Interviews – from both sides

Interviews. Never pleasant nor rewarding no matter which side of the table you’re on, as I discovered this past week. Did I learn anything?

Quite a bit actually.

I’ve been interrogated a few times in my career. Not too many but enough to know the process from that side of the chair. This week, however, I was asked to consult with a Cambodian company who were looking to hire a web developer. They needed someone who could help determine the skill level of the interviewees. I had never been on that side, asking the questions.

What could go wrong?

My interview experience so far

I’ve had varied experiences with being interviewed. I’ve been asked how many traffic lights I think are in the city, given printed code to debug, had word association tests just with words like “version control”, “composer” and “test-driven development” instead of the usual words. I’ve given shortened employment histories and had to explain how to debug XML files. I’ve also had code assignments – a blog and a shopping cart – to contend with.

I’ve discovered that I wouldn’t do well if Google suddenly (and implausibly) had to call me up for an interview. I don’t like questions that have to do with estimating how many golf balls can fit in a school bus; not least because South Africa doesn’t have school buses of that nature. I intensely dislike questions that involve having to remember the differences between obscure functions and particularly in which order the parameters need to be passed – especially in PHP.

So how did I do on the other side of the table?

Not very well, at first.

Myself as interviewer

  1. I was nervous. I had done some research on questions to ask when conducting a developer interview – but some of them were ridiculous and required me to memorize function calls that I could just look up within five minutes.
  2. Ok, so there was a challenge in overcoming the language and cultural barriers that exist between English speakers and the Khmer (local Cambodians). This made talking tech quite difficult.
  3. I don’t really like talking to people.

Ouch, what happened?

Well, it started slowly. I asked about SQL injection, version control (git or svn) and what the interviewee thought about responsive design. Some questions really didn’t survive the language barrier (what is your favourite development tool was mostly answered with “PHP”). Those questions got thrown out early on in the process.

By the last interview of the day I had given up most of my questions.

What happened then?

Then I decided to start talking instead of interrogating. I had subconsciously slipped into the same frame of mind as the interviews I disliked and that sort of thing had to go. I found that I could determine familiarity with technology just by being enthusiastic and passionate myself, talking about techniques I enjoyed using, recommending tools and libraries that I had discovered, sharing in our own mysterious developer ways.

In the end, I had a good conversation with the last candidate; although I did slip in a few questions to remind myself that this was an interview.

P.S. Flipkart is now hiring Udacity graduates without interviews