This story starts a few years ago, in a past life, before I started working at Safari, when I was managing a small team of technical consultants for a healthcare company. I was on the phone with a recruiter who was sending me candidates for one of my open positions after a phone screen with one of his more promising leads.
“Hey,” I said, “thanks for that candidate, but I think I’m going to pass.”
“Not interested, huh?”
“Well, I can’t say that I trust them. And, it’s not like I want to feel like I can tell them my deepest secrets after an hour on the phone, but I don’t want to think that they’re misleading me either.”
“What did they do wrong?”
“I asked them about their ‘worst yes’ to a client was.”
“Their ‘worst yes’?”
“Yeah, you know, we’re always fielding requests to develop some new features, and sometimes the features sound easy and trivial, but when you get into the details of implementation, there’s something that you fail to account for that causes everything to take three times as long as you initially estimated. I like to ask about it because the candidate’s response can sometimes be a good sign of character. This person just blamed their team for the delays in something that they wanted to implement. I want to see people who own their problems and mistakes.”
The next batch of candidates that I got had interesting answers to that “Worst Yes” question, and I had a suspicion that the recruiter was coaching them. I had been conscientious about calling the recruiter back whenever I was rejecting a candidate and telling him why I didn’t like them; and it wouldn’t have surprised me to hear that they were turning around to their applicants and said, “OK, for Cris, this is what you need to do to impress him.”
It sounds like cheating, but I didn’t mind. At the end of the day, you can’t cheat on a “Worst Yes.” The best “Worst Yes” answers combine a bit of technical hubris and optimistic creativity with a sort of self-effacing humility that comes when we all realize that our reach exceeds our grasp. It’s possible to fake humility, as well as ambition, but not in a way that sounds consistent when it’s subject to follow-up questions.
So, while I didn’t explicitly give my recruiters a list of questions that I would ask, I was happy to leak my complaints to them because it helped their screening process. As a recruiter and I got more familiar with each other, they rarely ever sent me candidates that I felt were a waste of my time. I never got that sinking feeling at five minutes into an interview that I had just committed to wasting the next twenty-five minutes talking to someone who was a woefully inappropriate fit. Yes, the recruiter was, to a certain sense, gaming me and tilting the odds in his favor by training the candidates to respond to me in ways that would optimize for a hire, but if this were a game, the odds are so strongly stacked in favor of the interviewer that affording the candidate a bit of a pre-game warmup isn’t just kind — it results in better interviews.
There’s little to gain in putting a candidate off-balance, especially if the position itself requires calm, reasonable decisions. Some interviewers do this deliberately, as a shortcut towards gaining candor. I’ll just say that I have better luck talking to candidates like a peer and a human being.
How to cheat our process
I’m currently hiring for Java developers to join our Client Services group. During the interview I usually do the following three things:
- I ask about why you want to join Safari. I ask about what you read in the job description that was particularly attractive, what you imagine you’ll be doing, and why you think that you’re a good fit for Safari. In some ways this is basic reading comprehension, and a very minimal fit question. Do you even understand what you’re applying for, and why you’d want to work here? Bonus tip for you on this section: Can you also provide information about yourself that would form the basis for the rest of the interview and set us off on your best foot?
- I ask about your work. This is where questions like “The Worst Yes” come in. I ask what you like about what you’ve worked on, and I ask about your proudest accomplishments as well as your deepest struggles. I ask about your personal approach to estimating, scoping, learning, and ensuring quality. I also ask you to name three things that you like about development, remote teams, client work, or general technology. Then I make you do tradeoffs to see what’s most important to you. Bonus tip: Can you tell us how your experiences have shaped what you’re looking for in your next workplace or career position? This doesn’t have to be “in 3 years I see myself doing this thing” (please don’t do that) but can be as simple as “I really want to be treated as a human being in my next job. I don’t want to be referred to just as a resource.”
- I ask you about how you’d work for us. I have a catalog of past dilemmas, problems and interesting challenges that we’ve encountered in the past, and I ask about how you’d approach them. I prefer this to abstract brain teasers because it’s more relevant to what the day to day job is like, and gives us a sense for whether or not you’d find the work engaging. If you ask good questions, show fine instincts, and can tell us how it reminded you of a similar issue in a past job, then those are all great. But really, what I hope for is having this as an entree for us to just talk shop and get to know each other as peers. I don’t spend my days with engineers asking them how many gasoline stations exist in Boston, but I do spend a lot of time asking them how they would improve the way we’d manage data or get better at testing our work. Bonus tip: Can you ask good followup questions about why some of the things that we are trying to solve haven’t been solved yet?
If this all sounds like an attractive, interesting, and worthwhile way to be evaluated for a job, and if you think that you’d enjoy telling someone when you were magnificently, gloriously, and ambitiously wrong about something, then I invite you to apply. After all, you’ve already got an initial walkthrough, so you’re already a few points ahead. If you want a longer treatment of hiring philosophies in Safari software engineering, I did not write the excellent Software Craftsman, but I agree quite a lot with their chapters on Recruiting, Interviewing and Hiring Anti-Patterns.