The Interview Process: What a Company Wants

I have just finished a more extensive tech job search than anyone should really do. It featured eight on-sites, along with countless phone screens and informal chats. There were a few reasons why I ended up doing things this way: (a) I quit my job when my husband and I moved from Boston to San Francisco a few months ago, so I had the time; (b) I wasn’t sure what I was looking for — big company vs. small, data scientist vs. software engineer on a machine learning system, etc.; (c) I wasn’t sure how well it would all go. 

This way of doing a job search turned out to be an awesome learning experience. In this series of posts, I’ve tried to jot down some thoughts on what makes for a good interview process, both for the company and for the candidate. I was interviewing for a combination of data science and software engineering positions, but many observations should be more broadly applicable.

What are we trying to do here, anyway?

Before we can talk about what is a good or bad interview process, we need to understand the company’s objectives. Here are some things your company might be trying to do, or perhaps should be trying to do. Note that I’m focusing on the interview stage here; there are many separate questions about finding/filtering candidates.

Hire or no hire: Decide whether to give the candidate an offer. 

  1. Qualification check: Figure out whether the candidate is qualified for the position they applied for. This is the most basic objective of the interview process. To check someone’s qualifications, you first need to define what it means to be qualified for the position. In addition to technical skills, many companies look for a “culture fit”, which can help maintain the work and social environment at the company — or change it, if that’s what’s needed.
  2. Potential check: If the candidate isn’t qualified right now, can they become excellent at this job anyway? Companies have very different philosophies on whether this is a question they care to ask. In many cases, there are good reasons to ask it. I was told a story about someone who was hired as a machine learning expert, but soon got excited about infrastructure challenges, and before long became the head of an infrastructure team. At that point, what does it matter precisely what set of skills he originally came in with, as long as he’s smart and capable of learning new things?
  3. Opportunity check: If the candidate isn’t ideally suited to the position they applied for, are there other roles in the company where we’d love to have them? More than one place I interviewed at came back with an offer for a different role from the one I applied for (in my case, “data scientist” instead of “engineer”). They weren’t advertising for that job, but they were thinking opportunistically.

Leave a good impression.

There are two major components to this.

  1. Be cool: Make sure the candidate comes away with a positive view of the company. Part of doing this effectively is figuring out what counts as “cool” to this particular candidate.
  2. Be nice: Make sure the candidate has a positive overall experience.

Doing this well has an obvious benefit when the candidate is qualified: they’ll be more likely to take the offer. But it also has some less obvious benefits that apply to all candidates:

  • The candidate will be more likely to refer friends to your company. I heard about a candidate who was rejected but went on to recommend two friends who ended up joining the company.
  • The candidate will be more positive when discussing your company with their friends. It’s a small world.
  • Even if you don’t want to hire the candidate right now, you might want to hire them in a year.
  • There is intrinsic merit in being nice to people as they’re going through what is often a stressful experience.

Feel good doing it: Make sure the interviewers have a positive interview experience.

As someone on the other side of the fence, this one is harder for me to reason about. But here are some thoughts on why this is important:

  • Your employees might be spending a lot of time interviewing (as much as 10 hours a week during the fall recruiting season), and you don’t want them to be miserable doing it.
  • If the interviewer is grumpy, the candidate will be less likely to think well of the company (see above). One of the companies I interviewed at requires interviewers to submit detailed written feedback, which resulted in them dedicating much of their attention to typing up my whiteboard code during the interview. More than one interviewer expressed their frustration with the process. Even if they were pretty happy with their job most of the time, it certainly didn’t come across that way.
In the next post, I’ll take a look at some job postings. Do you have thoughts on other goals companies should strive for? Please comment!k

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