Reviewing tech interviewing

Earlier this summer, I decided to switch jobs after six years at my previous company. I had joined as an engineer, but a few months into the pandemic, I had one of those "OMG what am I doing with my life?" moments that I guess quite a few people did, and asked myself why I was still at that company after almost five years (as it was in the spring of 2020). It wasn't the industry; it wasn't something I was passionate about. It wasn't the tech; even though we were using stuff I enjoyed a lot, so are many other companies, and some of them are even using Clojure, which I wasn't at the time. What it was was the people I worked with. Over my time there, I met a lot of great engineers and a lot of wonderful human beings, and there was a lot of overlap between those two groups. So given this was the case, why in the world wasn't I in a job where I could spend 100% of my time on the people?

And that is why I decided to change careers and become an Engineering Manager back in the spring of last year. And believe me, it is a career change, not a promotion. The two most common reasons engineers go into management are because they do see it as a promotion, or maybe even more frequently, because there's no one else to do it. I have personally tried management for that latter reason twice, and absolutely hated it. And that's no surprise really; I mean, falling on a grenade is not usually fun.

But this time around, I got into it for the right reasons: to be able to focus on helping people grow and succeed in their careers, and to be able to have a bigger impact on the culture in the Engineering organisation. I have to admit going in that I was a little worried that I'd miss coding, and would have to spend my weekends on personal projects to feed the addiction, but I was delighted to find that I didn't miss it. I made a deliberate choice not to be a hands on manager, because the team I was directly managing had a very senior engineer who was very capable of leading the day to day work, so I focused on people development and improving our process.

I also got heavily into hiring, as building a great team requires making sure that the people you're bringing in are the right people to take the team forward. I had been involved in hiring from almost the beginning of my time at the company, but had taken a break for a year when I moved into a lead architect role so that I could be sure I had enough time to do a good job in that role. Getting back into interviewing after my self-imposed hiatus was great. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed meeting candidates and doing my best to give them a platform to demonstrate their abilities and personality.

When I decided to leave my job at the beginning of June and started interviewing at other companies, it was a strange feeling to be back on that side of the table after so many years. I had the privilege of not being in a hurry, however, and I found that I actually enjoyed most of the processes. I wasn't desperate to find a new job right away, so I didn't feel any pressure. I just tried to be myself and be honest.

I wanted to share a couple of things that I liked and didn't like about the processes that I was in, and also share a few questions that I asked to try and determine whether the company would be a place I would enjoy working.

Stuff I liked

First of all, I have to say that most of the processes were great. The HR people got back to me in good time after each interview, often with useful feedback. Unlike a lot of interviews for engineering positions, the Engineering Manager interviews tended to be behavioural interviews based on my actual experience; for example, questions like "Tell me about a time when you had to work with an under-performing report" or "Tell me about a time when you had to give difficult feedback to a superior." These sort of questions have no right or wrong answer, but in the hands of a skilled interviewer, can spark deep conversations where you gain a lot of insight into a person's management style. I had a lot of experience conducting these interviews (I think they're great for any candidate, not just managers, and we used them for engineering roles at my previous company as well), and it was fun being on the other end of them.

The coolest interview I had was a two part interview in which I talked to a couple of people in the team I would be managing and got a feel for their personal development needs as well as challenges that the team faced, and then was debriefed by the person who I would be reporting to. It was a really novel interview, and I think did a great job of putting me in a very realistic setting and letting me demonstrate skills that I would actually be using day to day. So much better than coding on a whiteboard or answering trivia questions about some technology or programming languages! (By the way, if your company still does those type of interview, please stop it immediately; they don't tell you anything useful and most candidate hate them.)

Stuff I didn't like

A couple of companies unfortunately had logic and/or personality tests. Those are really horrible, and I've never seen any data showing a strong correlation between performance on those tests and actual job performance, despite actively looking for it. My previous job used a logic test, and I spend the entire five years I was involved in hiring there trying in vain to get rid of it or get evidence that it was useful in any way. Those tests can put people with ADHD or dyslexia or other neurodiverse conditions at a huge disadvantage, and even companies who offer exemptions in those cases put the candidate in a position where they have to disclose something about themselves that should have no bearing on job performance.

One company had a battery of tests that took over an hour to do, including a logic test where you had to identify patterns, a numerical reasoning test, a verbal reasoning test, and two separate personality tests. The logic and numerical and verbal reasoning tests all had timed questions, which was extremely stressful. I'm not great at doing calculations quickly, and the logic test was either very hard or I'm just not good at that sort of thing. Neither of these things has ever negatively affected my job performance, and I really don't know what they expected to learn from the results of these tests. I didn't do well on those two tests, and felt really horrible after taking them. My poor performance didn't disqualify me, as the company chose to continue the process with me, so as far as I could tell, they basically put me through an extremely unpleasant situation for absolutely no reason. I felt bad for hours after taking those tests.

Another company had a logic test, and I just told them that I wasn't going to take it, so if that was a requirement for their process, I wasn't interested in continuing. It was and I didn't.

If you have a logic test or similar, just know that you are losing candidates. I have two friends who worked at my previous company that wouldn't even post job openings because they were so sick of the abuse they would get because we had a logic test in our process. Our recruiters have also gotten some really nasty messages from candidates.

Stuff I asked

Since I had the luxury of choice, it was really important to me to do the best I could to ensure that the company would be a good fit for me. Here are some of the questions I asked:

I hope this is useful for someone out there. Or maybe everything I've said here is extremely obvious, in which case tech interviewing is a lot better than I thought! 😉

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Published: 2022-08-03

Tagged: hiring tech