The art of screening candidates

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“At the top of the mountain, we are all Snow Leopards. Anybody who can do one thing better than anyone else in the world is a natural friend of mine.” -Hunter S. Thompson

We get asked a lot about how we screen candidates here at Cherre, so we thought we’d shed some light on our process.

We are known for being especially picky with selecting candidates. As one of our founders, Ben, always says, if you’re looking for a 1:100 candidate, you’re going to have to interview 100 candidates on average. True to our belief, we interview more than 100 candidates for every role. It’s not easy, it takes time and dedication, but we truly think it’s worth it. If you think you can’t afford to spend the time to find a good candidate, imagine how much time you’ll have to spend on fixing the mistake of hiring the wrong candidate. The latter is always more time consuming and destructive to an organization – especially a small one such as Cherre (at the time we are writing this, less than 20 engineers).

Most organizations start the process with a brief 15-20 minute screening call. We don’t. 15 minutes is not enough time to screen out a bad candidate (only a really bad candidate), and not enough time to identify potential in a good candidate. You’re really just passing the buck along, and making the work for the next person more difficult. If you can spend 15-20 minutes on an interview, you can surely spend 30-40 and do it right. In that first interview you’re looking for cultural fit, technical fit, and role fit. If you can’t assess all three in that first interaction, that interaction was a waste of time. Basically, we’re trying to figure out three things: (a) can the candidate do the job? (b) will the candidate like doing the job? and (c) will we like sitting next to  the candidate while they’re doing their job? Simple, right?

Let’s dive in. The following outline is a suggested roadmap for an interview. Each interviewer has their own style and preferences (even within the team), but we think that this roadmap is a good place to start.

The process:

About the company (5 minutes): We always start an interview by talking about ourselves. Not to be self indulgent, but this, we believe, is a crucial opening to a successful interview. Good candidates want to work for good companies. They have options, and they will choose the one that is most exciting to them. We therefore start every interview by getting them excited about Cherre. We tell them about our origin story, and what led us to start the company. We tell them what we do for our clients and how excited those clients are to work with us. We tell them that we are working on really exciting engineering problems, and that we have a high-performing team. Finally, we tell them that Cherre is a really fun place to work. We love waking up in the morning and coming to the office, and we really think of Cherre as our home. We are building together. By the time we finish this 5 minute spiel, we expect the candidate to fully understand what we do and our mission, as well as be genuinely excited about joining. This is the most important part of the interview. For a good candidate, you set the stage for him or her to say yes at the end of the interview, and for a bad candidate, you set the stage for him or her to tell their friends that Cherre is a really cool company.

About the position (2 mins): Next we briefly describe the position. We tell the candidate what we’re looking for, and what the responsibilities will be. This helps set the stage for the interview, but also allows us to make sure that there’s no mismatch with regard to expectations.

Walk me through your resume (6 mins): This is the classic opening to most interviews. Here we’re just trying to get a sense of what the candidate thinks is important. Where they were, how they perceived their role in past companies, and why they moved around. We don’t let this drag on, and rarely ask detailed questions at this point unless a red flag comes up. If they go on and on with the story, we try to help them skip forward.

Specific challenges (15 mins): This is the meat of the interview. Here’s where you can briefly assess how a candidate thinks about solving a problem, how he or she works in a team, and what they think is important. Get specific! Ask the candidate to walk you through an interesting challenge they worked on in their current or past job. What was the business goal? What was the technical goal? What options were considered? What options were not considered? What were their specific responsibilities? Who did they report to? Who reported to them? Have them walk you through the code. How do they think about testing? Were there compromises made? What were the considerations that led to such compromises? Were they happy with the result? Would they have done anything different in retrospect? You may not be able to get through everything, but the more you can cover the better. Ideally, you should be helping the candidate work through the answers, and try to lead them to be more open. No judgement is necessary. Let them be themselves, and try to see what it might be like to work with them.

Why are you leaving your current job (4 minutes): This is a very important thing to ask! If a candidate can’t answer this question, you have no idea if this will be a good fit for your company. Try to dive-in here. What couldn’t you achieve there? Why do you think it didn’t work out? Why do you think you’ll be able to achieve your goals here? What are you looking to accomplish over the next year or two? Let them be open, but don’t accept the shallow answer. Dive-in, and really try to figure out the candidate’s motives. Will they be happier here? Will they leave me in a year? Will I want them to leave in a year?

Salary Expectations (2 minutes): Don’t ask them what they currently make. Besides the fact that it may be illegal in your state, honestly, who cares? Maximize for talent, not the least you can pay. We actually have a very transparent pay structure at Cherre. It may not be the best for everyone, but this is one of core values, so we all know what we all are worth to the team. You’re not looking for an exact number here – this isn’t a negotiation. You’re just making sure that there’s no glaring mismatch, and getting a sense of what’s important to a candidate (i.e. base, bonus, or equity). I like to say “I won’t hold you to this – but what are your general compensation and benefits expectations – just want to make sure we’re in the same ballpark.”

Questions (6 minutes): Here you want to make sure that the candidate understands everything they need on their end to make the right decision (join Cherre), as well as get a glimpse of what’s important to them. I specifically ask “anything else I can answer about the company, the role, our long term vision?” – if they don’t have any questions off hand, they usually take you up on the vision question, which gives you the ability sell again at the end.

Some extra things to consider:

Always start and finish selling your company and vision. Make sure they’re excited at the start and end of an interview, regardless of whether you want them to join or not. Either it helps you seal the deal, or they tell all their friend how cool you are. Win-win.

If I see something wrong along the way, I cut the interview short at that exact moment. Our time is our most valuable resource, so let’s make sure we use it properly. I like to say “hey, you look like you have a really great background, but it just seems like it’s not a great fit for our stack / the position / your expectations / etc. – be honest, don’t be a dick, but end it ASAP, as it’s a waste of both of your time at that point.

Always let the candidate know where they stand at the end of the process. If you’re excited, let them know, and walk them through the next steps they can expect – process and timeframe. Tell them to ping you if you drop the ball, since you’re busy, and this helps give you some legroom if you screw up on getting back to them. If it’s not a good fit, tell them why, and tell them what they should be working on to be a good fit for the role (or similar roles). Candidates appreciate the feedback and knowing where they stand!

Have some more good tips for successful interviews? Drop us a line at [email protected] – we’d love to hear them!