Management, People

Stop Using Pre-Scripted Questions in an Interview

Stop_sign_pageOver my career, I’ve hired over 50 direct reports and been involved in the hiring process for over 150 other people.  For the most part, all of these hires ended up being good people and great employees. Sure, there were a couple bad hires in there but I’d like to think my track record is pretty good mostly because I approached each interview as a conversation rather than a list of questions.

Many of these hires were technical people that filled roles as engineers, data scientists, trainers, technical support, consulting and sales roles.  I’ve seen (and hired) the gamut of roles throughout my career so I think I’m in a position to say the following:

Please…PLEASE…stop using pre-scripted question forms.

Please stop walking into an interview with a list of questions that are you are going to ask one after another. Please stop going down a list of ‘required’ questions that you got from HR or from the internet.

For example, I was hiring for a position way back in my earliest days of my career. During the phone interview, the hiring manager spent 30 minutes going line by line down a page full of pre-scripted questions (e.g., Tell me a bout a time you were creative, Give me an example of how you’ve been a leader, etc etc).  The interview was a very halting, non-interactive process that was painful.   It was also a process that made me realize I had no interest in every working for that company and that manager.  Side note: My response to the “tell me about a time you were creative…” was “…last time I interviewed someone, I came up with my own questions.”

If you only ask a set of pre-scripted questions, you are doing yourself and your interviewee a huge disservice.  You aren’t allowing them to be themselves and you aren’t allowing your own personality to come out during the interviewing process.  I realize there might some companies that require a certain set of questions to be asked during the hiring process. I’m OK with that as long as the hiring manager takes their time to ask their own questions and have a conversation with the person they are interviewing. That conversation needs to be a real conversation that touches on all aspects of the role you are interviewing for.

For example, take a look at this list of questions for data scientists.  There’s some great questions on there about the technical aspects of ‘doing’ data science but I’d lose my mind if I were sitting through an interview with those questions being asked of me.  Many of those questions are what google and stackexchange is for.  Sure, you want to hire a technically competent data scientist but sitting down with a list of questions like that isn’t the only way (or even the best way) to do it.

Rather than use that list as-is, a good hiring manager would use that list as a baseline to try to build a ‘road’ to try to lead a candidate down.  Rather than ask questions like “What is latent semantic indexing? What is it used for? What are the specific limitations of the method?” why not get the candidate talking about their recent projects and try to lead them down a road that talks about the approaches the took, the analysis methods they used and the decisions they made in how they approached the data?

Pre-scripted interview questions are great to give you ideas on what topics you want to cover, but make the interview your own. Don’t use the list as a crutch…have a conversation with the person you are interviewing…don’t just lob questions at them.


About Eric D. Brown, D.Sc.

Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. is a data scientist, technology consultant and entrepreneur with an interest in using data and technology to solve problems. When not building cool things, Eric can be found outside with his camera(s) taking photographs of landscapes, nature and wildlife.
View all posts by Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. →