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Andy Brice
Successful Software

Doug Nebeker ("Doug")

Jonathan Matthews
Creator of DeepTrawl, CloudTrawl, and LeapDoc

Nicholas Hebb
BreezeTree Software

Bob Walsh
host, Startup Success Podcast author of The Web Startup Success Guide and Micro-ISV: From Vision To Reality

Patrick McKenzie
Bingo Card Creator

How to have a technical interview

Since I seem to do everything differently, with great success, I thought I'd discuss the infamous technical interview.

A lot has been written about this. For many years we heard horror stories about manhole cover questions from Microsoft, and then from Google and others. We hear about someone having multiple phone screens, of having to fill out all sorts of paperwork including NDAs before being allowed on site, of having to pay their own interviewing (and later relocation) expenses, and of having to run through a gauntlet of interviews with smelly obnoxious self centered employees whose job is to torture them and let them know they are not good enough to work at Google or Microsoft. Then they are rejected, and a month later they get a call from a different department at the same company asking them to restart the process. Then they blog about their whole nightmare.

Google recently came clean that their whole process doesn't work and almost nothing about it had any correlation to later performance.

Google also has tens of thousands of engineers, far more than it needs for its handful of products, and they seem to be completely moribund as regards innovation lately, with Google Search, Google Maps and Google Mail still the only three things that are good stable products widely used and bringing in actual income. Those products have been around for a while and their features have not substantially changed. Just what is it most of the hot shots at Google do? It's not clear from their press releases, but the answer is obvious - they don't do anything.

In any cases, the technical interview is a failure for recruiting the best.  One thing about all these articles, you almost never see anyone talking about their positive experience in the interview. It's about the company intimidating them.

It's also a waste of time. I don't even bother with the technical interview because I already know whether or not the person is qualified because I recruited them. I know their work. I know what they do and how good they are and how there would be a place for them here doing useful work. Harassing and mocking them like Google and Microsoft do is pointless, it does nothing but leave a bad impression.

I fly people down, having my secretary do all the travel arrangements. We put them up in a very nice private hacienda, with a staff and a car. They can come down for a day, or for up to 2 weeks if they want and just hang out. While here we show them around, do day trips, get drunk, and have fun.

At some point perhaps a personality defect will stop me from making an offer, but so far everyone that comes down I already know I am going to hire them if I can. The interview is about convincing them that moving overseas is worth their while, and that they will be living in a modern country with internet access, arts, sports, recreation, and culture.

Joel had an article a few years ago that was similar. He shows candidates a good time and shows them around Manhattan, maybe they take in a show. I don't recall if he does a torture interview as well or not, I suppose that's a different part of it.


1. Know if you would hire based on talent in advance, so a technical interview is completely unnecessary.
2. Show the candidate a good time.
3. Pay all expenses and make all arrangements so they don't have to do anything but show up. Let this be a real vacation, they are taking vacation days to show up after all.
4. Respect the candidate as a human being and equal. Absolutely no games of domination are needed or helpful.

So that's how to do a technical interview if you want to attract top talent.
Scott Send private email
Monday, July 22, 2013
What you've described is an 'open day' for people you've effectively already interviewed. You've already decided you want to employ them and are now selling yourself to them.

You haven't actually answered how you decided to employ them in the first place.
Adrian Lock Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
1. phone screen first. make sure the person is a technical fit. one time I had an interview  for a DBA job,the first thing they asked me was 'do you know cobol', when I said no, they said see ya. 45 minute drive and then I had to wait. No more face to face without a phone screen first.

2. Becareful of NDAs. Contract companies call anything they give you to sign 'NDAs'. Read it first. I had one that they called an 'NDA' that said I could never, ever, ever apply to a job at this client without going through them. Did not even require them to submit me. These don't have to be legal to be enforceable. If the client doesn't want to deal with it and if it costs you money to defend. Alot of contract companies use these to 'block' candidates. Read it first. If it is a standard NDA that says 'dont tell anyone our sub-cool stuff' sign it. You won't hear anything anyway and they won't know what you say. Its meaningless. Just sign it. However, READ IT, first and make sure it really is just an NDA.

3. Anytime I have had really long interviews it was always basically different sessions of people that all basically asked me the same questions. This is the company telling itself it is being thorough. I can't speak to the google company. These two companies were google like. Both cases I ended up wanting too much money. I have come to realize that companies that have really long interviews don't pay enough.

4. get the candidates salary expectation first. Don't waste your staffs time interviewing someone if they are out of your HR departments pay scale. You have better things to do. Downside is I had an interview 6 months ago, said my salary requirement. They wanted to hire me, but wanted to pay me less. They strung me on until they found someone cheaper. Then got back to me. My salary was not a request because I had multiple offers. They wasted my time. I dont want to interview someone just to find out the company cant afford him. I have deadlines. BTW, that company got back to me 2 months later and were willing to meet my requirement. Pass. Already went somewhere else.
Contractor Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
When I was contracting at Microsoft, they liked what I was doing so well that they created a full time position for me. However, as with all new positions, there was an open interview process.

They interviewed only me.

Even though I had been doing the job for 5 months, I got turned down for the slot that they had created for me. It was laughable. I later got hired full time in another group there.

The interview process was also laughable. It was almost entirely "brain teaser" questions. Two of which the person interviewing me ended up saying "Oh, I forgot to tell you some of the info" after I told them I didn't know how to solve the problem.
Mike Dixon Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I have witnessed people priding themselves on coming up with the most difficult interview questions. Questions "they" could not answer. It is short sighted and stupid.
codingreal Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I keep reading these stories on Hacker News about how interviewing is a test. This is wrong; interviewing is a two way process to find out if you would be a good fit to the company and if the company would be a good fit to you.

Asking brain teaser questions is only useful if you need staff to solve brain teasers, not real world problems. The most difficult thing about working in a company is getting along with the people who are already there.

What Scott is talking about is he has divorced the two way process into separate halves. First he pre-screens you and checks you out, presumably with less interaction than at an interview; then having decided you are suitable you go to hang out with him to find out if the company is a good fit to you - by drinking beer together, etc. The whole thing sounds surreal and a potential etiquette nightmare. Most people are looking for a new job, not a new lifestyle.

In my mind, the ideal process would be like this:

1. I see a short job description with some sample project info similar to the kind of work I am interested in and would be doing. There would be a short bullet list of required skills, plus one or two "pluses", not a wishlist.

There would be an indication of salary range, but it would *not* be "X thousands -> Y thousands but everyone gets offered X". It would be a genuine X->Y range.

2. I send my CV with a cover note and receive a prompt reply to say it's been received.

3. About a week later I receive an invite to interview or a no thanks.

You will not be expecting me to be following up with awkward phone calls for several weeks after my initial application or the interview to find out if you are interested. If you don't reply within 2 weeks then you clearly aren't interested.

4. At the interview there would be about 2 hours chatting with the proposed direct manager about the kind of work I have done, the kind of work I would be doing at the company and potential future directions. There would be a quick tour of the working environment and an opportunity to have a chat with some team members. I would be leaving no later than 4 hours after I arrived, but more likely approximately 3 hours.

5. After about 1 week either I follow up with some questions to clarify some of the things that were discussed or I receive an offer or a no thanks.

6. Negotiations proceed. Maybe I go back for another short visit; but this would *not* be to meet a decision maker who is too far removed to be present at the interview.

If you send a no thanks, at least try to make it look like it isn't a form letter
koan Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Hey koan, yeah that's actually what a normal everyday standard interview process was like 30 years ago.

The ritual torture test/fraternity hazing thing, which we call the technical interview, nobody in the field did that until Microsoft starting bragging that they did it and that's what made them elite. Then people started copying that incredibly stupid practice, notably Google, and suddenly it was a "best practice". Now Google admits it was retarded all along, but people are still doing it.

That's really my point here, to say that "technical interviews" are retarded and counterproductive.
Scott Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Scott, this is off-topic, but how do you find those good people?  You are recruiting them because you've essentially already interviewed them (via their work I suppose?)  But how?  How and where do you come across them?
Doug Send private email
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
I just talk to people. There are a lot of smart people around (who, ahem, also 'get things done', ie make things) and they often like to talk to other smart  people who make things. This is something I do naturally without any agenda other than to talk to cool people.

Some call this networking, but I think networking implies it's all fake.

At a certain point you may find yourself with the ability to try to hire some of these people that you might know professionally or in some other sense.

Like one guy, older than me, knew him from many years ago, huge genius, used to be the president of a company that was bought out, a guy with dozens of patents. I was looking him up just for fun and saw he was now married with kids and had ended up at some bullshit job doing stupid stuff. His photo looked like he was unhappy. Called him up and caught up on old times. I told him he should work for me, it's more fun. He wanted to, but when he got serious his wife doesn't want to move. Oh well. So that's the sort of thing.

I know lots of people that are really smart. I also notice people who are obviously smart.

Look above, I guy here said smart stuff, I looked at his site, he is obviously an extremely capable developer of various kinds of software that he has written entirely himself. A freelancer. Sort of guy you know you wouldn't have any problem just setting him to work on something and wouldn't need to be supervised. There are tons of guys like this around. Some of them are open to a change of scene. But not if you're paying peanuts, your company is a basket case, you're an asshole, or you're just screwing around with them. That is most people who contact them though.
Scott Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Also, when hiring one of these guys what specific hardware and languages and all the stuff from bullet pointed lists I really don't care at all about. Smart people can learn architectures and languages fast enough that looking for specific skill sets at a fine grain is totally irrelevant for good people. What's valuable is general ability. Like is someone really great at tricky math problems that involve coming up with new theorems on your own that have never been seen before.
Scott Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
So all this "You must know C# You must know Java You must Know Microsoft Word 2012 You must speak Cantonese" all that is really dumb.

Yet try and find a "job ad" that doesn't have those things as the main component. There are ads that don't, but not many.
Scott Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Why can't the programmer work remotely?
codingreal Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Read previous thread for answer.
Scott Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
I had such an interview like Scott describes. It was actually quite funny. In the previous life when I was on a payroll and between projects, I ended up in this large company bathing in cache. Don't remember how I got there, normally large corporations put me off.. But nevertheless.. After few minutes of chit-chat the interviewer told me that he already knows that technically I am fit for what they need and he doesn't want to fool around with silly mind boggling charades and get straight into 'business'. What he asked me was: "How many pints of bear I can drink before I collapse".  I said it depends.. He asked on what.. and so it went for a while until I realized that they actually need a guy to relocate to Ireland where a project was failing because project manager was unable to socialize with locals who regularly went to pubs after work and had a good time. This was kind of a shocker.. With my Russian background I could probably be able to handle some alcoholic roulette. For some time.. But anyway, I said no thank you simply because I wasn't after managerial position, definitely not the one they were trying to fix me into. But I remembered this case not because of the drinks, but because it was strange that the guy didn't torture me with bubble sort bullshit and virtual destructors. Then I've also realized that I've grown up a bit and people can see in me something more than that. Few years later I went solo :)
Dima Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
> bathing in cache

Bring back anon Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
well yes, those companies who move people around continents as easily as I move a file from folder to folder they did bathe in cache around 10 years ago. The keyword here is 'did'.
Dima Send private email
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
do they still drink bears? or PETA put an end tho that practice?
he he ;)
Koziolek Matolek Send private email
Friday, July 26, 2013
> did bathe in cache around 10 years ago

In cash.

Anyway, amusing story! :) Thanks for telling!

I went through that "socializing" project when worked with Finns. Up to this day I'm puzzled why world believes that's Russians who are heavy drinkers.
Vladimir Dyuzhev Send private email
Sunday, July 28, 2013
cash it is indeed..
Russians make the drinking rituals very grim, hence common stigma. But anyway, the money guys have eventually hired someone I know and he did maneuver quite well plus enjoyed the country during several years of relocation. Ireland is a lovely place and people are the nicest in Europe (IMHO). How he managed to do this was kept a secret although I'm sure it's not the drinking capabilities as Pepsi is the strongest alcoholic beverage Israelis can handle to my knowledge :)
Dima Send private email
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

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