Go Time – Episode #82

Hiring and job interviews

with Mat, Ashley, Johnny, and Carmen

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Panelists Mat Ryer, Ashley McNamara, Johnny Boursiquot, and Carmen Andoh discuss the process of getting hired, hiring, and job interviews. If people are the most important part of a team, how do we pick who we work with? What’s the process like? How can it better?

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Transcript

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Welcome to Go Time! I’m Mat Ryer. Today we are talking about hiring and interviews. Joining me - a veritable cast of characters from around the Go community… We have Johnny Boursiquot, we have Ashley McNamara, and we have Carmen Andoh. Is that correctly pronounced, Carmen?

You sure did!

Oh, yes! That’s already a good day, I’m already happy with how this podcast is going. Well, what have you done this last week? What have you been up to?

I just got back from Europe. I think you and I did a swap over the ocean. But yeah, I was in Austria, I spoke at DevOne Conference, which is a great conference. I also did Infrastructure as a Meetup, and Kubernetes London. So I kind of did the rounds… And it was fun.

Wow… Busy.

I was just in New York City, with Johnny, actually.

Not-steve? Not-steveing? [laughter]

We don’t acknowledge Steve anymore. [laughter]

So when I wanna go out, for hanging out I just say “Hey, are you up for a bit of not-steveing”? Is that the new thing?

Okay, alright.

Yeah… He should know about this already. [laughter]

Johnny did a great talk at GothamGo about diversity. Johnny…

I really liked your talk.

Yeah… [unintelligible 00:02:55.01] it was kind of a hard talk for me to put together… Obviously, it brought up a lot of emotional baggage, I would say, that comes along with doing the work… And putting it together – I was hoping to connect with the audience, but it forced me to do some introspection of my own, so… It was a good talk indeed, and thank you for liking it. I had some people come over and basically mentioned that it resonated with them as well, so… I’m looking forward to the recording, although I’ll be very self-critical when I do watch it… If I watch it at all.

Do you watch your recordings? I can’t ever watch myself.

Yeah, I’ve stopped doing it. I was way too hard on myself.

Is it gonna be available soon, Johnny? I would love to see it.

Yeah, it depends on how soon the GothamGo team gets around to doing whatever post-edits that they do. But yeah, I’m hoping it’ll come out within the next couple of weeks or so.

I saw a fabulous group shot of everyone that attended, and my favorite part was that everyone was all smiles; and then there’s Mat on the end, and he looks utterly confused… Which is his baseline. [laughter] But it was fantastic.

[00:04:11.24] I don’t know, I like Mat’s posture. He’s sort of like standing upright… It’s just very proper posture going on.

I like to stand bolt upright whenever I can… [laughter] You know, just the way I look natural, and like I’m having a good time.

Yeah, yeah. Very approachable. I liked it. [laughter]

Ashley, do you remember when we did gopherize.me, right?

Yes. How could I forget…?

In a way, those gophers are kind of like our children, and there’s billions of them.

Billions, yeah. We need to make an update here, real soon. I know we’ve said that many times.

An update to what? Add more, or kill some…?

Don’t…!

No, we cannot kill our children, Mat. We need more in the family.

So who’s babysitting when both of you have to do work? I just have to know… Who’s babysitting these five billion plus children?

Mat’s a stay-at-home gopher dad.

I work remotely. [laughter]

There. Awesome.

I see them all over the place, it’s really cool. And obviously, I don’t take any credit for it, because I essentially just put some PNGs on top of each other… But I see them everywhere, and it’s great. It’s really comforting whenever I see it, and for some reason it makes me trust whatever the project is more.

You know what - same. I’ve seen them everywhere as well, especially on Amazon, so… That’s been fun.

[laughs] Yeah. That’s not me. [laughter]

Hey people, stop selling my gophers on Amazon. [laughter]

Yeah. That’s kind of cool still, but don’t do it, because it’s Creative Commons, isn’t it?

Yeah. I mean, technically, I guess they could, but don’t.

I thought you couldn’t, technically.

It’s loose.

Okay. We’ll have to do a podcast on the licensing. But until then…

The dark underworld of copyright infringement merchandise on Amazon is, I’m sure, its own episode as well.

Yeah. I mean, obviously, I sell a lot of Mark Bates memorabilia… [laughter]

As one does, right?

Yeah, yeah. But apart from that, yeah, I’m up for it. So today we’re talking about hiring and interviews, and I thought we could kick off by just sort of, what do we think – do we have any good interview experiences, and do we have any things that work well in interviews?

I really liked how Travis CI did interviews, for everybody… And that was not having whiteboarding; that was just amazing, because they sort of said, “Listen, we’re hiring for you, we’ve already done some of our due diligence; maybe we’ve looked at some of your code, or we see that you’re experienced and we’re gonna trust that… And instead, we’d rather see how you handle conflict, and conflict resolution. How you work within a team, how your personality likes to collaborate.” These are really good things. Those are the best interview experiences, to try to get to the gist of – I mean, somebody in this prep talk said that people are the most important part of the team, so how do we pick who we work with, right? So we’re not picking their code, we’re picking them.

So having those interviews that really got to the gist of who this person was, how they collaborate, how they deal with conflict, how they resolve it, is just the best.

That’s really interesting, because I always think that it’s difficult to really get to the crux of who a person is in the interview, especially if they are whiteboard sessions. And actually, Johnny, that was your tweet; that was your tweet that went a bit crazy.

You said you wouldn’t do well in a whiteboard interview.

[00:08:04.05] Yeah, so the tweet basically verbatim was “I’ve been a programmer for 20 years. I will not do well with your whiteboard technical interview process. Does that say more about me or about your process?” Basically, the way I saw it - there’s a spectrum. You have folks who are new to the industry, or maybe new to programming, and you need some way of gauging ability; I get that. But also, on the other end of that, if you have somebody who’s sort of a veteran and have been doing this for a while, and you put them through sort of a technical whiteboarding process, which is about “Okay, let’s talk about a binary search tree”, and talk about some obscure algorithm they haven’t done since maybe college, or whatever (if that), this kind of interview process, these kinds of scenarios - personally, I don’t do well with them, because that’s not what I’ve been doing for the last 20+ years. So I haven’t been coming up with new algorithms or reaching for some obscure way of actually sorting, and then doing that kind of stuff in my day-to-day.

So that really basically went to the core of what I was hoping an interview process would be like, which is basically – I’m hoping that at some point it will be designed to allow somebody to show what they’re good at.

Currently, interview processes are designed to basically allow a company to evaluate as quickly as possible. It’s kind of like a conveyor belt; you’re checking off a list, and the first thing would be “Well, can they do an algorithmic design and solve the problem as quickly as possible, and with the best kind of algorithm for the given problem?” That’s one way to do it.

The other way is to say, “Okay, given that I know this person has experience, how do I find out the –” So, as a baseline, we know they can program, so “How do I found the extra stuff?” The stuff that actually really matters - the day-to-day interaction, the communication skills, the things that you know are gonna make the team better. These are the things that I wish interviews took more into account. Create a situation that allows the candidate to show you what they can do, and not you checking off a list. That’s really what I wish was more prevalent in the industry.

I agree. And what I like to do during interviews – I dislike the whiteboarding interviews, for the same reasons that you do. Evaluate me on what am I going to be doing day-to-day, and talk to me about that. What I like to do is learn about what people are excited about; so walk me through a project that you’ve done recently, that you’re excited about. Explain to me why you did what you did. You’re gonna get a better idea from them than if you scare them by putting them in front of a whiteboard.

I love that, because it automatically tunes itself to that person. In their answer, they get to almost select anything that they get to talk about, that they’re interested in, or that they’ve done recently. So I think that’s nice, because you also learn that at the same time, you learn what it is they’re interested in. If somebody has done a side project… I always recommend that to people - get involved in open source, or do a side project if you don’t have anything else to really point to, because that’s a really nice way to show people what you can do. It’s not about the code being perfect, or anything. Usually, there are other ways to show how you think about things, or how you’re gonna be solving a particular problem.

Exactly. I interviewed with Google last year, and I’m thumbing through Cracking the Coding Interview. It’s hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and it’s not exciting; it’s boring, it sucks, I had anxiety about it, and I don’t want – so I stopped the interview process. I was like “I don’t need to put myself through this. I can work anywhere else.” Google is not that important to me, and I will not interview with them until they change their interview process, because it’s old. I don’t like it. If they would have asked me to walk them through open source contributions, or personal projects, that would have been so much better.

[00:12:13.17] The best interview – I can remember two of the best interviews I’ve actually been through, and both of them… In one case they had asked me to come on-site; I was living in the same town, so they had asked me to come on-site and walk them through some of the projects I had built… So I picked a couple of recent projects that I was particularly proud of, and I actually went down. I went on a projector, walked through some slides of what I actually built; throughout the process I encouraged questions, we were having a back-and-forth… It was like actually having an engineering discussion around the trade-offs, and why did I make decision X, and what did I anticipate would be the result, and what kind of problem was I solving… They didn’t have to even know too much about the domain in which I was working, but I tailored it to be able to actually have a conversation and communicate… Because this is exactly what you’re gonna be doing on the job - you’re gonna be communicating ideas, getting feedback and adjusting. So that was one of the best interviews I’d gone through.

The other one was basically they had provided me an actual problem to solve. A couple days later, basically in my free time, however little I have, I put together the solution… And I made sure to do what I would normally do in production code - I’d write some tests, and then I’d write some load testing to it and whatnot… So I basically did what I normally would do in production, and I didn’t feel particularly that I needed to add extra things, things that are unnatural for me to do, things that I don’t do normally. I imagine I was picking this up off the board, and starting to work on it.

Then we got on a call, and we went through it, and we actually even shared a screen, and we were walking through it… Kind of like you do in actual code review, with a teammate.

Again, those situations where you’re actually doing, the process feels like an extension of what you do at work anyway - those are the best interview processes, in my opinion.

Yeah, I like those.

Ashley, when you did the Google interview, did they let you use Google? [laughter] I mean it though, because actually sometimes I’ve heard of people – they’re asked to do something, and they’ll stipulate “And you can’t use Google.” And the thing is I like to use Google when I’m doing my job. I really sort of need it.

We all do. [laughter]

And the reason that I know I need it is because on flights that don’t have Wi-Fi, if I try and do work, I’m just an idiot. [laughter]

So I did get that – they didn’t bluff me with that, but if they did, I would have died, because I use Google for everything. I am nothing without Google.

Or Stack Overflow, or even just being able to look at GoDocs, or anything like that… Meaning just like some sort of reference; because we’ve offloaded our memories to places that we know where they are going to be. We don’t have to worry about memorizing anything, and I like that. At Google you can’t, but I’m sure having just gone through the interview process there myself, yeah, you can’t google, and they sort of couch it with “Well, just come up with the best solution that you can, with what you have.” [laughs]

Which I think is a lie, by the way… [laughs]

Yeah…

I think it’s a lie.

Uh, yeah… I’m surprised to hear that – I didn’t know, Ashley, that you went through the Google interview process and just decided to stop it, because I didn’t stop it, and of course, happy ending, I got hired, but… Yeah, it wasn’t fun.

Yeah, it was right around the same time as Microsoft, and I was just so stressed out about it, and I just couldn’t make sense of it… Just thinking “You’re asking these questions that are not going to be relevant to my day-to-day activities. Don’t you want to know if I can do the job you’re hiring me for?”

[00:16:04.01] Yeah. And that’s why I think interviewing is just so broken in this respect, right? Because you’re asked to do some silly “Serialize a tree” or some weird algorithm like you said, Johnny, that’s so not what you have done over the last two decades, and you haven’t done it since university, and you’re never gonna do it… So a more pragmatic approach would be the approach of “Here’s a project, and you can do it in-person, or you have 24 hours to solve it”, and voila.

One of the things that I find to also be part of the problem is that how well you’re rated may also depend on the person you’re interviewing with. If the person you’re interviewing with basically understands that “Okay, this person hasn’t done this kind of work or this kind of problem-solving in that particular way for a number of years. I’m gonna be looking for different markers”, the way they approach the problem with you is gonna be slightly different. You never know what you’re gonna get, so depending on who’s actually performing the interview, they know nothing about you, they have no idea what you’ve been doing… Basically, you’re just another candidate in their queue that they need to get through, and the way they rate you may be completely subjective. It’s how they feel today.

I never try to have these kinds of interview questions right before lunch, because if the person is hungry, it’s been proven that – even with judicial cases, it’s been proven that if a judge is hungry and they have to rule a case before lunch, it’s been proven that their judgment was harsher than after lunch…

Statistically so…

Yeah, exactly. There’s a human element to this. I don’t know… Actually, I was like “Okay… Maybe this process is just not for me.” I basically said “You know what, I’m willing to walk away from these things, if that’s the way they’re going to be from now.” Personally, they’re not gonna get the best out of me with these kinds of processes.

I think that what we are missing though is that human element. We’re too far focused on the technical capabilities, and we seem to be missing like “Are you a person that we can even work with?” That’s the most important part. There are brilliant jerks out there; I don’t want to work with a brilliant jerk.

Yeah, and I think the other thing is that if you’re working mostly with a team, or maybe a larger cross-functional team, it would behoove the people that you would actually work with to be doing the interviewing; so at large companies, like Google, and even Microsoft, as Johnny said, it’s just another interview in the queue for a hiring committee that will never probably see you again. It just doesn’t make sense.

Yeah. I can see how this happens. When someone’s given a task, or a team or a company are trying to find a process to put people through, I can kind of see how it happens, but I agree that it’s a mistake, because yeah, the most important things are difficult; usually, you have to kind of tune it for each person. If you’re going for a job and you’re the one being interviewed, you tune it for what the company’s looking for, or what you think the company’s looking for. You kind of tune yourself a little bit, or at least you highlight things that you wanna emphasize. The reason we do that really is because it’s a pairing, and it’s unique.

So whenever you’re trying to create a general process, I think that’s the problem - the general process might work even in a high percentage of cases, but you’re still gonna miss key people that would be assets to the team.

[00:19:46.24] You’re absolutely right. We are all different. We all have different specialties, we’re all experts in different areas… I do this with my team, when I’m interviewing, and when I’m doing metrics even, because developer advocacy is weird, it’s hard to measure… We do not have global metrics, I don’t believe in that. There’s not one process that works for everyone, so everyone has tailored metrics. I think the same thing about interviews - we should all have tailored interviews. The person that’s interviewing me should have done some googling about me. I know I Google them… Mutual respect here.

Break

[00:20:24.11]

Before I joined tech, I was an assistant director of admissions at a university, and I had to do interviews for college students to get into college… So in terms of being an interviewer, I did four interviews every afternoon, for nine months straight, for four years… So I know a thing or two about how interviews should be maximized when you have only so much time and so many applicants, and I think it’s exactly what you said, Ashley, which is you have to do a little bit of homework on the person, and you also have to be willing to adjust the conversation and the questions based on both who the person is and how the conversation is going. I think that really maximizes your time with that person, and being very sure whether or not you’re hiring for the right person.

I wanted to mention here Axel Wagner (Hi!). We were kind of putting down Google’s process, and he mentioned in the chat and Gopher Slack that to do anything at Google, you do need to know internal services, and the big ones, like Stubby, Borg, Critique, [unintelligible 00:23:11.23] I get that you need to not have what Google calls false positives, so that they can make sure that they’re not overwhelmed in trying to use these big scale systems, it’s just – I just wish that it was better. I don’t know what the perfect thing is, but if there’s time… I certainly feel like I did really well, because I got some really good advice… So if whiteboard interviews have to happen, I got some amazing advice on how to run with them, and how to prepare for them, after you of course read that big, boring book, Ashley.

What was it?

[00:23:53.16] Well, the one cool thing that I was given was you have to put yourself in the position of the people who have agreed to be on the hiring committee, a.k.a. the interviewers. They have to ask you a technical question, and typically it’s the only technical question that they’ll ask for every single interviewee… And the thing is that when you prepare a technical question, you also have to be prepared to know all of the nuances, going up through the different levels. So yes, you made it run, but now how do you make it more performant? Or what do you do when the dataset has changed?

If the person figures out the algorithm or the data structure very quickly, you have to be willing to level-set them in increasingly higher levels… So the questions an interviewer prepares have to be ready for that kind of thing… And as a result, the questions you ask seem very, very misaligned with what you’re doing every day, because it’s the only question– it’s your wheelhouse question that you ask as an interviewer. That was really a good perspective, to put myself in the shoes of the interviewer; that was the first good point.

The second good point is that most interviewers will intentionally leave out information in the problem statement, because as Johnny said, sometimes what they wanna hear is more questions, asking for clarifying questions, they want a dialogue, they want communication, they wanna see how well you’re able to articulate missing information, or handle ambiguity in the problem statement… So they intentionally leave out information.

I got a five-word sentence in one of my Google interviews, and because I got that advice, I said “Okay, you’re leaving out all this stuff”, so half of the problem is sort of being able to fill in the gaps, or asking those good questions. So those were two really good points.

I think the third good point is that they’re intentionally made so that you can never finish in your 45 minutes of your technical screen, and you have five of those [unintelligible 00:25:45.23] and certain parts of dev rel engineering, but… The third thing was that you’re always meant to feel like you never really finished, and that’s intentional, because no one’s ever gonna get up to a level ten, or distinguished engineer. There are always going to be increasing levels of challenge.

And then the fourth, of course - I think Johnny already picked up to that - is be very aware of your hunger and your fatigue, and let the interviewer know that. Again, that’s more communication. That might be towards the hiring committee saying, “Hey, this person probably would have done better, but it was before lunch, or it was the last interview of the day etc.”

Oh, and then a bonus one - don’t let what seemingly feels like a bad interview (especially in the first interview of the day) throw you off for the rest of the day. I think because I have been given that really good, sage advice by someone at Google, I was able to get through the interviews better, and I was also being able to put myself in the shoes of the interviewers, and understand “Okay, I’m never gonna use this, but that’s the wheelhouse of the question that they wanna ask, so I’m just gonna go for it.”

Brilliant. You know, something else that occurs to me is that we want diversity in our teams. I feel like most people - particularly the Go community, but I feel like most people see the value in having diverse teams, so it kind of stands that the interview process probably needs to be diverse, too. Having a single process for all the people - you are just gonna select for whatever that process finds, rather than…

That’s exactly right…

[laughs] …because I absolutely believe – I’m 100% on board with that idea. The idea that you have one process and it’s gonna yield the highest number of suitable candidates is a fallacy. By definition, the process is gonna exclude a lot of people which could be good candidates. I think everybody understands that; Google, and other larger companies understand that. They’re basically aiming for a high enough percentage that the good ones that they don’t get doesn’t end up hurting.

[00:27:58.08] Let’s be clear here… Google didn’t become Google by hiring bad engineers; they have a lot of excellent engineers who work for them, and more power to them. That’s great. But at least what I’m seeing is that sometimes that process, if it had been tweaked, or if there were alternatives to that process, it could have actually picked up even more great engineers.

If there was a way of basically saying, “You know what, this person is that type of person.” They are not great test-takers, so to speak. Or “This process is for that person. They can pair-program heck a lot more than they can do whiteboarding.” Or “This person, given the role, they are gonna be in front of people a lot, and this is a more suitable interview process.” You’re still gauging the ability to engineer software.

At the end of the day, especially if you’re in a role like Ashley is, in developer relations, for example, you want other engineers to trust you as an engineer. There’s no question about that. That’s a given. But there are different ways of actually being able to gauge that, than a whiteboard interview process. Having a one-size-fits-all – that’s what bothers me the most.

I agree with Johnny. I feel like interviews should be a “Pick your own adventure. Helping you best do this. Do you like whiteboard interviews? Do whiteboard interviews. Do you want to do a take-home test? Do that.” There should be more than one options.

That’s a good idea.

I love that. They ask you, “Can you sort the tree?” and you say “I’ll go to page 25 instead, and I’ll pick up the key.” [laughter]

And talk about a current project, if you wanna go see the repo on some code repository.

Exactly! And who even created this general process? Was it just a bunch of white dudes in a room, or was it a diverse panel?

[laughs] Good point! I’m not even sure about that… I did wanna talk a little bit about what you’re touching on, Ashley, which is bias, right? We’re biased towards a certain way of thinking and a modality of problem-solving when there’s many ways that one can arrive to a solution… And especially in real-life scenarios, like Johnny said. To try to come to a solution, we have to be looking up a ton of documentation, or spending a lot of time just googling the problem, like Mat said.

Different people have different processes, so is there a way that we can judge or evaluate the propriety of the candidate based on those? So I think that’s great - the “choose your own adventure” is a really good idea.

The only counter that someone might say is “Okay, well, then you’re comparing apples to oranges”, and so on, but then everyone is so unique… So yeah, it definitely shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all.

I asked somebody once in an interview some question, and they said “I don’t know.” And the look on their face was like heartbreak. I said, “Well, how would you find out?” and they said, “Oh, I’d probably just have to google it.” Genuinely, that was the interaction. We then offered them the position, and they said “I was completely surprised, because I didn’t know that thing.” But the fact that you first of all know that you don’t know it, that you can admit that you don’t know it, and that you then just said “Yeah, I’d probably just google it to find out”, that’s sort of perfect. [laughs]

Well, right around the same time that Johnny tweeted his tweet, I tweeted a meme… It was something like “This kid in my math class was asked a question, and he sat there for a moment, and he said “Wait a second. I’m not done, I’m just panicky.” And I was like “This is me, in technical interviews.” [laughter] And it’s true. I’m not dumb, I’m just panicky.”

[00:31:53.12] And that so helps us see the human in that person, and how do they deal with stress. Sometimes just saying something like that to lighten the load, or the stress, or the pressure, also teaches you a lot about a person. Or just “Can I take a second to step back, and take a break?”, or “I need to take a deep breath.” I think I said that to the last interview of the day for Google, because my brain was just fried at that point. I’d already done four coding interviews, and… Yeah. [laughs] But yeah, I think it’s just getting to the more human side of things; it’d be great.

I also wonder a little bit Mat about the “I don’t know”. That is such a powerful thing to say… And yet, sometimes I feel like women get dinged more for it, and I’m really very hesitant to say “I don’t know”, without caveating it somehow. I know that I’ve spoken with other people about that, and under-represented minorities also kind of can have a problem with saying “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” sometimes seems to be the privilege of white dudes.

No, you’re absolutely right, Carmen. It’s the same thing when you’re on stage, speaking. If a woman or a person of color gets on stage, the audience - whether they’re intentional or not; it’s usually unconscious - they’re already wondering “Are they technical? Do they know what they’re talking about?” So you’re already challenged, and you have to prove that you know. In these interviews as well, when you say “I don’t know”, they don’t think “She doesn’t know this one thing”, they’re thinking “She doesn’t know anything.”

Yeah… I have a story about this. I was interviewing for a software engineering and infrastructure engineering position, and one of the candidates was a woman. In a debrief, we had sort of done a pool of a second or a third round, and in the debrief I fell prey to this very same bias, because I said “You know, this person just seems very…” – they weren’t so sure of themselves; I didn’t even say that, I just said “I don’t know… They didn’t know if they could do the work.” And it was a colleague of mine that said “You know what, they’re just being humble.” That also talks about personalities, and cultures. First of all, if they don’t check every box, they don’t apply for the position, so we can even talk about that… How the pipeline even just sort of prohibits people to even feel like they can apply in the first place.

But once and if you do, I’ve often felt that the humbler personalities were the ones that weren’t really sort of trying to prove that they knew or were doing it in a more humble way, and that also got [unintelligible 00:34:25.12] in terms of interview feedback when we would do the debrief… And I really, really appreciated, and I told them so, and I still do to this day; it just opened my eyes to - when someone isn’t pushing themselves and saying that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread… Do they say that in England, by the way? …the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Yes. We were the first to slice it. [laughter]

Oh, is that right? Yeah… [laughs] Anyway. But yeah, so… Humility - I like that in an interview, and sometimes, depending on the culture of the workplace, you might get dinged for that.

That honestly never occurred to me - this will surprise you - that saying “I don’t know” to something is a kind of privileged thing to be able to say. This is why I liked Johnny’s talk at Gotham Go, and this is why I like talking about diversity - because I learn so much all the time. And the thing is, because my direct experiences are different with the peoples, it’s hard sometimes to really know what it’s like. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like… So that’s why I like talking about it. Thank you so much for pointing that one out, because I’d genuinely never thought about that before.

I’m actually glad this came up, because I can definitely second the motion that as a minority, as a woman or as a person of color, or a minority within any setting, you don’t get to say “I don’t know” without repercussions. I always feel a tremendous amount of pressure to sound and be technical… Very recently, one of the reasons I was struggling with my keynote, for example, was that even though I know keynotes don’t have to be technical in nature, and they’re designed to be more of a “rally the troops”, so to speak, to get everybody to connect and enjoy the whole event… So I knew that. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking “I’m about to talk about something that is – I’m not showing code on the screen, I’m not displaying, I’m not being a peacock, displaying all my feathers and showing how technical I am”, because I know that looking like I do, being a black man, I always feel the need to show that in order to feel like I’m being accepted.

[00:36:38.00] This is something that I’ve been struggling with, and something – over time, hopefully, I’ve gotten more comfortable with; I don’t feel the need to impress people anymore. But it still comes up in the back of my mind. I’m about to give a talk, “Oh my god, if it’s not technical enough, then are people gonna think that I’m not as technical as I’m purporting to be?” And it’s the same thing for the interview process. In my mind, I don’t get to say “I don’t know.” I have to know the answer, or be able to talk about it to the point where I feel like I’ve convinced the other person that given access to actual tools that I use to actually do the work, I would be able to find the answer. I totally agree with that.

Wow. Carmen, you earlier mentioned pressure; you mentioned feeling pressure, and also trying to make people feel easy in interviews, and things… Do you think that sometimes these technical things are designed to test people under pressure, to put them under pressure and see what they do? How do we feel about that?

Yeah… Unfortunately yes, I do. I haven’t yet been asked to be part of hiring as my responsibilities at Google, but if I stay long enough, I’m sure I will… But Axel, you’re just saying some really good stuff in the chat, including what happens when we want for hiring scenarios people who actually have anxiety disorders, and how this process will exclude those kinds of people; and it excludes a lot of people who shouldn’t be excluded.

The whiteboarding interviews - I feel, again, when Ashley says “Choose your own adventure”, I feel like they should have some sort of thing that gives you the ability to opt out. I know that for my son, who has a disability - he has a 509 plan, that gives him the ability to opt out. So too we should for interviews. If there’s just a way that we can assess, again… I don’t know the answer to that, but yeah… Pressure to perform - I mean, I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but I know many in the industry that do, and I just really feel for them. I’d love to hear their thoughts, either on Twitter, or if they’re willing to share with me on a DM, how they cope, or if they even cope with something like that.

Yeah, so this is the reason that I pulled out of the interview process. I don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder, but in a whiteboarding situation, I have anxiety. First of all, my [unintelligible 00:38:52.10] “Is it men? Are they looking at my butt?” Who can say. There is a certain amount of anxiety there. But I also think it’s an abusive power, and I don’t like it; I don’t want to work for a company whose goal is to stress me out.

Yeah. That raises a good point, which is that you are also interviewing the company. Even junior devs, with their first position, the first ever interview - you are still interviewing that company… And if you can - and again, this is potentially a privileged issue or a circumstantial issue, at least - be selective, then you absolutely should, because working for the wrong company does more damage that you probably would like to admit.

Right. And I guess if my first impression of a company, the very first time I talk to that company, if they are trying to stress me out, then what does the rest of my tenure look like? They have no problem stressing me out on first impressions, so what’s gonna happen when a project deadline comes up? Are they going to expect me to work crazy hours to finish it? What are they about?

Yeah, great question to ask yourself. But that probably applies to anything in the interview process, because that interview process is a representation of the company. People that are doing interviews and trying to hire people - you have to realize that your interview process is kind of a user experience of your company; you have to bear that in mind, I think so.

[00:40:28.04] That might be more true at larger companies than it is at smaller ones. At smaller companies you get a closer representation of what working with these people that are interviewing you might be like than you do at large companies. At large companies it’s the whole checkbox, conveyor belt process, to even get through– it’s like there’s a guardian at the gate; you have to get through that gauntlet first before you then see the real culture of any particular team or department within a large organization… Which is why I’m like “Why create this wall?” I’m not quite getting it. I’m sure there are reasons for it, but why create this artificial wall, which is nothing like the real work? Why create this artificial wall to block perhaps valid candidates from getting through? I don’t quite get that.

Yeah. I think when I ask that same question, especially for some of the problems that people have voiced about bigger companies, with this broken whiteboard interview process, was did they want to make sure that they – and I don’t know if I buy it, but that they level correctly, and that they were able to get enough people to agree on the initial level? Because that’s, of course, where the base offer comes, and for your compensation and whatnot. And that’s just for big companies.

So I’m not sure if I buy it, but the person made a very strong case for that, and so… I don’t know. I mean, I’m still new to Google, but we’ll see.

Honestly, that makes me wonder - do they make the process so hard so that they can kind of under-level you and under-pay you? To say “You didn’t perform well in this crazy interview, therefore we’re gonna give you thousands of dollars less because of it.”

And what does that mean when we already have heard about compensation dissonance between under-represented minorities and none in terms of that? From the get-go, we already know that many women and under-represented minorities are paid well under, and is it because of a function of how they performed in these interviews… I just don’t know, but yeah.

That is really scary. It’s disheartening to hear about things like that, but… I think what we can do is keep talking about it and stand up to it whenever we see it.

Break

[00:42:47.16]

One of the interesting things that I’ve done in the past when interviewing people - there were about ten candidates and I think we wanted five, and we gave everybody a month-long contract; so they just joined the team for a month. Everyone was kind of in a situation that allowed them to do this. We paid them a month, and there was particular kind of work that we needed doing that suited that as well, so it was kind of cool. But really, the valuable thing was having people on the team, interacting with them… We’d have a daily update call, and everyone was working remotely - it’s a remote company anyway - so that worked really well.

A couple of people said “Okay, I can just tell this is not for me.” Working remotely is harder for some junior people, I think, sometimes, maybe… So they didn’t like it, they weren’t comfortable for that reason. Well, that’s kind of great, and I don’t know how you would have found that out in an interview process, because they were all over doing it remotely.

[00:44:29.19] I love that. I love that so much. That’s the smartest thing you’ve ever done, in my opinion. [laughter]

No. No, no, no. Hang on. Have you guys heard about Bitbar?

No, I don’t think I have.

Just kidding; I also nearly said “guys” then. That’s a new year’s resolution of mine that I’m working on, avoiding that.

Say “y’all”, because I think it will be funny with your accent.

Well, I’ll do it in Adam’s accent. [laughter] “Hey, we’re sponsored by Fastly, y’all.”

Wow! I love that!

Oh, that’s really good!

Impressive.

Not bad.

He does Francesc, too. Can you do Francesc? Sorry, Francesc, I just love it.

Not publically, I can’t. No, not publically.

Aww… Did he forbid you? Okay, next time.

He doesn’t want me to do it because he feels bad for me, because of how bad it is. [laughter] So yeah, in that contracting thing, it was obvious who was gonna be on the team or not, because it just worked… So I don’t really know – if I had to encode that into some process, I don’t know that I could. But the other thing that worked was somebody said “I don’t feel like that’s a very respectful idea. I need something more permanent, more stable. I’ve done these open source projects, and I think that should be enough.” They sort of just stood up to the idea. And they were just immediately hired, for being awesome.

So yeah, but it’s tough, it’s a risk… How much of a risk do you think people should take in interviews?

Well, sure, not everyone can take that month to work. If it doesn’t work out, what do they do then? But I do like the idea of it.

It should probably be one of the options, the whole “Choose your own adventure” model that Ashley was talking about. For some people it might not be practical. If you’ve got a family and you have responsibilities, and maybe you’re looking for work right now, and you have some sense of urgency because you have people who depend on you, and maybe you need a health insurance, you don’t wanna let that lapse, because that would be on COBRA and it would cost you an arm and a leg. So there are a lot of circumstances at least in the US that may prevent somebody from doing the contract option.

In some cases it’s suitable for them. Maybe they’re young, they have no responsibilities, they can afford to go a couple of weeks without all the benefits and extras and whatnot that come with the contract way of doing things; and that’s fine, too. But I think in all these options we’ve been talking about, one thing that I definitely don’t wanna wave over is that having that many options - if you’re one organization that is small, and you’re trying to create this utopian interview process that we’ve been talking about here, that’s probably an expensive proposition. You probably can’t afford to have lots of different ways to interview people and give them options and see which one might work best. Or maybe you do; I don’t know what that looks like in terms of resources and people and money. You would have to really get some feedback from companies out there; do they have a “Choose your own adventure” style of interviewing, and how it’s working for them… So hit us up on the Twitters, if you can… But yeah, this comes at a cost. Some parts of the process will take longer than others, and this is something that we must also understand.

Maybe there are other business reasons why a process is favourable over another, but basically just acknowledging that it is not as easy as we make it sound. If it was, I’m sure more companies would be doing it.

[00:48:10.20] Yeah, but it’s so important, isn’t it? Isn’t it the most important thing about the team - the people? Yeah, I’m sure there are challenges, but I feel like it’s too important to not address it. I love the idea of giving people a choice, and whether that’s even like - you could do the interview on Slack, if you’re not comfortable in person, and things like that, potentially. I’d quite like to see some experiments done on this.

Well, yeah. And just as I was saying earlier, who came up with this general process? Was it a group of white men? I can tell you this, it wasn’t diverse enough. So whoever is coming up with these processes, we need a representative from each place in there to come up with this process… But really, it comes down to there’s no one process that will work for everyone… So for me, the only option is “Choose your own adventure.” And it can get out of hand; we can’t have too many choices out there, right? But at the end of the day it is about the people, and we want good people to work for us, so they should be comfortable and at ease in these interviews.

Yeah. Ashley, you made a joke earlier about me and Mark not having interviewed for a long time, which is true, but…

Yeah, but then Cory said that you guys interview companies a lot, which is the same…

Yeah, so you’re interviewing the company; that was, I think, his joke… But that’s very true, and we talked a bit about that. Oh, I forgot what I was gonna say. That happens sometimes, doesn’t it?

Yeah… Well, you’re old. [laughter]

When did that happen?

Oh, you didn’t know? [laughs]

The other thing that I was thinking about in terms of an addition to “Choose your own adventure” is I would really like to make a primer about bias to anyone who would be an interviewer. Bias, and little things like what we talked about, like some under-represented minorities, or maybe people that have different personalities, or maybe different cultures, and what that might represent… Because we as interviewers, like Johnny said at the very beginning, it could just be very random that you might get someone – you know, depending on who you get, might be lucky or unlucky for you… Because interviewers themselves bring all their own biases, and their own perspectives, and things… And so trying to maybe eradicate that as much as possible with awareness, and like a primer, would be great… Because I have yet to be, at any place, even when I was doing university student interviews, for anything like that. And I think that I had just gained this through experience, but having a primer would have leveled me up significantly, and I would love to have that as the industry standard for anyone, both companies and individuals, who interview.

Brilliant idea.

Well, having a primer, and then also doing a feedback session. I’ve been a part of many feedback sessions, and it’s normally - you give your feedback, and they take your feedback into account. It would be great to have a discussion about this feedback. Why did you come to certain conclusions? So challenge that feedback, because maybe there was a bias that you can challenge.

Yeah, that’s great.

I had a job interview once, and it was a JavaScript job… And when I turned up, they had a technical exam, but it was just a Java one. So I said, “Oh, this is the wrong test. I’m here for the JavaScript role.” He just said, “Oh yeah, just do it anyway. We’ll bear that in mind.” And I didn’t. I walked out, because that just seems like that you care so little… And I could tell that this bloke was just busy and overworked, so he just didn’t have time; the interview had snuck up on him and he’s just like “Oh, here’s an exam to do.” Just because it wasn’t an exam that was relevant at all to the job, that didn’t seem to faze him, but that lack of care was just a red flag… I’m lucky enough to be able to have just walked out.

Has anyone else had any interview nightmares?

We already went through mine, but I wanna say good for you for walking out, because if they don’t care enough, then you shouldn’t either.

Yeah, and I would say that for junior devs, too. If you can, that early experience is vital, and it will reveal what it will be like working at that company. You set your standards high.

Yeah. And I want junior engineers to feel that very much, what has been said before, which is it’s a two-way street, or a two-way interview. They’re interviewing you, and you’re interviewing them… And to sort of stand tall in their own self-worth, and know if this is not feeling good, then absolutely walk away. Because too often they’re sort of like – and I get that maybe you do need a paycheck, and you really need this job, but if you’re just going through so much stress to get it, it’s probably not going to be a good work experience for you.

Yeah. Ante (NT?) on Slack just said that his friend had the exact same experience, where they gave him the wrong test, or a test for a different language, but they just aced it. [laughter]

Hire that person right now.

Yeah, totally. I had a nightmare thing as an interviewer, where this person just someone got through our early screenings in the process. We had a phase one, “Please answer these questions.” They talked a good game. But when we got to the interview process, it was for a suite position, and it was me and three other women who interviewed him… And he just kept interrupting, and he just – it was one of those where it quickly became apparent that he didn’t really know, but it was like the Dunning–Kruger effect, where he didn’t know how much he didn’t know… And it was just so painful to get through this. And then, on top of that, he – I can’t even remember what it was, but it was kind of a veiled insult to a co-worker/interviewer. And then in the third one, after he was done with that, he actually mansplained me. I mean, I was just like “Wait a second here…!”

Needless to say, we were like “Don’t call us.” We basically said at the end of the interview, “Yeah, I don’t think you’re gonna be a good fit.” And I remember saying it and feeling like I could say it, and then we got off and my two colleagues were like “Thank you for just doing that, and just letting him know…”

I know everyone has horror stories about being on the interviewee side, but I don’t think many have the interviewer side. It was bad.

Yeah. So what about humor then? Because I do try and have some humor in it, and find that as quite a nice way to find out a little but about somebody. Obviously, the context is very important. This is a very serious thing, it’s a job interview, so it’s not to be silly or flippant, but if they crack a joke or if I crack a joke, at least they acknowledge that it’s a joke. That’s all I ever really want; I just want people to go “Okay, acknowledged. That was a joke. Next.” That’s my dream. Then it tells you something. What do you think about that? Is that inappropriate?

I don’t know, Mat. You know me, I like humor. I’m too old to care anymore, and if you’re not gonna laugh at my jokes now, you’re not gonna laugh at my jokes later, and we’re gonna have a problem, so I need you to laugh at my jokes.

Humor is very – I have a husband from a completely different culture than my own, and a lot of the things that I think are funny, or witty, or sarcastic, he doesn’t, or it goes over his head, or vice-versa. The West-African humor, I just sometimes don’t get. So sometimes we just have to check our bias when we deliver a joke, and this is just in the context of a personal 20-year marriage.

[00:55:58.21] Yeah, if they don’t get it, then I would say in the feedback session, as Ashley said, just say “Well, what do you think about that?” and maybe just making sure that – humor is brilliance, but it also is subtle, and it shows a lot about who we are and what we value, so it’s great in terms of like I can have good rapport with this teammate, but I don’t know if there’s another way to find out rapport.

I worked with a lot of German colleagues, and I’m not in any way stereotyping Germans, I’m just saying that I finally had a moment with a German colleague and said “I don’t do sarcasm, and I don’t appreciate sarcasm”, and nor do they appreciate the American tendency to call everything “awesome” and “super-cool” and whatever, because for them it’s just “fine.” Which is, again, feedback, and inter-cultural relating, which can come out in interviews, as well.

I tend to use humor more as an interviewer than an interviewee. I’ve been in positions where the interviewee is so nervous, and I feel for them. I’m like “I’ve been where you are, and now I understand what you’re going through…” So I kind of go out of my way to make them feel comfortable, and sometimes humor is part of that. But you can also defuse the situation, if you will, by saying “Look, I understand you’re nervous, and that’s okay… This is what I’m not doing - I’m not judging you on how nervous you are, I’m not judging you on whether you’re stuttering or not when you’re explaining… I understand these things are just nerves.”

You can see how immediately their face just relaxes. They know what the things are that are not gonna disqualify them as candidates, so they can relax a little bit. So now it becomes more of a “Look, let’s you and I go through this together. It’s not you versus me, it’s us trying to get through this process as well as we can, so that I, the interviewer, can get a sense of what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with. And look, if there are some things that you don’t know or are not comfortable with, you can tell me you don’t know. That way I know exactly in what capacity you’ll be a good fit, what are the things that you don’t know now that you can learn later, and what are the things that are gonna be a blocker.” But it’s, again, making it feel like you’re having a conversation with an acquaintance, and not an adversary.

Did my accent just come out just now? I think I might have done just that… [laughter] But - like an adversary, right? So yeah, it’s basically using humor, and again, empathy; putting yourself in their shoes and saying “Okay, what would I tell myself right now if I really needed to calm down? Because I’m really in panic mode right now.”

Well, yeah, treat them like a human, instead of a resume in the stack.

Hear, hear.

Well, Johnny, that’s awesome that you do that. I think people should take that on board, anyone that is doing an interview. I think it’s worth saying something like that. To just say “Look, this is just normal nerves, or whatever. Don’t worry about it.” I think you want them to be at ease, don’t you. That’s why I don’t quite understand this idea of “Well, the interview is to put people under pressure, to see how well they perform under pressure.” Why would we want that?

Exactly. We wanna see how they work with us.

Yeah, that’s why conspiracy theory brain though is like “Do they wanna stress us out, so that they can under-level us?” [laughter]

So… I think this has been very enlightening. I’ve learned a lot, and I mean that. I know that a lot of what I say sounds sarcastic, when I just mean it… Which is weird. But yeah, particularly the diversity side of things - I genuinely hadn’t realized, really, that a lot of this plays into that. And I think, Ashley, your “Choose your own adventure” idea, where you maybe can offer some options to people that you’re interviewing and see how they would like to be interviewed, and how they would like to engage - I think that is a great idea, because as we’ve said, no two people are alike; everyone’s unique, and we want that diversity, so there should be that diversity in the interview process.

I really learned a lot, too. I don’t know how we can (God, I’m gonna say this word) operationalize/productionize… [laughter] I don’t know how we can put that into practice, basically. Some sort of “Choose your own adventure”, or really rethinking interviews that kind of put this person front and center, not the process.

I like your primer.

Yeah, the primer.

I liked your primer idea, Carmen. I think that could be an open source thing, that we do as a community; we just have a kind of interview primer, .org something. It’s a good idea.

Yeah. That would be cool. I guess it comes down to these larger companies - because it’s mostly at larger companies - listening to minority voices. We say this often; I’m not the only one that said “Choose your own adventure”, I’m positive. So listen to the people that are out there to make your processes better.

Right. Well, I think time has beaten us again… It always does; it just moves forward [unintelligible 01:01:25.29]

Time always flies when having fun.

Or interviewing. [laughter]

The Go Time flies when we’re having fun… How about that for a pun?! Cha-ching!

Go Time flies…

Go Time flies, when we’re having fun.

Okay! Well, I think that’s the show.

I had so much fun with all of you, and I really enjoyed the conversation, and I learn so much every time I talk to all of you.

Well, before we start joking and whatnot, I am gonna close this off, so… You’ll have to give me two seconds to collect myself. Alright, here we go… Well, there you have it, folks. The opinions of a few industry veterans on how the interview process ought to be. There’s no perfect process, and any process will favor the strengths of some over others. If you’re listening to this and can influence the hiring and interviewing at your company, we hope you’ve picked up a few tidbits here that can improve things for both your organization and the candidates you are lucky to come across.

It’s been a pleasure chatting with this panel. I’m glad we were able to have Carmen and Ashley along with us today, and we appreciate you, the listener, for spending some of your time with us.

Thank you for listening to Go Time.

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