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Future Proof Your Technical Interviewing Process: The Phone Screen

In 30 years, I've done a lot of interviewing from both sides of the table. Because of my chosen profession, my interviewing has been for technical positions, e.g. designers, QA, support, docs, etc., but mostly for developers and program managers, both of which need to understand a system at the code level (actually, I think VPs and CTOs need to understand a system at the code level, too, but the interview process for those kinds of people is a superset of what I'll be discussing in this series).

In this discussion, I'm going to assume you've got a team doing the interview, not just a person. Technical people need to work well in teams and you should have 3-4 people in the interview cycle when you're picking someone to join the team.

The Most Important Thing!

Let me state another assumption: you care about building your team as much as you care about building your products. Apps come and go, but a functional team is something you want to cherish forever (if you can). If you just want to hire someone to fill a chair, then what I'm about to describe is not for you.

The principle I pull from this assumption is this: it's better to let a good candidate go then to hire a bad one.

A bad hire can do more harm than a good hire can repair. Turning down a "pretty good" candidate is the hardest part of any good interview process, but this one principle is going to save you more heartache than any other.

The Phone Screen

So, with these assumptions in mind, the first thing you always want to do when you've got a candidate is to have someone you trust do a quick phone screen, e.g. 30 minutes. This can be an HR person or someone that knows the culture of the company and the kind of people you're looking for. A phone screen has only one goal: to avoid wasting the team's time. If there's anything that's an obvious mismatch, e.g. you require real web development experience, but the phone screen reveals that the candidate really doesn’t, then you say "thanks very much" and move on to the next person.

If it's hard to get a person to come into your office -- maybe they're in a different city -- you'll also want to add another 30 minutes to do a technical phone screen, too, e.g.

Whatever it is, you want to make reasonably sure that they're going to be able to keep up with their duties technically before you bring them on site, or you’re just wasting the team’s time.

At this point, if you're hiring a contractor, you may be done. Contractors are generally easy to fire, so you can bring them on and let them go easily. Some companies start all of their technical hires as contractors first for a period of 30-90 days and only hire them if that works out.

If you’re interviewing for an FTE position, once they’ve passed the phone screen, you're going to bring them into the office.

You should take a candidate visit seriously; you're looking for a new family member. Even before they show up, you make sure you have a representative sample of the team in the candidate's interview schedule. At the very least, you need to make sure that you have someone to drill into their technical abilities, someone to deal with their ability to deliver as part of a team and someone to make sure that they're going to be a cultural fit with the company as a whole. Each of these interview types is different and deserves it's own description.

Future Posts in This Series

Tune in to future posts in this series where we’ll be discussing:

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Head of Google interviewing says “results matter, riddles don’t”

googleGoogle, like Microsoft, is famous for asking brain-teaser style questions during their interviews. However, in a June, 2013 interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, the Sr. VP of HR for Google, said that

“[B]ainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

In another interview, Bock said that when putting together a resume, focus on what you did in relation to the expectations:

“The key is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

Amen!

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David Ramel Asks About Interviewing at Microsoft

David Ramel from 1105media.com is writing an article that includes the Microsoft interviewing process and he send me some questions:

[David] How would you succinctly sum up the Microsoft interview process as compared to those of other tech companies?

[Chris] MS does some things similarly to other high-tech companies I've worked with, e.g. having each interviewer focus on an aspect or aspects, e.g. team skills, people skills, technical skills, etc., expecting a candidate to ask questions, communicating between interviewers to push more on one area or another, etc. The riddle questions are a uniqueness at Microsoft (at least they were when I last interviewed), but theyire pretty rare these days. Coding on the whiteboard also seems pretty unique to Microsoft (myself, I prefer the keyboard : ).

[David] How has the Microsoft interview process changed over time? (Microsoft seems to have shaken up the tech interview process some years ago with those brain-teasing puzzle� questions, but now seem to be much more technically-oriented and job-specific. Just wondering about your thoughts on this observation.)

[Chris] While I have had them, puzzle questions were rare even when I was interviewed 7 years ago. Since then, I haven't run into many people that use them. However, when they are used, an interviewer is often looking for how a candidate works through an issue as much as the solution that they come up with. In an ever changing world, being able to learn and adapt quickly is a huge part of how successfully you can be in the tech industry at all and at Microsoft specifically. I prefer technical design questions for these kinds of results, however, and it seems that most 'softies agree.

[David] What would you say was the biggest factor in your being offered a job at Microsoft?

[Chris] I had a reputation outside of MS before I interviewed, but that almost didn't matter. If I hadn't done well during the interview, I would not have been offered the job. When in doubt, a team generally prefers to turn away a good candidate rather than to risk taking on a bad one, so if there's anything wrong, team fit, technical ability, role fit, etc., a candidate won't get an offer.

[David] What's the single most important piece of advice you can offer to those preparing for a Microsoft job interview?

[Chris] You asked for just one, but I'm going to give you two anyway. : )

  1. If you need more information to answer a question, ask for it. Thatis how the real-world works and many questions are intentionally vague to simulate just this kind of interaction.
  2. Try to answer non-technical questions based on your personal experience, e.g. instead of saying "here's how I would deal with that situation,"� say "I had a similar situation in my past and hereis how I dealt with it."� This is a style of interviewing known as behavioral� and even if your interviewer doesn't phrase his questions in that way, e.g. "give me an example of how you dealt with a situation like blah,"� it's helpful and impressive if you can use your own history to pull out a positive result.

[David] Could you please share any other observations you have on the Microsoft interview process that may not be covered in your site or the Jobsblog?

[Chris] I run a little section of my web site dedicated to the MS interviewing process and the thing I will tell you is this: don't prepare. Be yourself. If you're not a fit for MS, no amount of preparation in the days before an interview will help and if you are a fit, that will come through in the interview. Also, make sure you ask questions. Working at Microsoft isn't just a job, it's a way of life, so make sure you're sure you want the team and the job for which you're interviewing.

[David] Does MS provide training for interviewers? If so, what do they stress most?

[Chris] I'm sure MS does provide training for interviewing, but Iive never been to it. At Intel, I learned the behavioral interviewing technique, which Iive used in every interview since, both as an interviewer and as a job candidate.

[David] Do you have standard questions, or do you tailor them to the situation? If the latter, is it usually tailored for team fit, to a specific open position, particular skills, etc.?

[Chris] I have once standard technique question and a few standard behavioral interview questions. The technical question is to ask them what their favorite technology is and/or what they consider themselves to be an expert� in and then drill in on their understanding. If they can answer my questions deeply, this shows passion about technology and the ability to learn something well, both of which are crucial for success at MS.

My behavioral interviewing questions are things like "Tell me about a time when youive been in conflict with a peer. How did you resolve it? What was the result? What did you learn?"� and "Tell me about a time when you had much too much work to do in the time you were given. How do you resolve that issue? What was the result? What did you learn?"� The core idea of behavioral interviewing is that past behavior indicates future behavior, so instead of asking people things like "How would you deal with such-and-such?�" you ask them "How did you dealt with such-and-such in the past?"� This forces them to find a matching scenario and you get to see if they way they dealt with the issue in real life matches what you want from a team mate in that job.

[David] How would you describe the kinds of coding questions you ask? A couple of real examples would be perfect!

[Chris] I don't often ask coding questions, but when I have, I let them use a keyboard. I hate coding on the board myself as it's not representative of how people actually code, so I don't find it to be a good indicator of what people will actually do. I guess I even use behavioral techniques for technical questions, now that I think about it. : )

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Ed Helms on Microsoft Recruiting

This spoof on Microsoft's college recruiting practices was recorded long ago (back with the XBox was new), but it has recently surfaced again, so I thought I'd share. Enjoy.

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Wasting the Prince of Darkness

From "Pete" (not his real name):

I walked into my first technical interview at Microsoft, and before I could say anything, the woman says, Youre in an 8x8 stone corridor. I blink and sit down.

Interviewer: The prince of darkness appears before you.

Me: You mean, like, the devil?

Interviewer: Any prince of darkness will do.

Me: Ok.

Interviewer: What do you do?

Me: <pause> Can I run?

Interviewer: Do you want to run?

Me: Hmm I guess not Do I have a weapon?

Interviewer: What kind of weapon do you want?

Me: Um something with range?

Interviewer: Like what?

Me: Uh a crossbow?

Interviewer: What kind of ammo do you have?

Me: <long pause> Ice arrows?

Interviewer: Why?

Me: <floundering> Because the prince of darkness is a creature made of fire???

Interviewer: Fine so what do you do next?

Me: I shoot him?

Interviewer: No what do you do?

Me: <blank stare>

Interviewer: You WASTE him! You *WASTE* the prince of darkness!!

Me: <completely freaked out and off my game> Holy crap what have I gotten myself into.

She then tells me that she asks that question for two reasons. 1) Because she wants to know if the candidate is a gamer (which is apparently really important please note: Im not a gamer) and 2) because she wants her question to show up on some website. I hate to accommodate her, but this is definitely the weirdest interview question Ive ever heard of.

Well, here you go, weird-prince-of-darkness-wasting-lady...

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Stumped

Tue, 9/6/05, 2:29 pm

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Scott Hanselman's Great .NET Developer Questions

Scott Hanselman has posted a set of questions that he thinks "great" .NET developers should be able to answer in an interview. He even splits it up into various categories, including:

Am I the only one that skipped ahead to "Senior Developers/Architects" to see if I could cut Scott's mustard?

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Jason Olson's Microsoft Interview Advice

Jason Olson recently interviewed for an SDE/T position (Software Development Engineer in Test) at Microsoft and although he didn't get it, he provides the following words of advice for folks about to interview for the first time:

You can read the full story on his web site.

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Standing Out When Submitting Your Resume

After seeing all of those pictures in Wired of the wacky letters that people send, I love the idea of Michael Swanson opening the floodgates by sending his resume along with a life-size cardboard figure. What's next?

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Some of the MS Interview Process Filmed (Finally!)

Channel9 did what I was unable to ever get done: filmed some of the interview process (part 1, part 2 and part 3). It's not an actual interview, but Gretchen Ledgard and Zoe Goldring, both Central Sourcing Consultants at HR for MS, lead you through what to expect at a Microsoft interview, providing a wealth of wonderful tips, e.g.

BTW, I have to say that I never got a ride on an HR shuttle. I guess they save that for the "good" hires... : )

Discuss

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Questions for Testers

A friend of mine sent along some questions he was asked for a SDE/T position at Microsoft (Software Design Engineer in Test):

  1. "How would you deal with changes being made a week or so before the ship date?
  2. "How would you deal with a bug that no one wants to fix? Both the SDE and his lead have said they won't fix it.
  3. "Write a function that counts the number of primes in the range [1-N]. Write the test cases for this function.
  4. "Given a MAKEFILE (yeah a makefile), design the data structure that a parser would create and then write code that iterates over that data structure executing commands if needed.
  5. "Write a function that inserts an integer into a linked list in ascending order. Write the test cases for this function.
  6. "Test the save dialog in Notepad. (This was the question I enjoyed the most).
  7. "Write the InStr function. Write the test cases for this function.
  8. "Write a function that will return the number of days in a month (no using System.DateTime).
  9. "You have 3 jars. Each jar has a label on it: white, black, or white&black. You have 3 sets of marbles: white, black, and white&black. One set is stored in one jar. The labels on the jars are guaranteed to be incorrect (i.e. white will not contain white). Which jar would you choose from to give you the best chances of identifying the which set of marbles in is in which jar.
  10. "Why do you want to work for Microsoft.
  11. "Write the test cases for a vending machine.

    "Those were the questions I was asked. I had a lot of discussions about how to handle situations. Such as a tester is focused on one part of an SDK. During triage it was determined that that portion of the SDK was not on the critical path, and the tester was needed elsewhere. But the tester continued to test that portion because it is his baby. How would you get him to stop testing that portion and work on what needs to be worked on?

    "Other situations came up like arranging tests into the different testing buckets (functional, stress, perf, etc.)."

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What do job interviews really tell us?

For the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell discusses various indicators of how well interviews actually work for screening job candidates (in a phrase: not very well). The discussion of how we make our decision about someone in the first 2 seconds after seeing them and then use our future interactions with them to either reinforce our initial reaction or forgive as an aberration is particularly telling.

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"Interviews are practically worthless for screening candidates."

Bram Cohen, the inventor of BitTorrent, discusses his thoughts on interviewing, include:

Fun. : )

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HR Bloggers

I've heard for years that MS HR uses my site as part of their internal HR training, although I've never heard it from the HR folks themselves. Until now.

On Wednesday, Heather Hamilton, an MS recruiter, said that my "site is legendary, especially here in staffing."

On Monday, Zoe Goldring, also an MS recruiter, said "Net/Net Chriss site is great. Plus I respect the fact that he doesnt give the answers to the questions!"

And, to top it off, they're even bloggers, and they provide a whole host of interesting info for folks interested in interviewing at Microsoft. Certainly, I'd trust anything you read on their blogs far more than the stuff on this one, most of which was obtained far before I ever worked at MS.

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Interviewing for MS Interns

Shawn Morrissey (my boss) posted some questions he asked at UPenn's Wharton School of Business:

He posted a couple of answers, but you'll have to read his post for them.

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