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!