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Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

How to interview engineers

The wrong selection for a new hire can make your life miserable whether you are a manager having to deal with counseling and possibly firing of the employee or a coworker and having to pick up the slack or deal with a wacko in a cube next to you.  Since the interview process is incredibly time consuming for the organization, the question we all have is:  How do you make the right decision?  Passing on great candidates out of fear can be just as detrimental as hiring the wrong person.  Here is our outline for how the interview process should flow:

Recruiting – Having a knowledgeable technical recruiter is a blessing.  They can start right away weeding out the candidates that are not up to speed on the technical skills that you need.  If your recruiter isn’t technically savvy, write up five questions for them to ask and the acceptable range of answers for each.

Phone Screen – This is a must it because it saves a ton of time and money.  We prefer to see two separate phone screens:  a technical screen performed by an engineer or manager and focused on the core technologies in which you are interested, and a second one focused on culture and fit.  For the technical interview prepare 5 – 10 questions ahead of time and try them on a coworker over lunch to see if someone can explain the answer sufficiently without writing anything down.  Engineers are notorious for being visual so this is a good check of your questions.  For five essential phone-screen questions try Stevey’s blog.  The second phone screen can be done by HR, a manger or an engineer and should be focused on culture and fit.  The goal is to compare this candidate’s style of work and play with that of the team’s. 

Code Test – This is can be a sensitive topic.  Some people swear by the code test, claiming it separates the wheat from the chaff, while others abhor it, thinking it too sophomoric.  Personally, we say that you have to do it.  Even if you’ve worked with someone in the past, treat all candidates the same and make them participate.  If you don’t want to do a separate test to evaluate an individual’s code, just incorporate the questions in the phone or in person steps of the process.

In Person – If the candidate has gotten past your recruiter, two phone screens, and possibly a code test, they are ready for the in person interviews.  I recommend three or more separate interviews with each interviewer assigned a specific subject matter to cover.  At a minimum you want one technical, one culture, and one logic (think puzzles) interview.  I like the technical interview broken out into two sections if possible; one for the specific programming language and the other focused on related technologies such as SQL.

Offer or Decline –The most important thing whether you are giving someone an offer or declining them is that you give them the feedback as soon as possible.  This will increase your chances of getting the candidate or leave them with a positive experience.  Dragging out the decision or the communication about that decision for days or weeks is guaranteed to leave a bad feeling with the candidate.  All offers should come with a drop dead date; this gives you the advantage over those other companies that can’t put offers together quickly.

Pitfalls – One of the most common reasons for a “mis-hire” in our experience is that not enough time was spent with an individual before offering him/her a job.  It is critically important that the hiring manager spend enough time with the candidate to “know” that they will be comfortable with him/her.  This is usually more than an hour.  The hiring manager must feel as comfortable as possible that the person is not only a good technical fit, but a good cultural fit as well.  A really talented engineer can completely ruin the culture of a high performing organization and cause it to underperform.  Unfortunately, it is not so easy for an underperforming organization to be changed culturally for the better with one really good hire.

We also suggest that you not give into the urge to have “everyone” interview a candidate.  If you’ve been in an interview process where you meet 8 to 10 people in 1 to 2 days for an hour each you know what we mean.  Wearing the candidate down with numbers doesn’t increase your probability of a good hire – more likely it will give you false positives or negatives.  Per our suggestion above, fewer people with more time spent with the candidate will likely yield a better result.

Comments RSS TrackBack 2 comments

  • Ben

    in April 11th, 2008 @ 05:43

    Looks perfectly straight to me. Of course, I’m also the type of person who allegedly [ahem! allegedly] agree with everything.

  • Abbott, Keeven, Fisher &#038 Fortuna Partners

    in March 18th, 2009 @ 14:04

    […] wrote almost a year ago about how to interview engineers.  It has been one of our most popular posts so we thought we’d expand on it a little.  In that […]