The Scientific method for interviews

I have been doing interviews for quite a while now and would like to share with you a method that I like to call the scientific method for technical interviewing. First of all the overall process goes as follows:

Observation > Hypotheses > Prediction > Experiment > Conclusion

I have to confess that during an interview I am not fast enough to do all the required steps so I do some work before. In any case let us go through the stages one by one.

Phase 1: Observation

Interviews are a short period of time to assess if the person in front of you could be an asset to the company. The candidate probably feels nervous, which will make the whole process harder for both of us. So the first few minutes I spend to introduce myself and to try to change the formal environment to a less formal one.

1. Hello, nice to meet you. I am Kurt and I'm a project leader.
2. You should be ... and you have applied for ... position.
3. Series of general questions.

I ask questions like: “How are you?” Or “Was it hard to find this place?”. I’m basically trying to achieve two things:

1. Relax the person

Get him in his comfort zone where he can be assessed much better. The trick in this is to act relaxed. People usually do what you do, if you are angry they will feel it and get angry, if you are relaxed then they will be relaxed.

2. Start making some observations

In reality, as an interviewer you started making observations and predictions from the moment you laid eyes on his CV. I use this time to have a look at what the person is wearing and how he is responding to the new environment. If he is confident he might have required skills to meet clients face to face. A lot could be said from the way a person looks and acts, and if you notice these a client and team mates will do to. I should stress that there is no right or wrong in this phase, I’m just making basic observations.

Phase 2: Formulate hypotheses

In this phase I need to confirm what role I think this person might fit in. Of course you already know what role he is interested in but companies might vary from the way they work, thus the role he applied for might not be the one for him. I basically try to understand what this person currently does, and what he aspires to become. Are they aware what is happening outside of his team? Are they involved in decision making processes within the company he works for?

4. What do you do on a daily basis?
5. What do you expect from your manager?

I like to use advise I got from a colleague of mine which might sound mean but it works 99% of the time: the years in experience of the person tells you a lot on their potential. If they have been working for 10 years and are still not senior developers they probably will never be.

I then use this information to formulate my hypotheses. Assuming the person is applying for a technical role, it is usually 1 of 4 categories:

  1. Candidate is a junior developer
  2. Candidate is currently a junior developer but is promising to become a senior developer
  3. Candidate is a senior developer
  4. Candidate is a senior developer and has the required soft skills to do some project management

One might argue that the position the candidate applied for already had a matching set of questions asociated with it. However should they fail to meet the required criteria you can at least still assess. The company might have other openings or there might be other openings in a few years time.

Phase 3: Predict and Experiment

Prior to starting the interview I already knew about the 4 possible hypotheses so I prepared questions for each one of these. Unfortunately I can’t share these questions with you, since I use them on a day-to-day basis. But I like to share the philosophy I use when coming up with these questions. Basically I try to cover as many technical areas as possible. I usually use Sijin Joseph’s competency matrix as a checklist to make sure I’m assessing all the important areas.

5. Series of technical questions

Before each question I like to guess if the person would answer the questions correctly or not. This will help me after the interview to make more accurate predictions in case I missed on any questions. Also if the candidate starts getting a lot of wrong answers I might change my original hypotheses and ask easier questions. Alternatively if all the questions are right I ask harder ones.

Phase 4: Conclusion

This is where you conclude the interview. I usually like to conclude by asking:

6. Do you have any questions you would like to ask me?

What ever he answers I make sure that I re-explain my position and what I do on a day-to-day basis. I do this for 2 reasons:

1. Avoid Candidates from making the wrong decision

Make sure they wont have any surprises should they be chosen. This is all about setting the right expectations and make sure that they are aware of the full picture so that should they be chosen they won’t leave the company after the first few weeks.

2. Sell the company

The candidate is still an external person and even if they are not chosen you might still work together in the future. I make sure I give the person the right impression of the company I work for.

Post Interview Work

Just after the interview I like to speak to someone, who was either present during the interview, or someone else who usually does interviews. We then come to a conclusion. This should take no longer then 5 mins. Something to keep in mind: if you are not sure then don’t hire the person.

To help me out I usually have a large excel file with different sections. It has the various questions and the scientific stages, which serve as a guide to help me out. I jot down loads of notes and mark the questions as good or bad during the interview. Should there be another opportunity within the company in a few years time, I can refer back to this sheet. This will help me remember my reasons and evaluation on the candidate.

To conclude, I am usually quite strict on who to say yes to and I like to think that this is for the candidate’s advantage. If you end up hiring a person which isn’t up to standard he will probably get fired. This will make him and the company lose money. Remember that people have loans to pay and children to feed, his salary might be essential for him. Don’t take any risks, if you are not sure its best to say no.

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