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Interviewing engineers is a normal part of the life of a developer. Most software engineers sooner or later are asked to do it, but there is rarely any formal training that teaches them how to be effective interviewers.
Interviewing is an art; not everyone is good at it. With experience, you get better, and you start observing recurring patterns. In this post, I am going to describe some typical behavioral patterns you’ll encounter when interviewing engineers and some suggestions on how to interpret them.
Each pattern by itself is not enough to decide on a particular candidate. A hire or no-hire decisions should be made based on an assessment of the ability of a candidate to perform the job functions. The patterns I am going to describe can add to that assessment, giving some extra information and providing an additional point of view.
This post is focused on interviews for full-time positions. Interviewing contractors is different and requires a separate discussion.
“Code Portfolio” Pattern.
Job candidates that exhibit this pattern are recognizable when they show up with a paper folder full of prints of their best work. Usually, the prints are code, UI, websites, or any other artifacts that can showcase the quality of their work.
This pattern is often associated with people with a lot of contracting in their background. Contractors do this because they need to sell their skills and usually choose to do so by demonstrating that they have worked on relevant projects. Their goal is to show how they’d be able to add immediate value to the company evaluating them.
As an interviewer for a full-time position, you should establish the motivation for bringing the material. There are three possible common reasons why somebody would do that:
- For the candidate to showcase some of their work as a visual reference, just in case the conversation goes there. This motivation is healthy, and you should welcome the opportunity to take a look at the printed material. You can recognize this intent when the candidate doesn’t mention the content of the folder until a conversation naturally touches relevant topics.
- To force the interview into a prepared presentation. You can recognize this motivation when the candidate takes over the meeting and starts talking methodically about the various documents in the folder, one by one. If the interview starts feeling like a powerpoint presentation, you know what the candidate is doing. This motivation is not healthy, and as an interviewer, you should not let it go for more than five minutes. Just say, “This is interesting, but let me please interrupt you as I want to make sure we get to other important topics I’d like to touch on.”
- To appear organized and prepared. Nothing wrong with this, as long as the material doesn’t become a crutch to avoid questions.
“Five Page Resume” Pattern.
Job candidates who submit resumes with more than three pages are giving you information that you should use in your evaluation. What is the motivation behind the long resume? You can’t make assumptions, but you should try to find out by asking yourself the following questions:
- Can this candidate choose what’s essential and what’s not essential? Do they consider everything important? How is that going to affect their ability to perform their job? In software engineering being able to make priority decisions is an essential skill.
- Is this candidate displaying narcissistic tendencies? Do they want to impressed with a long list of accomplishments described in minute details? If so, would that be a cultural problem?
- Does this candidate have an academic background? You’ll find that people with a Ph.D.’s write their resumes like research papers. They tend to include every bit of information that is even remotely relevant. They have been trained that way. If the resume contains a long list of articles, patents, and papers they wrote, then you know this is the motivation. You need to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing for the position.
“Can You Hear Me?” Pattern.
Job candidates that seem not to hear you are one of the most frustrating types of people to interview. This pattern comes up when you asked technical questions and the candidate took a wrong path. If you try to help the candidate find the right track, they might merely appear not to hear you. You give them some help, throw some hints or even give them a solution, but they keep on going toward the path they initially took. You get to a point where you feel the urge to ask, “Excuse me, can you hear me?”
This tendency gives you a lot of information. Candidates that exhibit this pattern are likely going to get stuck on the problems they encounter. They will take a wrong path, and they will keep on trying going in that direction no matter what.
Depending on your team, this might be a severe problem.
“How Did I Do?” Pattern.
You recognize this pattern when the candidate, toward the end of the interview, asks “How did I do? Do you see any reasons why I am not the right person for this job?”
When you hear those words, you must find out what caused the candidate to ask that question. There are three common motivations:
- The candidate feels like they did poorly, and they want some feedback on how to improve. This is a healthy motivation. When you believe they are asking for this reason, give them the input they seek. There is nothing wrong with this motivation, and you should take it as a good sign of a self-aware individual focused on growth.
- The candidate knows that giving negative feedback is hard for many engineers; they hope that you’ll say, “you did great, nothing to worry about,” even if you don’t believe it. This is a manipulation technique that you shouldn’t fall for. If you tell the candidate that they did well to avoid giving negative feedback, you are more likely to convince yourself that they did do well. Avoid this problem by being very open, or by avoiding the question altogether with: “I have not decided yet, I’ll need to think about it.”
- The candidate asks so they can argue with you if you bring up issues. This is an annoying motivation that will force you into an argument about your assessment. When people argue with me after I gave them my open feedback, I divert the conversation elsewhere as there is no value in participating in that argument.
My general advice when somebody asks you that question is to answer the question openly and frankly, take a note of the reaction, and move on to other topics or toward a conclusion of the interview.
“Time Filler” Pattern.
You can recognize this pattern when a candidate keeps on talking to fill the interview time without letting you ask any questions. Sometimes candidates that do this tend to not talk about things you asked, but instead, they take an easy path and stay on it as long as possible. The path they take is often vague and hard to follow, making it difficult for you to judge if they know what they are talking about.
The Time Filler Pattern is a classic pattern exhibited by candidates who are trying to not let you ask hard questions. You know that you were the victim of a time filler when, by the end of the interview, your head hurts, and you don’t feel like you got any of your questions answered.
When you notice this pattern, politely stop the candidate, take a note of the time filler pattern, and redirect the conversation to something that is important for you to assess.
Sometimes the candidate will attempt to continue going forcefully, talking over you or saying something “let me just mention this one more thing.” It is a bizarre situation that feels off. If that happens, you can choose to end the interview immediately, assuming that such behavior is not something you want to accept in your teams.
“I Am a God” Pattern.
Have you ever interviewed a god? No, me neither, but I have talked many people who appeared to have never done anything wrong in their careers. They don’t write bugs; when they do it was because of managers pressuring them to be faster, or co-workers not doing something right. They never had problems with co-workers, and they go along with everyone. They are the go-to-guy, the mentor of everyone, and they are the ones who resolved all the hard problems. Anything they touched turned into gold. You can hear the cheer of the fans following them at every step.
None of that is true, but that’s how job candidates exhibiting the “I am a god” pattern behave. In some situations, these candidates might genuinely think in those terms, but most of the time it is a part they act for interviews. It shows insecurity, a desire to impress and lack of self-awareness.
Even if they are trying to put their best foot forward, the problem when you see this pattern is the tendency the candidate shows in stressful or high-stake situations. It gives you an indication of how they would behave when things don’t go well. They’ll tend to blame others for their mistakes, and potentially take credit for something they didn’t do.
Don’t hire gods, even if they are just playing the part. Hire people.
“The Stalker” Pattern.
Today most people are a Google search away from revealing some personal information. It is very common for interview candidates to search the names of the interviewers to try to gain an edge or find some piece of information useful to create a rapport.
There is nothing wrong with that. Interviewers often do the same for candidates, and I am a believer that public information is public. Anybody can read it for whatever reason.
Candidates exhibiting the “stocker pattern” go beyond a simple Google search. They friend you on social media before the interview, email or message you, research religious and political affiliations, talk to your friends, drive by your house, and who knows what else. In general, they make you feel like they are trying to get close to you before and after the interview, in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.
By itself, it might merely indicate lack of emotional intelligence or a need for more information. On the other hand, you should take note of the behavior, and associate it with everything else you notice about the candidate.
“Whiteboard Aversion” Pattern.
I am still uncertain about the deep meaning behind refusing to write on a whiteboard during an interview, but I’ve seen it more times than I care to count. Some candidates just refuse to get up and write on the whiteboard, even if you explicitly ask.They will try everything in their power to avoid it, like if they were afraid that the markers could bite their hand. It can get almost comical at times.
I am still working on understanding this one, but I think that different people have different reasons to hate white-boarding. Some possible explanations:
- Insecurity about their handwriting and don’t want to show how poorly they write.
- Had terrible experiences writing code on whiteboards during interviews, and they don’t want to repeat the experience.
- Insecurity about their coding skills.
- Allergic to the markers, or their smell makes them feel sick. (But, is that even a thing? And why wouldn’t they say so?)
- Some psychological block.
If you have more theories or possible explanations, please let me know. This one is still very puzzling to me.