How do you interview a troubling candidate who has much more experience than you?
July 28, 2008 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on how to conduct a job interview with someone much older and with much more experience than me. The problem: his resume is seriously fishy. There's some technical information in here, so input from professional software geeks is particularly appreciated.

I'm a web developer, and on Tuesday, I'll be conducting my first job interview, as one of a team of people interviewing the candidate throughout the day. I'm in my mid-20s, and have been working professionally for 1.5 years; he, by the looks of his resume, is at least 40, and has been working in the software industry for at least 13 years. That awkwardness is compounded by the fact that I think his resume suggests very real potential problems and exaggerations.

There's typos all over the place ("strategical", "integeration" and "XML DCD", among others), and it's heavily padded. He claims to be an expert on "Ajax methodology" and "Web 2.0 concepts", but the only Javascript toolkit he cites- in a resume that isn't shy about listing every piece of software he's ever touched- is GWT, which has the distinction of being the only Ajax framework that doesn't require you to write HTML or Javascript (if you ignore OpenLaszlo, which everyone does). Plus, we're a Python shop, and his background is solidly in Java (he says he's leveraged "advanced Java technologies" such as JSP, Servlets and Swing); Python is never mentioned.

My concern is that having a young twerp like me trying to investigate his web development skills could be seriously insulting, and while job candidates have to accept that, if he's hired, it could start our working relationship off poorly, especially considering that we have a very small web dev team (the head of which is also in his mid-20s). But there's really only two people interviewing him (myself and our team lead) who are competent to evaluate him technically, so I can't really pass the buck to someone else.

Anonymous because other coworkers know my MeFi account. Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you're running a Python shop and he does not mention Python at all it will be more a case of seeing if he can adapt to a new language.
I would focus on his general programming knowledge and see how his problem solving logic is. I agree that bad spelling in a resume is a red flag but that's why you have interviews.
Also resume writing is a skill you have to learn, he might have followed a course where it was mentioned that you should mention all your skills and tools.
posted by sebas at 7:51 AM on July 28, 2008

Can you give him a programming task in the interview? Something really simple like getting some stuff from a db and sorting it then displaying it to the browser? I agree with sebas that what you're looking for is programming skill and language adaptibility: his maturity could be a bonus in that respect as those of us who've been in the field for a bit have had to change development environments and languages at least once.

And yeah, speeling mistakes? Red flag.
posted by handee at 7:57 AM on July 28, 2008

Take a look at Joel Spolsky's The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing

Any resume that has typos and seems fishy should get rotary-filed immediately, IMO. But you've got the interview set up already.
posted by adamrice at 8:01 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I'm 31 and have been working in the software industry for over 16 years. Don't assume an age based on the resume.

That does sound fishy, though. I tend to look negatively on a resume that has spelling errors. Every time we've hired someone that has a resume with spelling errors that person tends to be a pain. Granted, there's probably no real relationship there, but I can't help thinking that if their resume is that sloppy, how will their work be?

I'd be more concerned with the technologies he listed. Ask him direct questions about those. Ask him direct Java questions, then ask how he would go about porting that answer to a language he's not familiar with, such as Python.

Realistically, because of the environment I'm in, I'd rather have someone who's familiar with a variety of subjects than someone who's an expert in the particular language and framework I use. Technology changes so rapidly that you want someone who can pick up new technologies but uses things like test driven development regardless of what language he's writing.

But that's just me. It sounds like this guy really does need to be asked technical questions about the languages and technologies on his resume.

And don't worry about the ages. I'm 31 and am supervisor for multiple people who's ages range from 40 up to mid-fifities. I respect them and their technical abilities, and they respect whatever the heck it is I do.
posted by krisak at 8:01 AM on July 28, 2008

i'm an over-40 developer. i wouldn't be offended at all if you asked me questions during an interview - and certainly not because of your age. asking questions is what an interview is for! i would expect someone to "test me out" on my technical knowledge and there's nothing odd about it being someone who's quite young (it tends to be the younger people who care most about technical details, and who were most recently in college, so it's not unusual....)

i think you're overthinking this - treat him as you would anyone else at an interview. be respectful and courteous, but firm. if he's lying, it should be pretty easy to find out - identify where you have specific doubts and pick your questions beforehand.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 8:02 AM on July 28, 2008

I know this is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, sorry, but why are you even interviewing him?

No-one worth their professional salt has typos in their CV. This guy's a computer whizz, but he can't proof-read a word document, huh? Sounds very odd indeed.

In terms of the interview: get a game plan together with your co-interviewer. State at the outset of the interview the areas you will cover and stick rigidly to the plan. Keep it firm, but friendly. Ask for concrete examples of the areas he's worked where the skills are directly transferable to your own environment - and how he'll apply them. Take good notes so you can back up your final decision.

In terms of the age gap, well, you're the one with the trump card - you can say yes or no, sometimes an interview situation might not be to the interviewees liking, but you just have to roll with the punches if you really want the job.

If this chap is worth hiring, he'll want to impress. With all that experience, interviews really shouldn't be a problem anymore. If you do then go-ahead and hire him and he seems cool, you can laugh about it in the future. You have the upper hand here.
posted by Blacksun at 8:03 AM on July 28, 2008

Anyone who is in their 40s and been around the block on technical projects has probably worked for people younger than themselves and should not have a problem with it. Certainly they should have no issues at all with being quizzed on technical questions by a younger team member. Interviewees should expect pointed technical questions to determine the depth and breadth of their technical skillset and if they have an issue with the questions coming from a younger person, they are not worth hiring. I don't rule someone out who takes the kitchen sink approach to listing everything on their resume that they think could be helpful -- many of the front-line resume screeners are technically incapable of extrapolating that technology X means knowing technology Y. Ask questions that get him to explain in depth what tools and technologies he used job by job and ask specific and detailed technical questions on the tools that apply to you so that you can be comfortable he knows what he needs to know. He shouldn't be insulted and even if he is, better to insult him than to sign off on hiring a stiff.
posted by Lame_username at 8:10 AM on July 28, 2008

My concern is that having a young twerp like me trying to investigate his web development skills could be seriously insulting

It's not insulting. That's just part of the interview process, and the fact that you are younger and less experienced than him does not change that. It is perfectly appropriate for you to explore the extent of his technical skills in the interview, and no reasonable person would be offended by that, as long as you do it in a respectful manner.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:29 AM on July 28, 2008

I've been in the same position as you have, although in a different field. Basically, as the interviewer, it's relatively easy to maintain the balance of power, despite any age or experience differences - after all, you know more about your company and its needs than he does.

Still, if you feel uncomfortable quizzing him, then I suggest consulting with your team lead. Say basically what you said here - you've reviewed his resume and you're suspicious about his experience. If he's applying for a technical position, then small "pseudo-code" programming tasks are a necessity at some point during the day. Your team lead may feel more comfortable handling that part of the interview.

If he's interviewing for a management, rather than a technical position, then yes it would be a bit weird to give him a technical interview. But your boss would know best.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on July 28, 2008

My concern is that having a young twerp like me trying to investigate his web development skills could be seriously insulting

If he is insulted by a person with less experience than him being part of the interview process, he's probably not a good fit for your team anyway. As long as you are professional when conducting the interview he won't have any reason to be offended.

One way to prevent any kind of friction in the interview itself is to never show any negative reactions in the interview itself. If the candidate answers completely incorrectly, don't say "No, wrong!" just smile and nod and write down that he missed that one. In general try to keep it conversational with the focus on trying to get a detailed picture of his experience and skills, rather than a series of challenges.

we're a Python shop, and his background is solidly in Java

I would suggest asking a few specific technical questions about Java. Even though he won't use Java in the job he is interviewing for, it will give you a good indication of how strong his current knowledge is. Aside from Java library trivia questions, I might ask if he can explain what Checked Exceptions are and what the pros and cons are versus normal exceptions. Other than that, try to ask him "Describe a time when you had to learn something new" kinds of questions to gauge how good he is at picking up new skills.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:41 AM on July 28, 2008


I wouldn't even agree to an interview in light of that. Poor communication skills and lack of attention to detail can be seriously disruptive to any serious software development effort.

If you've already committed to the interview for some reason, I would not at all worry about the impression you leave with the interviewee. Either he impresses you with his wizardry and you're able to look beyond the glaring flaws of the resume because of his awesome skills and presence, or... not.
posted by majick at 8:49 AM on July 28, 2008

Another 40+ software engineer here and I'm used to being interviewed and managed by folks younger than me, it just goes with the territory. If you were interviewing me, I'd be a little insulted if you didn't quiz me on my technical knowledge. I'm there to sell you on the fact that I'd be an added value to the company and expect you to make me prove myself.

The misspellings on the resume are a little worrisome though unless he's not a native English speaker. In general resumes like that would never even get to the interview stage were I work, HR would filter those beforehand.

In terms of interview strategy, start with the most recent project listed on his resume. Ask he to describe the specifications, designs, strategies, problems encountered, problems solved, etc. Ask him draw the architecture on the white board. If he knows his stuff, he should be able to talk in detail about these subjects.
posted by octothorpe at 8:55 AM on July 28, 2008

Just as a sidenote, both strategical and XML DCD are valid words / terms, be sure that you're not falling into a confirmation bias while interviewing.
posted by sebas at 9:10 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Man, stop worrying about your age and the applicant's age. You're the INTERVIEWER!
posted by kldickson at 9:12 AM on July 28, 2008

I've interviewed people fresh out of college, and people that are nearing retirement. The most important thing, other than the requirements for the job (duh!), was how comfortable I felt around the person.
If I don't feel comfortable around the person in the interview (potential serial killer), its a big fat red flag.
Don't over think it. Go with your gut.
posted by ducktape at 11:04 AM on July 28, 2008

Keep it objective. I've had success using a competency-based interview approach, where you ask the candidate a question that allows them to articulate a certain skill or competence they've used in a real-life situation.

Ask them to explain the situation in which they've used the skill, the specific task they were to undertake, the action they took, and the result (successful or unsuccessful) they achieved. They need to keep the answer focused on their involvement in delivering the outcome as an individual, not as a team.

By keeping it objective, factors such as the candidates age or experience compared with your own needn't come into it.

I wouldn't worry too much about a typo or two. Shit happens. But if the application is littered with spelling or grammar errors that's something different.
posted by Lleyam at 1:21 PM on July 28, 2008

You can always prepare a written test of some kind - I've given and taken many of these in the course of interviewing. That way you can concentrate on the people skills and your gut feelings during the interview itself, and you can review his technical competence on your own time, maybe with a reference manual nearby.

And be careful that you don't let your anxiety about an age gap manifest itself with an inappropriate (or possibly illegal) question ("Just how old are you anyway?"), or even a throwaway comment ("Wow, I was expecting someone much older, based on the dates on your resume!") But, you knew that already, I'm sure.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:13 PM on July 28, 2008

Possibly a bit late to the party here...
I've been on a few job interview panels, and we try to ask applicants to give us examples of how they use a skill. The goal is to get a story out of them, because it's easy to fluff your way through trivia, or describe what you'd theoretically do in a hypothetical situation; but it's much harder to fake a real-world example.

For example, in this case I'd be asking "tell us about a project you worked on using AJAX: what was your role and how did you go about it". Or "tell us about a time when you had to convert an existing Java project to a new language". People who are nervous respond better when they get to describe a real-life example, because they know they're on solid ground. And it's quickly obvious if someone doesn't actually have a previous experience to talk about.

Go with your gut when you meet him. It's my experience that if you get a weird vibe during interview, it's only going to get weirder when you have to interact with them everyday.
posted by harriet vane at 1:29 AM on July 29, 2008

Late to the party, but...

His age is irrelevant to the hiring decision. It should also be irrelevant to your interview. You really want to avoid making those types of assumptions (age, race, disability) during the candidate screening. If you have a bias based on age, you should not participate in the hiring process.

This is your first interview - do a mock interview with a co-worker first. Interviewing is a skill. No one is a great interviewer without preparation and practice.

Be respectful, but do your job. Screen his skills carefully and deliver a fair, substantiated opinion of his suitability for the job available. Keep yourself and your firm out of legal hot water. Treat him exactly as you would any other candidate.
posted by 26.2 at 10:49 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the spelling errors and made up words are because he's not a native English speaker? I've had to proof-read my father's resume several times and while he's more than qualified for a lot of the positions he's interviewing from, you wouldn't be able to tell that from his non-editted resume.
posted by nakedsushi at 3:05 PM on July 29, 2008

« Older Tax settlement services   |   Where do you put money for baby? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.