Thursday, April 11, 2013

Interviewers

Remember Chuck Noland? The character played by Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, who gets marooned after a plane crash on an uninhabited island, and who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth which had been causing him immense pain? Yes, it's painful to watch, yet you can't look away from the tragedy of a person who has to inflict this horrific pain on himself.

Interviews can sometimes remind yourself of Chuck Noland - for both the interviewee and the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives.

Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You now have a team. Or are expected to hire a team, or grow one. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the job opening you have. You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR executive what the role entails for the open position you have, why it is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the world, and therefore why the HR executive needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough. And therefore, you are going to read every single resume you get. You are going to put every single candidate you meet through the most rigorous of steps as an interviewer, because that is the only way of finding that one perfect candidate. Yes, we all know this person.

Knows what he is looking for and knows when he finds it

This person is a somewhat rare commodity. This person does not suffer from buyer's remorse, knows that any candidate is less than perfect, and that a good fit for a job is more a function of time and perseverance than excellence at some randomly selected skills in an interview. This person will however also suffer from blind spots. There are two kinds of blindspots here that are likely to afflict this manager. The first is that he will look for and evaluate a person only on those criteria that he can assess best. The second is that he is more likely to hire candidates that are similar to other successful employees in his team, and will probably become less likely to take chances on different candidates. On the other hand, this manager also knows that conceptual skills are more important to test than specific knowledge of some arcane syntax in a geeky programming language - if you are talking of the world of software for instance. For example, this hiring manager may ask the candidate to explain and contrast the efficiency of three different sort algorithms, or to show how slowly changing dimensions may be modelled in a particular scenario, or... - you get the picture. This person is less likely to interrogate the interviewee on the top ten most significant new syntax changes in the latest version of a programming language. This person is paying more attention to the way the candidate listens to a question, approaches the answer, and then presents the solution - even if the solution is less than perfect. This person is a rare commodity.

Hire for Empire

This hiring manager is also very clear-headed. Like our previous manager, this manager also knows what he is looking for. In this case, he is looking for a warm body that can breathe in and out. This person understands three things, and understands them perfectly. First, that if he is slow in hiring, then a hiring freeze may come in, or the headcount may no longer stay open and may be transferred to some other team. Second, he (or she) is also unable and equally unwilling to evaluate a candidate, so just about anyone will do. Third, and most importantly, this manager does not really care what tasks the candidate will work on. What our man does know is that every additional person reporting to him on the organization chart elevates him in importance vis-a-vis his peers, and therefore hiring is a goal noble enough to be pursued in its own right. Once critical mass in terms of team size is reached, a claim can be staked to a career elevation using one or both of the following strategies. Ask for other managers with smaller teams to be subsumed within your team, because you are the better manager - obviously because you have been successful at hiring the larger team, or ask for a promotion because you now have - pick a number - team members and therefore having to manage such a large team is deserving of a more senior title. It's a win-win situation for everyone - except the customers, the company, and the team members.

I have other work to do. What am I doing here? What is he doing here?

This person has little skin in the game. He has no dog in the fight. Pick your metaphor. He is there to take the interview because of someone's absence. Or because in the charade of the interview "process" that is played out at many companies, there needs to be a "technical interview" and that our interviewer is the accidentally chosen unfortunate one. The calibre of the job applicants is sometimes so poor that our equally but differently-abled poor interviewer knows he is going to be poorer for having had to spend his time going through the motions of the interview, yet he has no choice. You don't want to be labeled a non-team-player. Who knows when this Scarlet Letter may come to haunt you. So our interviewer sets aside half an hour or more, preferably less, of his time, and comes back wondering where thirty minutes of his life just went. Sometimes he will be rewarded with anecdotes to regale others with. Like the time when a job aspirant tells him that he is an "Internet visionary", and lest you jump to conclusions, we are not talking about Vincent Cerf.

Know-it-all and desperate to show it

This person is an achiever, an over-achiever. This is the person who will tell you with casual nonchalance that he had predicted the rise of Google in 1999. Just so you can get to know that he had heard of Google in 1999. This person knows he knows everything that there is to know, that it is his God-given duty to make you know it too, and it is your beholden duty to acknowledge this crushing sacerdotal burden he carries. This is the person who will begin the interview with a smirk, sustain a a wry smile, transform into a frown, and end with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Do not get fooled. This person is as desperate, if not more, to interview you as you are to do well on the interview. The questions he or she will ask are likely only peripherally related to the job. These are questions that our star interviewer knows the answers to - at least more than you, and so he hopes - and the question therefore is a trap into which you have no choice but to walk. Our Mr Omniscient can then proceed to tell you why exactly you are wrong, that you know very little, especially when compared to him, why interviewing you is such a colossal waste of his inestimably more valuable time, and why he is doing you, the hiring manager, the company, and society a favor by even being in the same room as you breathe in. Yes, we all know such preeminences.

The rubber-stamp

This person has to speak with a candidate the boss wants to hire. Let's not call it an interview because it is not. The boss has made up his mind to hire this person, and you do not want to be the hurdle that is hauled away the next day as roadkill. So you speak with this person. With an air of deference. You ask all the right questions. You do not question, much. You laugh, chuckle, and empathize at all the right places, in the right amount. You do not waste time, especially the candidate's. You sign off with a heartfelt, "Great talking to you. Thanks a ton for your time. Take care, and we really look forward to working with/for you." No, don't belittle this rubber-stamp. He could be you.

So, what type of a hiring manager are you? And what type of a hiring manager would you rather face in a job interview?

(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.