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What we look for when we interview

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Technical assessment is just one aspect of a process which, ideally, should work in both directions for the benefit of candidate and hiring company. The other, non-technical aspects are just as — sometimes even more — important, but are often overlooked by candidates. Here we dig into some of them.

Safe to say, we have a lot of experience interviewing.

You can't build teams for growing startup companies without hiring people, and you can only very rarely hire people without interviewing. Sometimes I wish I'd kept count, but I reckon I've personally interviewed several hundred candidates over my career.

We've already written an article on what we like to put into, specifically, technical interviews for Software Developers, but this time we'd like to talk mostly about the non-technical aspects that get assessed alongside. This applies to all roles, really — not just developers, but product people, designers, other specialist engineers, even permanent CTOs.

This article is written mostly as if addressed to the candidate, but it should be useful food for thought to hiring companies.

(No) #spoileralert!

It's important to remember that the right candidate looks different for different companies. Working with different clients, this is especially true. Consequently, there are few universal positive traits or red flags which would apply everywhere; there aren't really any simple tricks or silver bullets to guarantee successful in interviews, and we won't be giving away any trade secrets here.

Sorry!

It's always important to be yourself in an interview, first and foremost, although you should remember to obey the general rules of politeness appropriate to the situation. We won't get into that boggy area here, but the key tool to bring along in that respect is mindfulness — a conscious awareness of the self; your thoughts, emotions and behaviours — which you should be able to employ to sense-check whether your behaviours fit the occasion appropriately.

The dating test

I often think about the interview process as broadly analogous to dating. Here's why:

  • It should feel two-way: both candidate and hiring company are assessing the potential of a future relationship with each other. Okay, it's not quite as symmetrical — the candidate and company are each bringing quite different things to the relationship table — but an interview should definitely feel more like a date than like, for example, a mortgage application.
  • It's largely about information gathering: first dates especially are about each party finding out as much as they need to in order to decide whether to take things further. Not that it needs to be a particularly forensic process, but information exchange is definitely key. In dating, as in interviewing, one wouldn't jump straight to a commitment, skipping this step.
  • There's also an element of chemistry: hard facts aside, commitments in life and in recruitment alike aren't usually made if something just doesn't feel right. It's useful (from both parties' points of view actually) to be able to justify these gut feelings with some empirical evidence and / or objective reference point — see below discussion of values — but either way, if a basic level of rapport isn't present, it's generally the sign of a bad fit.
    Good dates — and arguably good interviews — should ideally feel kind of fun, if nerve-wracking.
  • Everyone should be on their best behaviour: as discussed above, it's important to bring your true self to an interview, but that doesn't mean you can't also bring your best true self! Note this applies equally to candidates and hiring companies. If you really want to find the employee or employer of your dreams, you might as well make as much effort as possible to show the other person you're potentially interested in what could be.

In fact, I think the dating analogy works so well we can use it as a test. If you ask yourself "if this were a big date, what would the expectation be?", it often gives a good alternative perspective, especially if we're feeling a bit fatigued by interviewing!

Your mileage may vary, of course. I don't know how you approach your dates, perhaps you bring entirely different values to dating as compared to interviewing. Something to think about though.

On "seller's markets"

In the last few months, I've had conversations with software developers who have described a "seller's market" for software developers, meaning that there is substantially more demand than supply. The short term impact of this is, reportedly, wage inflation; and by some accounts it has led to candidates feeling that they can "call the shots" with hiring companies who should count themselves lucky to find someone to hire. Perhaps this explains why some candidates feel they can engage in an interview process without any particular preparation and with aggressive expectations on salary.

It remains to be seen for how much longer demand really will outstrip supply. Markets have a way of correcting quickly and sharply and a conservative speculator might caution against the danger of trying to take short term advantage of what may turn out to be a bubble.

This aside, I believe it's worth approaching every job opportunity as if you really want to get it, because sooner or later you might find one that you really care about getting, and then you might be grateful for all the practice so you can be on top of your game.

Have you prepared?

As someone who, without fail, ended up doing his homework on the bus on the way into school; I know only too well the temptation to leave preparation to the last minute.

Unfortunately for us, it's pretty easy to tell when someone just hasn't prepared properly. This, like most aspects, does run both ways — sometimes companies interview after a merest glance at a CV — but often it's the candidate who has done less digging than the company.

The company

Know who it is you're interviewing with.

Go to their website and understand who they are and what they do. Sometimes company websites are not very useful in that respect. In that case, research around a little — find any articles, press, etc. you can to help build a picture.

The role

Know what's required from the role, and also what it offers.

You should have been given a job spec prior to interviewing. If not, ask for one. The job spec is a starting point for you to be thinking about all the reasons you might be suitable for the job, and all the reasons you might be interested in the job.

Any discrepancy between the spec and your strengths or preferences that gives you pause for thought is something you probably want to raise during the interview as a talking point.

Sometimes job specs leave a little to be desired. It's fine to ask questions ahead of the interview for some clarifying details which will help you focus your thoughts. Any decent hiring company should be more than willing to fill in any straightforward blanks over email. In fact, I'd argue that it would probably impress them that you were paying so much attention and were clearly invested in the process.

The tech

Specifically for roles with technical interviews — please, please, please practice the tech you'll be assessed on!

We see this really quite often, where a polyglot programmer simply assumes that they will be able to ace a technical interview which uses language X, even though they haven't actually used language X for two years. It usually goes really badly.

There are so many resources online for practicing tech stuff, and plenty of good articles (and even books!) written about what usually comes up in technical interviews. I appreciate that if you're interviewing with lots of companies it's quite a time investment to brush up on all the technologies but there's really no way around it. Aside from how critical a certain level of technical competency is for the role, there is a more basic problem that being really rusty with one of your "core" technologies kind of makes it look like you've just straight up embellished your CV, and hiring companies usually take a dim view of that when it appears sufficiently blatant.

Dress

Use the consultant's rule of thumb: try to dress one notch smarter than your client.

This one's a bit controversial, especially in the modern workplace, but if you have the choice between dressing smarter, or more casually, than the person who's interviewing you, safest to err on the smarter side. On the other hand, showing up in a suit and tie to a really casual early stage startup interview might not set quite the right atmosphere either.

If you're dealing with an internal recruiter or agent, it's a good idea to just ask ahead of time what the dress code is at the company, so you can dress appropriately for the interview. This will send a good signal to the hiring company that you are mindful of the impression you are making and — again — are invested in the possibility of working together.

I wouldn't sweat this one too much, but it costs very little time to throw on something nice and fresh and smart, rather than the ratty old stuff you've been wearing every day for a month.

Also, since a lot of interviewing happens over video now, just quickly check your environment — it only takes a second to move things like laundry and dirty cups and plates out of shot. Much quicker than completely tidying the room which, to be fair, you'd probably do if you had house guests.

Is it a two way street?

Contribute as much to the conversation as the interviewer does!

A hiring process should always feel like a two way street, regardless of the current state of the employment market. The hiring company is assessing the candidate, but also the candidate is assessing the company. If either side doesn't like the fit, it's indicative of a relationship that probably shouldn't be.

Criticism is often levelled at hiring companies for making the street feel all one way, but I find frequently it's the candidate's approach to the interview that frames the level of dialogue.

"Getting blood from a stone" is how I describe those interviews where I am asking all the questions and getting terse, guarded or otherwise limited responses; and I find them hugely frustrating.

I want an interview to feel like a conversation, not an interrogation. The best interviews from an interviewer's point of view are the ones you just don't want to end because it's so enjoyable talking shop with the candidate. The best interviews feel like a meeting of minds.

I suspect that in large part this is related to how the candidate views the job. Is it a necessary evil — something they aren't particularly enthusiastic about, but might pay the bills for a while — or is it something that piques their curiosity and fires their imagination about what could be? Or perhaps that's just how people are conditioned to act during interviews — passive and defensive. It's hard to know, but I'd suggest that anything you can do as a candidate to make the interviewer feel like more of an equal participant to a conversation, rather than an interrogator, the better.

Who do you think you are?

Decide on a way to position yourself — who you are, not just what you've done!

This one is kind of tough. One of my first questions when I meet a candidate is to ask them to tell me who they are. I think it's quite an interesting question since it gets to the heart of both how the candidate sees themselves and also how they perceive that others might see them from the outside.

Some examples of typical answers:

  • I'm a full stack developer at X.
  • I'm a rare example of a career product manager. I've been working in some product management role or other since my very first job out of school. Product is my passion and I can't imagine doing anything different.
  • I'm a naturally curious person who's always had a sideline interest in technology. I switched careers to software development about five years ago, and have never looked back. I'm currently doing some full stack development at X, which has been a wonderful journey, but now I'm looking to get some new experiences, particularly in a growing startup where things are a little bit more turbulent.

Of these three, the first says very little. For sure, it should have been self-evident from the candidate's CV that they were a full stack developer at X.

Both the other two answers feel good to me, although they approach the explanation of identity from two different perspectives.
The second example is very much a definition of who the person is, based on role: "I'm a [...] career product manager". Perhaps for this candidate, what they do is a large part of their identity.
The third example says more about the qualities the candidate identifies with, rather than specifically what they think they do: "I'm a [...] curious person". We also know that they value such things as curiosity and new experiences. It is also rather more of a narrative about how the candidate got to be who they are, rather than just a statement of who they are now.

Remember that the objective elements of candidates for a given role will naturally be fairly universal. If a company is hiring for a mid-level full stack developer, it's pretty safe to say that all candidates getting to interview will have had some development experience, and most will be currently in some kind of full stack development role. By positioning yourself as "a full stack developer at X", only the dimension of exactly what "X" is differentiates you from other candidates.

Humans love stories. It's much easier to identify with, to empathise with, and to remember someone you've met if you have a story to associate with them. Think about it this way: another member of the hiring company approaches the interviewer, say a couple of days later, and says "I see you interviewed someone called Jo Bloggs for the PM role yesterday — what's their deal?". It's so much more natural to be able to say in response: "Oh yeah, Jo's a classic career Product Manager." or "Jo...? Oh yeah, career switcher — really curious and interested in new experiences."

Are these original impressions that the interviewer has formed all by themselves, or are they — to a lesser or greater degree — replaying the stories that the candidates implanted in their minds?

Is there a cultural fit?

Do your values line up with the company's?

"Cultural fit" sometimes sounds like a vague euphemism to describe whether or not there is rapport / chemistry between and interviewer and candidate, but if it's done properly, cultural fit is something companies can assess fairly objectively. It rather depends on how mature the company is in terms of defining their culture.

We're really talking about two main things here:

  • Mission: do you understand why the company exists? Do you agree with and support its stated mission?
  • Values: has the company enumerated its values to you, either directly or indirectly? How many, if any, of those values do you align with?

Misson

Even if a company hasn't explicitly stated their mission, it's worth trying to figure out what it is before you get close to an interview because it can make a huge difference.

Consider a company which sells products to the healthcare sector. Its mission might be stated thusly:

"MediDocTechCorp International is on a mission to make every cancer patient's experience with their healthcare provider meaningful and transparent"

Or alternatively it could be something like this:

"MediDocTechCorp International is on a mission to reduce inefficiencies and maximise margins for healthcare providers in oncology."

Neither is necessarily good or bad, and the same product might support both mission statements, but different candidates may find that each mission resonates very differently with them.

Values

Values are generally expressed as a small number of words or phrases that summarise what defines the overall ethos a company holds and projects both internally and externally. Increasing numbers of, in particular startup, companies broadcast their values on their website. Alternatively, they might share their values with candidates as part of the recruitment process.

Having a set of values to work against is incredibly helpful for interviewers. Where there appears to be some cultural dissonance with a candidate, more often than not it will come down to a misalignment on one or more values. For example, if a company value is "Humility", but the candidate is saying some things which appear very self-obsessed and arrogant, it might be that there is misalignment with respect to this value.

Likewise for candidates knowing the company values early on is helpful in that they can decide whether or not the values resonate with them.

Not all values will align perfectly with every candidate, and in the case where there is some minor misalignment it's worth both candidate and company having a sense of where those misalignments might be — either for further exploration during the hiring process or to bear in mind on the job. Either way, it's best for eyes to be wide open with respect to potential value misalignment, rather than finding one solid reason to hire and then blindly hoping for the best on the other aspects.

What do you want?

What are your motivations? Are you going to be satisfied with the role and, if so, for how long?

This is a biggie. I always, always ask candidates what they are looking for and why they are interested in the specific role. Another, indirect, way of exploring motivation is asking why the candidate is looking to move on from their current role. In all cases I usually find the answers very telling.

Common motivations we hear from candidates:

  • Want something different / new experiences
  • Want to feel like their career is progressing
  • Want exposure to something specific (e.g. a technology, management, customer-facing product, etc.)
  • Want to work for a startup (could be for many reasons)
  • Want to work in a particular sector
  • Want more money than they currently get
  • Want to feel like they are making a difference / doing something valuable
  • Want to get any job at all costs — doesn't matter what it is!

Reading the above list of example motivations, you might feel like this whole area risks portraying you in rather a self-centred light — especially if you are a naturally humble or accommodating person. Try and get past that in this instance. Neither you nor the hiring company want to end up in a situation where you're unhappy or frustrated with the role. Be really honest about what's going to make you happy and ideally keep you happy in the role. If the company can't support you in this, either because they can't offer what you would need, or because they fundamentally disapprove of your motivations, wouldn't you rather know that now and focus your efforts somewhere else?

Remember the two way street. You need to know the job is right for you, as well as helping the company understand whether or not you are right for it.

How do you (like to) work?

Have you done it before? Do you have a process, and is it flexible?

The day-to-day stuff, which often forms the meat of interviews for roles which are not particularly, or only partially technical, for example Product Management, Quality Engineering, etc.

You're being hired to do a specific thing, or specific things, and in the absence of actually seeing you in action, the hiring company wants to get a sense of how that might actually look in practice. Surprisingly, I find that often candidates have a substantial degree of difficulty talking about this.

What I'm really looking for is any hint of a system. The trouble is, apparently not everyone has a system. Apparently, sometimes people end up being firefighters and nothing more — reacting to every single situation as if it's something they've never seen before and might never see again.

Being perfectly frank, the people without a system are at a distinct disadvantage up against others who do because it calls into question what their intrinsic value actually is. Are they just really, really good at thinking on their feet and nothing more? Does that mean that someone with zero experience and zero exposure to the same domain who is also really good at thinking on their feet would be equally qualified? Are there really so few learnings afforded in that field?

I happen to believe that most people do actually have a system, it's just that they've never thought about it properly before. It's definitely worth thinking about. Here are some questions that might get you thinking:

  • If you had to set up your function in a new company which had never done it before, what tools, processes and practices would you set up in your first 3 months?
  • If you had to write a set of instructions to someone else describing how to cover for you for one day, what would they look like?
  • If you had to mentor someone just starting out on the same career path, how might you advise them to approach the job?
  • What learnings have you made about things that really help in your role in the past? What learnings have you made about things to avoid? Both these things point to the shape of a potential system.

If you've done the role before, it should be easy to outline your previous system. Being able to approach it with a critical eye and talk about how you might adapt it in future to be more effective is even better.

If you haven't done the role before, you might need to draw on your imagination and experience of similar scenarios to paint a picture of how you think it might work in practice. This can be a good talking point in interview.

Either way, I would caution against having a process which is fixed or inflexible. A fixed idea that there is only one way something should be done is usually a position borne out of inexperience and / or naïvety. Most of us who've been around the block a few times have seen all kinds of different processes work to a greater or lesser degree. It's what makes the world of work so delightfully varied and fascinating. The best processes adapt to changing circumstances and to different cultural contexts. What worked perfectly at your last company might need substantial adaptation to work at the company you're interviewing at.

Why are we talking?

Tell us about what makes us interesting!

I always like to ask candidates why they are interested in the hiring company and the role.

Again, working on that two way street principle, an interview isn't just an opportunity for the candidate to be assessed on whether they fit the role, but equally an opportunity for the candidate to assess the role and whether they think it fits them.

Most candidates are interviewing with a few companies at once, and most are being fairly selective about who they apply for, so it can be a very powerful question to ask "why us?"

This is an opportunity for you as a candidate to be both reflective ("good question...why exactly am I interested in this?") and also to throw a bit of feedback — and maybe even some tactical flattery — back in the direction of the hiring company.

I won't give examples of good / not so good answers as don't want to give too much away but, briefly, here are some types of answers that might raise some concerns:

  • Purely superficial reasons which show little genuine interest in who the company is.
  • Entirely self-serving reasons that don't at least look like a gain for both parties.
  • Anything that suggests the candidate would take the job but then become frustrated with it very quickly, or might immediately start looking around for the next thing.
  • Reasons arising primarily from bitterness with current employers, or implying a higher than ideal level of entitlement.

Do you have any questions for me?

Being curious shows positive intent

Interviewers should always offer candidates the opportunity to ask questions appropriate to the stage of interview.

However, I always find whether or not candidates choose to ask questions and what those questions are reflects on their level of engagement in the process.

The most prepared candidates will have come pre-armed with a list of questions they want to ask. Occasionally we even see them crossing questions out during the of the interview as they are answered in the natural course of conversation.

I'm always suspicious of candidates who have no questions at all to ask. It suggests to me that they are not as interested in the opportunity as they might be. Of course, it's conceivable that all their questions have been answered, but really engaged and curious candidates can easily come up with more.

Likewise, candidates who only ask about benefits and don't seem interested in things like what the company is like to work for, or specifics about their role aren't necessarily doing themselves any favours.

Red flags

The following is a short list of things we think might be dealbreakers in an interview scenario.
Most of them have been at least alluded to above, and they are a personal list — other interviewers might not agree with them, or might have other red flags which are more serious.

🔴 Lack of preparation — the candidate shows up without any clue who the company is or what the role is about.

🔴 Lack of discretion — the candidate is free and easy with vitriol for their past or present employer.

🔴 Lack of respect — the candidate is rude or otherwise disrespectful to one or more members of the interview team.

🔴 Short horizons — the candidate does or says something that leads us to believe they might not be interested in staying in the job very long.

🔴 Dishonesty — the candidate is caught in a blatant lie.

🔴 Waffle / abstract talk — rather than talking specifics about themselves or their experiences, the candidate can only talk about things in theory which usually means they are misrepresenting the level of experience they actually have.

Of course, interviewing is just one part of a broader hiring process. In other articles in this series, we're going to be exploring related topics such as the knotty subject of CVs (aka resumés), and things further down the process like onboarding. Stay tuned!