Hire characters, not skill sets. My most important questions in interviews.

There are so many guides out there telling you how to do an interview. They give you semi-meaningful micro-insights into basic psychology or gather a bunch of perhaps meaningful questions for checking a certain skill set. I have  read a lot of them in order to do proper interviews, I also read a book on interview techniques and I even got a professional training on interviewing. There is one thing that all these have in common for me: none of it made me a better interviewer, nor did I achieve better quality in recruiting (this is unmeasured but my gut feeling).  Okay, perhaps that judgement is a bit too harsh 🙂  For sure I learned some basics and absolutely all of these theoretical trainings made me reflect on my own interview questions and the atmosphere that I create within an interview. Which is bottom line a good thing.

The problem with guides on interviewing is that there are guides for both parties of the interview. The candidate and the interviewer read the same weird guides and artificially talk about the written down topics, ask and answer the predefined questions both have prepared and in the end the interviewer decides to hire a candidate based  on the amount of joint interview guide information the candidate has read and understood. Anyone knows the “What is your biggest weakness?” -> “I am a perfectionist.”-type dialogues? Someone had the great idea to instead ask more concrete: “What was your biggest fail in your last job?” with prepared follow up questions “How did you handle your failure?” and “What would you do better now?”. The only result is: interview guides for candidates prepare for these questions now instead. You have the same situation as in the “I am a perfectionist.” example above.

Understanding this circumstance was a disappointment to me. I was reading all these guides just to become a better interviewer and to improve the candidate selection process. But these guides just put me into the race between interviewers and candidates. And this race is not leading to the goal of an interview: get known to each other and based on that decide to spend a lot of time with each other in the future.

During roughly 150 interviews I have done in the last years I found three questions most important to me that I included in any interview. The first question that I ask every candidate in every single interview is (right after the question “Do you want to drink something?”):

Who are you? And what’s cool about you?

Even if the intention of this question seems to be obvious, I learned over time that it is not. Most candidates reply to it by giving me a summary of their CV. Great … I know his CV, I read it and prolly it is part of the reason why he is in this interview with me. It surprised me that people define theirselves via their CV: “Who are you?” -> “Here is what I have done in my professional life!”. Anything weird about that?

Every person is special. Everyone has experienced different things that made him who he is today. That is the purpose of this question. I want to get known to the person that sits in front of me. I want to decide: is this person worth to spend more time with my team and me during the day than they spend with their families? It really does not matter too much what the person tells me about him as long as I get a feeling that I know him better and I understand a bit what makes him who he is today. In turn I will also explain who I am and what I think is cool about me.

The best answer to the second part of my question so far was “I don’t want to be cool!” – which in fact is a cool answer again. So I quickly adapted to that answer and asked: “What’s weird about you?” and I received the answer that I expected 😉

It is all about finding the right people to work with. If you gather a bunch of cool/weird people that you enjoy to have around you, that is already 50% of your teams success.

What was the coolest thing you have ever done? (What are you passionate about?)

I want to know what he is passionate about, what really catches his mind and brain. For me it matters one hundred times more that someone is passionate about something than his experience level in a certain area. Here is why: If that guy is smart and I learn that he can be really passionate about something, the only thing that I have to do as a manager is making this person passionate about something that is moving the company forward. I am not saying that this is easy, nor I am saying that I was always successful in that – BUT: I absolutely believe that this is what people management is about. All the remaining aspects of people management are tiny details and easily solved as long as you have an employee that is passionate about what he does. Hence in any interview it is my most important task to figure out if the candidate has the basis for that.

I would always prefer a smart guy that has the ability to really be passionate about something and is willing to learn, but is missing certain hard skills, over one that has 10 years of shiny experience in exactly what I am looking for within big impressive companies but gives me the impression that the job in my team is replaceable for him by any other job in any other company.
For example: I hired a guy as a system administrator that had almost 0 relevant job experience, studied something completely IT unrelated (archeology!) but he was passionate about Linux. He gave talks on the Ubucon and contributed to some archeology-related Debian packages (sorry can not recall the exact purpose of it). It was a risky move to hire him but I had the strong belief that this guy will figure out, what ever he needs to in order to do a good job, as long as I give him the freedom to do so. I took that risk, and tried to give him as much freedom as possible to implement system administration within our company more or less from scratch, I gave him the opportunity to decide 95% of the things he needs to do on his own. And the reward was: he evolved into an awesome system administrator and always did an amazing job. (there were also downsides of managing him in this way and I learned from these downsides, but that will be part of a later article)

My favorite answer I received to the “coolest thing”-question was: “I invented Google Maps prior to Google.” (Actually it turned out in the follow up discussion of this answer that this was true!)

The third important question that I ask in any interview is one that I ask myself on behalf of the candidate:

What’s bad about working here?

The reason why I do it is twofold. First, I think it is boring and too easy to give a candidate which is prolly already excited about working in your company a sales talk on what is great about your company. Second, I believe that being really open and honest about this question DURING the interview prevents headaches later on. It is about expectation management.

My answer to this question is “The worst thing about working in my department is ME!”.  Most candidates laugh at that point. But I am damn serious about it. I was managing and building up a department of roughly 30-35 people  without any experience in doing so. I was managing developers without being a software developer nor being a real manager. The only thing I had was a good common sense, some passion for what I was doing and what my company was trying to do and some brains. Hence I tell the candidate that he should expect me to do any possible mistake I could do, but he can also expect me to do mistakes only once and then learn from them. I always give an example or two of my own mistakes as a manager, which a more experienced manager would probably not have run into. Then I tell them what I have learned from it and how I have improved since then. After giving the candidate a clear understanding what he can expect from me, I also highlight all topics which I think my department or my company sucks at. I tell them why things go wrong from my point of view and what we are doing about it. For instance: If you are hiring this person for a team that is understaffed and you are expecting that this team will be still understaffed by the time this guy is starting, be transparent about it: Why does the problem exist? (bad planning, mismanagement, parental leaves?!) What is the impact for the candidate? What are you doing to resolve it?  When do you expect it to be resolved?

By managing the expectations of a candidate already within the interview I achieved that only one guy that I hired resigned during his probation period. In any company there are bad things about working there, things that can be improved and that are obviously wrong. It always generates trust if you are transparent about your own mistakes. Your reward will be higher retention rate of your employees and by that your company (as well as you) will be more succesful.

This was my second blog post in the series Management by Accident. If you like it, please share it with people through social media. I am also very interested in your opinion on what I am writing. So please leave a comment! 🙂

4 thoughts on “Hire characters, not skill sets. My most important questions in interviews.”

    1. No, that is not the case. In my first post I tried to write always “him or her”, “guy or girl”… But then I decided that I do not care if someone is too sensible with this gender-diversity-blabla 😉 There will be soon an article on diversity topics from me. I do not care what someone carries between the legs, I care about what someone has between the ears!

  1. Hi! Someone from Ukraine stumbled upon your article, translated it and put it out on the most popular programming portal in Ukraine. It became popular very quickly. So, I’ve read it and I thought that I have to share my thoughts about it.

    You are completely right about predefined questions and predefined answers. Furthermore, most of the recruiters in Ukraine have no idea how the answers should be interpreted, because most of them are young girls who take their questions from the articles in the web.

    But I have to pay attention to the answers to your questions. Being asked such questions in realtime I’d freeze, honestly. Not because there are no answers. It’s just… not a question people often ask themselves. It took about 10 minutes to recall whether there is anything cool about me and what it could be. Finally I’ve got an answer, which was really satisfactoring, but on the interview I wouldn’t. So you’d probably get wrong impression about me. How should one handle such a case?

    By the way, it’s very honorable from your side to tell candidates about bad aspects of the job. Never witnessed such honesty during countless interviews with different recruiters.

    1. Hi Alesto,

      wow…my posts become translated? Not bad! 🙂 Thanks for your comment. About the coolness-question: Well, I have seen some people struggling with finding an answer. Which is completely fine for me. Some sober guy that has to think about the answer or gives me an honest: “I do not know what is cool about me, because I never thought about it” is as fine as someone that comes along with a big self-esteem and tells me about his hero quests in life. The question is not there to sort people out, but to understand what and how you think about yourself and by that to get known a bit better with you. Plus: it is a disruptiung starter question which makes it clear fro mthe first minute that you are not in a “normal” interview. And in best case something similar happens as what has happened to you: the candidate reflects about hisself and learns something about himself which satisfies him in the end 🙂



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