An interview with a view: how to interview technical people if you’re not

One of my great mentors recently posted an article about how to write job postings. His post brought back all the great memories of that experience, by far one of the best experiences I’ve had applying for and being offered a position anywhere. Not only did the interview have a great view (on the windowy 29th floor), but each of his team’s sessions pushed me to the edge of my capacities, technically and otherwise. It was a thorough examination of the sort of person I am, how I relate to others and what sort of contribution I could bring to the culture-at-large at their Omnicom agency.

That experience taught me something crucial: that last bit about contribution to the culture is arguably the most important part of all when interviewing someone.

After reading Marty’s post, I realized how my own experience there has shaped my own interview style ever since.

I started thinking about how much easier it is to be interviewed (sometimes this feels more like interrogation, when not done well) by someone equally or more skilled than I am, in the technical sense. Marty has years of experience solving the challenges he will ask of his reports. He has a unique viewpoint in that he is self-taught, having earned his knowledge the best way – by doing, by making mistakes, learning from them and then doing things right.

Then, I imagined both the technically-fluent and non-technically-fluent people I have interviewed with and how challenging it is to hire people for technical roles without some level of fluency. That may be like asking a lawyer to consult farmers on how to return hydrogen in the soil to optimum levels before the next growing season.

With that in mind, I have some questions that can help be a fairly decent barometer of someone’s general capacities. It is essential, as Marty so accurately states in his post, to hire for personality. I consistently hire for that and it works. Hiring for a specific skill set is short-sighted. The candidates who can pass basic tests of comprehension of the concepts related to the role for which they are applying can learn anything. I can teach most anyone anything. A person’s temperament and attitude, however, cannot be learned or unlearned if they’re a downer.

So, especially if you’re not chock full of technical fluency, while interviewing technical people it is still best to stick what you can potentially measure, anyway. Try to get a feel for what kind of person they are. Some would argue this is even more challenging and I would agree. Still, the odds are better there than trying to gauge their overall technical capacity. Attitude is what counts. I focus on that.

Some good questions to measure general aptitude and attitude:

Please tell me a little bit about your digital life: Where did it begin? How has it evolved? (Do they just put all their images and stuff on Facebook or are they more inventive than that?)

How do you organize your digital life? What tools are your favorite? (This will illustrate how ‘tinkery’ they are)

How often do those tools change? Do you frequently try new tools? What was the last one you tried? How did it work out? (Are they happy with the status quo or always pushing themselves to learn, try and find new and improved methodologies?)

What works in your current organization? What’s broken? How would you fix it if it were up to you? (Do they use this as a vehicle to complain with a better idea?)

If you could master one technology this year what would it be? (This can tell us where their interests really lie – are they applying for a role that compliments or works against this?)

Can you explain the importance of standards and the organizing bodies that manage them? (This is all about community and collaboration. Or should be.)

Do you prefer to work on projects solo or with others? (The answers to this are self-evident, right?)

Tell me a story about a huge obstacle you faced on a project. How did you overcome it? (This question is way over-played like a Top 40 hit but it still accomplished an important goal)

What role do you play in your tribe of friends and/or family where technology is concerned? Can you give me an example? (How they answer this question can tell us a lot or a little. Their storytelling capacity is what we are looking for here.)

If we made you an offer for this role and you refused, why that would be? (This can potentially tell us if they are just looking for a paycheck or a place to grow and build a future)

There are certainly more specific sets of questions depending on what type of role this candidate may be applying for, but save that for the technical part of the interview. ALWAYS have someone who has technical fluency interview someone for a technical role. There are way too many finaglers out there today who can con their way past recruiters with ease. Remember this: recruiters only have experience placing technical people. They have little technical fluency of their own. If I had a nickel for every time I scratched my head wondering how someone referred to me by a recruiter was waaay far away from the level of experience they’d claimed to have.

The above set of questions is merely designed to illustrate how quick-on-their feet applicants are, how practical, how creative and what sort of personality they might be. I have used this line of questioning to great effect in interviews for a broad range of roles, from developers to DevOps engineers, project managers and UX designers.

How can it be refined? Have some good questions that work for you? Please send them along!

Thanks for reading and thank your mentor if they inspired you. Do it now. Or do it tomorrow.