Giving something up

I spent most of today interviewing candidates; I started at nine in the morning, paused for a couple of hours to hammer through some presentations, and then had three more interviews, back to back. Interviewing can be hard; there’s a constant temptation to talk at people, rather than listen to what they’re saying. It’s also fairly difficult in an hour to discern exactly what somebody is like to work with. Are they good? Bad? Indifferent but great at interviews?

I have a few stock questions I always ask. Some of these questions I’ve asked (or been asked) for almost a decade. I’m not sure how enlightening the results are. I have one basic question that tests people’s ability to cope when they need to estimate something they’re unfamiliar with. For a certain situation, how many people will do X? I hope for answers where people approach the problem systematically: state some assumptions, generalize from personal experience, sense check against other things they’re more certain of.

About half the time, I get that. The rest of the time, I get dumb stares, as if I’d asked for a derivation of Einsteinian physics from first principles. "I don’t know the answer" they say, staring at me with eyes full of woe and confusion. I tell them I’m not expecting to hear the perfect answer, I’m interested to see how they would work towards an estimate. "I don’t know" they plead, as if they assumed I was in some way merciful. "Could you try?" I ask, only to be met with a bovine stare. They don’t always get the hint and try. This does not endear them to me.

Part of me wants to pause and explain again. I don’t care if they get the right answer or not. I’m not testing for that. I’m trying to see if they are comfortable dealing with a situation which inflicts ignorance on them, if they have the ability to structure a solution, if they’re willing to persevere. These are things you have to approach obliquely. Simply asking "do you work hard?" or "can you cope with complexity?" tend to return a series of unhelpful affirmations. So we ask open ended questions, and sometimes we get answers, and sometimes we get nothing at all.

It’s a very binary divider: some people can make a satisfactory attempt to answer these questions, and some people just sit and stare. I suppose really these should be questions they’re asked before we interview: fail to answer this, and we don’t talk to you. Answer it, and it increases the chance we’re not wasting our time. Binary questions aren’t very helpful though; I want to get an idea of whether one person is better than the others, not just slice my candidate pool into the ones who can answer the question and those who can’t.

So we ask other questions, to coax out the detail. Do they like Microsoft Excel? Why? Why not? The things people tell you they don’t like about Excel are sometimes surprising, but often enlightening. A shame that a question like "What do you like about people?" isn’t going to shed light in the same way.

So I ask the same six questions to every candidate, and gradually we get an idea of what may motivate them in the future, how they’ll be compatible with our way of doing things, and do we have a reasonable chance of teaching them how to use our systems. I try to compare each one to the strengths and competencies the role requires, eliminate the ones who show no aptitude for what we need, and then barrel on to the next, until finally I’m exhausted. The last one leaves the building and I go back to every day tasks, while trying to assess who we should interview again, and who we have to dismiss.

It’s interesting to meet and talk to all these people, but it takes time, and it taxes a different part of the brain each time. By five, all I wanted was to go home and sleep, deep dreamless sleep, far from team players and motivated self-starters, away from it all. We have to trust our system, especially when it contains weak points like the tired, the harried, the jet lagged. Hopefully it protects us all alike.

3 thoughts on “Giving something up

  1. Public sector in the UK and you have to ask them all the same questions. But yeah in general, a tough call – is it just that they are good talking the talk?

    1. So currently I can filter out people that can’t talk the talk. That then potentially leaves me with lots of candidates who sound good, but can’t deliver. At least they’re all good conversationalists, but that isn’t always what we’re aiming for

      1. The higher up you go, the better you’d expect people to be. However I imagine that the number of people who are good at masking the things they can’t do with words also increases proportionally.

        It’s like an arms race out there…

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