Interviewing a geek

Okay. Hold onto your chair, because this is going to surprise you. Ready? Some technical folks are geeky and awkward and they have trouble socializing and this makes them seem awkward, and nervous and it gets in the way of them communicating well, sometimes.

Are you still in your chair? Good.

Yes, I suppose that wasn’t much of an epiphany for you. Maybe you already knew this. I suppose you also know that interviews make people nervous. So, what happens when you take an already-awkward person, and put them in a tense situation? Hint: then answer is NOT “effective communication”.

Not impressed yet? Well, here is something that might actually surprise you. If you were reading this with someone from your HR department, that person might have actually fallen out of the chair. You would be looking over at the shocked and/or stunned look on her face. You think I’m kidding, don’t you.

I still remember the first time that I worked with a (non-“IT recruiter”) HR person, to interview an ERP developer. After the interview, (and the candidate had left the room), the HR person actually said “Oh my gosh! That person was so awkward!” I was thinking, “Really? He seemed very authentic to me. It actually added to his credibility.” But she followed-up with “I don’t think that is the right guy”. I was stunned by her statement.

I wish I could say that it was the only time that I ever had that conversation. Sorry, it was not. Most of the times when I have worked with a HR person, to interview geeks, the outcome was similar.

Lucky for your company, you are a superhero and your skills can be applied to anything that you focus-on. So you can help your HR people a little.

When you are interviewing a technical person, you need to do two things differently

  1. You need to set your expectations properly. You are interviewing a geek. So, expect behavior that is consistent with that type of personality. Of course, you also need to allow for variances in behavior. If your HR person doesn’t know what to expect. Maybe you should have her watch a few episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” or “Scorpion” and explain that these are the people that we are trying to find, not avoid.
  2. Adjust the interviewing process a little. Specifically, think about interviewing techniques that will work better for geeks, so you can get to the information that you really want. I’m not talking about delivering the interview in Klingon or anything. Just skip the pointless personality analysis questions and stick with the ones that will work for someone who may not be self-aware.

For example. When the candidate arrives, try to do some chit-chat that a geek will find enjoyable: “When do you think season 2 of Attack on Titan will be released?”, “Did you see the third Hobbit movie? Neither did I”, or “Can you believe this week’s story on The Daily WTF?! It was hilarious.” These are all chit-chatty bits that are guaranteed to loosen up a geek and make him feel like talking.

If your HR person throws a weird question at them, like “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”, the person will certainly get stuck in a recursive soul-searching analysis loop until they stack-overflow. If/when that happens, pull them back into the real world (IMO) with one of these happier questions:

  1. Tell me about the coolest thing that you’ve ever done with your favorite technology.
  2. Tell me about a time that you encountered a weird error and what was the solution. What’s that? It is hard to pick from the thousands of examples in your career. Please pick an arbitrary example from the last 6 months, that you could describe in 3-5 minutes. (You will almost be able to see the light bulb appear over the candidate’s head!)
  3. Tell me about the last time a server went down and what did you do to help things?
  4. What was the most recent technology that you have researched?
  5. If we used that technology here, what would you want to do with it?
  6. Name five technologies that you wish you were using right now. (and explain that there are no wrong answers). (Then follow-up with “Why those five?” The answer will certainly be “Because they are easy.” or “They are cool” or “They will make me employable”). An easy question and easy answer, will build confidence.

A few more ground rules:

  1. The person is going to want to give the “correct answer” so don’t ask questions in a manner that will lead them. For example:
    bad: “Do you like Java?” (correct answer: yes, of course). “What do you think of MS Access 2.0?” (correct answer: I love it if you do).
    good: “What was the last thing you did with Java?” or “The best thing you did with Java”. “When was the last time you used MS Access?” or “What are some features that you would add into MS Access, if you owned the source code?”
  2. At some point, the person may look at your HR person dozing-off and suddenly become extra awkward. Simply make a light joke like “I’m sorry [Mrs HR person’s name], I realize this is a bit tedious. I’m getting lots of good information and I’m nearly done.” Then smile and chuckle. Things will be back on track.
  3. If the candidate gives a dorky or embarrassing answer and starts to tailspin, just shrug it off and say “I know what you are saying. I feel that way too, sometimes”. Then try to change gears (see the list above).
  4. Keep a list of backup questions, in case things go off-track a little.
  5. You don’t need to ask all of the questions that you have prepared. After a few minutes, you might have all of the answers that you need.

Finding the right person for your team is much easier, if you use the right techniques. Good luck coaching your HR folks.

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About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
This entry was posted in Career, Lessons Learned and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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