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Help me phone screen interview candidates more effectively?
January 21, 2012 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Help me do a better job of phone screening candidates for largely-technical/programming positions.

I've been with my company for 6 years now. I'm a senior manager (worked up from intern). Of all the people on my team/in my office, I've been with the company only shorter than my boss, and on my team longer than anyone. I'm not in HR, just another middle-management guy. Our office/team is a satellite to the main office.

In addition to my regular work, because of my expereience and position on the team, I'm often asked to do phone screens of potential interview candidates. The phone screen is my idea, because we were getting a large number of interview candidates who looked great on paper, but when we got them in (for an afternoon of interviews & tests) they would fall flat on their face at the first sign of technical questions. Seriously, I had a guy write a cascading delete in SQL (two tables, foreign key ref) with a WHILE loop ffs.

So I'm looking at these resumes and have 30 minutes on the phone to do three things:
1. give a 5 minute elevator speech about the company
2. ask them questions about the resume
3. answer questions they have

with #2 - please help me come up with better questions or a better way to gauge someone's technical competency in SQL and/or C# over the phone.

Normally what I do is pick a couple projects or items on their resume and ask them to describe in detail. I explain that I've got a technical background, and they should not shy away from details - if it goes over my head I'll say so. And yet I rarely get anyone who provides *any* details. Like, if I was asked that over the phone I think I'd dive right into my close rate engine in SQL, or the internet lead processing workflow in C#. And I'd be all up in their face with algorithms implemented, APIs used, syntax for specific sections I'm proud of, etc. Hell, I feel like I could talk about technical stuff to someone asking about it for hours. How can I get people (who know these things) to respond like it that on the phone?

The problem is that because I'm not getting a really good gauge that I want, I'm still approving most of the candidates for the in-person interviews (and C# and SQL tests). And they'll fall flat on their face.

Long way of saying: what technical questions can you ask over the phone and get good responses for? Or how can I get a good gauge of technical skills with a 15 minute phone conversation and a resume?
posted by ish__ to Work & Money (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Could you send them a code sample right before your interview and ask them to explain it?
posted by winna at 5:05 PM on January 21, 2012

You want to read Steve Yegge's "The Five Essential Phone-Screen Questions."

It's can be hard for people to speak extemporaneously about their technical projects on the phone with someone they don't know and have never met. Use the phone screen just to ensure that the candidate meets a bare minimum of technical ability. You can get them talking and gauge their enthusiasm better in person anyway.
posted by outlaw of averages at 5:08 PM on January 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

outlaw of averages: oh. my. god. that looks *perfect*
posted by ish__ at 5:40 PM on January 21, 2012

This is probably irrelevant, but here is how companies I respect interview for tech jobs:

1) Phone screen
2) Ask for code samples and give tests as necessary. Ideally leaving room for creative responses and avoiding the "trivia questions" approach which is proven to be useless
3) In-person interview

That way the in-person is a respectful conversation- you know, the way job interviews are done in literally every other field. The ones that don't treat people with decades of experience like slow children being sent to a blackboard to do a problem.

I know basic respect for tech people as human beings is out of fashion, but just thought I'd throw it out there.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:40 PM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've done hiring for Pivotal Labs here in Singapore, and our first step is to spend 45-60 minutes pair programming with a candidate on a simple java problem (that touches on most of the elements of Steve Yegge's questions above).

The pairing can be quite easily done via Skype screensharing (the candidate doesn't do any typing, they just have to talk and think) and it makes sure that they can code before they spend time pairing with our engineers.

We do the same pairing exercise with every candidate so that we get experience tracking how good various aspects are as predictors.

Good luck,

Carl Coryell-Martin
posted by ccoryell at 6:49 PM on January 21, 2012

Not something to adopt right away, until you have some practice with questions you're comfortable with, but I've noticed that even with good interview questions there are people who will duck them and dodge and generally avoid providing you with the solid answers you're looking for. This is because those solid answers do not exist.

In your case, sometimes they can't provide details about their project because they had to have their hands held through it and don't really understand what it did; they didn't understand the algorithm they were told to implement; and there is no syntax they are proud of.

But as I said - not to adopt until you know you can catch the people who DO know their stuff.
posted by Lady Li at 9:25 PM on January 21, 2012

with #2 - please help me come up with better questions or a better way to gauge someone's technical competency in SQL and/or C# over the phone.

The last time I was job-hunting, several phone screens used things like shared google docs and piratepad to write actual code.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:48 AM on January 22, 2012

Here's one approach: go through all the resumes with a highlighter, hitting any elements that relate to the job description. Resumes with no highlighter get binned, which narrows down the field.

When you call the candidate for our prearranged phone time, spend a few minutes describing the organization, a few minutes talking about the job itself, and then just ask, "Your resume (cover letter) says that you have experience with yak-shaving/sysadmin/fryer-scrubbing. Can you tell me some more about that, please?"

Anyone who can't talk easily about this for a few minutes is in trouble. Anyone who can't, after that, tell me what the hardest part of that work and/or their favorite part, may also be in trouble.

The last step is a face-to-face interview. If you use the phone well enough, you only have to interview a few folks. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:16 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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