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.

Hiring the modern IT Security Professional

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

I just finished reading Rafal Los’ piece on the Enterprise CIO Forum titled Hiring information security talent a challenge.

Its a good piece that highlights the difficulty of hiring quality IT profiessionals int he security space.  In the article, Rafal highlights two key areas that he argues are causing the challenges…they are:

  • The lack of technical talent
  • The lack of business-savvy analysts

On the lack of technical talen, Rafal says:

CISOs I’ve spoken to primarily complain about the lack of skilled technical information security workers out there to hire.  The ones that are left are the low-level talent or fresh-out-of-college persons with only a command of the ‘concepts’ of security rather than the practice.

On the lack of business-savvy analysts, he writes:

When the CISO does find a technically qualified candidate the big question becomes does that candidate have the business savvy to be more than a blunt instrument?  What is critical for many security organizations is finding people who can apply security and risk principles to the business, and understand the business is the driver for security, not the other way around.

While I don’t disagree with either of these challenges, I’d also argue that another challenge facing many CISO/CIO and IT groups is much more fundamental. That challenge is the challenge of developing your people.

If you don’t train and develop your folks…and your competitors don’t train their folks…then of course there will be a shortage of good folks in the future.

Rafal goes on to offer the following solutions:

  • Find a good recruiter to help find the right talent.
  • Outsource/offload non-business critical work so your security people can focus on critical security tasks.
  • Increase incentives to keep people on your team
  • Work with HR to have them help you find talent within your organization.

While I agree these approaches are useful, there’s a few things that cause me to stop and think.

First…finding a good recruiter who can help you find the ‘right’ talent in the Security space is probably harder than finding the right security professionals. That said, its an ideal approach if you can find someone who has transitioned from IT Professional to Recruiter and can really dive into the backgrounds of candidates .

Increasing incentives will always help…but many times its not the ‘pay’ that drives people away. There are many reasons that drive people to change roles/companies. A few of these reasons (from my experience) are: lack of leadership; lack of advancement opportunities, lack of training opportunities, lack of challenges/new technologies….and there are many more.  So…saying that Increasing incentives will help solve the hiring challenge isn’t exactly true.  While it can help in some instances, it won’t help in all of them.

Rafal’s last point of working with HR to have them help find talent in the organization is a great idea. At every place I’ve ever worked, there have been people working outside of IT that had the right skills and mentality to work inside IT but they could never quite find the “in-road” to make the transition.     If the CIO and IT group can put a program in place to build up an internal (and external) identification program, the hiring challenge will be become a good deal easier.

Lastly..hiring for IT has always been a challenge.  There will always be the conundrum of hiring ‘new’ folks (those straight out of college) or hiring experienced folks. At the end of the day, its one of the many challenges that the CIO must face and find ways to work around.

Image Credit: escher_relativity by By williamcromar on flickr

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

Advice on hiring from The Onion’s CEO

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 05:  A copy of the Onion i...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Do you know what The Onion is? If not, it’s a satirical newspaper and website that is hysterical…you should read it.

I’ve been a big fan of The Onion for years…but I didn’t know it was a 160-employee company…that’s huge for what I thought was just a funny website/newspaper.

I ran across a NY Times interview with the CEO of The Onion…I had to read it because, well…its an interview with the CEO of The Onion for goodness sake.   Gotta be some funny stuff there right?

Well…I was surprised.  Nothing funny about it….there’s some excellent leadership tips here.

The CEO, Steve Hannah, has a hell of a head on his shoulders.

The interview, published in Business Day’s Corner Office series under the title “If Plan B Fails, Go Through the Alphabet“, is wonderful.

My favorite part of the interview was the 2nd & 3rd question/answers:

Q. How do you interview job candidates?

A. I have two basic questions in mind: “Can you do the job, and would I enjoy spending time with you?” I want to know where you came from. I want to know how many children are in your family. I want to know where you fit in and what your role was. I want to know what your mother and your dad did, what influence they had on you. I find that, without overstepping my boundaries, most people like to talk about themselves.

Q. What is it you want to know?

A. I want to know whether you were a kid who was entitled, whether you worked hard, whether you excelled at school, whether you held summer jobs, how hard you had to work, whether you got the jobs yourself, whether you got promoted. I want to know if you’ll work hard. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I want people who really want to work hard. And I absolutely loathe a sense of entitlement.

Excellent stuff.   Nowhere does he say that he wants to know what school they went to or how much margin they made their last company.  He wants to know who they are and what they can do.  Period.  My kind of hiring approach.

Jump over and read it for some extremely good leadership insights.

Experience vs ability

Jeff Attwood over at Coding Horror wrote a great article titled “The Years of Experience Myth” that everyone should add to their ‘must read’ list.

The article discusses the use of phone screens to in the hiring process (and points to a couple of great articles on the topic) but the point of the article pertains to the trap of trying to be overly specific in your hiring.

Jeff writes about the myth of ‘years of experience’ and how many organizations fall into the trap of trying to hire the perfect person. You know the job descriptions that require “7 years experience in J2EE in a manufacaturing environment”. An excerpt from the article is:

This toxic, counterproductive years of experience myth has permeated the software industry for as long as I can remember. Imagine how many brilliant software engineers companies are missing out on because they are completely obsessed with finding people who match– exactly and to the letter– some highly specific laundry list of skills.

Somehow, they’ve forgetten that what software developers do best is learn. Employers should be loooking for passionate, driven, flexible self-educators who have a proven ability to code in whatever language — and serving them up interesting projects they can engage with.

Emphasis mine.

Jeff’s article discusses software engineers specifically but this same issue can be found in any technical area and many other areas. I’ve talked with recruiters and organizations are filter out way too many excellent candidates. For example, the “7 years in J2EE in Manufacturing environment” sample I gave earlier is one that I saw while searching (great site btw) for this post. What does someone with 7 years in experience know that someone with 6 years experience doesn’t? Does it really matter that the J2EE experience come from the manufacturing environment?

I’m of the mindset that you hire the best person you can regardless of the number of years of experience that they have. I’m not convinced that someone with 20 years experience is a better hire than someone with 2 years. I’d rather hire the person that will get the job done. As Jeff writes:

Employers should be looking for passionate, driven, flexible self-educators who have a proven ability


Next time you go to hire someone…look at what they can do and what they have the potential to do; not what they may have done in the past.

[tags] Hiring, Experience vs ability, Coding Horror, Human Resources, Management [/tags]

If you'd like to receive updates when new posts are published, signup for my mailing list. I won't sell or share your email.