Interviews are Broken


Since last week, I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done, thanks to a well-received article about my recent “funemployed” status. Through this process, I’ve grown to recognize a couple of important things:

  1. Doing eight or nine interviews in a day is insane. Don’t ever try it. Keep to four or fewer.
  2. The standard interview process is fundamentally broken.

I want to spend a little bit of time unpacking why I think that second thing.

I Am Special

Don’t take that the wrong way. You’re special, too. But the standard interview process doesn’t recognize that.

The standard interview process is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. A recruiter contacts you and does an initial prescreen. Depending on whether you submitted an application, or the recruiter is cold-calling, there’s a bunch of essentially boilerplate language around whether or not you’re “open to making a change”, along with the usual highlight reel culled from your LinkedIn profile or résumé, and something about what a great company XCorp is, and how you seem like a great candidate.

Once you bite, that bright-eyed enthusiasm goes out the window, and you’re shoved into the usual workflow.

First, there’s a prescreen call, which usually doesn’t involve anything other than ensuring you are at minimum capable of carrying on a conversation like some semblance of a human being.

Then, there’s the technical prescreen. Sometimes, if you’re “lucky,” you’ll skip straight to that part. There’ll be some discussion of some things you’ve worked on in the past, maybe a couple of “fun” puzzles or live coding exercises to solve.

Next, an on-site interview, where you do more live coding or whiteboard exercises, this time under the added pressure of multiple people watching your every move. All of this for a position that will involve working remotely (you are working remotely, aren’t you?).

You get the idea. On and on you go through the gauntlet, expending your time, and the time of countless others, to determine whether you really are a fit.

Meanwhile, you love what you do. You’ve attended and spoken at relevant conferences. You’ve got a list of public repositories on GitHub as long as your arm, and a bunch of apps doing mission-critical work in production. You’ll happily talk about the tradeoffs you made in one project or another, or talk through challenges being faced by a company you’d like to work for, because that stuff is fun.

But you’re not having fun. And you’re not getting a chance to be recognized for the unique traits you’ll bring to the company, either, because you’re too busy writing FizzBuzz or a Luhn check or calculating Levenshtein distance or whatever else for the mn-th time.

But, since spending all of this time is one of the job duties for which the good people of XCorp are getting paid, the amount of time invested in this process goes largely unquestioned.

The Value of Time

Of the dozens of interviews so far, the most valuable ones I’ve done have been directly with C-level executives. Why? First and foremost, I think it is because they understand the intrinsic value of time, and they don’t waste it.

They don’t come to the meeting expecting me to spend 10 minutes chronicling my employment history and qualifications, because they’ve already investigated me or had someone on their team do so, and vouch for my credentials. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be spending their time with me.

It seems to me that this appreciation for time extends to respect for the time of others, which is why I’ve found these interviews, on the whole, so much more effective.

The Interview Process as an Animal Sentinel

Today, I learned that the term for the “canary in the coal mine” is an “animal sentinel”. That’s an awesome-sounding term. I imagine canaries in plate mail, standing guard over an intricately woven wire castle… I digress.

Anyway, I’ve been reflecting on these interviews, and remembering a truth I heard long ago: the interview goes both ways. It’s important to remember that at the same time as the company is interviewing you, you are interviewing them.

This is especially obvious in my current situation. I had a company that I just met last week request that I visit the offices for nearly two full days, one of which I spend coding a toy application. That’s not unlike asking the person you just met at a speed dating event to sleep over. More importantly, since next to none of my work will be done on-site, what will it actually prove?

Productivity? I work better when I’m not surrounded by distractions.

Team fit? Hardly possible to tell how a person will behave as a part of a team when they know that every move they make is being judged. It’s a great way to find and hire social chameleons, I guess.

I’ve come to realize that the ability to recognize a situation that is out of the ordinary and adapt to it is a trait that successful people and companies share. The interview process is the first chance that a company has to show a candidate that it really does have an interest in them as an individual. Not just a resource. A person, each of whom presents a unique set of circumstances that might call for a different approach.

Once I started to apply this simple filter to the incoming opportunities, things got much easier. If I got a feeling like the company was putting me through a wringer that didn’t respect my time or prevented me from evaluating other compelling options for this next stage of my life, I walked away from the conversation.

Is it possible I’ve missed out on a great opportunity because of this? Yes, but I’m OK with that risk. If a company isn’t making efforts to recognize you as an individual during the interview process, an accepted offer letter isn’t going to promote you to personhood.

[Update: Enjoy this article? Check out what my friend Ben Scofield has to say on the topic as well.]

comments powered by Disqus