5 Tips for Conducting Technical Interviews

By Scott McKelvey, VP of Technology
Dec 20, 2022

At WebCE, our people are what set us apart. They are the reason why we are sought-after technology experts and leaders. This starts with our finely-tuned interview process to identify the right engineers to build and grow our platforms, and our company.

In this market, it’s more important than ever to not overlook the perfect candidate due to irrelevant, surface-level, or unfocused interview techniques, while also ensuring we’re being selective enough to weed out bad fits. We never settle for a candidate that doesn’t meet our expectations, and we know exactly what it takes to be successful in our positions.

Scale from too close-minded to too open-minded

Every hiring manager is challenged with walking this line. Here are 5 techniques to help you win the battle for talent and ensure your technical teams are growing, thriving, and performing.

1. Kill your first impression

Many interviews are subconsciously decided within the first 5 seconds.

Me: Welcome, I’m Scott.
Them: Hi, I’m Sue, nice to meet you.
*shake hands* / *virtual wave*
I think: “Finally a good candidate, those last two were so annoying” or “Ugh, here we go again.”

It happens, it’s natural. Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also the number one reason for making bad hiring decisions. As an interviewer, it is critical to recognize that initial impression, feeling, or intuition. But too many people “go with their gut” even when that “gut” is created without a single shred of substantial or relevant job information. In the first 5 seconds when those thoughts and feelings flood your head, you need to recognize them, evaluate them, determine what they’re trying to tell you, and then make an active and conscious decision to shut them down. Your sole job as an interviewer is to determine if the candidate can do the job that you need done, and it’s very unlikely that job description includes “being cool,” “having charisma,” or “asking me about my hobbies.”

Starting from those first 5 seconds and lasting throughout the rest of the interview, you need to watch for those feelings/impressions and evaluate if they’re based on relevant facts… or just your first impression bubbling to the surface.

2. Know your culture

“Culture” is the combination of the intangible assets we value. It isn't a list of hobbies that you share, the candidate's personality, or how well a they meshes with the team over lunch. Those things are fun, but they have negligible impact on a new hire’s success in a role.

Instead, the "culture-fit" that we want to assess are the elements related to how you or your team view work, what you see as “success,” and how you value competing priorities.

  • Do you prioritize speed or quality? Consistency or innovation?
  • Are you hungry for the latest tech or do you prefer well-established products?
  • What are your team “norms” (written or unwritten)?
  • Do you tend toward team cohesion or healthy conflict?

It’s important to know the elements like these that drive your decisions or that are highly regarded by the top performers in your organization. Disagreements on these type of priorities between you and a candidate will cause much more strife than whether they prefer to watch sports or anime.

3. Identify the underlying needs

In addition to your team culture, there are certain traits specific to the role that a candidate will need to be successful. The more you can analyze these ahead of time, the better you’ll be able to evaluate success criteria in an interview. Looking at what skills or abilities your top performers possess can help to identify these.

  • Do you need someone that is a quick learner to adapt to your styles/rules?
  • Will there be a high level of detail orientation, critical thinking, or deductive reasoning?
  • Do you need an enterprise mindset or a small business mindset?
  • Does the role require unique interpersonal skills or unusually thick skin?
  • Do you need someone focused on green-field creation or existing application enhancement?

Often these characteristics will be more important to a candidate’s success than if they knew the syntax for initializing a hash table.

4. Don’t ask: Test

Once you have an idea of your culture and the real success factors for the role then you need to determine if your candidate has them or not. In the old days, interviewers might have asked:

  • “Do you consider yourself a team player or do you tend to buck the system?”
  • “Are you detail oriented?”

Then we got a little bit smarter and moved to behavioral interview questions:

  • “Tell me about a time you were a team player.”
  • “Tell me about a time you stood up for something you thought was right.”
  • “Describe a project you did which was very detail oriented."

However, I’m of the opinion that having one example to draw from during the entirety of someone’s life and career isn’t enough to tell me how they will behave in most situations. Instead, I want to create a scenario where the candidate demonstrates these characteristics while in a working environment. Here are a few example scenarios I’ve used:

Scenario A: “This is the UML diagram for one of our systems. Now you diagram this other system.”

Things you might look for depending on the success criteria you’re seeking:

  • Do they appreciate the value of the example and learn from it?
  • Do they demonstrate a unique opinion unmoved by existing paradigms?
  • If your example has a weakness or downside, do they ask if they should correct it? Do they follow it anyway? Do they take initiative to fix it?

Scenario B: “Here’s a dirty chart of data / block of code. Point out or fix all the details.”

  • Are they energized by combing through it at that level?
  • Do they get frustrated and give up?
  • When you point out things that they missed, do they appreciate the feedback, or do they complain about the tediousness?

I won’t sugar coat it: analyzing your needs and creating scenarios like this is hard work and takes real preparation. In the long run, though, I definitely prefer this up-front work to the alternative of fighting with and then losing a new hire after 6 months due to misalignment.

5. Avoid trivia

Finally, don’t waste time asking questions that, on the job, an employee would just google in three seconds. Some common pointless questions are:

  • What are the 4 principles of Object Oriented Programming?
  • What does S.O.L.I.D. stand for?
  • List the steps in the page life cycle.
  • What’s the syntax for declaring a multi-dimensional array?

Rather than asking trivia, focus on questions which have endless possibilities:

  • “Describe how you would you code/architect/design ______,”
  • “Analyze this example and tell me how you might tackle the problem.”

Since there’s not a clear “correct” response, your follow up questions are key. Get to “why” they said what they did, what led them to that, and what the pros/cons of their approach might be. Even if the result isn’t what you expected, did their thought processes align with your culture and needs? If so, odds are you can spend a little time teaching to fill in the “trivial” gaps they lack and end up with a terrific addition to your team.

Every industry right now is feeling the shortage of technical talent and experiencing challenges with finding, recruiting, and hiring great engineers or developers. At the same time, technology continues to play an increasing role in every industry and company around the world. The only way to stay at the front of the pack is to “level up” your interviewing game to stay focused on finding the right people to power your innovation.