Leading Geeks

Can they actually be led?

On Interviewing

I have to admit that I find the process of interviewing prospective candidates for a job to be an odd mix of exciting and nerve-wracking. While I absolutely love getting to know people and thinking of the possibilities for them within my organization, I find I often worry about making candidates comfortable and not breaking any of the intricate set of HR laws surrounding interviews. Overall, though, I really enjoy it.

Interviewing geeks has its own challenges, as many of them come in to the interview extremely nervous and shy. Since I can hold a meaningful conversation with a coffee table, I usually talked to them until they would eventually stutter out a few replies from which I could get a decent read. If you’re not as ridiculously extroverted as I am, however, you may find interviewing geeks challenging.

If you’re interviewing geeks, you have to first define your goals. They should be in these general buckets:

  • Technical ability. Can they execute the geeky part of the job?
  • Personality requirements. Can they execute the non-geeky part of the job?
  • Team fit. Will they have credibility on both geeky and non-geeky levels with their fellow geeks and the company as a whole?

Once you’ve defined what belongs in those buckets, figure out how to get to them.

  • Technical ability: What kinds of situational or technical questions do you need to ask? Should you give a written or computerized test? Make sure that the questions are appropriate to the level of the position for which the candidate is interviewing.
  • Personality requirements: I love behavioral interviewing for this. Propose a situation to them and ask how they’ve handled similar situations in the past or would handle this situation in the future. Ask them to tell a story about the last time they got angry or made a mistake.
  • Team fit: You may be able to determine team fit from their answers to the above, but sometimes geeks don’t give much away in their personality even while telling behavioral stories. In that case, it’s time to schmooze. Ask how their weekend went or what they do for fun, and volunteer your own weekend stories and your hobbies. This piece has the most two-way conversation of the entire interview, and those of us who tend towards the quantitative often forget the value of this “useless” chatter.

I haven’t always been perfect in my interviewing (note to self: write blog post on terminations), but as I started defining my goals (“buckets”) and figured out how to get to them, I was able to much better identify good geeks.

4 responses to “On Interviewing

  1. Chris Yeh November 26, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    One of the most important questions I ask when I interview someone is, "How do you learn?"Some people read books, some people ask for advice, some people dive right in.The point is, different learning styles are better fits for different roles and organizations.And the ability to learn is pretty much one of the most important factors in job success today!

  2. William November 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Good post, Jenn, and I agree with Chris. Once the candidate has warmed a little I like to ask them a ridiculously technical question, looking for them to acknowledge their limit (and observing how they do it), but getting them to share their approach to research and finding answers.I hope your "terminating" post won't draw on too much personal experience!

  3. todd November 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Jenn, really interesting post. Along the lines of what Chris had added, I like to ask what web sites they visit regularly. Fark and ESPN are pretty weak answers, saying you go to google and msdn to look up answers is a bit better. What I really want to hear is a list of technical blogs. I think the best geeks are those who aren't just looking to solve an immediate problem, but rather those who are always trying to learn more.

  4. Jenn Steele November 28, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Chris: Good point! It's funny, though, I'm not sure that I could easily define how *I* learn…William: That's a very interesting approach, since people do have to be able to acknowledge their limits.Todd: While I'm constantly Googling for answers, I don't know that I would come up with that as quickly as, say, PostSecret. How do you dig down to find out the real answers?

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