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What our Cofounder learnt from interviewing 1500 Engineers, Designers & Product Managers

by David Smyth (part 2/3 in our article series on candidate experience)

In a previous post we covered some tips to improve the candidate experience at the top of the funnel, now David Smyth shares his learnings what it takes to create a great interview experience at a unicorn scaleup (David is the ex VP Product & Design at Cabify, first Spanish tech unicorn and now CEO of Scouta).

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interview-tips

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At Cabify, we multiplied our product and engineering team by 50x over a 4 year period. Scaling a team like this in a market like Spain meant we had to attract talent from not only all around the country, but all over Europe and Latin America. To do this, we built a culture that placed importance on hiring great people and striving to ensure that every potential candidate left the process with a positive experience (particularly the great people we met with face to face). After plenty of learnings, I believe we created a great process aimed at achieving the goal of hiring the best people and providing a great experience for those we couldn't hire:

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Firstly, here's how we defined a good interview experience:

  • The candidate gets evaluated on their strengths over their weaknesses. They are able to show or talk about what they are great at.
  • The candidate knows what lays ahead and understands what the expectations are.
  • The candidate knows how well they are doing, there is a feedback loop.
  • The candidate can ask for feedback along the way.
  • It is a learning opportunity and the candidate feels they've learned something even if unsuccessful.
  • Candidates are asked questions in which there is no pre-defined right or wrong answer, leaving them open to respond based on their experience.

We also defined the interview experience we were looking to avoid:

  • The candidate can't ask clarifying questions.
  • Interviewers don't show up on time, meeting doesn't end on time.
  • The interviewing team is too focused on finding weaknesses and the candidate doesn't get a chance to shine a light on their strengths.
  • The candidate doesn't get human, empathetic responses from the interviewers.
  • The candidate can't make an informed decision about whether or not they want to join the company.
  • The candidate is asked questions where the interviewer is only searching for one right answer.

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It's all about the process

Here are my top 9 takeaways from our hiring process that you can apply internally to help achieve both the right hire, and a positive experience for everyone else you invited to interview.

1. Hiring is everyone's job

Engineers, PM's and Designers are evaluated on their ability and commitment to bringing more great people to the team. Interviewing well is a critical component of a successful product/eng team, not an annoying chore.

Hiring, interviewing and recruiting should be a core competency of everyone in the team (yes, the entire team). This means that existing team members are not only evaluated on their ability to write good code or design, but also their ability and commitment to bring great people into the team. For example, at Cabify, software engineers who contributed to recruiting, evaluating and onboarding talent, were more likely to progress in our career path, get recognition, get pay rises etc. Some limitations should also be put in place so that there is a maximum amount of time dedicated to hiring and it doesn't consume their other work.

2. Define and standardise your interviewing process

If everyone is interviewing, then you need to focus on creating consistency in process and decision making across the team. The steps may vary slightly from role to role but you want to ensure the key stages, meetings and timelines are consistent across the team (to get everyone going in the same direction and have a baseline to measure success). Plus, if you've standardised your process, it's easy to let the candidate know what stage they're in. Our process looked like:

  • CV Screening.
  • Some candidates may be sent a short pre-screening questionnaire.
  • Screening call (~20 mins).
  • Technical/skills-based challenge.
  • Interviewer pre-brief - To ensure the interviewers know by which criteria we want to assess the right candidate and deciding who will ask which questions from the question bank.
  • Face to face interviews - Typically 2x1hr back to back interviews with 4/5 interviewers in total. Each interview has 30 mins dedicated to technical/skills-based questions and 30 mins for behavioural questions.
  • Debrief - Meeting where the interviewers discuss their decision on hire/no-hire and a final decision is made. Notes have already been left in the ATS, and one person is assigned to make the final decision based on the group feedback.
  • Candidate feedback πŸŽ‰

3. Start to finish in 2 weeks

That's the goal. Candidates should ideally not have to wait longer than 2 weeks to find our whether they're going to receive an offer or a rejection. Assessment criteria should be clearly understood and interviewers need to have interviews prioritised in their schedule.

4. When to talk about money πŸ€‘

You don't want any candidates going through the process if there isn't a match on salary expectations. You talk about salary in the screening call and after the interviews, but never in the middle (and never with anyone other than the recruiter or hiring manager ). Both the company and the candidate needs to know upfront that there is some possibility of aligning on salary expectations and final offer; Β but leave the negotiations to the end.

5. Interview training

Everyone who interviews must go through interview training. Interview training includes a 1 hour crash course with mock interviews, followed by sitting in on other interviews, and the being shadowed in your first real interview. This does require some time investment upfront, but again, standardising the process and getting more people involved will make your hiring process go a smoother and more efficiently.

6. Behavioural and technical question bank πŸ’‘

The goal is to standardise the interview process so you'll ideally create a list of technical/skill-based questions and behavioural questions. Try to get your behavioural questions to map to the values/principles of your team. Questions should have no pre-defined right or wrong answer, you want the candidate to tell a story about a situation so that you can understand how they did or might react to it (we used the STAR interview method).

Example of behavioural interview questions mapped to the Cabify company value "Be Humble & Kind":

  • Tell me about a time when you realised you needed to have a deeper level of subject matter expertise to do your job well?
  • Give an example of a tough or critical piece of feedback you received. What was it and what did you do about it?
  • Give me an example of an idea you had that was strongly opposed. Why was there so much resistance? How did you handle the negative feedback?

7. Is the candidate telling a good story?

  • Are they replying with generalities and not telling an actual story? If they can't think of a specific story, then suggest to change the question.
  • Are they actually replying to the question? It's ok to ask them how their response relates to the original question.
  • Is the candidate talking about their team or themselves? Probe further to understand what the role of the candidate was, whether they were a spectator, a participant or a leader.

8. Interview panels to avoid bias

Panel interviews allow the interviewers to work together to learn more about a candidate and benefit from each other's viewpoints and experience. Candidates get the benefit to meet more members of the team in a shorter time frame. You'll want to keep panels to a maximum of 3 people and actively seek to make it feel conversational. You want panel interviews to feel like conversations, not tests.

Everyone who interviews should contribute their vote and decision on whether they are inclined to hire, or not. We assigned a decision-maker for each role who took all feedback into consideration before making the final hire/no-hire decision.

Here's a template we used to collect interviewer feedback after an interview:

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9. Inclusive interviewing

You should actively seek to have a diverse interviewers in your panel. For engineering roles, we strived to have at least one non-male interviewer on the panel. To increase diversity, our interview panels included interviewers who didn't necessarily have knowledge of the skillset or domain; who would be tasked with asking the behavioural questions. With every interview assessing both technical and behavioural components, this exposed everyone to more diversity in questioning and assessment.

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These are some key parts of the process we put in place to hire 245 engineers, designers, data scientists and product managers over 3 years based on all of our learnings and failings. Even if you're not building for this scale, give some of these tactics a try to improve the assessment stage of your hiring process. Next up: Improving the post-interview stage πŸ‘‡