Create Great Technical Interviews

A technical interview or screening is a crucial part of reviewing a candidate for an engineering position. It’s usually the second step in the review process and is a prerequisite to an in-person interview. Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the last few years of taking and giving a dozen or so interviews.

You learn bits and pieces about the personality of a candidate throughout the entire interview process. The technical interview is a chance for them to highlight their expertise, aptitude, and style, not their charm, wit, or lack thereof. I set aside an hour for technical interviews: 10 minutes for introductions, 40 minutes to code, and 10 minutes at the end for Q&A.

I start with a three to five minute summary of who I am and what I do. Humans naturally mirror each other’s behavior. In an interview, I find this to be amplified so I make sure to stick to the facts and ask the candidate to do the same.

If you’ve got a “Chatty Cathy,” keep your eye on the clock. Make sure chit-chat doesn’t eat into their time to code. Interrupt your candidate politely by saying, “I want to make sure you have enough time to get through the code so let’s come back to this during Q&A.” Inversely, if the candidate is taciturn, have some questions ready to open them up. What projects are they working on? What type of role are they looking for? How do they stay current with technology?

When it comes time to code, there are thousands of interview questions to choose from. I look for a single problem that flexes several computer science muscles like recursion, object-oriented programming, queues, or data structures. The more ways there are to solve the problem, the better chance you’ll have to see how the candidate thinks. I also prefer problems that start simply, build in complexity and lend themselves to test-driven development (TDD).

Practice explaining the problem clearly to avoid wasting time and encourage candidates to think out loud. Most technical interview problems have a really elegant and non-intuitive solution. Candidates often know this and can spin their wheels trying to figure it out on the first pass. TDD helps alleviate these symptoms. Remind candidates that you’re looking for thoughtfulness over correctness to help them feel more comfortable.

It’s crucial to see every keystroke. An engineer’s cursor is an extension of her thought process. In the past, I’ve used Skype or Messages (formerly iChat) to screen share. Besides being a little invasive, screen sharing can lead to “rabbit holes,” especially during setup. For example, I’ve seen confused candidates create entirely new Rails projects or bundle a gem when a single Ruby file would have sufficed. The less wiggle-room the better. Google Docs works but you really want an editor designed for code. I recommend Stypi.

Run the code. Engineers iterate on solutions by executing the code they’ve written. I think it’s unfair to make anyone think through a whole problem in their head. If you’re using a web-based editor, you may be able to pipe the code directly to a local interpreter. The folks at Stypi made this easy:

# Just replace the URL (don't forget "/raw")
$> curl --silent https://www.stypi.com/raw/avand/interviews/reverse_polish_notation.rb | ruby
Loaded suite -
Started
.
Finished in 0.000427 seconds.

1 tests, 4 assertions, 0 failures, 0 errors, 0 skips

Be helpful, engaged, and bail candidates out of sticky situations. It’s easy to go into “spectator mode.” By actively following a candidate’s thought process you’ll better understand how they think and keep the interview on track. To stay engaged, introduce a big problem one small piece at a time, give examples of input and output, and point out potential bugs or edge cases as they come up.

Cut candidates off at the time limit, even if their work is unfinished. If you made it clear up front that you’re not necessarily looking for the correct answer, this should be easy. Change gears quickly to Q&A by asking them if they have any questions for you and wrap up the call from there. Great candidates have great questions that open up really interesting conversation. I like to indulge in good conversation, especially if the coding exercise went well. It helps me understand if the candidate would be a good mental and cultural fit.

Pull the plug if a candidate is bombing. Like going on a blind date, you may know within minutes that the candidate isn’t a good fit. I prefer to pull the cord immediately when this happens. I’ll say, “this isn’t going as I expected” and then site a reason (e.g., “we’re looking for folks that understand a language, not framework” or “a solid understanding of these data structures is really important to us”).

Finally, If the candidate is a no-go, give a good reason why. “We don’t think there’s a good technical fit” isn’t a real reason. Describing why a candidate is or is not a fit is hard but it’s worth doing. It forces you to objectively distill your thoughts, which will make it easier to discern other candidates. And it’s great feedback for the candidates too as they, no doubt, will learn from this experience.

Creating great technical interviews is a key piece of growing an engineering team. Doing it well means objectively screening candidates without tying up a lot of resources. Having sat on both sides of the interview table, I’ve found this approach to be a really good baseline. I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for reading! I'm Avand.

I am a full-stack software engineer, product designer, and teacher. I’ve been working on the web for over a decade and am passionate about building great products.

I currently work at Airbnb, where I help internal product teams stay abreast with customer feedback. Before that, I was at Mystery Science, transforming how elementary school teachers teach science. And since 2013, I’ve worked on-and-off with General Assembly, teaching aspiring developers what I know about front-end web development.

I was born in Boston, grew up in Salt Lake City, and spent many years living in Chicago. Now, I call San Francisco my home.

I’m an aspiring rock climber. I have a love affair with music and cars, especially vintage BMWs and Volkswagens. One day, I’ll buy a van and transform it into an offroad-capable camping rig.

But that’s enough about me. How can I help you?

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