How to Interview People

*Apologies for the stream-of-consciousness flow of this post – I left it just the way I wrote it the first time – sorry for any grammatical or spelling errors.

A great mentor recently posted an article about how to write job postings, which brought back all the great memories of my experience interviewing with and working for him, by far one of the best experiences I’ve had applying for and being offered a position anywhere, so far.

Not only did the interview have a great view (on the windowy 29th floor), but each of his team’s sessions pushed me to the edge of my capacities, technically but even moreso otherwise. It was a thorough examination of the sort of person I am, how I relate to others, and what sort of contribution I could bring to the culture-at-large at their Omnicom agency. It’s been the bar for me since, how I conduct interviews and try to create an atmosphere that makes interviewees feel comfortable enough to have conversations rather than interrogations.

That experience taught me something crucial: that last bit about contribution to the culture is arguably the most important part of all when interviewing someone.

It’s easier to be interviewed by someone equally or more skilled than I am, in the technical sense. My mentor has years of experience solving the challenges he asks of his reports. He has a unique viewpoint also because he is self-taught, having earned his knowledge by doing, by making mistakes, learning from them, and then doing things right. He knows his way around the command-line, for example, and taught me to design, build, and manage complex Nagios installations for performance, security (which he framed as general awareness and intimate knowledge of any environment more than any other tennet), and a resilience-focused mindset of managing mission-critical infrastructure and operational process way back in 2006.

He’s the lethal generalist I’m inspired to be, who understands how all the hidden machinery works together, and has already done everything he’s going to ask you to do. He will presume you’ll learn to do it even better and sets high expectations for you to ultimately ascend and teach him something he didn’t know and contribute back into the collective pool of knowledge. It’s not a competition. It’s a collaboration.

Earning a compliment from him meant you actually earned it because compliments from him do not come easy. Not everyone would work well in a culture like that but it works well for some (like me) because I always knew exactly where I stood with him. It was as clear as can be, which is why culture fit cannot be overstated. It’s way more critical than any specific skill or fluency with a particular tool. Besides, all the tool UIs are so similar, it’s trivial to teach tech skills but the right personality (or matching baggage) is key.

With that in mind, I have some questions that can help be a fairly decent barometer of someone’s general capacities. Hiring for a specific skill set is short-sighted and almost always turns out short-lived. The candidates who can pass basic tests of comprehension of the concepts related to the role for which they are applying can learn anything. I can teach most anyone anything. A person’s temperament and attitude, however, cannot be learned or unlearned if they’re a downer.

So, especially if you’re not chock full of technical fluency, while interviewing technical people it is still best to stick what you can potentially measure, anyway. Try to get a feel for what kind of person they are. Some would argue this is even more challenging and I would agree. Still, the odds are better there than trying to gauge their overall technical capacity because it’s not hard to trick non-technical recruiters. Attitude is what counts. Focus on that.

Some good questions I’ve found to insights into aptitudes and attitudes:

Please tell me a little bit about your online life: Where did it begin? How has it evolved? (Do they just put all their images and stuff on Facebook or are they more inventive than that?)

How do you organize your on/offline life? What tools are your favorite? (This will illustrate how ‘tinkery’ they are)

How often do those tools change? Do you frequently try new tools? What was the last one you tried? How did it work out? (Are they happy with the status quo or always pushing themselves to learn, try and find new and improved methodologies and/or bite off more than they can chew trying to try everything?)

What works in your current organization? What’s broken? How would you fix it if it were up to you? (Do they use this as a vehicle to complain or are they comfortable riffing just off-the-cuff for a better idea?)

If you could master one technology this year what would it be? (This can tell us where their interests really lie – are they applying for a role that compliments or works against this?)

When’s the last time you have an argument about technology? What was it about? (Are they an OSS zealot? Does talking about Windows set them off because they’re Apple fan? How sensitive to social issues surrounding tech are they?)

Can you explain the importance of standards and the value of any organizing bodies that manage them? (This is mainly about community and collaboration. Or should be. Are they aware of things happening around them that they know they should understand or perhaps they’re more single-focus?)

Do you prefer to work on projects solo or with others? (Answers to this are not always as they seem.)

Please share a time you failed. How did you overcome it? (This question is way over-played like a Top 40 hit but it still accomplished an important goal)

What’s a life-changing experience you’ve had? (Some will talk about the time they quit their job and cared for their dying mother, some will tell a story of a near-death experience, while others will talk about the time they earned their MBA. Says something about each their own, unique values.)

What role do you play in your orbit of friends and/or family where technology is concerned? (How they answer this question can tell us a lot or a little, depending. Their storytelling style and capacity matters, too.)

If you had to tell a joke, riddle, rhyme, or story to a child, what would it be? (This is just a personal exercise I’ve found helps pace the conversation with a brief oasis from the questioning. It also helps me get a small glimpse into how well they improvise and think on their feet.)

If we made you an offer for this role and you refused, why would that be? (This can potentially tell us if they are just looking for a paycheck or a place to grow and build a future.)

There are certainly more specific sets of questions depending on what type of role this candidate may be applying for, but save that for the technical part of the interview. Always have someone who has technical fluency interview someone for a technical role. Remember: recruiters typically have little or no real-world technical fluency, so always do your own due diligence.

How can the list of questions above be refined? Have some good questions that work for you? Please share.

Thanks for reading and thank your mentor if they inspired you. Go ahead and do it now.