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Summary:

If Sergey Brin applied for an engineering position at Google today, would he pass the requisite phone screening? Don’t be so sure: While he might look good on paper, he’d probably have to brush up on his Python programming skills first. Even if he passed, would […]

If Sergey Brin applied for an engineering position at Google today, would he pass the requisite phone screening? Don’t be so sure: While he might look good on paper, he’d probably have to brush up on his Python programming skills first. Even if he passed, would it tell his potential employer anything useful about the value he could bring to the company?

Most engineers are familiar with the initial phone interview: a short, technical interview prepared by the prospective employer, and used to verify that the programmer meets the minimum technical qualifications of the job. Lots of employers think these screenings are a quick way to weed out bad engineers, but personally, I refuse to do them. Here are three reasons those looking to hire the best engineers should reconsider the “phone screen” interview altogether and jump right to a full-length phone or in-person interview:

1. Recruiters and other non-technical people typically don’t understand the questions they ask, and that leads to a one-way conversation. In addition, questions are often stated incorrectly, or without the originally intended context and as such suffer from lost-in-translation syndrome. Correctly evaluating a candidate over the phone takes longer than a typical “screening” interview, and should be done by equally tech-savvy individuals on the employer’s side.

2. From the perspective of an engineer, if an employer asks a lot of trivial coding or algorithm questions, it usually means the job they’re hiring for isn’t going to be that interesting (activate the big-company-coding-job radar). Phone interviewers do occasionally ask deeper questions, but given the limited time of a screening interview, and the inability of a candidate to present code or design diagrams, they are often forced to ask trivial ones.

3. Intelligence assessments can be a good indicator of talent, but don’t waste time asking them to solve puzzles pulled off the Internet: Look at SAT or GRE scores, school transcripts, or some other substantial proof of intelligence (or lack thereof). This kind of background on a candidate can usually be found without the need for a phone interview.

Only good engineers can accurately measure the skills of other good engineers, and it takes a lot of probing in an in-person, back-and-forth conversation to get there. A meaningful engineering interview has to be conducted in person, with multiple engineers, and over the course of several hours (if not an entire day). It’s worth the effort.

Evan Paull is a software engineer and a startup consultant.

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  1. There’s another big pitfall to phone screenings and interviews in general. I can’t count how many times I’ve dealt with engineers who can talk a good game but for one reason or another couldn’t do the job and had to be fired. And the reverse is true: plenty of nerds are very good at their work but not good at selling themselves. I’ve sometimes come away from an interview realizing that I inadvertently mischaracterized my abilities or experience.

    It’s not unlike politics in the television age: Lincoln would never be elected president today, and Washington would probably not do well in the TV debate lightning round.

  2. Rehash : Phone screen « DataPixel Sunday, April 26, 2009

    [...] : Phone screen Great read on phone-screening part of most of the interview process [...]

  3. HR departments should not be involved in the process of hiring engineers period. They should hand over all CV’s to the hiring department or team.

    Passion for the topic paired with ability is much better than hiring a day coder with a great education background.

  4. I beg to differ. Phone screens are a must: you can’t have your people spend all of their time interviewing, and weeding out candidates that aren’t going to make it through the in-person interviews anyway makes a lot of sense. Moreover, an efficient phone screening process lets give a chance to so-so resumes – for example, where the candidate has potential but not the kind of experience you’re looking for.

    It’s just a matter of how you conduct the phone screen. In our startup they’re conducted by engineers who understand the questions they’re asking (they wouldn’t have been work here if they hadn’t solved them in their own phone screener after all…). Moreover, they’re not limited in time – they could take 15 minutes if the candidate clearly knows nothing (or is clearly a superstar), or a full hour.

    In short, think of a phone screener as a first technical interview that just happens to be conducted over the phone, and saves everyone some time by not requiring the candidate to come all the way over to fail.

  5. I was the CTO at a startup and I did the phone screenings myself (a HR person would do the first cull based on resumes). I had a checklist of questions in increasing order of difficulty, and skipped questions when it became clear they were outside a candidate’s reach. Some questions were mini case studies. If the candidate was too weak to consider, I would cut the interview short. This is an invaluable technique for understanding the breadth of an applicant’s skills. When an applicant passed the gauntlet, he or she would face peer interviews in person, and I based on their feedback I would have an interview with them where I would not so much grill them as pitch the company to them and get them excited at the opportunity of working for us.

    This process yielded a very high quality team, and most of my hires said one of the reasons they joined us (they had many alternatives in a hot job market) was because of the professionalism of our interview process and the fact we did not pester them with inane puzzle questions. Of course, if an HR drone had conducted the interviews, the result would have been the opposite – HR’s job is to do screening that does not require contact with the prospective employee and handle administrative details, not the substantial parts of the hiring process.

    1. I completely agree with Fazal. Evan, your assessment and advice is seriously flawed — and just bad advice. Phone screening by __qualified individuals__ is the best way to optimize resources, especially within the resource constrained confines of many startups. Sounds like it may be more based on a personal bad experience than any constructive advice to startups and other companies looking to find the right candidates.

      Jeremy Horn
      The Product Guy
      http://tpgblog.com

  6. I’m with Fazal – and also see Joel Spolsky’s Guerilla Guide to Interviewing http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/GuerrillaInterviewing3.html

    There is absolutely value in a phone screening process – but I agree that the value needs to be provided by participation from technical team members.

    My team has used phone screening to successfully and quickly screen out bad choices, and identify super ones, to bring in for in-person interviews.

    I agree though that I wouldn’t find value in having a non-techie simply ask a list of prewritten questions and record the answer without knowing what either the questions or answers mean.

  7. I’m with Fazal – and also see Joel Spolsky’s Guerilla Guide to Interviewing http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/GuerrillaInterviewing3.html

    There is absolutely value in a phone screening process – but I agree that the value needs to be provided by participation from technical team members.

    My team has used phone screening to successfully and quickly screen out bad choices, and identify super ones, to bring in for in-person interviews.

    I agree though that I wouldn’t find value in having a non-techie simply ask a list of prewritten questions and record the answer without knowing what either the questions or answers mean.

  8. Good post but I am a fan of the initial phone screen. I do not, however, have non-technical folks perform the phone screens, they are either done by myself or one of my senior engineers. Otherwise, the value of the phone screen is greatly reduced.

    If you’re interested, check out my latest blog post where I offer other advice on how to interview, and hire, great developers:

    http://johnfmoore.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/how-to-interview-and-hire-great-developers/

    John Moore
    http://twitter.com/JohnFMoore

  9. interviews save time and money when conducted on the phone. I would rather go through a one hour question and answer session with an interviewer than have to drive out to an interview and waste my gas, time and money when many times the reason you didn’t get the job has nothing to do with the interview.

  10. Ideally, vetting potential hires would involve having them talk in detail about what they’ve worked on, by walking through code or other work products, etc. This often isn’t possible for many reasons, but it would probably be pretty illuminating. Getting more detailed info from references would also be great, but also doesn’t happen for multiple reasons.

    I was emailed a coding test by a small company that I took as an insult because: it was surprisingly complex; they weren’t Google; and I wasn’t right out of college.

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