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Plays Well With Others – Hiring, Part 2

Interview Styles and Samples

There are three basic interview styles you can use when interview technologists: biographical, technical, or behavioral.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.  Because of this mix of pros and cons, some organizations will mix two or more of the styles, or allow different people in the organization to serially interview the candidate using different styles.  We’ll cover each of these styles in a bit more detail and provide some examples of interview questions that you might use with them.

BIOGRAPHICAL

The biographical interview style offers the advantage of requiring the least amount of advanced preparation.  In essence, the biographic interview is a recap of the candidates’ major life experiences as described on their resume.  The biographic style requires that you sit with the interviewee with resume in hand.  As you examine the resume, you ask about things discussed on the candidate’s resume that are relevant to the job you’re looking to fill.

Imagine that you’re looking to hire a junior DBA, you might ask questions like:

  • I see you worked as a junior DBA in your last job.  What is your disaster recovery experience?
  • How much time did you spend at ACME Company doing security and user management?
  • When you were in the Air Force, did you ever have to spend time in the field offices helping clients?

The biographical style’s main advantage is it requires very little advanced preparation.  On the other hand, it’s main weakness is that it can be difficult discerning quality of experience from quantity.  In other words, you’ll have to probe carefully to determine whether the person has five years of experience rather than one year of experience five times.

When conducting a biographical interview, be on the look-out for certain red flags on the person’s resume:

  1. Long gaps between jobs indicates the person may not be motivated to find jobs, may have health problems, may enjoy experimenting with jobs outside of your industry, etc.
  2. Frequent job tenures of less than two years may indicate the person grows quickly bored and may not stick with your company for long.
  3. A long career without evidence of growing responsibility or skills may indicate low motivation or interest in technology.
  4. A candidate who is unable to secure strong references usually indicates an anti-social personality and inability to form strong personal relationships with their teammates.

TECHNICAL

The technical interview style offers the advantage of quantitatively proving whether the candidate has the mettle to meet your strongest technological challenges.  It takes a bit of time to prepare because you’re basically going to ask them your toughest technical challenges.  If you’re a bit of slouch, there’s great news for you.  There’s a ton of technical interview questions already written and posted to the internet waiting for you to download.  If you simply conduct a Google search, you’ll find multitudes of general information technology questions.  It’s a bit harder to find them already specific to SQL Server, but they do exist.

As a reminder, your technical questions are designed to determine if a candidate can fulfill a specific technical role on the team.  So your questions should be a) specific to your situation, and b) administered very much like a test, with pen and paper (or a computer) provided along with ample time to assess a solution.  Some examples of technical interview questions might be:

  1. For an ETL architect: “Build an SSIS package, using the GUI, that’ll perform a data load and cleansing process.  Make sure that it logs it’s activity at every step.”
  2. For a database developer: “Here’s the schema of a database.  Devise stored procedure that will do X, Y, and Z.”
  3. For a DBA: “Our OLTP application gets 6000 transactions/hr.  Define a high-availability configuration and backup routine that will ensure we never lose more than 5 minutes of data and will get us back on-line within 3 minutes of a catastrophic failure.”

Some technical interviews also seek to understand how a candidate thinks, processes information, and approaches problems.  In cases like these, the technical interviewer will generally ask the candidate to think aloud about a general challenge.  For example, Microsoft once famously asked its candidates “Why are manhole covers round?”  There is a right answer to this question (a round manhole cover won’t fall through the hole), but it’s also as much about how you go about solving the problem.

BEHAVIORAL

The behavioral interview style, my personal favorite, offers the advantage of giving you the best insight into how a candidate will do their work in the future.  Behavior interview, another topic with abundant help available with a quick Google search, is centered around questions of past performance, since that gives us the best indication of how a person will act in the future.  Some example questions:

  1. For a product manager who has to deal with a lot of conflicting requests: “Tell us a time when you had to prioritize conflicting opinions.”
  2. For a database developer with a heavy workload: “Tell us about a time when had to work long hours.  How did you maintain work/life balance?”
  3. For a development manager in a business that lots of merger and acquisition activity: “Tell us about a time when you had to make and win support of unpopular decisions. How did you keep your team on focus?”

To conduct an effective behavioral interview, you have to assess the specific challenges of the job (though not necessarily the technical challenges) and then ask questions that illustrate how the candidates face down those scenarios.  Will they have to work with a team of cantankerous old-timers who are set in their ways (like me)?  Then you might ask how they have dealt with keeping old technologies fresh.  If your shop is always on the cutting edge, then you might ask how a candidate is able to keep their skills sharp while putting a full measure every day at work.  (Of course, a smart candidate could possible perceive the problems that they might then face when coming to your company.  But that’s usually ok.) 

Another element of a successful behavioral interview is that you must be willing to let the candidate have a few moments to think about their answer.  Most interviewers don’t like silence.  It makes them uncomfortable and they quickly seek to fill it.  To conduct a good behavioral interview, you have to be willing and able to let that silence stretch a bit longer than you’re comfortable with so that the candidate can comb through their memories for a good example.  And that’s the payoff, because an example of how a candidate solved a challenge in the past is a pretty good indication of how a candidate will solve something similar in the future.

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