to lay out some such tools in this series of posts.

Without Further Ado…

So now that I’ve gone over some of my thinking on some of the general problems that serve to interfere with employers doing effective interviews, and hopefully as my way of thinking about hiring is becoming more evident, I’d like to take the next several posts to present my own solutions for these problems, by going into the details of my Interview template.