How (not) to interview – part II

After writing the first article I was left with couple bits that I wanted to mention but they didn’t quite fit. So I have decided to write up a follow up where I would like to outline what I think would be the ideal process and some other notes on questions commonly asked. 

The process

The most important is clarity as mentioned in the previous article. The most common mistakes that look really unprofessional are:

We will let you know … 

This one is particularly bad if there is no indication of when the follow-up will happen. There is still too many companies that just don’t bother to reply to a failed candidate or are strategising for various reasons. Aside from the fact that it is grossly rude to the candidate it also project an untrustworthy image to the outside of the company. Play it simple and play it straight and both sides will come out in a better place no matter what the result is.

Use our portal…

Especially large companies use loads of public facing HR portals that candidates are asked to use. The issue is that these are usually absolutely terrible to use and give no information on the progression of your application. Two pretty dreadful examples of portals I’ve used:

  • HR portal A (big ISP) – application pending review for last 6 months with no change to it or no way to contact anyone to check the progress
  • HR portal B (global enterprise) – needed to register 2 separate accounts just o upload the CV which was promptly exported into some weird table and horribly malformed

In this case I would repeat the “first impression” the company is giving – in this case it is not an HR person but this system. This must be hugely counter productive as a lot of people will just give up as fighting these nightmarish UIs is not for the weak.

The riddle questions

In the early 2000’s it was quite common to use the “Microsoft riddle questions” where the most common was the one about guessing the weight of a jumbo-jet 747 without having a scale. These questions were ridiculous then for many reasons but are even more so now. This article from 2007 sums it up quite nicely. Just one point I will write here is this – Do you want really employ someone to re-invent the wheel or someone who can efficiently solve a real issues. Also the truth is that this type of questions is difficult to evaluate and gives you no additional information about the candidate.

The psychometric testing

These are used for assess the understanding various aspects of given  content – usually numbers/texts etc. There are some behavioural versions as well. These are usually used by big companies – most commonly used are the data comprehension ones and the understanding of written text. The main issues with these is that in my opinion they should only be used for some inexperienced graduates and similar but unfortunately these became another sieve used on all people disregarding their previous experience again frustrating capable candidates and leaving negative impression from the non-personal approach.

The technical questions

At this point I would like to have a short detour to the questions of the interview itself. Below is an ideal short question for phone interview:

What length is and ipv4 address ?

It leaves next to no space for misinterpretation and forces the candidate to answer fairly directly. Also it allows easy follow up questions about masks and classes VLSM and so on.

The example of not-so-good question for phone interview:

How many usable hosts are in /23 subnet.

The main reason why this question is not very good is not it’s difficulty but the fact that it aims at the skill that is best presented in a whiteboard session as candidate can actually show you the binary translation and could elaborate how masks work and further details. Also in this time and age calculating subnets from top of your head seems unnecessary. 

Then there is third type of question I call “prometric” or “cisco” style questions. These appear with incredible regularity and are very popular but in most cases they are just bad or in better cases used the wrong way. As an example I would use these two:

What command would you use for ...

This is just plain stupid as literally any cli has context help with the “?” so you really just need to understand the hierarchy and the bits that bind the requested function together. Also most the syntax can change between platforms and software streams so there is no point except for showing the capability of memorizing certain character string patterns.

What port would you open on firewall in order to allow IPsec traffic to pass through?

This question is seemingly straight forward as most people would just answer UDP/500. But this is not really how firewall works – you need to define the protocol, source, destination, security zones etc. Then your firewall must allow IKE/IPSEC pass-through which is something it might not be even capable of (looking at you screenos!) So yet again this question gives you no depth and only tells you that the candidate memorized a specific number.

As you can see in the examples above these “prometric” or “cisco” type questions are often trying to catch the candidate out on wording or with an abnormal /oversimplified situation. Extensive use of these questions has a dubious value as they tend to test the “exam technique” rather than knowledge and in my opinion it leads to serious disadvantage to people who are not familiar with ways of the certification world.


One last thing I wanted to say is if all evaluation ends up inconclusive trust your gut. Some of the papers published claim that you form an opinion of the other person within 7 seconds of seeing them or within 2-5 minutes if you just talk to them without a visual contact. From what I saw every time there was a border line candidate the gut feeling was always right so ti does pay off to listen to it.

Some funny/curious things I’ve seen/heard

  • What not so say during a technical interview:
Interviewer: So what was a biggest professional challenge for you recently?	 	 
Candidate: To get on this interview...
  • Extremely overqualified person being interviewed by much less knowledgeable interviewer:
Interviewer: So can you describe a bridge?	 	 
Candidate: Yes sure - it is a construction that spans between two end-points allowing traffic across - like cars.
  • Candidate fresh form university with CCNA certification:
Interviewer: How would you describe an IP address.	 	 
Candidate: To see the IP address you click on the start menu - then networking...
  • HR of a huge Chinese company:
Interviewer (HR): Hmm my husband is a CCIE so I know all about networking!
  • Sent CV had somehow had a background set to blue – which in black and white print resulted in unreadable grey pages
  • CV had couple of files attached inside the original word document.. unfortunately the CV had been converted to PDF somewhere along the way
  • CV was 16 pages long

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