Interviews are often terrible at assessing individual competency, so how can we make them better?
Ah the interview. Many words have been written about their nature, difficulty and ultimately their shortcomings. It seems that almost every week I read a story on Hacker News pertaining to how this company does them or how that company does them or a 10 step guide how to make yourself a better interviewer. I've never counted myself to be terribly good at interviews. I come from an experienced based background rather than from a pedigree and as such find myself sometimes without the specific academic knowledge of how to answer specific technical questions. It's not for lack of experience but instead an inability to articulate truths I know at an intuitive level. The trouble with this is that an interviewer only has a finite view of you as both a person and a technical contributor and therefore needs to evaluate you as quickly and decisively as their allotted hour allow.
Seeing the trends and in retrospect of my own personal experiences I would propose a supplemental method to the technical interview that would provide far more insight about an individual than any technical spot test could ever hope to attain.
They say that teaching a subject will force you to learn it better than ever. In my personal experience I would tend to agree. Teaching someone how to do something is difficult because it forces you to solidify into more concrete thought your knowledge of a subject. Hence I've come up with a way to improve the interview process for both the candidate and the interviewer.
I call it: Teach me a 'foo'
What is teach me a 'foo' ? It's a step forward in the mindset we use to evaluate people. Can you remember the last person who taught you something that really stuck with you? I bet you can and there is a good reason for that. The person that taught you about that thing likely understood the thing that they were talking about very well. They were also likely to have been passionate or at the very least a good communicator. So how can we leverage this in an interview setting? Well as it turns out, in an interview we often want to know how much people know and even a bit about their passion. So why not have them teach us something? There are a few ways this can play out so I will address the concept of teaching from both perspectives.
First from the interviewer perspective. You can elect to have the interviewer someone who already knows about 'foo' or someone who doesnt. In the former, the person can be a better judge of the interviewee's grasp of the concept. In the latter, the person can be a good judge of communication skills of the interviewee. Win win.
Now from the perspective of the interviewee. You can choose to give interviewee the subject ahead of time or ask them to teach you something that you expect them to know. In the former it gives the interviewee time to prepare and perhaps allows candidates who aren't good at interviewing some time to reflect and gather their thoughts. In the latter you are able to judge how much the interviewee knows without prep.
I would advocate the scenario where the interviewer is knowledgeable and the interviewee is given the subject matter ahead of time and here is why. Almost nothing about the technical interview (in it's current form) is representative of the kind of work that a knowledge worker does on a day to day basis. When we are approached with a problem, we think about it. We don't immediately start talking through how we might solve it, especially if it is something complex. Indeed if someone were to start spouting off how he or she would solve a complex problem without any introspection I would be very suspect of that person's line of thinking. Even in small circumstances where problems face us we are gifted with the ability to ask the internet about it and find out what other people did in similar circumstances. Attempting to find outside answers is arguably much more often beneficial than it is a crutch. Doing this can both validate and inform our decisions better than we could by ourselves. So by giving the candidate time to prepare you are asking them to do something more akin to what they will normally do at work as it will give them time to ask questions and find answers to them. But what about cheating?!?! Have you ever met a bad teacher? Did you ever question their ability based solely on their poor performance? I think it is safe to say that it is very difficult to converse about a subject that you don't truly know. On the contrary, it is usually pretty easy to sense when something isn't quite right and that a person doesn't really grasp the subject at hand. This is why I recommend having someone knowledgeable about the subject interview the person. In that way, they are able to ask the right questions and turn what could be a well rehearsed presentation by the interviewee into something valuable.
So do you agree? Is there some way that you could be applying this technique into your interview processes? I think it's worth a shot. It helps level the playing field for those of us who aren't particularly adept at interviewing while also providing better insight for those people asked to make a judgement call about a perfect stranger...