Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with consultants, candidates, and contractors in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.” The specifics leading up to the events are usually as varied as the events themselves. The one constant is the actual conversation itself. By that I mean it’s just that, a conversation. The meeting is a chance for me to get to know this person a little better in order to take a wild guess about whether they’d be useful, compatible, or even “not crazy” if we were to invite them into our cozy little corner of the professional world. I’ve often joked that it feels like a first date and it seems like that specific piece of humor resonates with people. There are points of overlap between a “first date” and an “interview” even though the two are actually quite different. Taking that viewpoint I’d like to see if I can help people who find themselves in the position of talking to a possible new presence in their work life. I know there are several hundred (thousand) blog posts, articles, and even books on “effective interviewing” but this will not be another of those. I’m not going to give you tips on how Microsoft, Google, or Amazon recruit and interview people successfully. The best interview technique is one that feels natural to you. Reading interview questions off a printed out sheet is an awesome way to kill the enthusiasm of a talented and sought after interviewee. They’re looking for clues about you, remember, so it’s best to give them a taste of the real you … unless the “real you” is pretty dreadful. In that case please have someone else do the interviews or read from a script of prepared topic points without deviation.
So what are some of the things you should watch for when chatting in these circumstances? I’m glad I asked. Here’s a quick list of five things I try and suss out while having the sort of informal and free flowing conversation I find works best for me in an interview.
Does this person know anything about your company or team?
Years ago, when I first started in the software industry, the internet was still a relatively new thing. Companies bad websites and were all scrambling for a “web presence” but it was by no means common. Certain companies had brand visibility but most companies still used printed out materials for company communications and advertisements. At that time the only way to get any information about the average company, much less the specific teams, was to know someone on the inside already who was willing to talk candidly. That is no longer the case. In today’s world almost every company out there has a public facing website. Most search engines can easily return nearly too much information on the financials, operations, and news stories of a specific company. Social media sites allow you to quickly poll information on the people working at specific teams and departments with differing levels of anonymity.
To put it bluntly, the only reason a person would come into this sort of meeting with you unprepared is either a lack of access to technology bordering on Luddism or apathy about the position itself. Simply asking a person what they know about the company will probably get you a rehearsed response unless you’re dealing with a talented salesman. Reserve judgement on this topic until you’ve had a chance to talk for a while. If the person seems to be going off on unrelated tangents or leaping on topics that aren’t at all relevant, then perhaps you should dig into what they actually know about you and why they want the position.
Does this person use a lot of “buzz words?”
As I mentioned before, buzz words are an excellent tool for obfuscating an actual lack of practical knowledge or benefit. Buzz words are different from jargon in that jargon has an actual practical application for the realm in which it is used. It’s easier to say “sproc” that to say “stored procedure” just like it’s easier to say “cloud computing” than it is to say “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” Buzz words are an attempt to make the easily understood sound arcane … and therefore valuable. This is the difference between “cloud computing” and “The Cloud.” It’s the difference between “agile software development” and “Agile Software Development.” A good rule of thumb is if you can read or hear words being capitalized and they are not proper nouns or acronyms, you’re probably reading or hearing a buzz word.
Does this person seem rehearsed or fake?
A person who sounds rehearsed, false, or otherwise disingenuous is a pet peeve of mine. The meeting we’re currently having is usually to determine whether or not we can work together as colleagues or in some other professional role. It’s best if we’re both honest and true to our natures or there will be some unfortunate surprises later. The “surprise” part is the one that particularly puzzles me. I know people who spend time reciting “best” answers to practice interview questions. I also know people who spend a lot of time and effort researching ever more intricate and elegant interview questions to toss out at everyone who meets them. What is the success criteria for this strategy? Unless you are a brilliant performer attempting a new art piece, the task of being this foreign person forty plus hours a day is going to prove impossible. Eventually the “real you” will surface. This is going to cause problems because the people around you agreed to work with the other guy, not you. Over the years I’ve learned to watch for people who think they can trick themselves into a job. If they can’t or won’t leave their script on the table then you’ll need to be concerned about who and what you’re inviting into your team environment.
Is this person interesting?
Usually when we’re looking to bring on a new person it’s because either we need to replace someone who left or we need to augment what we’re already doing. Unless you’re in an unfortunate situation this is an excellent opportunity to breathe some new ideas and life into your community. I’ve found the best way to do this is to look for interesting people. People I find interesting are ones who have no problems discussing things that are new to me or who cause me to look at something from a new perspective. Because I like learning new things, I will immediately perk up. I love “interviewing” people who end up feeling more like we’re having a really interesting chat over chai somewhere. I detest “interviewing” people who reference the same old ideas and concepts in the accepted manner that have been agreed upon by the usual governing body. I’ll hire the best reciter if that’s all there is available, but I’ll overlook at lot if I feel a candidate is going to take me and the rest of the group in new directions that might yield amazing things.
Do you feel passion when they talk?
The final one is the one that trumps them all when you come right down to it. If I’m chatting to someone about coming on board to help us do a security audit, I’m going to want to hear the energy in their voice when they talk about things like DDoS attack detection and encryption algorithms. I’ll want to hear if they’ve read books, attended conferences, or listened to speakers at a local Meet-Up on their subject. This is a specific point of error for me as even today I still find myself talking to a lot of people who treat software test engineering as a stage in their longer computer software career. All to often it’s not just a stage, it’s the initial stage. I’ll be chatting with someone about a test engineering position only to hear them become passionate as we casually chat about the mobile app they’re developing with a friend in their spare time. It’s awesome that you’re passionate about mobile application development and it’s definitely something you should pursue. I, however, am hiring for software testers today but I’ll definitely pass your resume on to our HR department. The danger in missing this clue is passion breeds excellence faster than any morale event or annual stock bonus. If you look for and hire passion you’re job as a manager is pretty much done. The only thing you then have to do is herd the puppies and keep them sort of going in the same general direction.
And honestly, who wouldn’t want to work with a puppy herd?