12 Challenging Steps to Being a Better Interviewer

Notes from my @TheLeadDev talk on interviewing.

Do you follow the discussion about technical interviews? I find it interesting, and worthwhile. I think we kind of tiptoe around two fundamental problems though. 1. Most technical interviewers are bad. 2. We think that technical interviews teach us more than they do.

Today we’re going to talk mainly about 1. This talk is about process, not about outcomes. It’s about us as individuals not about broken systems – although that is an important conversation to have. If we follow a process that is respectful to the people we interview, that is mindful of our own biases, we can feel better about the outcomes – even if those outcomes don’t change. Hopefully it’s a process that means those who participate in it feel less bad about. I’m not going to make grandiose claims here because if you don’t get a job you wanted, it sucks. But it sucks that much more if it never seemed like your interviewers were interested in talking to you.

Essentially I’m going to tell you not to be a jerk.

OK let’s frame that positively and get specific. We’re going to talk about being empathetic.

Empathy is something we feel, but we can set ourselves up for empathy, and that comes from knowing ourselves – I think of this as it’s easier to be considerate of other people when my own needs are being met.

And empathy in this context is kind of useless if we don’t apply it. How do we apply empathy here? Well we understand bias. We can use bias to make people feel better about the process but we don’t want bias to impact our conclusions.

Know Yourself

OK so we’re going to talk to someone for an hour. What are our own needs in that context?

Maybe that we actually have an hour to talk to them. If someone is interviewing for a job, that’s probably one of the most important things they are going to do that day. We can reflect that importance in our own schedule, and allow time before and/or after. A friend goes to sit in a secret garden for 15 minutes before each interview. What a lovely way to get into the right headspace.

What else might we need? Well we could refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Sleep. Food. Bathroom breaks etc.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Self-actualisation, Self-esteem, Love, Safety, Physiology and ...WiFi!
Credit: Flickr / Duncan Hull

We’ve all heard about being hangry. But, Did you know that lack of sleep affects your morality?

26 healthy adults, all active-duty military personnel, were presented with a variety of hypothetical dilemmas, first when well rested and later, after staying awake for 53 hours. Questions ranged from things like “is it OK to substitute ingredients in a chocolate brownie recipe?” to complex moral quandaries like whether to let one person die in order to save the lives of several others” [source].

The headline is “affects morality” but participants did not become less “moral” when sleep deprived. They did require on average two seconds longer to answer complex moral questions. But those questions without a moral component did not take longer to answer after participants were kept awake.

And do you know the biggest prediction of whether a prisoner will be released on parole? It’s time of day. How recently the judge ate. Although if we get specific, it’s not time, but the number of cases heard since the last break. Other interesting factoids: the average unfavourable decision took less time to arrive at (5.2 minutes) than the average favourable one (7.4 minutes). Also, it took more time to explain, averaging 90 words, compared with just 47 for unfavourable ones [source].

I feel like techies often like to pretend we’re just one step away from being a computer ourselves, but let’s get real – we’re like other humans. We have the same limitations. It’s worth being aware of what those are.

Now let’s talk about being in the right headspace. I think this is about believing that the person you are about to interview is a competent person who is capable of doing the job, and that you yourself are capable of evaluating them in a meaningful way.

Proactively find and deal with things that challenge this. I stopped reading resumes before interviewing for two reasons. The first is that as someone doing an algorithms and data structures interview, the resume was a bias vector that didn’t change the interview in a meaningful way. The second is that a resume is a sales document for a human, so I would read the resume and feel like I was not qualified to interview that person, and it would put me in a bad headspace for talking to them.

So one thing I do for a couple of startups is I help them with their interview process, including doing technical phone screens for them. One of my clients had a really high no-show rate, and I could feel it affecting me as an interviewer because I was getting stressed and frustrated with how many people weren’t showing up. I tried some things and they didn’t improve, so I ended up explaining to them that I was going to have to start charging a fee for no-shows above a certain percentage. Whilst this was also an effective strategy for motivating them to improve their no-show rate, the main benefit was that it helped me be in a better headspace to interview the people who did show up.

Be Empathetic

Let’s talk about being empathetic. Here we are going to talk about a functional kind of empathy, like… a fake it until you make it kind of empathy.

Step one is about being in a state of warmth. There’s a book called The Charisma Myth (Amazon) which I recommend, but we’re going to do something quickly together to illustrate this idea.

So in a moment I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself. But first we’re going to make you seem nicer. So if you can, please stand up. We have more energy when we stand up.

Someone in Florida snapped a picture of a raccoon riding a gator at the Ocala National Forest.
Credit: Imgur

Yes that racoon is riding a crocodile or an alligator something scary with lots of teeth anyway. don’t you want to give her a high five? My goal in life is to be as awesome as this raccoon.

OK now I want you to close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Now think about something or someone you love. Your child, partner, parent, pet, best friend, stuffed animal, whatever. If you can’t think of anything… I provide you this raccoon.

OK so now really focus on this feeling of love, how great whatever you are thinking about is.

Keep that feeling with you and extend it to the person you speak to as you turn and introduce yourself.

Do you feel the difference from how you normally introduce yourself?

Other fake it until you make it strategies include what I think of as basic manners.

  • “How are you today?” (care about the answer)
  • “Is now still a good time to talk?” (mean it)
  • “Oh is that not clear? Let me explain it again.” (be happy to explain it again)

Let’s talk about this last one for a moment, because it’s important. In any relationship with a power dynamic, the person with the most power has the most impact on the quality of that relationship. Which means in this context the burden of building a good rapport is on you, the interviewer. Your interviewee has not come in determined to hate and misunderstand you. Assume they are doing their best, and be sympathetic to the fact that interviewing is stressful.

Understand Bias

Alright the final step, applying our empathy, and this is where understanding bias comes in. There is a lot of discussion about bias lately, but bias is essentially the human condition and sometimes it works for us and sometimes it works against us. If you want to understand how bias can be manipulated to make people feel better about things, look at the way Disney approaches queueing. If you want to understand how bias works against us, look at race relations and policing in America.

So we want to use bias to make people feel better, but mitigate bias in our conclusions.

One way we can use bias is that endings are disproportionately important to how people feel about something overall. So, think about that racoon again… “It was so great to speak to you! Thank you so much for making time.”

Another way to use bias is that people feel better about situations where they have control, so look for places where they can make choices (not too many choices though! That’s overwhelming!). Whether it’s programming language, or approaches to solving it, look for places where you can highlight that they have a choice.

Now removing bias. For me this is a three pronged approach:

  1. Factoring in time to write up my feedback immediately after the interview.
  2. Keeping detailed notes about the timing of everything so that I’m not going on feelings about how long things took, or what kind of hints I gave – I know.
  3. Taking an extra pass through to remove things like:
    1. Conclusions I cannot support (remember the 2nd problem? Thinking we learn more than we do? This is where that is addressed).
    2. Gendered and/or racially biased feedback. E.g. “lacking confidence” “aggressive”, suggestions that the person should be more junior. Educate yourself on the kind of words we are happier to use about women and minorities and conclusions we are much more ready to draw and make the effort to remove them from your feedback. This in and of itself is a huge topic. But that’s why this is called 12 challenging steps, right?

Conclusions

So I want to show you something that I found hilarious. It’s a snippet from an article about Google’s age discrimination law suit.

““The interviewer was 10 minutes late to the call, “barely fluent in English,” and “used a speaker phone that did not function well.” Heath politely asked him, repeatedly, to use the phone’s headset but the request was declined.

Consequently, Heath and the interviewer had difficulty understanding each other. One part of the interview involved writing a short program to find the answer to a problem posed by the interviewer. Heath accomplished the task and offered to share it via Google Docs or email, but, instead, the interviewer required Heath “to read the program coding over the phone.” It did not go well. The interviewer “seemed not to understand” what was being read.””

I found this hilarious because I expected age discrimination to look different. But actually it looks like a really bad interviewer. Rude, lacking empathy, and resentful of having to do it. What do you learn when your interviewee can’t hear anything you’re saying? I doubt anything meaningful about their ability as an engineer. Maybe how they react to having their time wasted and being set up to fail. I hate to think about the kind of environment where that is useful information.

So this guy lawyered up, and y’know, good luck to him. I share this with you to emphasise the power we have as interviewers – we can give people terrible experiences and gain little information from it… or we can give people the best experience we can and learn as much as possible – but not more than we think we do. It is hard work, but I hope you have some more ideas about how and why to do that now. For me this is not a one-time learning, but a process that I continually work to live up to.

I hope when you next interview, your interviewer is this considerate of you.

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