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The Standard Job Interview
Over the years I’ve developed a very standard interview structure. It works best for senior hires (junior hires generally should be interviewed for soft skills only and otherwise it’s pure testing through tasks). The structure is very simple:
Questions to them
Questions to me
I will follow roughly the same structure in this post, but first let’s talk about the goals and methods of the interview.
Goals & Methods
The goal for the interview is of course to decide whether the candidate is a fit for the role (and if you have several roles available, then the secondary goal is to identify which role is the candidate a fit for).
To understand that most of us have some kind of a model in our head of an ideal candidate. I try to formalise that model most of the time, splitting it into components that I can independently evaluate and score to make different candidates highly comparable. E.g. for product managers I look at the following aspects:
I can talk more about skill models in a different post, but importantly I approach the hiring process generally and the interview in particular as a way to validate all of the aspects that I identified in the skill model for the role.
During the interview I will take copious notes, because I know that the score will not capture everything about the candidate and in two weeks if I have to make a choice between several options, I will not remember the context anymore and looking up my notes have helped me a lot in many such cases.
Since the start of the pandemic it actually became a lot easier, since I don’t have to explain my constant typing as much to the candidates :)
Before the interview we will always ask the candidate to complete the homework. Homework will usually take 4-8 hours to complete and have tasks that are similar to what the candidate will solve on an everyday basis.
There is usually a bias against senior candidates completing the homework, but we have rarely compromised on this requirement — we had many candidates pass the interview process, but fail on the homework.
At the start of the interview I’ll introduce myself and then ask the candidates to introduce themselves and ask why are they interested in the company and particular role. This is a way to kick off the conversation and find out why are people searching. There isn’t really a right answer here, though generally you look for passion over pure mercantile interest.
The coolest motivation I heard was from a very determined guy who said “I want to be a startup founder and I am convinced that joining your team is the best school I can get”. He came from with little experience and from a different background, but proved himself incredibly quickly.
I’ll ask the candidate to add colour to the CV that I have in front of my eyes. The goal is to provide the context for the rest of the interview. CV and track record has almost no influence on my evaluation. I spend under 10 minutes on the first two parts.
I really like CVs which are well structured around quantifiable deliverables, but often see ones clearly disconnected from reality. If a PM has increased company revenue by 20% in half a year, there best be a strong story to defend it. Often turns out that their activity was a minor part of an overall change in the business.
Here I will ask the candidate to pick two projects from their past and go deep into the discussion. A project can be anything, with a beginning and an end, resources used, data gathered, decisions made and the resulting impact. This is where the meat of the interview starts.
The goal is to get insight in the thinking process of the interviewee. I push them to get very specific (I did X then Y then Z over I followed ABC process) and try to think along and ask 5-why style questions to make them go deeper.
Once I had a very awkward conversation with a candidate, where he told me a story of about a problem he was solving, and was proud that he convinced everyone that there wasn’t a solution. I asked him “Well, why didn’t you do X?”. He did not have an answer and the rest of the conversation was tense. Next day I found out the he pulled his candidacy from consideration.
There are several aspects I can evaluate this way:
Storytelling - can they tell a compelling narrative? This is a surprisingly good proxy to emotional intelligence.
Systematic - how structured are they? Is there a logical order to the story and do they break problems down into parts and then arrive at solutions? Do they mention fundamental drivers of their decisions? Can they explain them properly?
Creative intelligence - do they arrive at counterintuitive insights? What do they do with them? Do they iterate through learning and brainstorm to find new ways to achieve their goals?
Collaborative - do they mention others? Do they attribute credit correctly or just focus on themselves?
Depending on the role I will also listen for other proficiency signs in specific skills and ask open-ended follow up questions. I try to avoid all specific questions in interviews, as they give away the answer most of the time.
One thing I rarely test directly is people management, as I have found that people who are structured, smart and have good emotional intelligence never have trouble managing others. Whereas a lot of so-called great people managers fail quickly as they don’t have enough skill in their actual domain. But that’s a topic for a follow up :)
You may wonder why am I giving away my structure, making it easier for future candidates to pass my interviews, and that’s because of the next section.
I spend at least 10 minutes in an interview working on a task together. But in reality that combined with reviewing the homework is often responsible for most of the result. It cross-validates everything I learned earlier and without it I have low confidence in the evaluated skills.
For the task I pick some simple problem statement adjacent to the role in question (but not likely to have been encountered by the candidate previously). We have a number of tasks with problem statement and evaluation guideline, that we rotate with candidates.
A (contrived) example for a product manager role could be “How would you sell airline tickets?”. This is a decent (albeit unverified) example of a simple question with a lot of depth. You need to arrive that you need to maximise profit per flight, that requires to maximize utilization, from which you can arrive to overbooking, dynamic pricing and loyalty schemes, and even spare capacity auctions. Not to mention online/offline channel management and integration with unsophisticated third party systems.
In the task I will also prod the interviewee to get them to think deeper and describe the actual insights, not just process. Same as in the Projects section above I will examine how they attack problems and what skills do they demonstrate in the process.
Questions to them
I will have a few open-ended questions prepared for some roles and I will sometimes pick up more of them during the Project and Task discussions. Sometimes I will also ask follow-up questions on the Homework.
Questions to me
I will always leave at least 10 minutes for the candidates to ask me questions. The interview is a two way process, and they should learn about me as well. I will answer questions as openly and transparently as I can.
E.g. recently someone asked me if the reputation Bolt as for a copycat is true, and I answered “yes, and we are proud of it”. I then explained that our only driver is to create value for customers, and if the best way is to copy someone, we are happy to do so. But we also will differentiate where we think we can create more value by doing so.
And that’s it! At the end of the interview I will score the different aspects and add a short write-up so that the hiring manager could make a good decision without further context.
This structure works for a surprising variety of roles as the projects vary (launching a country, spinning up a team), but the process remains the same.