First impressions are set within 60 seconds. An applicant certainly needs to feel right, but the most important aspects of a technical hire aren’t readily apparent. In other words, the goal of a technical interview should be to prove yourself wrong. Was your intuition correct, or can you refute it with concrete evidence?
I’ve worked in the tech sector for over 20 years. Over those decades, I’ve interviewed at least a thousand technical candidates, and personally hired more than a hundred. Below are some of the lessons I learned about how to conduct a technical interview on the topics that matter most: technical talent and cultural fit.
Lead with the “fluff” (it’s not fluff).
Non-technical qualities—personality, soft skills, cultural fit—have enormous impact on the long-term success of a new hire. However, challenging tech questions tend to make interviewees anxious. Lead with the portion of the interview that assesses fit with your team, so the candidate isn’t distracted with stress over whether their answers to technical questions were satisfactory. Technical questions also tend to run long. Better to put them last than let them dictate the pace of the interview (and eat up time you needed for other questions).
It’s wise to invest in robust personality assessment tools too, rather than relying solely on interview questions. We do this at my company, Carbonado.
Get yourself hired.
Top talent will have other options on the job market. The interviewer needs to sell the company as much as the interviewee needs to sell themselves. This is your first face-to-face encounter; candidates are still trying to decide if they would like to work for you.
Express your passion for the work you do—how excited you are to work alongside your team. Also strive to create rapport. Applicants will need to feel comfortable and confident if you want them to visualize themselves in the role. A relaxed, inviting atmosphere will also lead to answers that are clearer and more reflective of the candidate’s aptitudes and personality.
Ask for a story.
A resume can answer most yes/no style questions. Try to be more open-ended with your inquiries, so that you can assess thought process, approach, rationale, creativity, and get more authentic responses (not just assertions of qualification). It helps if they require a story to answer. For example:
- Can you describe how good communication once resolved an issue within your team?
- Tell me about a time when a non-technical person needed to understand a technical idea. What did you do?
- Describe a scenario in which you would use __________ to solve a software problem.
Collect practical evidence.
Have a laptop on hand and ask candidates to complete a practical task, such as writing a small command line app. A whiteboard is also useful for demonstrations and asking questions. You may only get through a few whiteboard coding assignments in the interview, so be picky. The priority is to assess whether they’ll be comfortable in the role.
It’s the thought (process) that counts.
When I ask a question, I often present issues my team has run into and solved in the past. We know what it took, and how to conduct a technical interview that compares the candidate’s thought process to our own. Methodology is more important to success than the tools in which the candidate is proficient.
Technical skills can be trained—soft skills are more difficult. Consider whether you could see this candidate excelling in the company culture and moving into leadership roles over time. Turnover is expensive, and you’ll want any talent you hire to have real incentives to stay (an advancement path).
Provide a graceful landing.
It’s important to keep the tech community’s conversations around your company positive, even when applicants aren’t ultimately hired. Learn how to conduct a technical interview you’d want to be in yourself. Try never to interrupt or correct candidates while they’re working on a response, and if they aren’t able to find the solution you’re looking for, just move on.
If it becomes clear that they are not a good fit for the role, simply tell them so and wish them well in their job hunt. Always end with grace and gratitude.