We spend years as students studying how to best solve technical problems, yet little or no time is spent learning how to interview or be interviewed. Some of us may have been lucky enough to have had a Career Services department at the college or university that we attended, and we might have been able to participate in some good workshops there, or your employer may have provided you with a "How to Conduct Effective Interviews" training program. But I often find these are not enough. The Career Services departments at universities specifically train you how to be interviewed for what is often your first career path job. I don't know about the rest of you, but the only thing I was worried about coming of college was getting a job that could pay the bills. I had no concept of corporate culture, organizational structure, management style, career paths, or any of the other myriad of things that I would look for when job searching at this point in my career. I have also found that most interview training provided by employers is mostly about educating the interviewer on proper conduct and covers topics like what questions you can or can't ask and how to be fair and equitable. Although these are critical topics, it is sad that in some ways this type of training is often more about how to protect the company from liability than how to identify the best candidate.
Last year, I wrote an article called "10 Questions You Should Ask When Being Interviewed." I based that article on what a colleague of mine and I had learned from sitting on the interviewee side of table. Since then, I have spent a lot of time sitting on the interviewer side of the table. With things starting to heat up again in the tech sector and my company's current plans for expansion, I have found myself conducting one or two phone or face-to-face interviews every day. So it is only natural that I should turn the tables and write this companion article. There are a staggering number of online and print resources on this topic, none of which I will cite here. Why? Because few if any of them were written by people who do the type of interviewing that you and I do. That is not to say that my list of questions goes into excruciating technical detail. In fact, the opposite is true. I weave these questions in between my technical questions. Some of these questions are specific, but others are more of a template for types of questions. You will get a feel for what I'm talking about as you read through them. I'll start with five specific questions and end with five general questions. The order in which you choose to ask them is up to you.
Five Specific Questions
1) How Would You Describe Your Perfect Job?
This is the most recent addition to my list of questions and also one of the most effective. It is a good barometer of how motivated a person is and what kinds of rewards they expect for good performance. It is also a good way of finding out what type of career path candidates are looking for. The answer to this question is likely to tell you if the candidates are interested in this position as a stepping stone to something else or simply as a way of paying the bills until something else comes along or even if the current position is the goal they have been working toward all along. The answer to this question will also help you determine how the candidates match up with your company's culture as well as let you know their expectations or willingness to work overtime. Candidates will often inquire about flextime, vacation time, and holidays when answering this question, so I always have a response prepared. Remember that your ability to answer a candidate's questions may determine whether a candidate accepts an offer or not. Nothing is worse than going through the entire interviewing and negotiating process only to have a candidate turn you down.
2) How Would You Describe Your Perfect Manager/Boss?
For most of the interviews that I conduct, I'm the "hiring manager," which means I'm basically asking the candidates to describe me--or more accurately, their perfect version of me. The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how the candidates have interacted with their managers in the past and will help you determine whether they're a good fit for your position. Be wary of answers like "somebody who leaves me alone and lets me get my work done" or "somebody who can answer all my technical questions." Good answers are harder to define and will vary depending on your management style. What you are really looking for here is a "good fit."
3) What Accomplishment in Your Professional Career Are You Most Proud Of?
This is a pretty standard question, and I find that most candidates already have a prepared answer for it. What I'm looking for here is a story about how the candidates went above and beyond. I'm also looking for how they compose the answer and tell me the story. So if the candidate seems to have a well-prepared answer to this, I will likely ask a similar follow-up question like "Can you tell me about a problem that you solved in a way that nobody else would have thought of?" These sorts of questions are very good at letting you know how confident in their abilities your candidates are.
4) Why Did You Go into This Field?
This can be a very insightful question because motivations vary and can tell you a lot about the candidate. I like to hear that the candidate chose a computer-related field because they like computers rather than because the money was good. This question often leads into a good story about the candidate's first experience with computers or the first computer they owned and what they did with it. Some of the best programmers that I have worked with are as good as they are not because of universities or degrees but because they are interested enough to be self-taught and have been writing code since the day they learned to type.
5) What Have You Written Other Than Code?
There is more to information technology than writing code. Your candidates need to communicate effectively on a non-technical level not only with end-users, but also with coworkers and management. Here, I'm looking for such written materials as user manuals, Web sites, how-to guides, or even magazine articles. I always request a writing sample (or a URL if possible) from candidates I am considering extending offers to.
Five General Questions
6) Ask a Question They Can't Answer.
I ask this type of question to see how candidates react when faced with a situation where the question exceeds their technical ability. The idea for asking this type of question came from one of my college professors, who said it was important for him to create a test in which no student earned a perfect score. His rationale was that if two students both had perfect scores, it was unlikely that they had the same level of knowledge on the subject, yet they were given the same relative score. So for this type of question, the answers that I like to hear are best guesses with some sort of "I would have to do some research to confirm that." What I really don't want to hear is a wrong answer. In the real world, we have lots of resources at our fingertips for looking up answers, but we won't look them up if we think we already know the answer. This particular type of question poses a challenge for the interviewer in that you need to have one or more areas in which your technical knowledge exceeds that of your candidate, but don't worry if you have done your homework and are still unable to stump your candidate. Chances are you going to feel pretty good about hiring someone with that much technical knowledge.
7) Ask a Trivial Question.
In many ways, this is my favorite thing to sneak into an interview. Simple questions should have simple answers. It is just as bad to spend a long time working on a hard problem because you don't have the right background as it is to spend an equivalent amount of time trying to over-engineer a simple problem. For several years, I worked with a programmer who always found solutions to problems eventually, but he also always seemed to take the least direct or most overly complicated path to get there just because he had knowledge in specific domains. This reminds me of the Abraham Maslow quote: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." So another benefit to asking this question is to watch throughout your interview for similar answers to questions; you want people working with you who possess more tools than just a hammer.
8) Ask a Question That Requires More Information in Order to Answer.
Sometimes, it is best to answer a question with another question. Some of the best people I've worked with over the years are not the ones who know the answers to questions off the top of their heads; rather, they are the ones who know the right questions to ask in order to establish scope or clarify requirements so they can give you a better answer to the original question. However, there is a balance here. If your candidate keeps responding to your questions with more questions, you may be dealing with an indecisive person or a person who can't organize thoughts quickly.
9) Ask a Question from a Long Time Ago.
I sometimes go back to a person's first job or educational experiences. I usually phrase this question as "What did you learn when you were working at such-and-such a place?" or "What was key thing that you learned in a certain class?" Some of my colleagues over the years have balked at my asking questions that go deep into a candidate's past, and I often ask several along this line. But here is my rationale: If a candidate claims to have 10 or 15 years of experience or to have graduated from a certain institution but can't recall anything they learned, should I really count it toward their job qualifications?
10) Ask a Non-Technical Question.
After coming up with all your technical questions, this should be a snap. I use it as a test for balance. Often, this comes into play as a follow-up question to something that the candidate mentioned during the interview, but it is good to have one prepared just in case. This is a question that I craft to be specific to the company that I'm working at. What I'm looking for is something that shows me that the candidate is well-rounded and has other skills, abilities, and interests that can be applied to the job.
One Bonus Question
11) Ask a Question Within a Question.
What I try to do here is politely interrupt the candidate's train of thought with a tangential follow-up question. When the candidate finishes the follow-up, I wait to see if they can pick up their train of thought from the first question. This is a tricky maneuver to perform and will probably happen at a different point during each interview. So keep on your toes and make sure you pay attention to the content of the answers to both of your questions. This questioning tactic will help you evaluate whether your candidates can handle interruptions in their work and smoothly get back on track.
Answers vs. Reality
Something I like to keep in mind when conducting interviews is that candidates will often answer questions the way they think you want to hear them answered, which does not always coincide with reality. Just because candidates know a lot about object-oriented programming or the rules for database normalization does not necessarily mean that they regularly apply their knowledge to their work. So dig a little deeper and ask follow-up questions to everything.
Interviewing really needn't be an arduous task. Keep in mind that it is one of your best chances to shape the future of your company. Interviewers are seldom given enough training in the art of interviewing and are therefore often under-prepared for interviewing candidates. Spending the extra time and effort to learn how to conduct thorough and insightful interviews is critical to finding the best candidate for a position. I trust you will find this list useful. And if you have comments, suggestions or other types of questions that you like to ask, please post them in the "Discuss this article" section listed below.
I want to give a special thanks to my wife Kimberly, who helped me create and refine the list of questions for this article.