Authenticity and the Interview

I’ve been with the same company for almost fifteen years. In those years, I’ve been interviewed one time by another company, a well-known tech giant with a reputation for a difficult interview process. Not because I thought I could get the job, but because why not. It’s worth a try to see how you stack up. I say that now. At the time, I was not exactly thrilled that I didn’t get another interview. In that same time, I have conducted interviews with a number of candidates for open positions. Developer openings, systems engineers, QA positions, manager roles, contractor, intern, full time, the whole range. Some were good, others not so good. There are times, like today, when I walk away wondering what people were thinking. Here’s an observation about living that also applies to interviews - honesty and authenticity are more important than people realize.

Your Resume

I have a lot of opinions about what makes a good resume. Keep it to two or three pages. Six pages of filler is just an exercise in repetition that is going to annoy the reader (assuming that the reader is an introverted software engineer that is looking for the highlights because he has four of these damn interviews to give this afternoon and your resume gets exactly five minutes of attention). The writing should be direct and correct. I’m willing to forgive a few grammatical slips, but the ability to use a language correctly will get you a lot of bonus points. Software development involves using symbols and syntax to communicate ideas simply and effectively. The writing must be honest and based in reality. Don’t pretend you’re proficient with a tool just because you played around with it one weekend. The fact that a project you were on was built in a certain way atop certain foundations doesn’t mean you can claim all aspects of it unless you really worked on all aspects of it.

The Conversation

I have an outline of questions, but I won’t ask them all. Neither of us has that kind of time or interest in this broken process. Depending on the role, I will dig into your background and your knowledge in different ways. It is okay to admit you don’t know something, or to answer with the caveat that you are uncertain. Some questions are easy, others not so much. Some have no wrong answer. Some have nothing but wrong answers and the point is that you need to explain which is the least wrong. I’m going to ask you for an honest assessment of your skills. Keep in mind that most people are way too optimistic about themselves.

Be wary of claiming to be an expert or to claim a 9 or 10 out of 10 in terms of competence. If you claim to be an expert, I will ask you hard questions. I have a set of such questions for various technologies that no one has ever answered successfully. Because experts are rare. I consider myself a generalist that is widely read and can learn quickly. I don’t claim to be an expert on much of anything except knowing what I don’t know. When you claim expertise but can’t answer or at least speak to expert level questions, I assume you have fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect and are therefore a risk that I need to mitigate. In the hiring process, said mitigation is an easy ‘no’.

The Closing

There will be some open ended questions. Some of those I care about more than others. Here’s an example - what is the biggest mistake you’ve made on a project? No one doesn’t have a biggest mistake. This is an integrity question and an opportunity to show you can learn from mistakes. It is not some ridiculous “my weakness is really a strength” softball question. You’ve done things wrong or missed the mark in some way and if you can’t tell me about it and how you improved from it then you haven’t done the work to change it from failure to experience. If you downplay your fallibility then I will not take you seriously. I’ve had good interviews crash on this question at the very end. Maybe I should ask it at the start, but I suspect people need some time to warm up to this one. We aren’t so comfortable with vulnerability in uncertain situations to lead with what we’ve done wrong.

I will ask you if you have any questions for the team. Be sure to have one. At least one. Anything to show you are interested. Ask about the day to day work, or the tech stack, or the team composition, or what interesting projects are coming up, or what there is to do around here, or whether I’m such an asshole in person. Anything. And it can’t be just about what the next steps in the process are. If that’s your one question then you’d better take a moment to formulate a second one.

The Bait and Switch

There have been times when a position is offered to a candidate and the individual that shows up is not the person that did the interview. I’m not sure how widespread this occurrence is in the industry, but we’ve been bitten by it before. I don’t mean that the person we spoke to inflated their abilities, I mean it was a different person entirely. I don’t rightly understand the thought process here or have any idea what the end game could be. You’re going to go to the trouble to engage in an elaborate deception to get a job you can’t do? Why?

Since this has happened, there is the possibility that I am paranoid. So don’t give me a reason to suspect you. We had two different candidates recently that participated in a video chat while joining the audio via phone. This is not inherently suspicious, sometimes the video conference software is flaky and the phone is more reliable. What is suspicious is when someone else mysteriously appears on the call then vanishes. Or when the voice pattern changes midway through the call. Or, god help you, when the audio for the person answering the questions doesn’t match the video of the person moving their lips, the hand motions are exaggerated, and the facial expressions are blank while you formulate an answer. Especially when your first answer is thirty seconds late, and you claim you were talking while muted even though the person in the video stream was obviously not speaking.

Sorry, It’s Broken

Look, I’m not a fan of this process. You give us a seven page resume that you may have agonized over for hours and we barely glance at it. You’re nervous, and with good reason. I’m opinionated and the answers I want may be different from those expected by some other opinionated person. If you’re remote we have to sort out video conferencing which is somehow still not a solved problem in the 21st century. Questions might be poorly formulated and your answers might be what you think we want to hear. There’s often no feedback process by which you can make improvements (though if you ask for feedback at the end of the interview, I will provide some).

Interviewing and hiring is a broken system, especially in technology. Trick questions and coding problems in a high stress scenario might not be the best ways to improve the process (though they are valid filters for key positions). It would be better to have a paid trial period where you work with the team on a small feature or prototype. Being remote can complicate this but it’s still possible (this doesn’t completely solve the bait and switch phenomenon, but it makes it harder to pull off). A few weeks to get to know someone and see the results of their work is a better indicator than a 45 minute conversation. Both sides can be inauthentic in an interview. The trial period let’s you see what our group dynamics and values are just as we learn about your skills and whether you’ll help us improve. This lets both sides know if this is a good choice. Life is too short to endure a bad fit.