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What I Look for in an Interview Candidate

Pete Brown - 21 July 2008

I’ve interviewed a large number of people over the past 12+ years at Applied Information Sciences.

I’m generally not interested in people who just want a job. I want people who love technology and programming (or some part of software development). I want passion and I want self-direction. While that passion is preferably in something related to what we do (either directly like, say, Silverlight, or indirectly like working with XNA on Zune or something), I’m also interested in passion in other technical areas (hardware, linux, whatever).

Like most “soft skills”, passion is hard to truly ferret out. To get a feel for it, in addition to the “whiteboard an application that does X” and “tell me how you solved a difficult problem on project x”, there are a few questions I just about always ask candidates when I meet with them:

  • What do you do to keep up on new technology, trends, developments
  • Tell me about something new you learned that wasn’t required in your day job

Here are some answers I get:

“I generally only learn what my project requires at that point”. FAIL. This shows you are not a thought leader or interested in technology out of a day job. While many organizations do well with those types of folks, It’s just hard to have them in a forward-focused consulting organization. In our business, you always need to know things a couple steps ahead of the customers, as you need to be able to advise them and make decisions based on what is or may be coming down the pipe.

“I hear about a new technology so I then go buy a book and learn all about it”. NOT-QUITE-FAIL. Ok, this is definitely better than saying you only learn what you have to, but you’re not on the leading edge if you’re waiting for the book to come out. I won’t instantly fail a person on this, but it doesn’t count heavily in their favor.

“I read blogs x, y and z on my own time to find out what’s coming”. OK PASS. This person is at least informed. They may not be actually working with the technology, but they can probably speak to it. Their knowledge will be pretty shallow, but there’s something there that shows some forward thinking. You can probably work with this person to motivate them even further. I usually follow this up with questions about what they learned, what was interesting etc, what they did with it etc.

“I learned about a beta/alpha technology X, downloaded the pre-release bits, and built a couple samples on my own”. Strong PASS. This is someone who is excited enough about the technology to go and try and get others excited. This is also someone who is probably making an effort to be visible in some technical community and who will help increase our reputation.

above plus “and wrote some blog posts/articles/tutorials on the topic” or above and “and managed an open source project based on it”. Very Strong PASS for obvious reasons.

In addition to the words, you can often tell by tone and detail how excited a person is about a technology.

I’ve also gotten the “I have a family and don’t have time” response. I can certainly understand that: I have a 2 1/2 year old boy and another child on the way soon. However, if your career stops moving when you have a family, you’re just looking for a job. That’s fine and I think no less of you for it, but it won’t work out in our industry unless you get placed on a very long term project. It sounds cold, but people who are really interested in this stuff find a way to balance the two and still be involved.

So, what’s important when you interview? How do you go about identifying it in a candidate?

[ Note: none of this is official policy or necessarily reflects the opinion of my employer or other interviewers ]

posted by Pete Brown on Monday, July 21, 2008
filed under:        

5 comments for “What I Look for in an Interview Candidate”

  1. Davesays:
    I used to ask a somewhat ambiguous question just to see if they'd think it through. For instance doing Windows Apps I'd ask how to keep a Window in one spot. I've had people tell me they would save the location and check it on a timer and move it back... yikes... the 'move the window' game :)

    More interested though in talking about it out loud and making sure they understand some of the concepts, such as why the 'move the window' game' isn't good for users. I would never expect anyone to know any of the answers off the top of their head though... but if they did... bonus!

    From an interviewees standpoint, in the last bunch of years, it seems that an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything is required... so your technique is refreshing. For everyone else, I want to be Neo and get MSDN loaded onboard before my next interview :)
  2. Pete Brownsays:
    @Bryan . It does limit the pool, but that's the point. It's not down to 10, though :)

    I should also point out that I'm just one person in the chain of interviewers, even if I'm the hiring manager. Other people focus on other areas, but I know that personality, interest, and ability to learn are things most everyone is interested in.

  3. Bart Czernickisays:

    Nice post. I agree 100% with what you have to say. I look for the same exact type of person to work with.

    We have had a couple candidates that were very strong and passionate about technology. Too passionate...work didn't get done and one developer was focusing on his "side tasks" instead of his assigned work. Needless to say they are not with us anymore :)

    Remember not everyone that is passionate with tech will give you all that passion at work :)

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