Why tech interviews are different than you think

The questions you should be asking potential hires

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When you think about technical interviews, you probably think of whiteboards and algorithms, code writing and geek talk. And while this may be a part of the interview, it should be a fairly small part.

I wanted to think the tech interview was a place to showcase your technical chops, but as I learned from others, it became apparent that the technical abilities were assessed elsewhere, even before the interview took place.

As I interviewed people for my recent course, I was surprised-but-not-surprised to hear people who interview and hire technical people say that the main thing they interview for, and listen for, is cultural and team fit.

What does that mean? The interviewers I spoke with were in agreement that an interview isn’t necessarily the best way to assess technical ability. You should vet candidates’ skills and technical knowledge elsewhere—look at their resume and portfolio beforehand. Send them sample technical assignments and see how their skills stack up before you get them in the door.

So, can you even ask technical questions in a technical interview? Absolutely! However, here’s what you should be listening for and what you should be asking potential hires in a technical interview:

1.  “And how did you like that?”

Ken Chase, a QA expert, shared his favorite interview question because it allows you to learn about the attitude of the technologist. This is a question you can add to almost any question to gauge the outlook of the interviewee. Perhaps they are a great technologist, but if they didn’t ‘like’ delivering the solution, or working with QA, or thought the users were incompetent, their negative attitude might come out as they answer this question. The key here is that you are listening for their attitude, and determining if that is an attitude you want on your team (and representing you).

2.  “Tell me about the solution to that technical problem.”  

This one was inspired by an interview where Elon Musk said he determined technical involvement and competence by using this question. Elon explained that the person who was intimately involved in the solution, and even implementation of the solution, could talk deeply and passionately about the solution. Someone who was more of an observer could talk about the problem and solution a little bit, but not as deeply or with as much passion as the person who had the deep technical abilities that eventually solved the problem.

3.  “What have your managers done in the past that you did not like?”

This is another Ken Chase questions that needs to be asked at the right time in the interview. When you have made the candidate comfortable, and they feel like you are buddies (to a degree), they will be more open with you. Again, listen for attitude, and think about whether you welcome that disposition to your team. Is it a can-do outlook, or is it one of blaming and complaining? Whatever it is, it’s safe to assume that you’ll see that temperament again, if you choose to hire the person.

As you can gather from these three questions, you shouldn’t be listening for how fast someone can code, how knowledgeable they are about any particular language or which technical certs they have. You should be listening for attitude and thought process. You want to understand how they think about – and treat – others. You want to know how they approach seemingly unsolvable problems, and possibly uncomfortable problems that involve character and integrity.

Again, by the time you have the candidate in front of you, you should have already vetted their technical capabilities. Once you know they can technically do the job, then you bring them in to determine whether they are the right hire to add to your team. It’s a lot easier to hire the right attitude than spend time trying to make a wrong fit become a contributing member of your team. You can tech technical, but you can’t teach attitude.

Learn more about how to conduct an effective tech interview with this course: The Successful Technical Interview for Interviewers.

Contributor

Jason Alba

is founder and creator of JibberJobber.com. He is a Pluralsight author of multiple courses on job search, career management and personal branding. You can find all his courses on his Pluralsight author page.