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.

The Problem With Interviews – Part I

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

So what’s the problem with interviews? The problem is….it’s HARD to do them well!!

Before I get into the explanations of the hiring template from my previous post, I want to point out some general dynamics that are present in any interview, and which make the interviewer’s job even harder.

Assessing A Candidate in an Interview is Impossible!

Let’s get right into it, shall we? The number one reason why doing good hiring is difficult is that as human beings we have no tools that we can use to accurately assess a candidate’s ability. They just don’t exist! If you believe that it is possible to accurately assess a candidate’s ability on the basis of an interview than in my view you are already proceeding on bad assumptions!

How can I justify this? Let me start by trying to define the purpose of the hiring process:

"The hiring process attempts to identify the candidate from a pool of available candidates who, after serving in a role within the company environment over an arbitrary period, will be deemed to have produced the best work."

This is my best attempt at stating the ostensible purpose of the hiring process, and hopefully from this statement the problem is already pretty clear. There are so many variables in this statement that it almost sounds ludicrous.

First of all, both “the role” and “the company environment” refer to concepts that are not only nebulous to begin with, but also guaranteed to change over time. Who is the arbiter who deems the value of the person’s work, and over what period is the assessment made? And how on earth could you possibly measure that work in any meaningful way against the work that would have been performed by one of the other candidates in the same environment over the same period?? And consequently, in what possible way could we design a process which can effectively identify this candidate in advance of any of these events transpiring??!!

The clear answer is that it is impossible to design such a process, and it is impossible to know who the “best” candidate is, especially on the basis of a half hour interview! Anyone who has confidence that their hiring process is infallible, and puts complete faith in their own interviewing skills, is probably doing a bad job, because they clearly don’t understand some basic realities around hiring. By contrast, to my mind a good interviewer should have some doubts about his/her choice of candidate, and whether he/she might be overlooking superior candidates, because those doubts reflect a more accurate picture of reality!

So why bother interviewing at all then? Well it’s not all bad news…Interviewing is an opportunity to try and improve your chances of picking this “best” candidate (if you do accept the terms that there is theoretically one candidate that owns this designation). One of the main functions of an interview, in my view, is to eliminate candidates who exhibit some kind of “show-stopping” characteristic that would prevent them from doing a good job – for example, having a history of creating negative conflict with their co-workers. Also it is an opportunity to get more information to flesh out the items in the hiring template. More on that in the posts to follow.


So in addition to starting from the premise of doing the impossible, there are a plethora of factors that additionally complicate and obscure the process of trying to assess candidates for a job. One of the most prevalent, to my mind, is the candidates’ nerves.

I included the image at the top of this post because it reflects a stereotypical interview scenario, and also because in my view it illustrates a bad approach to interviewing! Look at that guy being interviewed – how do you think he feels right now? If he isn’t breaking a serious sweat then he is a better man than I.

Any candidate coming in for an interview is at a serious disadvantage in relation to the interviewers, and is keenly aware of it. Candidates naturally react to this situation by experiencing stress, and becoming nervous.

So what benefits do these nerves create for the employer? In the majority of interviews for software jobs, I would argue that the answer is: none at all! A nervous candidate is not going to represent themselves effectively, and so they are going to obfuscate the interviewer’s job of assessing them. Candidates’ nerves have the very counter-productive consequence of concealing the truth about the candidate from the employer.

It seems to me that many, many interviewers out there seem to be completely oblivious to this important dynamic that’s present in any interview situation. I wonder at why that is, and I think that maybe some people are thinking something similar to the following: “We want someone who is going to continue to perform well in a high-stress environment, because our job involves many different stressors that a successful candidate will need to contend with.”

In my opinion, for most software jobs this justification for allowing a candidate to stress out is flat out fallacious! It makes the incorrect association between the stress of needing to perform under time pressures, for example, with the ability to remain calm when being scrutinized by a room full of strangers. It seems obvious to me that someone’s ability to excel in one of these situations has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to cope with the other.

We’ve all heard that public speaking is the #1 most prevalent human fear, above even death! Interviews where you have to sit in front of a panel of strangers and present yourself are a form of public speaking. I personally have seen many examples of people with an excellent ability to pull the situation out of the bag under time pressures who completely lose their marbles when faced with the need to do public speaking on any scale whatsoever. The two abilities are completely orthogonal and do not relate to each other. So if you are intentionally trying to make your candidates nervous, you are testing them on the wrong criteria. This does nothing but create a lot of negative vibes, leads to poor hiring decisions, and is, in short, bad interviewing technique.

I recently applied for a job online where, as a condition of submitting my resume, the employer’s website suddenly powered up my webcam with a directive similar to “Tell us what makes you special in 30 seconds!!! GO!!” with my recorded answer getting submitted to the employer as some kind of artifact alongside my resume that’s supposed to indicate….what? I’m not sure. The experience was highly unsettling – I blurted out some silly response (to what is IMO a useless interview question) and felt embarrassed. Not only did the employer learn nothing useful about me with that exercise, but they instilled in me a very negative feeling about their company as my first impression. But seriously….Don’t DO that!! (Interestingly in this case I pointed out in my recorded response that I didn’t like their application format, and ended up getting called for an interview anyway…go figure!)

To the contrary, employers should be seeking to settle a candidate’s nerves as much as possible, because it is in their best interest. By making a candidate feel relaxed they are much more likely to be able to get an accurate read on the candidate, unencumbered by the random effects of a fear response. Given the basic difficulties covered in the last section around hiring in general, it is completely beyond me why employers would seek to complicate their own lives by exacerbating confounding situational factors in the interview. And yet it happens as a matter of course in many interviews, and is not the exception to the rule.

Additionally, note that nerves are such a big factor in an interview that even the most enlightened of interviewers needs to keep them in mind at all times. Any interaction you have in an interview, even if you’ve sought to relax your candidate, is going to be influenced in some way by their nerves. Chances are the same candidate is going to look very different sitting in the interview chair than they will sitting in their office chair, on the job. This is just a basic imperfection of interviews as a tool for candidate assessment.

So why don’t many interviewers understand and try hard to mitigate the effect of candidates’ nerves in an interview? In my view, it is often a consequence of an inherent power imbalance, which I’ll explore in the next post.

Steve’s Guide To Conducting Software Interviews: An Interview Template

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

For the past several weeks I’ve been engaged in a full-time job hunt and have been attending many interviews for Software development positions at various companies. Job interviewing in any industry is stressful, I’m sure, and software is no different. It adds to the stress when I am sometimes surprised at encountering interview approaches which are ineffective, missing the point of the interview process, and sometimes downright dysfunctional, in my opinion. So I thought I’d weigh in here with some of my own thoughts on how to conduct an interview which has the best possible chance of resulting in a quality outcome – that is, optimally matching a candidate to the advertised position, on the off-chance that my thoughts on the subject can benefit someone out there.

What the @*!#$ do I know?

Am I an experienced HR manager? No. I’m simply a guy with opinions who has attended a fair number of interviews. I’ve also conducted many interviews throughout my career and probably hired ten or so people. Looking back on those experiences my track record seems pretty good. Many of the people I hired went on to become highly valued team members and have long productive careers at the company (BlackBerry).

So I don’t have specialized skills in this area, only a bit of experience. However I have found that most of the tech interviews I attend are conducted by people like me – developers without any specialized HR training and often no hiring experience. So it is for that audience that I write my thoughts here, as a member of this community with a decent track record. In short: I’m not an expert, and if you disagree with my thoughts here feel free to comment and give me an alternate point of view.

Type of Job and Hiring Approach

I should also note that any thoughts I share here are with respect to the type of interview and position with which I am most intimately acquainted, that is to say, development jobs from junior to senior level, and low-level management jobs in Software Development. Human Resources Management is a huge field spanning all industries and sectors and situations, and I would never hope to make general statements that apply to all interviews. Rather, my advice is geared, like I said, to people like me interviewing within the Software business.

Also, I assume here that the goal of anyone’s hiring process is to build a highly effective development team that will grow and flourish over time. I understand that companies at times hire for very specific reasons and for very specific short-term goals, and for example may not care about aspects of an applicant’s candidacy other than a very narrow skill set. Still, I would tend to think that such an approach to hiring is ill-advised if the person you hire is going to remain on as a permanent team member following the completion of whatever project necessitated the hiring.

Looking back on my own experiences, there is only one hiring decision I made that in retrospect probably was not the best one. The individual I hired was a nice guy who got on well with the rest of the team, but was not a strong producer and in fact ended up requiring a lot of oversight by me. In that case, my reasons for hiring were based almost purely on Technology Fit (which as you will see shortly, now rates as my least compelling reason to hire someone), because at the time our project immediately required a resource with a specific skill set which this person possessed. So now I am a strong advocate of building great teams, and I think there is no hiring situation where the goal of fulfilling a short-term resource need should trump the goal of finding quality individuals who will add long-term value to the team and organization.

A Template for Interviews

So with my disclaimers out of the way, allow me to present here a general template that I would follow for most interviews.

The following tools are the ones I rely on when choosing a candidate for a position, in order of importance (NOTE: not in the order that they’d necessarily appear in during the hiring process):

  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

In subsequent posts I’ll go deeper into my reasons for each of the items on this list.