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What this engineer learned from conducting more than 400 interviews

Marco Rogers argues that interviewing is a “critical business activity,” and startups should see it that way.

What this engineer learned from conducting more than 400 interviews
[Photo: gemenacom/iStock]

Marco Rogers loves interviewing engineers. For the last seven years, he’s been an engineering leader and hiring manager. Over that time, he’s hired over 80 engineers. To fill each of those roles, he’s personally interviewed approximately five candidates on average after initial phone screens. That’s at least 400 interviews, or an in-person interview every work week for seven years–and that’s not counting time dedicated to prep, screening, references, or debriefs.

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In this exclusive interview, Rogers starts by debunking some of the common recruiting tropes, explaining why they are outdated or misleading. Then he spotlights his top four interviewing practices–and how they fit within his broader recruiting methodology. Lastly, he recommends the first, low-hanging change that startups can make to retrofit their interview process.

Three harmful recruiting myths at startups

Myth: “We test the technical knowledge and skills needed for the role in the interview.”

Reality: You don’t actually know what you need. You’re figuring out what you need.

What’s at the root of this misconception? “When I’ve dug into conversations with people about it, I’ve realized that they haven’t actually decided that interviewing and hiring is a critical business activity,” says Rogers. “They’re kind of just trying to get through it. And because they want to get past it, they look for and lean on patterns, opting to repeat what others have said or done. Of course, they care who they work with, but it’s more about getting people in the door. Then they’ll figure it out. That’s the attitude. Hiring is not the real activity; it’s getting people. It’s a subtle difference that short circuits process for outcome.”

Myth: “With engineers, only technical skills truly matter. Soft skills are a nice-to-have.”

Reality: Every engineer must be equally skillful with code and colleagues.

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First, Rogers takes issue with the framing of soft skills. “The problem with that framing is that it suggests that you can’t evaluate or teach those skills–that they are inherent qualities that some people have and some people don’t,” says Rogers. “They focus on the ‘soft’ part and forget they are ‘skills’ that can be measured and cultivated in people. I put those people skills at the same level of importance as technical skills. Can you write JavaScript and communicate effectively with business stakeholders? That’s what I need in a growing organization.”

It’s the business’s end goal that really makes this an obvious default for Rogers. “First and foremost, we have to address the business reality–what we’re really trying to do. If we’re talking about companies that want to grow 10 times every couple of years, you have to assemble a really solid team that’s going to take you there,” says Rogers. “It’s hard to keep that in mind when there’s the first or next thing to ship. So you have to explicitly test writing code and working together in the interview process.”

Myth: “We’ve picked a few people to interview with them–let’s get it scheduled.”

Reality: Thoroughness and consistency is paramount for optimal, unbiased results.

When Rogers talks about an interview program, it’s a crafted process. “So if you come onsite with us, you’re going to have four sessions. That’s our ‘right’ number, because we don’t want to ask too much time from candidates and be grueling, but we also need to have enough data points. The four sessions include three evaluations sessions with the team, each an hour long. Then there’s a session with the hiring manager, usually me, so I can answer any questions about how the team works,” says Rogers.


Related: The potential hidden bias in automatic hiring systems

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How to make interviewing a critical business strategy

Principle one: interview in three-person groups

Three-person interviews are one of Marco’s most long-standing and valued interview preferences. He saw the benefits of them early in his career, but more so, observed how traditional interviews are broken. “One-on-one interviews tend to lead to a unidirectional candidate-and-interviewer dynamic. A person asks a question, the other person tries to answer it. Rinse and repeat,” says Rogers. “We know that that’s not a great candidate experience, as they come away feeling grilled or discouraged after trying to answer a bevy of questions. Interviewers can also get disenchanted, when, instead of following the thread of the conversation, must cycle through questions like a more rigid, rote activity. From the angle of both parties, the interview can lose its more organic, collaborative aspect.”

The quickest and most effective way to move beyond that poor interview experience is to add another node: a third person. “Add another colleague into the mix as a second interviewer. I’ve found that it not only brings a higher fidelity and signal to the conversation, but also breaks down the flow and nature of the conversation,” says Rogers.


Related: Four questions this founder asks himself after interviewing job candidates


Principle two: everybody–the entire team–interviews

This interviewing principle is one that Rogers has seen get pushback. “For some, it’s an issue of scope and something leaders and recruiters should be doing. For others, it comes down to a concern that not everyone can represent the company in an interview. People also say that it’s too costly to have everyone trained and involved,” says Rogers. “The one most people have the hardest time with is cost. But it’s going to feel costly–and it should. Interviewing is a critical business activity.”

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Your entire team should conduct interviews. Everybody. If you don’t want some people to interview, ask yourself why. If you’re worried about how they’re representing the company, there’s a bigger issue at hand.

Principle three: Round up and huddle

Rogers is a champion of roundups and huddles to wrap up an interview process. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, and the dynamic exchange of information that brings critical context that is rarely captured in written reviews. Huddles take coordination though. “When I talk to other people about huddles, they’re not sure it’s worth it. It’s mostly because of logistics. To bring together everyone who interviewed candidates for a role is a lot: six engineers from three two-interviewer sessions,” says Rogers. “They are 30 minutes long, but once you get good at them, you can get them down to 15 minutes. I highly recommend that every team takes the full half hour if they are just incorporating a huddle into their hiring process.”


Related: This former Netflix HR exec’s culture-focused interview questions


Tying it all together

From initial screens to session construction to debriefs, the way startups interview candidates needs to improve. To start, don’t fall prey to interviewing tropes. Recognize that you may not know the qualifications you need for a role, that engineering candidates must meet high expectations on both technical and “soft” skills, and that you need a thorough, standard interviewing system.

“So what’s the first step to level up how your startup interviews candidates? There’s actually a step zero, which is asking: Are you getting enough different data points in an interview process? If you need a more powerful signal, try this methodology. If you’re a startup that has its founders interview a candidate and then make the offer, involve more people in the interview process and debrief in a huddle. The highest leverage will be getting those interviewers rounding up to compare notes,” says Rogers.

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“When I talk to people about interviewing, I notice that a lot of companies are just still doing the interview style that Microsoft pioneered in the ’90s. That’s what much of our industry still does. But that gets us ’90s Microsoft people. If you’re a scrappy startup, your hiring expectations and approach must be different. This system has not only strengthened our candidate pool, but also the cohesion, versatility, and diversity of my engineering team.”


A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.

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