Breaking down a one-hour interview

Hiring for Tech
October 12, 2020

A clock on a wall

When interviewing someone, come in with a game plan. Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

I’ve talked a lot about general interviewing principles in my writing, so I want to spend some time on a concrete outline of how to conduct a one-hour interview, based on my experience. Think of this as a user manual for a typical big company interview. Project interviews may look different, but when you’re stuck with an algorithm-based interview format, you can still make the experience a positive one for the candidate.

Remember that an interview is a reflection of your company. Most importantly, the candidate is a person, so it’s important to respect them and their time. For these reasons, the preparation begins before the interview and your part wraps up well after the interview.

Before the interview

As an interviewer, you can help set the candidate up for success. At some point between the interview being assigned to you and the interview actually taking place:

  1. Read the candidate’s resume. The goal is to make sure you understand what their background is, and see if there’s anything you would be interested in asking about.

  2. Pick questions that fit their experience and the role they are interviewing for. Your company should have a bank of questions, but different questions make sense for different candidates. For example, for a system design question, pick a prompt that aligns well with the type of systems they have built in the past.

  3. If you’re paired with another interviewer, discuss the game plan with them so you’re on the same page. This is a great opportunity for a more junior interviewer to practice picking questions.

Don’t leave the preparation until the last minute!

During the interview

A typical one hour interview will consist of about ten minutes of logistics and introduction, forty minutes of problem solving, and ten more minutes for the candidate to ask questions.

10 minutes: logistics

  1. First and foremost, make sure the candidate is ready for the interview. For a one-off phone interview, ensure the candidate is comfortable and ready to move forward. One time, there was a scheduling mix up (the company’s fault), and by asking, “Is this still a good time?”, I found out the candidate was not expecting the interview to happen at that time. For an onsite back-to-back interview gauntlet, ask if the candidate needs a water or restroom break.

  2. Provide an outline of the interview. This is so the candidate knows how much time you’ll spend on introductions, and that they will have time later to ask their own questions.

  3. Introduce yourself. Most importantly, this is to make the interview feel more personal, instead of robotic. It’s also a chance for the candidate to hear what actually happens day-to-day in the job, and makes it easier for them to personalize their questions at the end.

  4. Allow the candidate to introduce themselves, but let them know you’ve read their resume. The question I like to ask is “what would you like me to know about you?” This gives the chance to hone in on the parts of their career they identify with most strongly.

  5. Finally, go into the details of the interview, specifically what you’re looking for. For example, are you looking for code, or high-level concepts? Doing this right before jumping into the problems makes the requirements top-of-mind while working on the problems.

40 minutes: problem solving

  1. With the logistics out of the way, you can jump into the problems. Introduce your problem clearly, then let the candidate take over. The exact nature of this section will depend on the type of interview you’re conducting, but at a high-level, ease into the harder problems with a warmup, have a back-and-forth, and end the problem solving at an appropriate stopping point.

If it helps you, take notes during this time. But, make sure to give the candidate the attention they deserve. You’re not a researcher observing a test subject.

10 minutes: wrap up

  1. Finally, let the candidate ask you questions. Don’t let the problem solving go over too much. You want to make sure the candidate has a chance to interview the company they may end up working for! And if the candidate has no questions, let them take a breather.

Ultimately, the interview should feel comfortable enough for the candidate that they are able to showcase their strengths. For that reason, being clear about expectations and making the experience a personal one is key.

After the interview

Just because the interview is over doesn’t mean your work is done.

  1. If two interviewers with different levels of interviewing experience were paired, have a quick debrief to make sure you’re on the same page. This is an opportunity for the more junior interviewer to align on the scoring scale of the company, and receive feedback for future interviews.

  2. Submit any written feedback about the candidate while the experience is fresh in your mind. You want to give the candidate a fair evaluation.

Your written feedback is crucial to the hiring process. Individual interviewer scores should be aligned across the company, but the little details can change the outcome for a borderline candidate, and help place a candidate in the right seniority level if hired. Please take this part seriously.

Interviewing is much more than giving the candidate a few problems to work on. From the preparation to the feedback, it’s important for you to put in the effort to make the experience a positive one for the candidate.

This post was sent out on the October 12, 2020 edition of the Hiring For Tech newsletter. Subscribe to get future editions sent to you by email, once a week.

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