Interview the interviewer
with Jim Schumacher // @jamesofoakland
Favorite ice cream: Mint chocolate chip from Ici
First job: Pouring milkshakes at Frosty Freeze
Current job: Software Developer at Unitive
In what interview were you most nervous?
I had an interview where it felt like a tribunal. It was a group interview. I had three interviewers and they asked me to do a relatively simple test on the whiteboard — it was simple but they also wanted me to think out loud, I had to tell them why I was doing everything. I felt awkward about everything — awkward about my penmanship, just the way they watched me. I felt like a lab animal. It was not a fun experience.
What works well about interviews as a screening mechanism?
I’ll go back in time on that one — to the era of the dot com, when the primary focus of an interview was actually on screening. It was a time when the industry just didn’t understand what a programmer did outside of telecommunications and the defense industry. And in these dot coms anyone would say they were a programmer and these first wave of screeners would have no idea how to validate that. It was amazing how many times the interview revealed that an applicant had no idea about programming. So there was once-upon-a-time that screening was the focus of an interview. Luckily we’ve evolved from that — that usually a phone screen or even an email can screen out people who are claiming to know how to program.
Do you care about seeing a candidate’s resume?
Yeah I do — I like to see it, but at the time an interview has been put together. There’s someone else at this point who has done the screening and has reliably determined that the applicant is suitable for the job. So the resume isn’t that important for me at the time of the interview, but i still like to see it because then i can tailor questions to their actual experience. Instead of just saying ‘tell me about a time you resolved conflict,’ I can ask about conflict specific to a certain job.
Have you ever stopped an interview short?
Well this is a subset of screening and for me this has only happened once. It was a very technical position for TCP, working at the very technical protocols of that layer proper. And the candidate just did not have any level of knowledge about it even at the application layer. I didn’t know what to say. It felt terrible to be catching someone in the throws of fraud — so I just said ‘can you excuse me for a minute, I need to talk to someone’ even though I had no one to talk to. And then I came back in and said we’ve got what we need and this interview is done.
What’s the worst hiring mistake you’ve ever made?
There’s one bad hire that I am still haunted by and the mistake I made was not speaking up. This was a guy that everyone thought was amazing because of his credentials: went to the best university, had the best scores on the tests and that we should just be honored that he was talking to us. So when it was my turn to interview him I just could not even understand this guy — couldn’t tell what he was talking about, make sense of the kind of statements he was making. I thought it was alarming how incomprehensible his knowledge was. And when it came time for our little hallway meeting about who was this guy, everyone again was just raving about his university and his test scores and when they asked me what I thought, I didn’t say, ‘I think he’s crazy.’ I didn’t say ‘I don’t think he’s capable of being an engineer.’ I just said, ‘Yeah, well he did go to that top university.’ So I didn’t say what I really thought, and I do believe that had I said I think this guy has a lot of red flags for me, I don’t really think he can think through complex problem and I don’t think that we should hire him..I still think there might have been enough inertia between the other three and they still would have hired him. And it took two years to get rid of him! Eventually everyone saw his work was incomprehensible. It was a disaster hire and it was the result of groupthink. I think they were all doing that, and then I participated too.