Interviewing, but better

Posted on: 3 May 2023

Interviewing has to be one of those universal activities no one enjoys. Whether you’re the interviewer or the interviewee, there’s a shared dread involved with being on show for 30, 60, 90 minutes. I’ve come to learn being on both sides of the fence that an interview is as much an audition for the company as it is for the prospective employee.

Regular exposure and practice can get you someway to the process feeling more natural, maybe even enjoyable. But as an interviewee, unless you’re interviewing regularly - which probably isn’t a great sign - stress, awkwardness, inauthenticity are all feelings you’re likely to encounter. So how do we fix it?

I recently came across Adam Wathan’s new podcast Hackers Incorporated. I’ve followed Adam for many years, from his earlier work on Laravel and collection pipelines, to his SaaS building in public, to his more recent work in his company and CSS framework product: Tailwind CSS.

In episode 3 of Hackers Incorporated Adam likens the process of running your business to being in a band. There are so many great metaphors here and many ring seem to ring true to me, but one in particular, around interviewing captured my attention.

Don’t interview people, audition them.

It would seem ridiculous when looking for a new guitarist for your band to grill applicants about their musical history and past performances in other bands. Sure, a cursory couple of opening screening questions wouldn’t go amiss, but fundamentally, you care about how they play. And more importantly, what the chemistry is like between them and you. And although most tech jobs are not akin to playing guitar in a band, the parallels are there.

When hiring for a developer, we want to know how they think and approach problems. How they go about tackling a challenge. How they riff and bounce off other developers. What they enjoy about their work. You may be able to wheedle out a sense of this in a question and answer format. But to really know you’ve got to put them in a situation they’ll find themselves in daily.

When hiring for new Tailwind workers, Adam sets up a series of 1-to-1 pairing sessions with various members of the team. Often this involves hacking on a technology neither participant has prior experience with. This levels the playing field, dims the spotlight, and provides a semi-real world situation in which the prospective employee can show what they’re about and eases the pressure to perform present in most interview scenarios.

“Let’s problem solve together and see how productive it feels” struck a chord. It’s so hard to judge chemistry and fit within a team off the back of a couple of interviews. Aptitude can be tested with an old fashioned coding test, to an extent; but there’s little replacement for simulating a day-to-day scenario than pair-programming with no explicit agenda.

Changing the dynamic so the interviewer is the lesser clued-up one flips the old-fashioned dynamic of an interview on its head. It’s an opportunity to see how the candidate teaches and empathises with your lack of knowledge.

There’s so much to learn and absorb when learning with someone. Did you enjoy the exercise? Did it feel natural? Did you keep up with one another? Was there a good back-and-forth? All these are things you’d look for when auditioning for a new guitarist for your band.

Tags: jobs coding