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Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview

34 replies on 3 pages. Most recent reply: Sep 19, 2010 9:03 AM by Sean Landis

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Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview Posted: Sep 9, 2010 8:33 PM
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David, I agree. There is a time and place to discuss salary and it isn't in the middle of the on-site interview.

It is a good idea to check, somewhere near the sourcing of the candidate, that her expectations are in the ballpark with respect to the job opening.

I also like to close an on-site interview with a salary discussion led by a manager with salary authority. This is not a negotiation, but a reassessment of expectations. Between these two points, there is no need to have a salary discussion.

Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview Posted: Sep 9, 2010 8:45 PM
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> Instead of the longer interviews what if someone gives a
> task and says: here is the problem, about 4-5 hours of
> work, give me some solution next day. I think this would
> be more closer to the reality how people work: task given,
> left alone in peace, can use resources at like.

There are several reasons I do not like 'take home tests.'
1. There's no guarantee your candidate did the work.
2. You have no control over the resources the candidate uses.
3. You do not get to observe how the candidate solves problems.
4. You have no idea how long the candidate worked on the problem.
5. You do not get to collaborate with the candidate.
6. You cannot observe how the candidate communicates technical information.
7. You cannot observe how the candidate handles stress.

So, although a take home test may be more similar to a real work environment, it reveals very little. Live problem-solving is an information-rich experience.

Krisztian Sinka

Posts: 30
Nickname: skrisz
Registered: Mar, 2009

Re: Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview Posted: Sep 18, 2010 3:59 AM
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> 1. There's no guarantee your candidate did the work.

Cheating can be revealed during the work trial period. The candidate should be aware that he takes a risk with such tricks.

> 2. You have no control over the resources the candidate
> uses.

Why control the resources? Internet usage not allowed? Why not? He would use it during the every day work, so why not allow it?

> 3. You do not get to observe how the candidate solves
> problems.

I am not a hiring expert, but I think the overall result is much more important than how he solved it? Solved the task at the first sight or tried 2-3 methods before the final solution.

> 4. You have no idea how long the candidate worked on the
> problem.

That is true, but again: is it really a good indicator of the knowledge if someone solves something in 5 minutes or in 15 minutes?
It goes back to the ordinary school problems where the fastest replying students are thought to be the better, not taking the considerations like:
- is he cheated?
- is he seen and solved the problem before so it is easy to remember the solution?
- is he really thought over the problem?

> 5. You do not get to collaborate with the candidate.

That is a problem but I think one could have one hour interview with small problems and home task to replace the 4 hours on site tasks.

> 6. You cannot observe how the candidate communicates
> technical information.

During checking the solution he could comment on his solution.

> 7. You cannot observe how the candidate handles stress.

If I would be a employer I would try to bring the stress into the minimum. So it would not be extremely important to test against the 5% stressful work times.

> So, although a take home test may be more similar to a
> real work environment, it reveals very little. Live
> problem-solving is an information-rich experience.

Yes, there is no silver bullet here, but maybe a mixture would be better.

Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview Posted: Sep 19, 2010 8:49 AM
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> > 1. There's no guarantee your candidate did the work.
> Cheating can be revealed during the work trial period. The
> candidate should be aware that he takes a risk with such
> tricks.

True but there are problems with this approach. First, it is not always legally easy to let someone go once they are employed. Second, it's a waste of money so if you can avoid this, it is good. Third, it is often politically difficult to get rid of someone who is getting something done, even if it isn't what you'd hoped for. Fourth, if the candidate was relocated, there is a moral argument for not getting rid of the person. Finally, morale can degrade in an environment where people are suddenly shown the door. Even though everyone knows the rules, fear can still wreck things.

> > 2. You have no control over the resources the candidate
> > uses.
>
> Why control the resources? Internet usage not allowed? Why
> not? He would use it during the every day work, so why not
> allow it?

The ability to use the Internet (assuming that's the resource the candidate used) is pretty low on the skill level. When I interview, I am more interested in what the candidate knows how to do on her own. Of course, I must be careful about expectations: great developers do use other resources when they work and do not keep everything in their head. Still, I want a sense of what they do have in their head because that is very useful in gauging how good they really are. If someone does something every day, they are likely to have certain knowledge readily available. That's what I want to tap into.

It is also important to run the coding/problem solving task fairly. I help with syntax details; I encourage questions; I will act as an IDE at times. For example, a candidate may be hung up on obscure syntax and I will assist. Or he may ask, does Set have a contains method? And I will say 'yes.' These are the things that documentation is for and I don't expect the candidate to have that kind of detail in his head. I do expect him to know or figure out whether a Set or List is better for the problem, and that Java provides both.

> > 3. You do not get to observe how the candidate solves
> > problems.
>
> I am not a hiring expert, but I think the overall result
> is much more important than how he solved it? Solved the
> task at the first sight or tried 2-3 methods before the
> final solution.

Actually no. Getting the right answer isn't nearly as interesting as how they got there. Problem solving is a much more elusive skill than cut-and-paste coding. In fact, borrowing code well is a skill; those who do it poorly can wreak havoc on the code base.

> > 4. You have no idea how long the candidate worked on
> the
> > problem.
>
> That is true, but again: is it really a good indicator of
> the knowledge if someone solves something in 5 minutes or
> in 15 minutes?

Productivity and in-the-head knowledge are both important things to observe.

> It goes back to the ordinary school problems where the
> fastest replying students are thought to be the better,
> not taking the considerations like:
> - is he cheated?

It is much harder to cheat when you have to solve a problem immediately.

> - is he seen and solved the problem before so it is easy
> to remember the solution?

Hard to control for that in either case. It gives some comfort that a candidate has seen and can recall the answer to a problem. Better though is to pick problems that are not hackneyed to reduce the odds of this.

> - is he really thought over the problem?

In real time problem solving, you get to see how the candidate thinks about the problem. Yes, they are on the spot and can't think long, but it's those who don't think at all that you must avoid. Again, it comes back to how the person works.

> > 5. You do not get to collaborate with the candidate.
>
> That is a problem but I think one could have one hour
> interview with small problems and home task to replace the
> 4 hours on site tasks.

In four hours, you can accomplish a lot more than solving one problem. There are several opportunities to solve problems, there are opportunities to observe personality and behavior, and there is an opportunity to determine where the candidate might best fit in the organization, and there is the chance to sell the company.

> > 6. You cannot observe how the candidate communicates
> > technical information.
>
> During checking the solution he could comment on his
> solution.

That gets you part of the way there but not all the way. Communicating about what you really know is much easier than communicating about what you don't yet now. On the job, this is a big part of development.

> > 7. You cannot observe how the candidate handles stress.
>
> If I would be a employer I would try to bring the stress
> into the minimum. So it would not be extremely important
> to test against the 5% stressful work times.

I certainly don't want to create unnecessary or artificial stress in an interview. I want to provide an environment where the candidate can show his best. That said, interviews are stressful and solving a problem on the white board is even more stressful. But problem solving is a fair request (and a big part of the job) so it is valuable to observe a candidate under stress. Some handle it quite easily, and others do not. The 5% of stressful work time is often the most important 5% of the work time, how the candidate handles stress is very important to an employer.

> > So, although a take home test may be more similar to a
> > real work environment, it reveals very little. Live
> > problem-solving is an information-rich experience.
>
> Yes, there is no silver bullet here, but maybe a mixture
> would be better.

A mixture of approaches is good. Again, the problem with a take home test, IMO, is that it tells me very little. To the point where it isn't even worth the effort. If I were to use this approach, I would not put much weight into the results but it is additional information and can reveal interesting things.

Sean Landis

Posts: 129
Nickname: seanl
Registered: Mar, 2002

Re: Ten Ways to Screw Up an On-Site Interview Posted: Sep 19, 2010 9:03 AM
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This statement deserves more explanation:

> ...If I were
> to use this approach, I would not put much weight into the
> results but it is additional information and can reveal
> interesting things.

If a candidate has done a good job on the take home test, it tells me little for the reasons I listed before. It is when the candidate does poorly that a take home test is revealing.

Unfortunately, that is rare, and I have other ways of detecting this, ways that are discerning for better candidates too.

The reason it rarely exposes weak candidates is because in my hiring approach, I've already reviewed the resume and conducted a phone interview. I have already determined the candidate is probably not a weak candidate. That pool of individuals are smart enough bring in a decent test since have more than enough time and resources to do so.

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