Sometimes It's the Interviewers Who Suck

I’ve done hundreds of interviews. I’ve also served in numerous hiring committees over the years.

Tech companies tend to have cultures built around tech people interviewing other tech people, typically in what is not-so-affectionately known as the “Tech interview.” This is good because candidates would be evaluated based on their actual skills instead of keywords in their resume. Interviewers are in effect choosing their future coworkers which makes in interview serve the interest of both the interviewer and the interviewee. However candidates – at least the one who didn’t get accepted according to exit polls – tend to hate these.

The goal of the tech interview is to assess how well the candidate will be able to perform in the role as a tech worker. Unfortunately the typical problems that one would encounter during the course of a career in tech aren’t easy to replicate within a 40-60 minute interview. So partly the criticism is around the fact that such interviews bear little resemblance to what the actual job would entail. Deciphering what happens during an interview and distilling it into a prediction of future success is quite difficult in the best of times.

Making this much worse is the undeniable fact that many if not most tech workers are just not good interviewers.

This is as true as a claim that most tech workers aren’t good managers – whether it’s managing projects or people. Interview follow-up don’t take this factor into consideration quite as much as they should.

My anecdotal evidence is that when presented with the artifacts from a bad interview, hiring committees will disproportionately blame the candidate for it. After all if the candidate was really good, they would’ve potentially salvaged the interview. The problem disproportionately affects candidates who are near the middle of the skill curve where things can probably go one way or the other depending on the combination of question asked, and caliber of the interview.

Interviews at Google famously involve a bunch of paperwork where each interviewer is expected to produce some verbose artifacts detailing what happened. Since these artifacts come from the interviewer, hiring committees need to exercise some due diligence to discern what actually happened based on the writeup. So how do we go about spotting bad interviews?

The writeup is terse.

Not in and of itself a conclusive sign, but if the writeup doesn’t have any details that a committee could use to form a decision, it’s likely a sign that the interview didn’t really gather much information about the candidate in the first place. Typically these kinds of writeups are from novice interviewers who don’t know what to write about.

The writeup uses adversarial framing.

A very frequent problem specially with novice interviewers is that they go into the interview thinking that it is some sort of competition between the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer might consider it a bad thing if a candidate were to hit their question out of the park. Some of this comes from a certain level of imposter syndrome where they don’t want to come across as less smart than the candidate. Either way this mentality comes across during the interview as hostile or condescending.

The interviewer takes too much pleasure in the interviewee’s misery.

Each mistake is gloated on while points at which the interviewee obviously shone are muted.

The question is unnecessarily hard.

Solving a hard question that requires a great deal of time and thought is very satisfying. But it isn’t what you do on a day-to-day basis.

The interviewer allows the interviewee to march into the weeds without helping them back.

The interviewer has the luxury of having seen the question beforehand and also having studied possible solutions to it. They should be familiar enough with the question that they could spot misunderstandings, misconceptions, and common mistakes. How a candidate notices a misstep and how they dig themselves out is important to note. However, letting the candidate languish in a dead-end while the clock ticks away the remaining minutes of an interview does not help anyone.

Obvious misunderstandings are not corrected.

It is the interviewer’s responsibility to explain the problem clearly. The problem itself doesn’t need to be fully explained since there’s much value in seeing how a candidate explores and understands the problem area. However if it is obvious that the candidate has fundamentally misunderstood some critical aspect of the question, the interviewer should step in and intervene early. We all misunderstand things, specially when they aren’t clearly explained. It’s not useful to knowingly send a candidate down the wrong path.

The interviewer seemed annoyed or angry.

This one should be self explanatory. The candidate is anxious enough as it is. The interviewer should not frustrate the interviewee’s attempts at asking questions and seeking clarity around the question. It’s likely that while the problem is obvious to one, the problem area may be unfamiliar to others who may need extra help figuring their way around. In fact the ability to resolve such ambiguities and seek clarity are good. If the interviewer actively discourages such inquiry that’s on the interviewer – not the candidate.

One interview diverges significantly from others.

There’s more than one interview for a reason. If one interview highlights an area as being weak while another interview highlights the same area as being strong, then there’s something going on that needs scrutiny. There can be many reasons why a candidate bombs an interview. Not all of them say anything bad about their ability to function well in their job. The causes should be teased out.

What happens when an interview is pretty much unsalvageable? It might be that the writeup is inconclusive due to issues such as those highlighted above. A committee could ignore that specific interview and base their decision on the other interviews, or failing that schedule another interview to account for the lack of decisive information.

From a candidate’s point of view, it is really important that they report any unpleasant interactions to one’s recruiter immediately after the interview. This allows a recruiter to go to bat for you and perhaps get you another interview if appropriate.