September 1, 2017 jbadmin

Hiring Software Engineers – Should recruiters be asking technical questions in interviews?

Tell me if this has happened to you—a hiring manager tells you that they want to hire for a new position, but, unfortunately for you, they also want you to include some technical questions in the interview to ensure the candidate is competent. You of course accept.


When the time comes and you are interviewing the candidate, the call is going very well until you get to the technical portion. You start asking the technical questions and the candidate gives answers that are close to, but not exactly what the hiring manager was looking for. You thank the candidate for their time and tell them the infamous ‘we will get back to you on next steps’ and hang up. After the call is over you wonder, ‘was the candidate actually qualified?’ or , ‘if I had reframed the question could they have answered it correctly and qualified?’


If you are a technical recruiter in any capacity then you need to know the art of asking technical questions so that you don’t disqualify strong candidates. In this article you will discover what questions you should ask in an interview to properly qualify the candidate. That way you won’t find yourself debating whether or not the candidate should move forward after a phone screen.


What Kind of Questions Should You Avoid?


Any question open to interpretation with multiple correct answers is probably not going to get you the best result in the interview. As a recruiter, you may not be as familiar as the hiring manager with the areas of knowledge being tested by the question, and so it’ll be more difficult for you to evaluate the candidate’s answer. That is because in order to know if the answer is correct you need sufficient context.


Let me expand upon this concept. Imagine that you ask someone ‘when was the internet created?’ and he answers ‘in the 1960s’ and the answer you have is ‘in the 1980s’. You might conclude that this person is not educated in the history of the internet. However, suppose you ask him ‘why?’ to get more context, and he responds ‘the military was using internet-like concepts well before commercial use in the 1960s. It wasn’t until much later that the internet  became available for commercial use.’


Is this person right? Well, in the context of his answer, yes, he’s right, even though he answered the question incorrectly according to a different interpretation. Asking the more specific question – ‘When was the general public first able to use the internet?’ would have been a better question.


How does this relate to interviewing? Well, you need the right context to know if the candidate’s answer is, or could be, correct. A common entry level question in technical interviews is:


What is the access time to retrieve two values from a hash table that are as close as possible alphabetically?”


The answer to this is O(n) for standard hash tables. However, there are special hash tables where the answer is O(1). If a candidate answers O(1) are they wrong? What if the hiring manager said that O(n) is the right answer? This is where knowing context is extremely important during interviews. A recruiter who does not know that both answers could be right, just might disqualify a very strong candidate who can spot edge cases.


The questions that you should ask should have the right context. For instance, having multiple choice or yes and no answers can work if they are simple enough and the hiring manager gives the right context. However, how many hiring managers do you know that will sit down with you and walk you through data structures and algorithms?


What Also Happens Behind the Scenes


This becomes more complicated when you find out what software engineers do behind the scenes during interviews. It is slightly taboo for me to talk about this, but I want to make sure that your time spent interviewing is not being wasted.


Software engineers are professional problem solvers. We can learn a new language every 6 months and in that same period completely forget the one we just learned. What many software engineers (somewhat) sarcastically credit to be responsible for their career success is a website called Stack Overflow.


Whenever someone has a question or a problem, they search for it on Stack Overflow and can usually find the answer within a few seconds. Think of it as programmers crowd sourcing all of their answers on one website.


You know what the easiest questions to look up on Stack Overflow are? Ones that are yes/no, multiple choice and ones that don’t need a lot of context. That means you may ask a candidate a question they don’t know the answer to, but they can still have the correct answer for you in about 10 seconds. So how are these questions supposed to screen for candidates when they can just look up the answer? Plus, how important is it for them to know the right answer if it’s only 10 seconds away?


My Advice


Push back to a hiring manager and suggest a 30 minute coding challenge. However, if the hiring manager is really adamant about you asking questions then I have a bulletproof work around – video call instead of phone.


If you can see the candidate you are talking to you will be able to verify that they truly know the information you are asking them. In addition, Advance Science Serving Society research states that people are less likely to lie to people they see and hear versus just hear. Just make sure that if you go this route you understand the right answer and its variations, also known as having enough context.


Overall, I say leave it to the pros. That is what they are paid to do. But if do you find yourself having to ask a candidate technical questions, now you know what to do.

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