How many hours can you afford to spend on a single candidate? It’s no secret that job interviews are time consuming for all parties involved. Yet, I’m happy to share a few trade secrets when it comes to hiring.
In our case, we are still a small company (now about ten people + PhD and master students, for long-term research topics) and hiring mainly tech talent. Therefore, there is always a tech-related interview with very specific technical questions, but always as a second step — with all candidates who pass the first step — a short phone call with the CEO.
Candidates we are interested in are set to go through the first screening process with me. I usually start by scheduling a 10 – 15-minute call with the applicant. Our tech team's time is as valuable as mine, so I prefer to spend these few minutes and hear what the candidate says, versus having our machine learning engineer or head of development screen the candidate for an hour of their precious time because feeling obliged to go through the whole process.
First, I start with their CV. After having seen more than 10, 000 job applications and cover letters in my life, it takes me less than one minute to scan their whole professional career in a few pages. To me, one page is a perfect size for a CV, or a maximum of two pages. I personally don't like it when a CV is too well-designed unless it’s for a design-related position. I prefer a very clean copy that’s well-formatted, with short sentences of descriptions. I would never hire a candidate whose CV has at least one typo. I do understand that grammar errors can occur, especially if the candidate is not an English native speaker. Nevertheless, I expect that the CVs are proofread before hitting ‘send’.
There are many things that simply can't be put on a CV. The candidate may be perfect on paper, but missing detrimental qualities which can lead to unfortunate circumstances. This is why a short phone call is required at the beginning of the selection process. It is also important to see how the candidate handles scheduling. Before the first call, I would quickly scan their email correspondence with us. For me, it’s best if the candidate can easily adapt to the times we suggest for the short phone call. If the candidate calls in sick (too sick to talk on a phone?) or moving calls more than once, our own hiring data shows that it’s not a good sign.
Here are some of my trade secrets in assessing a job interview with a candidate during this first important call.
Secret 1: It’s not about talking, it’s about listening.
I usually divide the phone call into a few distinctive parts. My natural flow is to ask the candidate my questions first. Then I talk a bit about our company, then listen to the questions the candidate might have for me. I start by asking two seemingly dull questions such as, “Are you currently employed?” and “What is your notice period like?”
Surprisingly, these two simple questions can often lead to a longer monologue on the candidate’s behalf. If a candidate is emotional about his or her current or past place of work, I consider this to be a very valuable piece of information.
I hear between the lines
Afterwards, I ask two other questions, “What product, team or company from all your previous places of work, that you were most excited to work with?” And then listen. It is important for me to learn about what makes this candidate satisfied, and what types of companies they consider themselves to be suitable for.
Usually around the time of this question, most candidates tend to relax a bit and give their answers in depth. Straight after this is the right time for me to ask an opposite question, “What is the most negative experience you had so far at work? Bad product, awful team, company, or all of the above?” And again, I continue to listen. If a candidate mentions an event which has just happened in your own company, and calls it as the most outrageous one, you can quickly deduce that the candidate most likely not to be a good fit.
The next question is, “What is the ideal company you wish to work for in three years’ time?" In my line of business, employees in startups tend to come and go quite often. Higher salary elsewhere, appreciation of a different or more structured way of doing things are the two most common reasons.
With technical folks, I usually ask if they are interested to go back to academia one day, or move into corporate research, or prefer to stay in the industry. This way I can plan on how we can support an outstanding candidate with their aspiration and plan for future roles within our company. It can also be done within our extensive network of partners, advisors and beyond. On the contrary, if the candidate has no idea how to answer this question, it usually poses a concern from my side. True story: I had candidates who arrived at their interviews with a look of absolute determination. Yet somehow, during this part of the interview, they nonchalantly mentioned that ideally in about two or three-years’ time, they'd like to have saved enough cash to retire, to drum their hearts out at a beach in Goa.
Secret 2: Keep It Short
First part of the interview shouldn't take more than ten minutes. Second part usually doesn’t take too long either. I would tell the candidate about our company, what we do, how we do it and most importantly why we do it. And describe the role we are looking to fill. Ideally, the candidate has already checked our social media and website so that this part can be kept to 1-2 minutes max. Afterwards, I would ask the candidate if they have any questions. Usually there are very few (or none) left.
If the candidate has other questions which are not related to the salary, I consider it as a good sign. I will then ask myself the candidate about their expectations regarding a salary. I prefer a nonspecific answer mentioning their last salary and some ballpark to maneuver. For example, their last salary was USD 72K/annually and their preferred new salary would be between USD 72 – 80K is a very acceptable answer. From my end, I will then either proceed or not proceed to another round of interviews. This time in person, with myself and other team members, or for tech talent, a technical in-depth interview.
Secret 3: Give a Task to Do
The last part of the process is just as important: a task. Any type of task. With technical or design talent it’s rather easy but how do you assess a marketer? Nevertheless, a completed task will tell a lot more about the candidate. How well do they stick to the deadline? How is the formatting of the copy? Any additional supporting materials provided? We usually ask them how long it took to prepare the task. If more than three hours, it is a great sign. We like if the candidate is committed, thorough and have done some research on the topic prior to completing the task.
Their ‘why’ is just as important
Why software engineering? Or marketing? Why did you, Bob, decide to become a software engineer in the first place? Or machine learning engineer? Why a designer or a marketer? This very simple question can lead to very unexpected answers. Some mention stories from childhood. Some appoint the influence of friends or mentors. Others cannot find themselves easily answering this important question. Again, could be an interesting piece of information to add to the whole portrait of the candidate.
Secret 4: After the interviews
I may be old-fashioned but I really like it when candidates thank me for my and my colleagues' time after the first call or the interviews with the team. Especially in the form of a polite email, preferable together with some after thoughts and observations – on the company, the product or the team. It is a form of mutual respect, as we also invest quite some time into the preparation for the interviews and discussion, on whether or not the candidate is a good fit for us. Sometimes I specifically ask the candidate, should they catch my interest, to write me an email after the interviews and give me their feedback. Any format of interaction could serve as an additional filter, or a reason for concern or an information source on our improvement as a company.
Obviously, if you are reading this article and planning to apply to Nanos any time soon, the set of questions will be frequently updated!