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Looking to Hire an Engineer? 3 Reasons to Forgo the Phone Screening

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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.

25 Responses to “Looking to Hire an Engineer? 3 Reasons to Forgo the Phone Screening”

  1. Lesile Mathews

    What are your qualifications. Are you a talking head? What’s your backup to support your so called insight. Indeed, you applied to one of our jobs and google spat out this post of yours….

    You’re off my list

    • Original author is correct in his assessment!

      Now a days, most companies are simply calling candidates and wasting their time by asking stupid questions.

      Why are they doing this? They do this because they need to show their bosses that they interviewed 50 candidates and hired one. I mean why call a candidate and waste his time if you think he is not a good candidate? I would prefer companies to do their due diligence before calling candidates and wasting their time.


  2. I agree with the plethora of negative feedback on this article.

    Caution: this reaction has brutal honesty and is what Evan Paull needs to hear because no one has ever popped his bubble

    Evan Paull’s posting has serious flaws and is very dangerous advice. Firstly, a quick review of Evan’s background suggests real gaps in Evan Paull’s credibility factor. Evan provides no research in his article whatsover. In checking his qualifications for “software engineer” and “consultant” I find no educational/industry specifics; essentially anyone can “claim” to be anything, apparently. I did however find that he was never an engineer, never a consultant and currently holds no employment. In today’s rough economic times, that’s understandable. However, it makes me think…..was his posting a reaction to a rough job search…or is he writing a “factual” business article…….?

    I picked up the phone and called my connections and their connections and so forth and I did not get the brightest reaction to “Evan Paull” in the 2 places he has worked. Thus, his experience, is a sample size of 2 small, irrelevant firms that I have never heard of. However, kudos to him for posting an article that makes it seem he has 25 years of success in consulting to the stars of Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Wannabes are welcome but honest first…

    As the head of a global Fortune 50 firm’s division (I would never out my firm in these circumstances), I can state firmly, that the phone screen is a crucial method to review candidates. Phone Screens are key in sifting through applicants. HR helps to conduct background checks, post jobs and act as a liaison, however, the hiring business unit, be it in Finance, IT, Operations, etc, will always call or interview the person.

    To make vague generalizations about recruiters, etc, is irresponsible and again, makes me guess the emotional thesis of this post.Has Evan Paull been having a hard time getting past the screens? Is he bitter? Well, if he is, write the human interest piece, not some phony business consulting article that replaces a good therapy session…..

    Many recruiters were former professionals in their fields. My head of IT Recruiting was the Director of Software Architecture for a variety of large/start up firms. She soon realized she had a knack at teaming up with HR and finding excellent talent… we moved her to her new role……According to Evan Paull’s article, since her title changed, she’s useless and doesn’t know what she’s doing…Maybe we should kill her? Maybe we could spare killing her if she got a 1600…..HA!

    SAT scores? Are you serious? The top talent in today’s Finance/Government and IT sectors (and those of yesterday) plain sucked at standardized tests. Standardized tests lead to standard results. A holistic approach is the best way to go……Look at education, accomplishments, acumen, experience, persona, team skills, innovation, etc…..No one metric will ever tell you everything, ever, about anything.
    Again, no self respecting consultant should ever equate intelligence to some post-high school score.
    Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, on and on and on, would fail Evan’s psycho babble methods.

    I worry what the recruiters and big companies will see when Evan Paull applies to their jobs. A google search will bring this article up and draw red flags. Evan’s cavalier approach, in to failing to cite studies, quotes, etc, coupled with his generalizations, will keep him on the permanent unemployment rolls, even in a bright economy….This economy is heating up again……Evan, lets see where your advice takes you…. Good luck being the “software engineer startup consultant”

    Now learn to take what you dish

    • Cindy Makuen

      Yes, I agree with Dave re Evan Paull’s post….
      Bull….Pure Bull

      No studies, no references and yes, in re reading your post its plain obvious you’d make a horrible consultant….You were rejected on some ph interview and spun that around but tried to hide it and its coming out. That’s not business…that’s emotion…..That’s a feature article

      You need to reply to the negative buzz surrounding you and hence your “ideas” in this hasty post you have, Evan Paull

      Evan, what “business” (non IT) experience or education do you have? Just wondering?

  3. najeeb

    That is some bad advice there. I bring in only 10% of the people i talk with – and my interviews are technical. It saves time for everyone including the candidate —

  4. F Hunter

    What’s depressing is the mismatch in the tech industry between the goal (how to get the best people) and how it’s achieved (largely by contracting out as much of the decision as possible).

    Often the initial processing of CVs is done badly, by HR underlings who have no idea what might be relevant. In addition, HR departments ofen look at the problem in terms of “how can I reduce the number of applicants” rather than finding the best. I went through two long interviews with a large tech company, only to be told by an HR functionary that “applicants usually have to come for 5 interviews before a decision is made”. Well she got her wish, and I dropped out at that point. There’s just no way that busy people can make their excuses for 5 afternoons just on the off chance of finding a new job. Forget it, you’ll just have to find someone really desperate.

    It’s also common these days to hand off initital selection to recruitment consulants. The assumption is that these people will diligently process the list and find the best people. Well, I don’t know how to break this to you, but recruitment consultants are not technical experts. In fact, they’re something far more damaging: they are young, rapacious sales people looking for commission. They need to get someone hired (it doesn’t matter who) and move on to the next job. Guess what, they’ll probably come back in 6 months and try to churn the same person again and get more commission.

    This model does not work. It can’t. Find the courage to identify and interview your own candidates, and make your own decisions.

  5. Your author here — I want to thank the responders for starting one of the more intelligent discussions that I’ve seen from an internet post. The responses that disagree my thesis are the most interesting, I think: the creative ways that some deal with the inherent limitations of an initial phone interview and manage to extract value from it, for instance.

    Someone here mentioned that they received, as an email, a coding test from an employer. This could generate another full discussion, but let me just bring up one point: asking an engineer to complete a long coding test on their own could be painfully humiliating, depending on how you do it. Perhaps because of the current state of the economy and the flood of applicants, I’ve heard horror stories about 5+ hour paper coding tests that are required, in some cases, just to get an initial interview. If you are an employer, and you don’t understand why that might be a bad idea, talk to someone who does -now- before alienating the programmers who are already on payroll, let alone the candidates to join.

    E Paull

  6. Basically it’s a supply and demand game.

    10 years ago I didn’t want to work for Google as they were one of many ‘me too’ startups. Last year they rejected me in a stupid phone interview where I was asked just 1 puzzle – period.

    So basically, a Google interviewer (with probably 3/4 yrs of experience rejected some one with 14 yrs of experience even though I have some big employee names in resume).

    Why Facebook, Google and other hot employers are playing this game of random phone screening and reject rate as high as 80? Because they can.

    Once they fail and become some thing like SGI, they will start chasing us candidates.

    So be picky as a candidate. Ask tough questions back to the interviewer and tell them about the fallacy of their hiring process. If they are smart, they will listen. if they don’t, you have nothing to lose, as they are going to reject 80% candidates any way and hire their friends through their old connections and referral program.

  7. Louise Rubacky

    This entry makes an important point, but when HR people do screening interviews the problem extends to many arenas beyond that of engineers. It’s not the fault of HR professionals that they are required to make inquiries about jobs they know little to nothing about; their expertise lies elsewhere. Kudos to those companies who utilize their talent appropriately for the screening process.

    One other thing: really good interviewers are like really good teachers– somewhat rare.

  8. 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.

  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. John Moore

    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:

    John Moore

  11. I’m with Fazal – and also see Joel Spolsky’s Guerilla Guide to Interviewing

    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.

  12. I’m with Fazal – and also see Joel Spolsky’s Guerilla Guide to Interviewing

    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.

  13. 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.

    • 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.