Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Best Interview I Ever Had

I'm a pretty good interviewer. I've built several successful teams over my career, and I've learned pretty well how to quickly separate the BS from reality. In fact, my HR folks used to joke that if an interview went over 10 minutes with me it was likely we were going to make an offer. I attribute most of my interview skills to a gentleman who interviewed me about 10 years ago. This one interview shaped my understanding of the process more than any b-school or management workshop ever could.

Let me set the scene. I'm interviewing for a position with a small R&D company. This company is an amazing example of hiring smart folks and letting them run. I consider it an honor to have worked for them, and I was very interested in getting hired. I was interviewing with the VP of the company, sitting in his office, one wall of which was covered with a large blackboard. After some basic introduction, his first question:

"You and I are scuba divers. We descend to some depth, and now we stop. We're facing each other. I reach out and capture a bubble between my fingers, hold it between us, and let go. What happens?"

We ended up developing some relationships between depth and various other attributes, including velocity. That question allowed him to see my ability to think through problems, tested my basic knowledge of the world (much more essential for an engineer than all the software tools in the world), and allowed him to gauge my presentation and communication skills. In short, in about 20 minutes, he had a really good idea who I was. I aced the interview, was hired, and the VP of the company became one of my closest mentors.

So there you have it -- the basics of my interview technique. I read the resume in advance, of course, but generally don't even look at it during the first half of the interview. Instead, I allow the candidate to tell me about a project he's worked on, and we explore in depth. We work together on the whiteboard to lay out a fairly complex problem and simplify it. It takes about 10 minutes to figure out whether or not they have the ability to reason. If they can think and communicate, the rest can be taught fairly quickly.

With some imagination, you can see how to apply this technique to any class of employee, technical or otherwise. The point is to tease out those essential skills that take more time to develop (in my opinion, too much time, and these skills are essentially part of someone's life experience and personality. Can they even be taught?).

What techniques do you use? Of course, the same techniques apply wherever in the world you are, and in whatever language. Working together on a white board removes much of the language barrier, and sets a comfortable, conversational atmosphere.

1 comment:

Blake said...

I get the interviewee to discuss something in which they are really interested. Could be baseball. Could be Chinese politics. Could be a TV show. Then I ask them a whole slew of questions to probe for depth and analysis. Not all that different from what you do.

From Dan at http://www.chinalawblog.com/
I'm posting on his behalf due to a technical glitch on my blog.