Deconstructing the Template – Part I: Gut Feeling (Continued)

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

Following up on my last post, I will continue to explore and explain my reasons for putting the interviewer’s Gut Feeling forward as the most powerful tool any interviewer has at their disposal.

Cultivate Good Judgement

So during an interview if you have, as we explored last time, kept an open mind and absorbed all the information told to you by the candidate in their interview as much as is possible, then your gut will be well-fed, so to speak, and prepped for good decision making. But in order to effectively listen to it you have to apply your best judgement.

What is the best way to do that? Well, in this area opinions may certainly vary, since good judgement is that ephemeral quality that most acutely separates the wheat from the chaff in any field, as it is with the skill of interviewing. But I will talk generally about what I do, for what it’s worth.

First, before making any evaluations I think you should start by seeking to understand where the candidate is coming from and the value that they think they could bring to the position. In other words, try to like every single candidate. Why? Because you will naturally be biased in some way, and empathizing with them will help you to remain objective and fully consider how different candidates could do well in the role in different ways. Good judgement will allow you to determine which of the statements they made are important in terms of identifying the true characteristics of the candidate that you may care about, and which statements were not that important. Hopefully during the interview you gave the candidate the opportunity to address any explicit concerns you may have had about them, and will be better able to judge at this point whether you think those things were satisfactorily addressed or whether they may still be concerns.

Once you have taken the time to objectively listen to the candidate and tried to understand the value of the applicant’s candidacy from their point of view, then you are in a position to compare them effectively against other applicants. Personally I would always strive to not make value judgements about the applicant or their candidacy, because as I explained earlier, any judgements you make based on an hour or so’s interaction could easily be wrong, and there’s no reason to do it anyway. Rather than judging, just let your impression of the candidate sit in your gut and remember it for when you want to do a comparison with the impressions of other candidates. As interviewer, it is in fact not your job to judge the candidate (a common, unfortunate, and needless tendency among inexperienced interviewers), but only to choose the best fit for the position based on your opinion.

On a related note, I do believe it is crucial that the same interviewers be allowed to interview all the candidates for a position if possible. In addition to ensuring some amount of fairness and consistency in the process, there is also no way to compare your gut feelings with someone else’s, and this is the most sophisticated tool available to a hiring team, when used skillfully.

Take a Risk!

All of this brings me to what is perhaps the single most important piece of advice I would give to anyone conducting an interview: at the end of the day, if you like someone, hire them!

Imagine the following scenario: you’ve interviewed a bunch of candidates, and there are two or more who in your view are clearly the top picks, but one in particular stands out as giving you a great gut feeling. The problem is, that candidate does not seem as good of a fit as one or more of the other candidates in terms of technical fit, or relevant work experience, or they have weaker references, or some other such blight on their application. Should you second-guess your gut and let that one issue kill your preferred applicant’s candidacy? No!! The reality is that there are problems with all of the candidates, it’s just that by chance or by circumstance the others managed to slip under your radar. Again, it’s just not possible to fully and accurately assess a candidate, and additionally there is no such thing as a perfect candidate! The fact that your gut feels good is probably a bigger deal than whatever minor issue you are concerned with.

Of course, the preceding is predicated on the understanding that you approached all the candidates’ interviews with an open mind, that you really invested in each of them by attentively listening to their presentations and seeing things from their points of view, that you exercised your best ability to be objective throughout, and finally applied your best judgement with respect to the information you received about them. If all of these things are true, and your gut is clearly favouring this one candidate, then I believe strongly that you should trust it, and hire that candidate (or pull for that candidate if you are part of a hiring team).

What’s the reason for this recommendation? What we refer to as gut feeling is a highly evolved facility of the human brain. Your gut is always sub-consciously analyzing and consolidating all the information it has on a subject into an overall impression, and mixing in all your previous experiences and memories. In other words your whole mind and body is constantly at work trying to advise you on what is good for you, and what is bad for you, and is using everything at its disposal towards this end. This is a powerful and sophisticated facility that we all possess which can be applied to great effectiveness in decision-making when properly understood and applied. Your gut is a tool that evolved precisely for the purposes of effectively navigating the unknown, and any hiring situation is that by definition! Your gut probably knows things your conscious brain doesn’t, and that’s why I put gut feeling as the #1 tool an interviewer should pay attention to. However effectively listening to your gut is a skill that must be practiced, as unexamined raw feelings can also be misleading.

To further explain my endorsement of the gut, recall my definition of hiring from The Problem with Interviews. The candidate’s performance in the job will be evaluated on the basis of a variety of factors, many of which are nebulous and ever-changing. It isn’t possible to precisely predict how value within the job environment will be ultimately decided, but your gut will put forward your best idea of how it will be. Far beyond the checklist of requirements on paper, when hiring you’ll crucially be looking for someone who will interact well with other specific members of your team, whose values will fit with the company culture, whose reactions to foreseeable changes in the job environment will be constructive, and so on, and so on. All of these things put together reveal that you are in essence being tasked with navigating a system that is far too complex to understand and measure exactly, but your gut will be taking it all into account to the best of its ability, and will be advising you if you know how to listen to it.

So am I saying that listening to your gut is guaranteed to result in a good hire? Of course not! Again, there are no guarantees in hiring. Nor by any means should any responsible interviewer be hiring based on gut feeling alone! But let’s be clear, no matter what you do, you have to take a risk on a candidate at the end of the day. It is far better to take an educated risk in full awareness of all the factors than it is to isolate your decision-making within the bounds of a narrow system that you convince yourself is somehow infallible. If you are tasked with hiring someone, get used to the idea of risk, because it is a necessary part of the picture!

Rather than offering any guarantees I am simply saying that the skillful listening to your gut will guide you towards the best possible decision, given the totality of the information you have available to you about the candidate, which is necessarily incomplete. To make a good hiring decision you of course should be drawing on all the tools available to you as an interviewer, specifically the other items in the Interview template as well as any other techniques you feel offer value. However any tools you use to learn about a candidate should be informing your gut feeling, and therefore that feeling should represent your intuitive analysis of the candidate’s whole application. Be aware too that, as with any skill, your ability to use your gut effectively will be enhanced the more interviewing you do.

So what about the opposite situation, where a candidate looks perfect in every respect but you have a bad gut feeling about them? Should you reject that candidate? This is a tough situation, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis. In this scenario it’s necessary to really take a hard look at your gut feeling, and ask yourself if you are indeed being objective about the candidate. If you feel that the answer is yes, that you are using your gut properly, and especially if you are experienced and have reason to believe that your gut is often correct in hiring situations, then maybe it is telling you something important about the candidate. You should try to identify specific concerns that might be the reason for your unsettled gut. Perhaps a follow-up interview would allow you to explore them further and either settle or confirm your bad feeling.

A quick aside here to note that following-up in order to rout out potential problems with a candidate you generally have a good feeling about is not appropriate. You might be able to dig up dirt on any candidate if you try hard enough, but why? If you have successfully collected enough information about the candidate to satisfy most or all of the items of the Interview Template, and following all that you have a good gut feeling, then it’s time to make a decision. Again, the point here is to let your gut feeling guide you, whether it be good or bad, and not to make the mistake of striving for perfect information and a perfect fit, which will necessarily fail and only serve to introduce more entropy into your process.

Coming back to our bad-feeling scenario, unless you have a good reason to believe that something is really wrong with a candidate’s application, I’d tend to err on the side of giving them a chance to show you what they can do. Hopefully your company institutes an initial probationary period, as is the industry standard practice, during which you can evaluate whether your bad gut feeling was in fact justified or not. Again, hiring without risk is not an option, even for “perfect” candidates.

It’s worth pausing here to consider what those risks of hiring the “wrong” person actually are. The truth is, if you are making any kind of effort to assess your candidates, and doing your due diligence when screening, your chances of hiring a nightmare candidate are pretty low. This fact is precisely why companies are able to routinely ignore the propagation of poor hiring practices and still manage to chug along and even be successful. Most candidates are going to be reasonably decent, honest people. Even if you do hire a nightmare candidate, the company is typically fully equipped to deal with the situation by terminating that employee by any number of means, although this situation does incur appreciable expense and potential liability. Ultimately the goal of your interviewing should be to avoid the nightmare scenarios first by eliminating candidates with serious problems that would certainly interfere with their performance on the job, and otherwise to do your best to maximize quality (read: fit) in the candidate you do choose, which, as I’ve said is a nebulous and mostly unmeasurable goal. Nevertheless, striving for quality does, when taken seriously, make a real qualitative impact when considered across the a company’s overall hiring effort, as you will know if you’ve ever worked with a great team of people. And it’s for this reason that good interviewing skills really matter.

Next: Getting the most out of a candidate’s resume.

Deconstructing the Template – Part I: Gut Feeling

The human gut

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

To get started on discussing the tools for candidate assessment I included in my Interview Template, I’ll proceed down the list from most important to least important.

  1. Gut Feeling
  2. The Resume
  3. References
  4. Examples of Previous Work
  5. Toy Coding Problems
  6. On-the-Spot Thought Exploration Problems
  7. Interview Questions
  8. Technology Fit

As you can see my number one tool for assessing a candidate is the interviewer’s gut feeling. This might seem over-simplistic to some readers at first glance, but as the discussion unfolds I hope to show that this is not the case, and to make a convincing argument for why gut feeling should be the first thing you turn to when choosing from your pool of candidates.

Gut feeling is a powerful, but tricky, tool for assessing a candidate’s fit, and it goes far beyond whether you have a warm and fuzzy feeling towards them or not. The reason is that the interviewer’s gut is his or her best facility for consolidating all of the information they receive from the candidate into an overall impression, but there is a definite skill in using this feeling effectively which must be cultivated through practice.

Have an Open Mind

For starters, in order to have an effective gut feeling the interviewer needs to begin with an open mind towards the candidate, and this in and of itself can be difficult. The best interviewers, in my opinion, must start from a place of being very self-aware. When this condition is in place they can then work to minimize the negative effects of their own psychology on the interview process.

I discussed a prime example of this in the last post when I talked about how the interviewer’s ego impacts on the interview. Interviewers who don’t take express steps to guard against their own ego are likely to allow it to become the focus of the process, ultimately leading to a low quality result. Any ego-based agenda carried by the interviewer will pollute their gut feeling, rendering it less effective for the purposes of identifying the best-fit candidate.

Ego is just one example, but there are many other pre-existing feelings in the interviewer that can colour their gut feeling, and close their mind in one way or another. For example, maybe the interviewer is naturally introverted and is experiencing anxiety around having to conduct the interview if she is not accustomed to doing so. Or maybe the interviewer was up late last night working toward a deadline, and got almost no sleep and feels awful. Or maybe the candidate looks a lot like the interviewer’s ex, with whom he had a messy break-up last year.

The number of influences on an interviewer’s gut are countless, but the point is a good interviewer must take the initiative before, during, and after an interview to step back, perform an honest analysis of their own state of mind, identify any of their own potential biases, and strategize to eliminate the effects of these inclinations as much as possible in order to approach the interview with a truly open mind.

Be a Good Listener

If the interviewer’s mind is open, then he/she is in a good state to begin accumulating information about the candidate by listening to them talk in the interview. Candidates who are relaxed and feeling good about the interview will be more likely to be in a conversational mood and revealing all sorts of information about themselves. A great interviewer will not only create the conditions for this to happen, but will also themselves be ready to fully absorb all of this information as it comes at them.

A key aspect of this skill is to really listen to everything the candidate is saying, and not get side-tracked by zeroing in on one statement that you think might indicate some kind of problem. Remember that the candidate is nervous, even if you have taken efforts to relax them, and any of us when we are nervous have the potential to say stupid things due to a lapse of judgement. Some of the things said by nervous people portray things in a worse light than is accurate. Sometimes this happens when the candidate stumbles into a conversational area where they are concerned that something about themselves will come off poorly to the employer. That doesn’t mean the candidate is guilty of something awful you should be concerned about, just that they are nervous and insecure as is perfectly normal for someone being asked to prove their value to strangers! Still, it may be something you might want to delve into more deeply later to find out what their concern might be.

In my view the best way to react when candidates make potentially troublesome statements is to make a mental note to follow up on one issue or another later, but do not interrupt the candidate to talk about it right then and there, since doing this will stop the flow of information and reinforce his/her nervousness. Instead allow them to keep talking and help them to re-settle their nerves after stumbling into an area of vulnerability. However if you do decide to let the candidate keep talking it would be even worse to interpret the statement on your own by jumping to negative conclusions about the candidate and never giving them the opportunity to address those concerns! Again, nervous behaviour in an interview does not imply a liability. Above all do not get fixated on that one statement. Let the moment pass and keep listening to everything the candidate is saying, as they could go on to reveal something even more important that you’d miss if you were still worrying about something they said two minutes ago.

As you can see, there is a lot going on for the interviewer here. He/she must be on the ball enough to continue listening and absorbing at all times, keeping an open mind, mentally keeping track of issues to follow up on, and doing it all while maintaining a relaxed and friendly environment that keeps the candidate talking. All of this takes a lot of mental and emotional control as well as the ability to multi-task, and is yet another reason why I say interviewing well is really hard, not everyone is naturally great at it, and, like with everything, practice helps!

Another skill that should be practiced by interviewers is conservative note taking. In my opinion it is far more important for an interviewer to listen deeply and absorb the candidate’s interview into their gut than it is for them to record every individual piece of information being shared on paper. Not only is the latter next to impossible to do in real-time unless you are a trained stenographer, it will interfere with your listening. Also most of the information they are sharing should be in relation to something on their resume, so you can take five minutes after the interview to go through and make some notes in the margins of their resume based on your recollections. Notes could be helpful for reminding yourself to follow up on various issues you are interested in, but be careful to make them skillfully and discreetly. If you make a note every time the candidate says something troublesome, they will certainly become more nervous since they probably said those things from a place of vulnerability and your action will only confirm their fears.

Keeping an open mind and listening are preconditions for effectively using your gut feeling when assessing candidates for a position. In the next post I’ll go into more thoughts on how to do this for maximum effect!