All-day interviews: The interviewer’s perspective?

~ 09 April 2007 ~

Paparazzo Kirk Peterson, the venerable eye behind the lens of Smallest Photo, sent in the following after reading “Surviving the all-day tech interview”:

The tips you outlined were bang on the money, but I too face interviewing folks and I’d not only like to hit all the marks for the company and my team but also for the perspective employee. As I’m sure you know, as the interviewer, I’m cheering for the person sitting in front of me. I’d LOVE for them to be right person so we can all pack it up and head out with the team for an early drink. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on how we as the person behind the desk can help the person on the other side of the desk be the best that we need them to be.

I gave a hearty effort on the last article, so I’ll pass the mic to all of you. Pipe up, forthright reader: How do you prepare applicants to perform their best? What are your interviewer tips and techniques in general?



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1   Jonathan Snook ~ 09 April 2007


No really, it’s that easy. If you want a job, walk in exuding all sorts of passion for the stuff that you do. That passion feeds confidence. If you walk in all excited about wanting to work there and you talk about all the stuff you like about that line of work, it’ll be pretty hard for the interviewer to say no.

2   Jonathan ~ 10 April 2007

Seriously, it’s difficult to exude passion when you’re treated like crap. An interview is two-way and you’d be surprised how many interview panels expect so much yet give so little in return.

I had three job interviews last year. The first required me to travel to the other end of the UK and stay in a hotel. The train got in late so there was no time to wander round my potential new home.
The interview was first thing the next morning and the only train I could get home was at lunchtime. So I never got the chance to look round this strange part of the world to see if I’d be happy living there. In the interview I was made to feel like I was privileged to be there. Afterwards I was given a tour of the site and then I had to go. I also met another candidate - an internal applicant. Basically they’d dragged me all that way to make up the numbers!
I never even got a call to thank me or - get this - tell me I hadn’t got the job. I decided before getting on the train back that I didn’t want it. Apart from the rudeness, I just couldn’t risk moving somewhere I didn’t even know, or feel sure that I would settle in.

The next interview was completely different in many ways. This time the opposite end of the country but they put me up in a hotel for two nights so I had a day free to wander around. They let me fly up instead of a day-long train journey. They made me and the other candidates feel very welcome, fed us, talked to us, made us pots of tea. Of course they were interested in finding out as much about us as possible and that was a better way of doing it. (The actual interview was a nightmare, mind - two of the interviewers hadn’t been involved in all that so were aloof from the start.) This time they did get back to me, late the next day.

The third interview was back up in the same part of the UK. I could have stayed an extra day beforehand but personal circumstances meant I couldn’t. But again the interview was good. The head of department had a long chat with me and the other candidates beforehand. We gave presentations. The interview was slightly daunting for the reasons above (‘outsiders’ on the panel who try to pull their weight, I reckon - bad idea to have ‘advisors’ I think) but when I walked out, even though I thought I’d blown it, I really wanted the job. Within 90 minutes I found out I had it.

Other interviews I’ve had have varied. Again, one in a difficult to access part of the UK involved an overnight stay and dinner with the other candidates and potential colleagues that night. But this was a ‘two round’ interview and we had to pack our things and take them in the next day. My interview was just after lunch so I got the chance to wander round the town. I hated it.
I thought the interview went well but they did the whole ‘wait in a room together and we’ll call you in one by one’. Given that I had the furthest to travel it only makes sense that I went last. Only one guy was there to give me the news but not only did he say I hadn’t got it, he proceeded to give me ‘feedback’ (i.e. he ripped me to pieces for no reason) then let me go. I managed to catch the last train home which was cancelled due to a major storm, so had to get a taxi the last 150 miles (paid for by the rail company fortunately).

And two years ago I turned down a very, very good job because they wouldn’t tell me how much I would be paid! Seriously - they expected me to give notice on my current job while they were still working out what they ‘could afford’, even though the job ad had stated the salary band. When I withdrew I got a phonecall in minutes from the department head saying I’d been unreasonable to expect them to make a decision like that so quickly. Made me realise I’d had a lucky escape!

So, tips.

Remember the candidate is making a huge choice about the future of their lives, possibly involving significant others and probably involving leaving a close circle of friends.
Give them time to feel comfortable and make decisions. You won’t get a good performance out of someone who is weighing up knowns with unknowns.

Don’t bring in external consultants unless you tell them their job is to make the candidate feel comfortable first and foremost, not to sound like pompous pricks.

Think about how far the candidate is travelling and arrange the interview time so they can get home okay.
When giving feedback ask first. Then do the ‘shit sandwich’ - positives, negatives then positives again. But be constructive.

Don’t ask questions designed to catch people out, that’s just stupid - oh and don’t ask the ‘where do you want to be in 10 years time?’ question (I threw that one back at the panel in my last interview and they couldn’t answer it…)

When offering the job state the salary. Don’t ask the candidate to tell you what they expect, and don’t preface any offer by saying things like ‘you lack experience’, ‘other candidates had X, Y and Z’ - you didn’t appoint them, you appointed this person so offer them the salary you budgeted for and don’t make people beg.

If you offer someone the job, don’t leave them to it - send them accommodation ads, ask someone to act as a liaison going to flats and taking pictures to email, offer (upfront) to pay for a further visit - I found out a week after I’d taken a flat sight unseen that I was allowed to claim expenses for a further visit and hotel stay, so make sure this is explained right from the start.
(Oh and remember candidates often have family - they need to be made welcome, school info, even simple things like maps and details of the best supermarkets, gyms, playgroups etc). An info pack is so easy to make up.
Moving house is one of the most stressful events in someone’s life. A new job is another. Add the two together…

If you can, pay expenses up front - I nearly had to turn down my current job because the bank wouldn’t fund the move (the bastards). Apparently I’m not alone in that.

Keep in touch with the appointee during the transition. After the initial phone call usually the next thing you get is ‘the contract’ which suddenly makes everything seem very formal. Honestly, a friendly phone call or email every week or so goes a long way.

Don’t expect the appointee to start work for you straight away (i.e. while working notice and arranging to move their lives, don’t send them stuff to read or do. If you want them to do some work, pay them or wait).

Appoint a mentor - not a superior or even a peer, just someone you think the new person will feel comfortable talking to and who will not report everything back to you!

If you think all this sounds expensive then consider the cost of appointing someone who ends up living somewhere awful, with no friends, and no contacts in the new place of work. Starting again is far more expensive than investing in your side of the deal. Especially as, at least under UK law, if an employee leaves because of stress under such circumstances, it counts as an industrial injury. And quite right too.

But seriously, if you read all that and are thinking ‘that’s a lot to ask’ then you’re really not ready to start hiring people. Money isn’t everything - the number of times I’ve worked somewhere where someone has just left after a few months for ‘personal reasons’ suggests that too many organisations don’t see the welfare of their staff as being their responsibility.

3   Sam ~ 10 April 2007

During one misguided college semester spent as a business major, I learned of Theory X and Theory Y which are two different management styles. Theory X assumes the managed are lazy and work-avoidant. Theory Y assumes that people may be ambitious, self-motivated workers.

We, as interviewers, can think of our candidates along similar lines. Interview Theory X: candidates are resume-padding liars. The truth can only be found out by careful and unrelenting cross examination. Interview Theory Y: candidates are trying to put their best foot forward and would be excited and motivated to have the chance to make good on all their claims.

4   Jonathan Snook ~ 10 April 2007

@Jonathan: my comment didn’t answer Cameron’s question. In my late night stupor, I misread his question. But I have to say, you’ve gone to some incredible interviews. My experiences have paled in comparison.

5   erat ~ 10 April 2007

I’ve only interviewed a few people over the years, but every time I did it I did my best to empathize with the interviewee. Interviewers should exhibit the same enthusiasm, same “passion,” same excitement about the job as the interviewee. Not only will it put the interviewee at ease, but it’ll promote the company in a good light.

I guess what it boils down to is the interviewers should hold themselves to the same standards as the interviewees. I can’t imagine a high quality employee wanting to work at a company that’s overflowing with aloof gasbags.

6   Luis Garcia ~ 10 April 2007

I think the point about *passion* is right on, but it has to come from the interviwer too.

To the question on how you prepare the applicant to do his/her best, I feel that showing your own passion about your company and your job really helps ease the other person.

When I interview people, I spend time talking about our company, why I came here and why is the best place to work. I tell them about the impact of our job and my vision of the position to that impact.

If the applicant is passionate about the same things, it will show right away. If he/she cannot relate, you will notice how they’ll treat the interview as an interview and not as two people passionate about something and connecting.

7   Adrian ~ 10 April 2007

Being a current college student (graduation in May), I can’t offer advice for interviewing but I have had experience in both good and bad interviews. The companies and people I most enjoyed interviewing with showed the same passion for the web and therefore created a real comfortable, conversational experience. Another style I liked was from a company that checked out my resume and work, then said, “Ok, we like your stuff, now design a website in a week for XYZ purpose and send it back to us.” I thought this was a very cool way to assess one’s talent. After all, if one is passionate about what they do, it wouldn’t be a problem whipping up an example in 7 days.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the interviews I’ve least enjoyed reminded me of being surrounded by a band of drill sergeants. They pummeled me with one question after another without response and no emotional difference in their voices. I felt like I was being interrogated. For one company, this process went on over the span of 4 weeks with multiple calls with multiple people. Each talk was the same with only questions being asked and really no conversation going on. At one point, I had forgotten why I even wanted to work with company and just hoped for the interview process to be over. It was disappointing they showed no interest in who I was as a person and were only interested in the technologies I knew.

8   Jonathan ~ 10 April 2007

Re passion - I think that’s a word that should be banned.

‘Passion’ is relative and the more experienced you become the more expert you might be, but the less ‘passionate’ as you reassess your priorities.

If someone came to an interview with me and said they lived, breathed and ate design I’d ask them to come back when they had a life.

I accepted a job once because the guy interviewing me had real ‘passion’ and it was catching. Sadly that’s all he had, and I left as soon as I could. Another job, everyone kept going on about ‘passion’ and certainly had a good time, but produced crap.
Meanwhile the ‘passionless’ guy in the corner turned out the goods. He was very, very good at his job but his passions were his family and his hobbies. As they should be.

And related to my horror stories above - when you’re in front of dolts the passion drains away. It isn’t kept in a bottle somewhere.

Incidentally, I did some research last year in to how applicants to university courses are chosen and the results were frightening. It again boiled down to ‘passion’ for the same movies, books, designers as the person interviewing, but we found that one person’s ‘passionate’ applicant was another’s waste of space - the same applicant got different feedback from different interviewers that rarely, if ever, linked to the actual entry criteria. And there was little, if any, match between passion and ability or ultimate success.

So I’d caution against ‘passion’ - write down the criteria beforehand and agree them amongst those interviewing (in fact they should form part of the job spec) and appoint only on them. Otherwise you risk appointing on charisma and missing ability. The two are not necessarily the same.

9   Tom Mollerus ~ 10 April 2007

One thing that I really like to ask of interviewees is what they’d like to achieve for themselves in 5 years, apart from the job at hand. It gives them a chance to loosen up and talk about themselves, about something they really care about. And it gives you, the interviewer, a chance to let them know how your company can help them achieve their goal.

10   Mark Priestap ~ 10 April 2007

Re Passion

Assuming that “passon” means excitement…

Passion is certainly not a bad thing, but I agree that if that’s all that is there, it’s not worth much. If someone was full of passion but does crap work, it’s no good. On the other hand, it’s probably impossible to do really good work if you lack the desire to excell.

Since I’m more of a deadpan person, it scares me when people want “passion” because I assume that means I have to sound excited, which I don’t do very well. Friendly and competent I can do… passion is a hard one to show outwardly for guys like me.

For me, showing passion is to know what I’m talking about having spent years soaking up knowledge and wisdom in my craft. I wouldn’t have soaked it up if I didn’t care about it.

My advice for interviewers is to find out if the interviewee knows their craft - that more than excitement will tell you whether or not they are truly passionate. It reveals a long-term devotion to doing their job well and shows where their heart is.

11   ML ~ 10 April 2007

I would say show your personality, crack jokes, make the applicant feel at ease from the beginning.

12   Dennis ~ 10 April 2007

ML: RE: “Cracking Jokes”

Once when I was participating in a group interview, my mind wandered a little bit and landed on my water bottle in front of me that, oddly enough, had an expiration date. During a lull in the conversation I asked the interviewee what they thought would happen on the day after [expiration date]. It was kind of unexpected and it loosened up the mood of the meeting quite a bit. My boss ended up making it a running gag in interviews after that, which I thought was kind of odd, but…

RE: “Passion”

I agree that passion can be a disguise for a void of talent. I think it might be better to use words like, “excitement”, “enthusiasm” and even “interest”. It bothers me when I’m in an interview and I get the feeling from the interviewer that I’m taking up their valuable time. Like I have to prove myself to them. The least we can do as interviewers is make the person feel that we are interested, enthusiastic, excited about being WITH THEM.

Adrian: RE: “Design Tests”

I have really mixed feelings about design tests. I think they’re a valuable way to assess what’s true and what’s not in someone’s portfolio because I’ve interviewed people who have great books, but when I ask them details about some of the work I learn that they didn’t design it, they only updated the text, or something like that. So having them do a test might reveal their real abilities.

On the other hand, I hate doing them. Adding a test either on the day or week of the interview adds so much stress to an already trying situation, I’d much rather discuss in detail my specific role in the projects in my portfolio that were completed in a reasonable time frame with an appropriate amount of feedback and revisions.

But along the lines of advice for Interviewers, it’s crucial to ask about the work that’s on every page of a portfolio. We can’t take for granted that that work which is being shown is actually all theirs. That’s not to say that candidates are out to deceive, but it does happen. In my own portfolio I try to put only work that I’ve done 80-100% of the work on, and where I didn’t do all of it, I state up front what it is that I did or didn’t do, just so I’m not creating any false impressions.

13   Noah ~ 10 April 2007

I have been on both sides of this fence. There are two things that I try to look for in a candidate. First are skills and second is the right fit.

Generally, one should have a pretty good feeling about an individual’s skills before they even walk in the door. However, it is a good idea to test these things out a little bit just to make sure. One “exam” that I have both given and endured, is the extensions exam. Basically, you have 20 minutes to name and talk about as many file extensions as you can … .css, .php, .pdf, etc. You’d be amazed at how much information this gives you about where in technology a person’s strengths are.

The right fit. This is really the most important thing to look for. You are creating a team, and thus you are looking for people who will fit in and are likely to be friends with your current team. I was once told a story about a biker who wanted nothing more in life than to work at Harley Davidson. When he finally got the interview, he covered his tattoos in the best 3-piece suit he could afford. When he walked into the interview room, the members of the panel were all donning leather vests and covered with tats … he didn’t get the job. After hearing this story, for better or worse, I make a significant effort to dress and act as I do day-in and day-out. O.K., obviously I clean up my act a little, as I generally do for most new people I meet. But overall I really try to give the interviewer a good sense of how I act. The last thing I want is to sell myself as a lemon, and then show up as a lime. Same goes for people I interview — I try to get them to relax and show me at least a little bit of the true day-to-day person.

It’s all about finding the right person with the right skills. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes not so much. If you have the freedom, I strongly suggest patience. Don’t be afraid to pass on everybody if you feel that nobody is worthwhile.

14   patrick h. lauke ~ 10 April 2007

i’ve sat on about a dozen interview panels over the last five years…in fact, i’ve got a round of interviews coming up next week.

the hardest part for me as an interviewer is really keeping the same open mind, attentiveness and enthusiasm all through the day. if you’re seeing seven or eight people in a day, it can get really tough to give the last person a fair chance, and really listening to them. what i usually try to do is to take good notes during the interview itself, add a few memory aids (a little sketch of the person, or something like “red tie” if they were wearing one), and then try to completely blank them out of my mind in the break between candidates.

also, do your homework for each candidate. read their CV and job application with care, and know what exactly you want them to elaborate on. along the same lines as the comment above about theory Y, i try to be on THEIR side…not trying to trip them up (unless it does look like they’re completely fibbing in their application), but trying to help them talk about all the good things they’ve done.

15   Jonathan ~ 10 April 2007

This is maybe going off the point a bit but…

” .css, .php, .pdf, etc. You’d be amazed at how much information this gives you about where in technology a person’s strengths are”

I have to admit I am both a techno-nerd and someone whose memory fails them at crucial moments, usually in interviews (the tales I could tell), so if nothing else I’m cautioning against assuming that nerves won’t get in the way of someone remembering what PDF means…

I could talk about those for hours but recently I’ve become interested in the idea of ‘essential knowledge’, questioning some of the sacred cows we hold dear. I won’t go in to detail as I seem to have said far too much already, but when someone says ‘X is essential’ I wonder if it really is - for example, in my environment I hear that life drawing is ‘essential’ yet I’ve met many people who are great designers but don’t do life drawing. And I’ve never been to a life drawing class, so clearly it’s not ‘essential’. More like it’s something that someone enjoys or found useful and therefore feels everyone else should too (or it’s an essential rite of passage, like rolling a trouser leg up is ‘essential’ to be a Mason…).

Anyway, to the point ;-) I recently gave a lecture to students on taste and started talking about MySpace, delicious, Google etc, and the way their ‘bad’ design is completely irrelevant to their use, blah blah. If you’ve read my Pizza Flyers article you’ll know where I’m coming from with this.
Anyway, I started talking about blogs, RSS, Google Bombing, CSS, XML, web 2.0 (all in context, mind) and no one knew what I was talking about. Not because they are stupid or don’t keep up, or are badly taught but because those things just aren’t important to them. Like they want to watch TV, doesn’t mean they have to know about PAL, NTSC and all that. And someone who makes TV programmes doesn’t ‘need’ to know that. Sure, someone down the line needs to, but it doesn’t have to be them.

So what I’m saying is that this knowledge (‘cultural capital’ to use the sociological jargon) is not important in itself but is important in finding someone you will probably get on with. But it isn’t infallible. If you’re looking for a technician then technical knowledge is fine, sure, and I realise the comment I’m, quoting is probably coming from that angle. If you’re looking for a designer? Or an account manager?
(I’m playing devil’s advocate a bit here, but I’m interested in what our tactics are really saying about ourselves.)

” .css, .php, .pdf, etc. You’d be amazed at how much information this gives you about where in technology a person’s strengths are” - or, to translate, it shows you how much of a fellow nerd they are! ;-)

Someone who says ‘create a web site with that technology for automatically alerting people to changes’ may not know the lingo, but may understand the potential. But someone who knows the lingo may not understand the potential. (Which is often why new technology takes a while to get off the ground).

16   Noah ~ 10 April 2007

I can understand how I could be misread. The idea with the extensions is to get people talking about what the do know and how it relates to what they do. For example, while you may “blank” and not remember that PDF stands for Portable Document Format, I bet you’d be able to put it in context of how you use it and when. I think the main thing this does is start a dialog between you and the person you are interviewing. In interviews a dialog is much more important to me than a Q&A session.

17   J Maxfield ~ 10 April 2007

No one has discussed the HR ramifications of this. The interview I went to for my current job with a government agency stopped me short. It was the flattest, most deadpan, and therefore unnerving experience I’ve ever had in an interviewing situation. I might as well have been interviewed by robots. The people on the panel aren’t like that at all; we have a genuinely good time working together in a fairly informal office.

After I got the job, I had the opportunity to ask about the interview process they followed. It boiled down to this: HR told them to write a script and not deviate from it at all. They had to ask the same questions the same way to every candidate. HR had the panel petrified of a lawsuit if they didn’t do it the prescribed way (fearing some candidates would talk, compare notes, and claim some sort of bias/discrimination).

You want passion or enthusiasm? Nothing pulls the energy out of a room (or out of the interviewee) faster than the sterility of an HR-driven script. The interviewers weren’t free to interact with the candidate and thus the humanity was taken out of the process. Where I can usually be quite comfortable in front of a panel, that experience was so jarring it took me (and the panel) completely outside our comfort zones.

18   Ryan ~ 11 April 2007

I always hated being interviewed by more than 2 people. I can be intimidating and there is usually one person who is just sitting there, starring bringing nothing to the table.

Let team members interview but don’t make more formal then a typical day on the job. If I meetng with the people I’d be working with each day, than let’s talk in that environment so I’d have a good idea of a typical day.

19   Justin Kilcher ~ 11 April 2007

I am an absolutely terrible interviewee. Its not because I dont know what Im talking about or that Im really nervous but rather that Im a very humble and quiet person. I dont like to make my voice heard or gloat about what I can do and thats usually what an interview is about.

With that being said, the monotone ‘black-and-white’ interview style is death to me. It makes me seem unorganized and really nervous. Luckily for me I finally got interviewed by a younger guy that was very personable. He made time to kind of let loose and ask me what my favorite websites were and if I ever read any of the crazy stories on Digg. This immediately allowed me to loosen up and have a good discussion with him. I was offered a job on the spot and couldnt have been happier!

20   tony crockford ~ 11 April 2007

Relationships - that’s what employing people is all about.

And like all relationships, if you want them to go the distance, you have to be honest from the start. Be honest with the interviewee, don’t try and snare him with false promises about your company. Be open about what you expect and engage the interviewee in discussion about how they would address the issues of the task you are hiring for.

if they are enthusiastic and genuine about your genuine and honestly presented task and rewards then the relationship you make by employing them will be rewarding for you both.

if you are dishonest and entice them to join you with false promise then you might get three months of effort from them, while they uncover the truth, followed by a disintegrating and difficult relationship while they look for new work or you seek to dismiss them.

and let’s try and drop the day long interviewing? no-one picked a spouse after one day long date, did they? make interviewing like wooing - a little flirting on the phone, maybe then a first date and then if it still looks promising another longer date and then make up your mind.

a quick phone call to cover your main objectives could save both of you hours of stress if you realise straight away that you’re not right for each other.

21   Cameron Moll ~ 12 April 2007

and let’s try and drop the day long interviewing? … a quick phone call to cover your main objectives could save both of you hours of stress if you realise straight away that you’re not right for each other.

Of course. One should always do a phone screening or one-hour interview before proceeding to the all-day, for the reason you mention.

22   Susanna ~ 12 April 2007

My husband recently had a day-long interview at a national lab. In addition to the interviews with various people, they asked him to prepare a 30-minute presentation on his research. He gave his presentation right before lunch and anyone in the group he was hoping to join was welcome to come and listen. I thought this was a neat way for him to meet people he might be working with but who wouldn’t be interviewing him.

The other thing the lab did was provide him with a schedule of who he’d be interviewing with, including their contact info. That really took the pressure off for having to remember a bunch of new names and it was nice for him to have all that on one sheet instead of having to shuffle a bunch of business cards.

23   Chris ~ 01 August 2007

If you are an interviewer, and tired of interviewing people, then don’t interview people. Let someone else do it. Because if you interview someone, when you don’t feel like it, you’ll end up being the jackass, and not liking the interviewee no matter how great the interviewee performs. And therefore the interviwee won’t be getting a job because of YOU!!!!


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