A reader asks for help dealing with an interviewer’s questions over video, in the September 15, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

questionsAfter I passed a phone screen with an HR interviewer for a software developer position, I was given a technical test/challenge of seven questions which I aced. Now I’m scheduled for a technical interview with one of their developers and a manager for 90 minutes over Zoom. The HR rep said they will ask me questions, give me a coding challenge, talk about their processes and answer my questions. They’d like me to have my camera on “to make it a more personal experience.”

I know your feelings about video interviews and I’m generally not too crazy about code challenges over Zoom calls. I think this is dumb, as everyone works differently. Some people might need more time, for example, to research something. This is not high school that we need to test each other. I think the most important thing for me is that I feel confident, and that my life doesn’t depend on getting this job, so I’m not stressed about it. Do you have any advice for me for this interview? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

Zoom interviews are common nowadays because of the pandemic, but I dislike video interviews at any time. (At least the interviewer will be human and not a HireVue-type A.I. algorithm!) Job interviews are already stressful and a smart (rare!) interviewer must account for a candidate’s added nervousness and awkwardness while using video.

Then there is the problem of how the interviewer comes across on video and how that affects the applicant’s performance and how he or she is evaluated.

Your advantage is that you don’t need this job. This by itself will make you more confident and powerful. So I would just take it as it comes. But I think the key to success is not what you’re asked during your video interview; it’s what questions you ask.

Take some control of interview questions

I never advocate confronting an interviewer. But I do advise avoiding an unfair or unreasonable interview setting.

If you believe the video interview format might hurt you and the employer’s ability to choose the right hire, you might consider bringing it up diplomatically. For example, if you feel awkward about coding while they’re literally watching over your shoulder, let them know. This gives you a measure of control while still demonstrating respect.

If you need to look something up, you might quote what Albert Einstein reportedly said when he was asked what is the speed of light. “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Smile and gauge the interviewer’s reaction. You may be taking a risk, but the risk of saying nothing may be bigger.

Now I’ll suggest two things you can do when they ask if you have any questions. You’ll see how one sets up the next, almost magically.

Magic question #1

First, ask them what the deliverables are for this job. What do they expect their new hire to do (tasks) and accomplish (specific objectives) in the first month, three months, six and 12? You’re asking for a sort of a project plan for the job. What’s “magic” is that this makes most interviewers realize you’re really thinking about their business and not just about getting a job offer. It also tells you whether they really know what they need.

If the interviewer provides a cogent answer, you’re ready to really engage them. Since any coding challenge they give you will probably be hypothetical and not directly related to the job, up the ante. Segue into an offer that no good employer can refuse.

Magic question #2

Based on their answers to #1, ask the second question, which is magical because it turns an interview into a demonstration.

“I’ve been happy to discuss hypothetical examples. Now could you outline a real problem or challenge you’d want me to tackle if you hired me? I’d like to show you how I would approach it or do it. Of course, I don’t expect you to disclose anything proprietary or confidential! And of course, I’m not going to complete a project here in the interview, but I would like to show you how I’d do this job.”

That’s a very powerful request and a worthy risk to take. I doubt any other candidate will make such an offer to the interviewer. It demonstrates that you are fearless and confident – and prepared. I think it will set you apart. Of course, don’t do so much that you’re delivering free work or actually solving a problem without getting hired!

There’s not a job interview where you can’t ask the interviewer these two critical questions. If the employer cannot answer them to your satisfaction, or isn’t interested in a demonstration of your abilities, reconsider whether this job is a good opportunity — or a mistake waiting to happen.

Finally, if they turn your Zoom meeting into an awkward, uncomfortable inquisition, then you probably don’t want to work with them anyway because that’s what the job is going to be like!

What are the best questions to ask an interviewer? How can you get a measure of control in a video interview?

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21 Comments
  1. Let me be specific here…I’m just referring to software developer jobs, but here goes:

    I think a “coding challenge” during an interview is a very unfair (even “rotten”) tactic to use on a candidate. I think this because when they ask this, they really ARE looking over your shoulder when you try to write the code (or even pseudo-code, which isn’t language-specific). You have “the clock ticking” (and no books, notes, etc.), and nobody would be expected to work under those conditions. Unless they don’t care if the logic is wrong and the code is bad and it’s unmaintainable, among other things. The interviewers definitely don’t want somebody who works like that, because it’s not in their best interest and it’ll cost them sooner or later.

    I’ve been through this kind of interview more than once, so I feel that pain.

    Having trouble dealing with a “coding challenge” doesn’t mean a candidate CAN’T do the job. This does, however, unfairly push away what might well be a good hire.

    • True.

      And even if the applicant were to “go with the flow” and code “on the spot”, what is the reward for the possibility of great coding coming out of that pressure cooker?

      Is the employer going to offer salary/benefits well above market rate?? Chances are – not.

      Since the candidate has already jumped through a few of their pre-hire hoops already, I’d say if the candidate chooses to code while on video then before beginning ask what specific advantage this process has and what massive reward the candidate will be given for “making the grade” (besides being hired) – whatever level that magical levitates on.

      Otherwise, let them stare through a screen at some other three-ring circus pony.

    • Coding challenges are one of the lamest ideas ever. I’ve suffered thru several, and all were predictably awful. Inflicting this on a mid-level to senior candidate is especially inane: like asking a math major to perform long division or square root by hand. Most test elementary level algorithms anyone with experience hasn’t coded for years, if not decades, and probably only in college. Yet bizarrely, many technical folks support this dreadful technique as a legitimate way to weed out imposter applicants. Meanwhile, years if not decades of solid experience at reputable companies seem to get overlooked. I regard this as a variant of the trick questions some (especially technical) interviewers love to throw at candidates to trip them up, that usually have zero relevance to the job at hand.

  2. There is a company that produces “simply amazing technology” that any electrical engineer such as myself would be foolish to overlook, or so I once thought.

    This company contacted me about 3 different positions – I didn’t ask, they asked me. So I had some phone interviews where they asked probing technical questions on a phone interview. Since I didn’t answer to their arbitrary requirements, they passed on me as a candidate.

    There was yet a fourth possible interview that I canceled. Sorry, but I did not want to run the proverbial gauntlet. I felt empowered turning them down, of course that means I will not work for them. After this experience, I learned two things:

    1. There are other companies that work with amazing technology but since they don’t make consumer equipment, you never hear of them – and don’t turn down defense work – this is some of the most amazing technology. For example, WiFi and Bluetooth, both spread spectrum technologies came out of work done by Hedy Lamar in the 1940’s with her husband with the invention of the first frequency hopping radio! This was for defense. Bluetooth is frequency hopping (GPS is CDMA).

    2. The company mentioned above has a notorious reputation for how they treat employees. I hear this from my brother in law who works for one of their suppliers as a middle engineering manager.

    3. If the interview goes badly you may still get the job. (That happened with my current job.). If it goes well, they may ghost you anyway. People will be people – that goes for you, and most certainly for me!

    • Hi Kevin–Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Eva Kiesler) worked with the avant-garde composer George Antheil (the Bogart film directed by Nick Ray ‘In a Lonely Place’ was one of his many innovative film scores) on the spread spectrum technology for Navy torpedo guidance during WWII. Lamarr knew more than a few things about armaments having been married to an Austrian arms merchant in the 1930s and listened in on conversations (she later fled the marriage) and both she and Antheil could think in abstracts. She did work during the war for Howard Hughes, for instance. However, she never married Antheil–she was between marriages at the time (Gene Markey, and in 1943 she married John Loder).

      • Thanks for the information! When people talk about these amazing new technologies I love reminding them how old they are. What an amazing story!!!

        • Its rather shocking how little truly new technology has been invented in the post WWII era. Biotechnology and genomics come to mind. But most of the rest was established at least in theory many decades ago. Much of the multitasking and virtual machine technology so taken for granted now was extant on computer mainframes by the late 1960’s. Yet companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems, etc. routinely pretended they were innovating this anew instead of reinventing the wheel. (Or copying it from research labs and universities.) Even most artificial intelligence is based upon decades old theories.

    • “Since I didn’t answer to their arbitrary requirements, they passed on me as a candidate.”

      Key word being “arbitrary”.

      Smart move.

  3. Thanks for your response Kevin! This is helpful stuff to keep in mind. You were lucky here to have gotten involved with a company who just had bad/inexperienced/misguided interviewers, but came to their senses and realized you were the candidate to offer the job to.

  4. I spent just about my whole and long working life in the Software Development business. From beginning to end, never did coding test. I suppose some of my development manager peers did go that route…but if so didn’t mention it. Though my son’s done this…and I know of one high tech company was famous for it, plus their questions about the shape of manhole covers.

    As a recruiter I recruited CAD/CAM drafters. And a test was given to applicants of interest. But …they were positioned with the working environment they’d have if hired..literally..work station, cubical, hardware, software & the same kind of task…and a work day if needed. that is they had all day. They could also get guidance and ask questions from their potential boss, just as if they worked there. They had net access and free to use it if needed..again just as if they were working there. To me that was fair..and fit well to the concept of “doing the job.”

    Point being no one stood over them while they worked. aka micro managing. And per aforementioned I definitely don’t know of any software developer who’d tolerate or could perform with someone watching them code. It would fit right into “creepy”

    If they want a coding test, fine. Give an typical task. access to the typical working environment..and some time …alone… to do it and have them submit the result. This is even quite doable remotely. .and let them submit an answer. Inter

    And I think Zoom approaches make it even worse…And you know what surprises me …is the absence of our trusty HR people on this approach..it’s akin to strong aversions to photos on resumes… to much opportunity to discriminate.

    I’m a firm believer that a company’s recruitment process presents a good measure of how one would be treated as an employee. And the examples given by the writer have red flags, one being this zoomy thing.

    • @Don: I could not agree with you more! What you experience in the job interview is what you’ll probably get on the job!

  5. Nick, another excellent column. I had the deliverables/accomplishments question but the phrasing of the solve the problem question, that narrows it to approach and not free consulting, was excellent.

    I’m glad to hear that you despise video interviews as much as I do.

    **9.5 interviewers don’t understand the sheer awkwardness of Zoom, Teams etc. as the candidate has to look at the webcam while the interviewer on screen is either below the cam level or off to the side. So if you are framed properly, to see them you have to move your eyes. That really puts paid to mirroring and other engagement techniques.

    **Another bad trend is the video interview in succession–two, three, or even four. Now because they’re working from home, they’re in t-shirts, often with virtual backgrounds (that they turn and disappear into), but you’re dressed, carefully lit and (for women, properly made up and coiffed)… and being grilled.

    **I’ve also had hiring managers book you but not appear on video, saying they couldn’t get it to work or they’re ‘in transit’. On the bright side, it does tell you a lot about the company and the people.

    Another trend is to keep interviews to an inflexible half-hour. I see that even with hiring managers, and it’s an indicator of their inexperience.

    • Another bad trend is to use video for team meetings versus using the platform for audio only and putting up a workplan or presentation. At my former company, we used Webex and rarely used the video capability. The company that acquired it used Zoom and insisted on all participants being on camera. When the presenter then puts up the work, there is this Awkward Pause as they struggle to move from video to the computer screen/program. A foolish misuse of technology.

    • @Dee:You point out an obvious problem I never focused on (haha!) before. There can be no eye contact!

      • Not only that, but based on what an adviser on interviewing has told people on coaching people for interviews, you should wear red lipstick so that interviewers can see your mouth! Now that leaves most men at a disadvantage, eh?

        Shouldn’t hiring managers consider that one video meeting is inadequate for the interview task, and schedule follow ups via telephone only to get to know their top candidates better before making a selection? I’m not advocating the hors d’oeuvres approach (passed along like a platter to multiple people for some kind of committee vote) but that they and the candidate create something like a comfort zone, if they physically cannot meet?

  6. As to what questions to ask. I’m going to assume they’d laid out the structure and mission stuff. i.e. what the hiring manager’s organization fits into the scheme of things and technically what it’s expected to deliver/do. Toss on of these at the hiring manager. Or variations at other interviewers

    “What do YOU want to do with your organization” or What do YOU want to achieve?” or even What keeps you up at night?””

    These questions aim at getting the H Manager to talk. In so doing to determine your working environment and the potential for interesting work and growth. For the sake of discussion one can say there’s 2 kinds of organizations/manager
    1. Managing the status quo..taking care of business, the current bottom line. 2. Blazing new directions and in so doing adding value. Both necessary.
    Let’s say in the software business, Organizations dealing with the large investment in maintaining and servicing existing product lines usually with processes in place is the 1st one and 2. researching and developing new product (revisions & minor enhancements don’t count) and/or new processes that boost efficiency, cut costs or increase quality or combos of them.

    Most of the managers, me included, had some vision of where they wanted to take their organizations. do something not done before etc. And some were perfectly happy baby sitting the status quo.

    When you ask the question I suggest…you’ll find out if there’s any life in the hiring manager, if you’ll find fertile ground to grow, do neat things..Or if you’re so inclined if you’ll find a comfort zone that you’ll feel good about. A big red flag is a big ho hum answer or platitudes that regurgitate official mission statements, roles you were already told about or read. If you sign up, you’re boarding that person’s bus, and if it’s low in fuel, you’re not going anywhere far.

  7. Your advice about asking questions is solid, Nick, as always – but I don’t think the comments above about live coding tests should be allowed to stand without a challenge. They are standard and essential! Any developer who balks at being asked to show a basic understanding of the programming language(s) they’ll be working in would be viewed as highly suspect by hiring managers. I hope your readers listen to you, not them.

    • Thanks, Sarina. I certainly agree that a developer should be able to demonstrate expertise with the language they’d be working in. But I think we’re opening up a bigger can of worms.

      I find that most employers and managers demonstrate poor recruiting habits. Why are they interviewing a candidate at all if they don’t already know the person’s level of expertise? A job interview is not the place to vet a job candidate on the most basic qualification criteria. That should be done before anyone even contacts the candidate. Leaving this crucial question for the candidate to answer in an interview is a waste of everyone’s time.

      Bringing in unqualified candidates is a recruiting problem.

  8. I agree Nick…bringing a person into an interview when they really don’t have the basic qualifications anyway IS a poor recruiting issue. Unfortunately, this happens a lot with “dialing for dollars” recruiters (maybe I should say “so-called” recruiters). I have even told these recruiters that I know I don’t qualify, but they try to jam it through anyway. So the hiring manager(s) STILL have to do some bit of screening themselves.

  9. @Bob P: I’d say the managers need to fire the recruiters and learn how to manage. Recruiting is a management job. Then you’d be talking shop with who “dials” you rather than letting someone waste your time.

  10. I agree!

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