CXO

How to conduct a technical interview: 5 questions to ask

Technical interviews are meant to demonstrate a candidate's skills, but many IT staffers are not adept at conducting them. Here's what to include, and what to avoid.

Every new technical hire is a chance to improve your team's culture and performance. But many tech workers are not familiar with the ways to best conduct a technical interview, experts say.

Though every company conducts these interviews differently, a few trends emerge, according to Kevin Ferguson, CEO and founder of ‎Craftlogic Software. Often, the process takes the form of a "whiteboard interview," in which candidates must work out problems quickly in front of an audience of a few current employees. "That scares people, especially if you're asked to write a program with people standing over you. That's not normally how you write software," Ferguson said.

Other times, developers will come into a room one at a time and all ask the candidate questions. "Sometimes I've seen people ask questions they don't even know the answer to, because they want to appear in front of their boss that they're really smart," Ferguson said. "Other times, they won't ask many technical questions at all."

SEE: 8 skills programmers must master before a technical interview

These methods often fail to allow job candidates to fully demonstrate their knowledge, and may lead companies to overlook strong talent, Ferguson said. "You need to treat this as important as anything else you do in your business," Ferguson said. "You need to have a very systematic, methodical plan as to how they will find and interview these people, so they know they're getting a consistent number of hires and consistent quality of hires."

Tech leaders should understand that it's currently a seller's market when it comes to jobs, said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond. "Because of that, there's always the risk that if technical interviews get too involved or too lengthy, your best candidates may just decide to walk away, because they don't want to go through it," Hammond said.

Before bringing in candidates, tech teams should meet and discuss openly what they're hiring for and what that person needs to be able to do, and then construct questions that everyone agrees will help let them know that the person can do the job, Ferguson said. And every candidate should be asked the same questions—not counting some that are improvised, based on what they share—to more easily compare their skills.

"You need to have a plan in place. You need to understand what you're looking for. You need to have questions you have written down that you know the answer to, and you're trying to get answers back from that person that make you think they can do the job," Ferguson said.

Master developers and managers at high-performance organizations offer two pieces of advice when it comes to creating interview questions for technical talent, according to a Forrester report: First, determine the candidate's motivation, and then, test their level of mastery and how well it fits the needs of the team you're assembling.

Here are five questions to consider asking a candidate during a technical interview, and five things to avoid.

SEE: Interview questions: Platform developer (Tech Pro Research)

1. What type of work do you want to be doing five years from now?

This question can tell you what direction the candidate wants his or her career to move in, Hammond said. The interviewer can probe their answer to understand their motivation: For example, if their goal is to become a software architect, is it because they want to make more money, or because they want to manage others?

2. Do you write code outside of work?

"It gives you a little bit of an insight into whether or not this is just a job that they come and leave, or whether they really have a passion for technology," Hammond said.

Passion and interest are often more important than having a few more skills, Hammond said. "If they're willing to learn on their own, then a year down the road when we're switching from Java to JavaScript, or we've got a new front end framework, that engaged person who's investing in their own skill development is going to be much more likely to roll with the punches and learn what they need to know to get the job done," he added.

Most developer projects today include a certain amount of "We'll figure it out as we go," Hammond said. "We need to be adaptable, so the ability to assimilate, adapt, and use new technology becomes just as important as what they already know."

3. What's the best (and worst) software project that you've been part of?

This is meant to gain information about a candidate's successes and failures, Hammond said. "If somebody's not willing to tell you about the time they were on a screwed up team, or that things didn't work out the way they thought, and how they reacted to that and survived, then they're feeding you a glass-half-full perspective on what they've done," Hammond said. "Because anybody that's been in the industry for a certain period of time has had those trouble projects, or failures, or dysfunctional teams.

"To me, that one's a real sign of how honest this person is in terms of assessing both their own strengths and weaknesses, and the depth of experience that they have on real world software projects," Hammond said.

4. What role do you play in quality assurance?

Certain developers have an attitude of "I write code, I don't do tests," or an attitude that their responsibility ends when the coding is complete. "To me that is an increasingly antiquated school of thinking," Hammond said. "On agile teams or cross-functional teams, the willingness to be able to test what you've written and write your own test cases is increasingly important."

"That's one of those questions that shows me, am I dealing with somebody that's got an old-school way of thinking when it comes to process?" Hammond said. "Or are they willing to do what it takes and get cross trained to help a small, fast-running team meet its goals?"

5. Are you on LinkedIn?

While the answer is likely "yes," this question can get at a candidate's network, Hammond said. "All developers are linked to other developers by a few folks," Hammond said. "Word of mouth is important in this particular business."

Overall, "you're looking for technical talent, but also a certain amount of flexibility," Hammond said. "We've got a new front end framework every six months, we got from mobile to IoT, and we've got AI and NLP on the horizon. If you can't hire developers that are flexible and willing to evolve as the technology scene evolves, then you're hiring for the past, not the future."

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Programmer (Tech Pro Research)

What to avoid in a technical interview

1. The resume interview

Some interviewers only go through a candidate's resume, asking questions about past projects, but nothing more. "I'm not really hiring somebody for what they did, I'm hiring them for something I want them to do," Ferguson said.

2. Failing to focus

"I've been in interviews where they'll end up spending half the time talking about the football game over the weekend," Ferguson said. "That's a problem." Train your interviewers, and make sure they know what questions to ask, he added.

3. Taking up too much time

As mentioned above, many tech job candidates have a number of other job options, Hammond said. An overly long or complicated interview may cause them to take your company out of the running.

4. Grilling candidates

"You need to be able to ask basic questions that are needed to do the job," Ferguson said. "Sometimes they'll ask these really complex questions because they think it's an important way to see how they think. In reality, it doesn't help them get the software developed any faster or better."

Bigger companies tend to have the attitude, "This person wants to come work for us, let's grill the hell out of them and see if they survive, and if so, we might hire them," Ferguson said. "All that does is intimidate the person and leave them with a bad impression of the company."

5. Relying too heavily on coding skills

Certain basic technical questions are necessary to ensure the candidate didn't misrepresent their credentials, Hammond said. "Once you get beyond that level, it's more about watching the problem solving process than anything, in my opinion," he added. Sometimes tech teams show an over reliance on pure coding ability, without enough attention paid on assessment of software engineering experience, or skills working with teams, Hammond said.

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Image: iStockphoto/ronstik

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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