Tag Archives: interview

More thoughts on interview

My project team is hiring again. This round we have 3 opening for verification position and 2 opening for design position. I have been interviewing every day for the past two weeks and met over 10 candidates. I have met some good ones and some bad ones. It is only a few months apart from last round interview, but I am surprise by the quality of the candidates. We get much better candidates in this round.

I guess the job posting is out for a few months, so we have accumulated lots of good resume. In last round, we have some good new hires, but its not a tough decision picking out the wheat from the chaff. This time we have so many good candidates that we actually has think harder to rank the candidate and pick the best one. Since there are more good candidates than our opening, we have to reject some otherwise decent candidates. If we were still in 2000, when the company is growing like crazy, we would hire those candidates without a second thought.

Come think of it, timing is a really important factor in your career and it is out of your control. When I graduated in 2000, it is really easy to get a job especially when you have good grades. Nowadays when the job market is tight, having good grade only gives you an interview, but the hiring decision requires a lot more. Most of my candidates have master degrees. I am not sure is it because of the job market is pretty dead a few years ago and push lots of jobless new grad into the master program. But not having a master degree is definitely a disadvantage in today’s job market.

When the dot com bubble burst, I always whim about I was graduating a year or two years too late that I had missed golden days. Looking at my candidates, most of them just graduate a year or two after me and they totally missed the train and end up drifting between jobs and school, went through multiple layoffs. Looking back, my graduation timing is not too bad after all, at least I still able board the last train leaving the station.

Interview Tips

I have been interviewing over 20 candidates in the past few weeks for the three full time positions we are hiring. I would like to summarize the good and the bad about the interviewees and share some interview tips for potential job seekers.

I found many interviewee does not understand what an interview is about. Many new grads has this problem, but it also shows up in quite a number of candidates with many years of work experience. An interview is not an exam, not a Q&A session. You don’t get any points for getting the right answer. The answers are not not the end, rather it is just the mean to sell yourself to the interviewer. An interview usually just an hour long. The interviewer has to make the decide whether or not hire the you from this hour long conversation. The interview would like to find out as much as possible about you to judge whether you fit the job. You should should provide as much information as possible to convince the interviewer to hire you.

On the other hand, some candidates provide too much information. They talk too fast, they talk too much, they even make me totally lose about what they are saying. The general rule of thumb is the more Information the better, but only relevant information counts. I have candidate start introducing himself with the first job he had 10 years ago. I lost my patient before he got to year three. Always prioritize what you say, put the most attractive experience first. You want to grab the interest of the interviewer. If the interviewer is interest to know more, he will ask you for more details. Don’t get too excited talking about yourself and assume he is still following you. Make sure you pause often to give a chance to the interviewer to clarify any points in you just said. The information is useless to the interviewer unless he understand what you are talking about.

When answering a question, if you find a question is vague, don’t hesitate ask for clarification. Very often the interviewer only knows what he kind of information he want to know, but did not know exactly what kind of questions can get the candidate to demonstrate he has the right quality. Upon hearing the question, some candidate jump to answering right away without a thought on the intention of the question. Their answer usually totally miss the point, did not give the interviewer any useful information. It would not hurt to step back for a brief moment, think through the question, ask more to find out what is the best way to present the answer such that it means the expectation of the interviewer.

If you have multiple interviews with different people in a row. I advise you always talk a short break between the interviews even you feel you don’t need one. The next interviewer may already waiting outside the meeting room, but you should still take the chance to ask to use the washroom and have a cup of water. It is reasonable request and no one expect to test the endurance of the candidate. Having a break not only unwind your stress level such that you will perform better in the following interview, the break is also a good chance to leave a good first impression to the interviewer. The interviewer probably would have to walk you to the washroom or the water cooler. The interview has not officially start at that point, the interviewer is in more relaxing state of mind and his is less critical on the conversation. You can ask some basic information about the interviewer, such as how long he is working in the company or you can make some generic comments about the office environment. It is easier to get the interview connect with you personally or even get him to like you in the short walk to and from the meeting room. Once the inside the meeting room, interviewer sits behind the table, he would be more self aware about his authority as the interviewer. He would keep some mental distance from the candidate and it is harder for you to impress him.

I believe in the blink theory. Most interviewer already make a initial judgment whether or not reject the candidate within the first five minutes of the interview. The interviewer just spend the reminding time of the interview to confirm his judgment. Most people with a reasonable mind would correct his judgment if new evidences surfaces that contradicts with what he currently believes, however it seems only works one way in an interview. Once the idea of rejection gets on the mind of the interview, it is really hard to shake it off. The candidate survives to the end of the interview does not imply he is hired. He still have to rank against other candidates who survives to the end. There are less competition in the ranking stage, because over three quarter of the candidates is already rejected in the interview.

If the candidate survives the first five minutes, he would still be rejected anytime in the interview if he raised a red flag to the interviewer. What clicks the red flag is difference to difference interviewer. I really hate people bluffing about their experience. At the end of the day, the red flag is just an feeling hard to quantify at first. The red flag is that the interviewer is simply saying he feels uncomfortable working with you. Once the interviewer has that uneasy feeling, he would confirm it by directing the questions in a different way. It’s surprisingly easy to find post-hoc evidences to back up the initial doubt. It may not sound very scientific, but the interviewer is a human and that’s how psychology works. It is a human making the hire or no-hire decision at the end of day.

Whom to hire?

After 3 weeks of interview, we have narrowed down to two candidates for a new grad position. Both of them have good enough, but not superb, technical skills. Both of them have good evaluation from previous co-op work term with my company. Both of them seems hard working. One of them is smarter than the other. He works very fast, maybe too fast. He does not think about the solution thoroughly before jumping into the conclusion. He has confidence on herself but sometimes having trouble realizing her own problem. The less smart one has more patient and seems more obedience. You can instruct him to finish the work and he will simply follow the order. Among the interviewers, we have different opinions on whom to hire.

My friend has really bad experience from working with someone has similar character as the smarter candidate. The project was going fine in the beginning, but due to the lack of foresight, it blew up big time close to the end. He spent lots of time to clean up the mess. He was burned pretty bad, so he is hesitate to hire anyone who may turn out being the same. Obviously, my friend’s gut feeling him to reject the the smarter candidate.

On the other hand, I don’t think that is a big problem. I remember I was kind of like that when I first came out of school. It takes time and experience to learn the importance of doing somethings right instead of getting something done quickly. I found it annoying to work with someone who only know how to follow instructions. I think given proper mentoring and guidance, the smarter candidate should turn out to be fine. I found nothing particularily wrong with the less smart candidate, but my gut feeling is the smarter one has more potential.

The idea solution is we come across another candidate who we both like, so we don’t have to limit our choices from these two. We have agreement in rejecting many other unqualified candidates and we sort of have the same idea about the ideal candidate. Somehow, choosing between these two candidates is a tough decision. Maybe we should simply don’t hire both of them. My interview philosophy is better to miss a good person than hiring the wrong person. You will never able to find out how good the good person you missed, but the wrong person will stick around in the company for a long time.

Interview from a different perspective

Contrary to the hiring freeze, my department is hiring new people, both new graduate and engineer position. I have been spending lots of my time doing interview in the past two weeks. I haven’t went to any interview for many years. This time, I am sitting on the other side of the interview table and that gives me lots of insights about interview.

My manager wants to hire potential super stars, but unfortunately none of the candidates I had interviewed so far even come close. My goal is more moderate: don’t hire the wrong people. Once someone is hired as a full time, it is really hard to get rid of him, especially if he is a talker than a doer. I found many interviewee don’t really get the idea about interview. Interview is not a quiz nor a speech, you don’t get any points for merely answering the questions right or talking a lot about yourself. Interview is more like a marketing presentation of selling yourself with an interactive Q&A session. The interviewer wants to find out whether you are the right fit for the job, asking question is just the mean. I haven’t met any candidate who can look beyond the words of questions, able to answer not just the answer but also the intention of the question.

The more people I interview, the more I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s blink theory. An average interview is an hour long, I can almost make a call for the candidate after the first few questions. Then I just have to spend the rest of the time to confirm my judgment. Having an impressive resume usually means nothing, but having a not impressive resume fails right away. Sometimes I can smell something fishy just by looking at the resume. In one resume, someone actually put down he had wrote 200000+ lines of code form his 8 years of work experience. I wonder what kind of person would bother to keep track of how many lines of he wrote. It turns out my suspicious is right, this guy claims he know a lot more than he actually knows. I guess most people bluff in his resume, but it looks really bad if you get caught bluffing. One candidate claims he has UNIX experience and he boosted that he installs Linux at home for fun. Then I ask him what Linux distribution he used and he couldn’t even answer this simple question.

Another problem I found is many candidates answer the question with the word “we”. When I asked about his previous work experience, he always response with “we” did this, “we” did that. I am not hiring the whole project team, I am not interested what your team did, I am only interested in knowing your contribution to the team. I often have to waste lots of time to grill the candidate to find the exact information I need. It usually turn out he had only work on some very small portion in the project. You can always tell whether someone is describing someone else work or his own work. If he gain the experience first hand, he will usually answer with some insights. When a candidate talks about his most challenging debugging experience, the bugs seems very complicate but it turns out what he did was only passing the log file to the designer. One candidate really annoys me that he seems practice his interview very well and remember the model answers by heart. Whenever I ask a question deviate from his resume, he will simply ignore my question and return to reading out from his scripts.

I found quality of the new graduate is worse than the time when I graduated. Most of the new grads could not answer simple digital design questions, like how to make an OR gate from a 2 to 1 MUX, how to draw the state diagram of a simple door bell circuit. None of them write program as hobbies and they can’t tell the difference between C and C++ other than reciting the textbook definition. When I was in school, most of my friends are computer geeks. I wonder is it because we start our hiring process too late, so all the good students are already hired or is it true that the brightest kids no longer enroll in engineering after the dot.com bubble.


I have been doing lots of interviews recently.  My project is half way and it is very behind in the schedule.  How do we get into this mess in the first place?  As usual it is bad management decision.  Somehow we underestimate the complexity of the chip and largely overestimate the productivity of Indian contractors.  The only way to stop the project from slipping further is adding more resource.  When we first move our operation to Indian, one of the promised advantage is we will be able to get as many engineers as we need.  Never believe any sales pitch, especially the sales pitch of Indian contracting firms.  Wipro basically runs out of qualified engineers that meets our requirement.  Indian contractors is the casue of the mess, it would be repeating the same mistake to hire more of them.  This time we are hiring N. America contractors.

The project is in pretty bad shape, so we are approved to hire 10 engineers.  To fill those positions, we have to do lots of interviews.  I guess my boss is too busy to interview all of them, so I am helping him to interview the candidates.  I did mostly phone interviews since most of the candidates are from the East Coast.  I even have an interview with someone from Israel.  I kinda act like the first line of defense, screening the qualification of the interviewees before pasting them to my boss for 2nd round interview.  My role is to preform technical interview, trying to determine whether the guy knows enough to be productive.  Since I am doing phone interview, I can’t ask very detail technical question because it may require some writing and drawing.  I found asking what challenges the candidate had in his previous project is very effectively in judging his level of expertise.  The more experience the person has, the challenge is usually more complicate.  Sitting in the other side of the table gives me new insights.  The questions asked by the Interviewer always have a certain purpose.  A successful interviewee should look beyond the factual question and try to give answer in a way that satisfies what the interviewer is looking for.