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This is part one of a 2-part series on project based interview questions.  This first installment is for employers looking to make projects part of their interview process.  Stay tuned next week for the second part for employees to ace a project-based interview.

What are the best interview questions you currently use? Is there a better way to see how great a candidate would be on your team?

Last week I was chatting with a friend of mine who was telling me about her recent experience with a company that asked her to complete a “real world” project as part of her interview. She was interviewing for a marketing role, and they asked her to come up with a solution to one of their current business problems (expanding a product catalog from 20 to 200 in 30 days). She had one day to do the project, and then her onsite interview involved presenting the results from her research and discussing her thoughts with her interviewers.

What struck me wasn’t the process itself, but how excited she was when she told me about it.

She felt like it allowed her to shine and show her best work. She said it was stressful to put together something amazing in just one day, but that she felt like it made the interview process smoother. She was able to research the company thoroughly (you couldn’t do the assignment without doing so, really), and she felt like she went into the interview more confidently – filled with good ideas and a compelling presentation on how she could make this project a reality.

I have used small coding projects for candidates when I felt like I needed more information about their skills after a phone interview; however, I had never really thought about using bigger projects as a pre-cursor to supplement the in-person interview.

And it got me thinking – why don’t more interviews use projects as part of their process?

Project-based interviews are smart  

Project-based interviews make sense not just because they provide interesting fodder for a conversation, but because real work isn’t about your title or your job description – it is about the projects you work on and the real stuff you get done.

There are lots of good reasons to consider adding a project to your interview process:

You get to see real work output. As much as I love whiteboard problems and hypothetical situations, there is something special about seeing real output and seeing something that shows the way the candidate thinks, approaches problems, and actually produces results.

Some companies love “try before you buy” approaches where people contract or do short term projects first. This is great if you can get away with it. The challenge, though, is that for many great candidates (for example, passive candidates that are already gainfully employed, or ones who don’t want to go without full time employment with benefits because they have family) the thought of leaving an awesome full time gig for a contract role is hard to swallow.

You get to see how they do they work. Do they ask questions and get clarification before jumping in? Do they miss deadlines? Do they produce something with little defects or errors? What sort of polish do they put into the assignment?

While none of these things might make the hire/no hire decision on their own, they can be incredibly valuable to help you learn about the type of person you are hiring.

You can remove bias. If you give several candidates the same assignment, it is much easier to benchmark them against one another. This also allows you to remove some of the bias that comes into the interview process when you meet people in person (chemistry is a part of human interaction and it does influence our decisions), since looking at real tangible output can help you compare candidates more objectively.

It gives bad interviewees a chance to shine. Let’s face it: some people are just bad at interviewing. I have worked with many great engineers who will tell you stories about how they bombed an interview. When some people get nervous, or anxious, they perform worse. The stress of interviewing can impair a candidate’s cognitive ability. Removing the stress of being under an interviewer’s watchful gaze gives these candidates a chance to do their best work.

So you want to add a project to your interview process? It is a smart idea, but also daunting to incorporate to your process.

Luckily, I’ve done some of the heavy lifting for you! :)

After thinking about this a lot, talking to a few companies who have this as part of their process, and doing a whole bunch of research, I compiled some guidelines to help you pick the right project and parameters to make project-based interviews part of your amazingly successful interview process.


Picking the right project

In order to get great results from a project-based interview, the first thing you need to do is select a suitable project.

Make it a “real world” problem.

To make this exercise valuable, you need to select something that is a problem that the candidate would actually tackle on the job. Maybe it wouldn’t be a major project, or maybe it is a small milestone from an existing project, but the more real it is the better the experience will be for the candidate.

You want the candidate to get a feel for what the role will be like when they take the job.  What will they be expected to do? What is their first big project? Is there a way for you to frame the project so the work will help them understand your business and their new role?

For example, if someone were to join Popforms today here are some of the projects we might use for interview projects:

  • For an engineer:  Given the answers to 30 questions, apply a simple heuristic to select which training to recommend to the user.
  • For a writer: Write 1000 words on a career-boosting topic of your choosing that would be publishable quality for our blog.
  • For a content marketer: You are in charge of our content strategy. How would you decide what articles we should write? Identify big opportunities and potential wins for future content.
  • For a training/leadership expert: Our next spark is on effective presentations (it really is!), present a detailed outline of the lessons and homework for this new course.
  • For anyone: We are expanding our courses. Give us a presentation on the next 5 courses you think we should create and why.

Each of these projects is something we are currently working on in our business. We are thinking about these things all the time. Completing one of these assignments would force you to learn about our business, the way we are currently doing things, and showcase your thoughts and skills along the same topic.

And it would show us exactly how a candidate would fit into their role with us, since we’d see them solve a real problem we would want them to solve.


Make the project doable in <1 day.

You want the person to be able to complete the work in a timely manner, and you don’t want to saddle them with an assignment they can’t possibly complete in 24 hours. The trick is balancing the time required from the candidate with meaningful results.

You want to give the potential hire enough time to produce something quality, but at the same time not require so much effort that they will be resentful if they don’t get hired, or where you are basing your decision on “unfair” criteria (for example someone unemployed with lots of time to work on the project versus someone with a full time job and a family and very limited time).


Pick projects that require more than just execution.

If you noticed in my above examples, each of them requires a bit of inspiration or creativity. The questions aren’t as simple as just solving a problem (this is also the reason not to ask a tried and true interview question – you want something that isn’t Google-able). Each of the problems requires you to really think, to learn about the business, and put a little bit of “you” into the questions.


Set the candidate up for success.

Another thing you will notice is that each of the questions is also very vague. Sure, for some of them (like the first one) there would be a lot more instructions or samples, but you want to give the candidate enough freedom to ask their own questions and define their own output. If you are too prescriptive then you are testing execution and ability to follow directions, rather than creativity and innovation.

Here are some things you should specify:

  • How long they should spend? Set a time limit or give them the assignment where they will be limited by time constraints (as the example I mentioned at the start of this article).
  • What format should the end result take? Do you want a written document? A presentation? A program with a UI or a script? Be specific about the final product so that you both can plan accordingly.
  • When is the project due? Is it due within 24 hours? Before the onsite interview? At the interview? Be super clear about the timeframe ahead of time so the candidate has the opportunity to plan their schedule around the project work.
  • Who is there to help them? You want to be respectful of the candidate’s time, and part of this means having someone there to support them when they have time to work on the project.
  • How should they ask for help? Give them an email and a phone number so they can get quick answers, straight away. Another great option is to tell them what to do when they make assumptions. For many projects, just documenting assumptions is enough and can allow them to proceed without being blocked on your input.
  • What will you do with the end result? Is it going to be part of a discussion or brought up in other interviews? Don’t plan to use the work from someone you don’t end up hiring. Of course this is not legal advice and you should consult your lawyer, but using candidates for free work isn’t very nice – so I would advise against it on moral grounds.

Test things out and see what works for you. Assume the project definition as something fluid that you will tune and adjust as you get feedback from candidates. Which bring us to…


Get feedback from candidates.

You want to make sure that the work you give is doable within the constraints. You don’t want any candidate to feel taken advantage of (for doing free work) and so be sure to setup a feedback loop so you can tune and improve your process over time.

Have you tried this approach in your process?  Any suggestions or ideas to make project interviews work well?  Any things to avoid?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Tags: hiring, interview questions, interviews, Strategy, team,

4 Responses to “The best interview questions aren’t questions: why project-based interviews should be part of your process”

  1. Dave Hansen-Lange

    I’m about to start my first ever round of hiring and this seems like a fantastic technique.

    I wonder if timeboxing at 8hrs rather than 24 might be better. I can just see a real keen candidate staying up all night, blow you away with the results, you hire them, but then you be disappointed that they don’t have the same output in an average day.

    • katemats

      Hi Dave – congrats on starting your first round of hiring (sending you lots of good thoughts on landing some great candidates).

      As for your comment, yes, I think time boxing is smart. It really depends on the assignment I suppose. However, I would assume that most employees aren’t going to do the same work as in an interview setting regardless of the context. When you hire someone and they are ramped up the results they produce in a day can vary widely. I would instead time box it out of consideration to the candidate and to ensure the scope is reasonable.

      One thing I like about 24 hours is that it gives you (the candidate) a chance to think about the problem, reflect and come back to it. I find it hard to work productive for lots of hours at a time so spacing it out might be easier for me. Plus if I was working at the time, I could still potentially work a few hours, or half a day on my regular assignment, and do the interview project in the other hours.

      Hopefully that makes sense! If you go this route I would love to hear how it works for you and what sort of project you end up choosing. You can email me at kate at popforms if you feel up to sending an update. :)

      Good luck!

  2. Joe

    We do these at EnergySavvy, and I’m always looking for interesting project questions to ask our candidates. I’ve seen sites like InterviewStreet that provide problems for you, but they’re pretty dry/generic (e.g. “reverse a list in place”). Do you know of any resources where people share their company’s programming projects?

    • katemats

      Hi Joe!
      Great question – we have actually been thinking of creating such a list of questions we like, because we didn’t know of a great one.
      I have a list on my personal site of software engineer interview questions ( however, they aren’t really project based.

      I would think projects closely related to the role or company would be best anyway, so maybe there are small projects you could work on together at your company? Another idea, is fixing bugs in open source projects. Of course those are both software oriented.
      I think some of the more interested project ideas could come from less technical roles – like a sales plan, content strategy, or feature spec – each of those would depend on the role of course!

      Hope that helps, and let me know if you find that list of questions!