Interview Questions and Interview Strategy

It’s struck me of late that many smart companies with reputations for giving tough interviews are weirdly anti-strategic in their approach to interview questions. Chatting with folks from across our organization (and a few others) who’ve done their fair share of interviewing with Google, Amazon, Boeing, the US State Department, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I’m struck by what seems like a focus on making interview questions into “gotchas” and crafting the most grueling process possible in order to be on some “hardest places to interview” list.

I’m calling crazypants on that.

Removing the ego aspect, it would seem that an interview’s goal should be to most effectively predict a person’s ability to:

  • A) Fit into your company culture and work well with the people already on the team
  • B) Add value to the company through contributions that effectively solve problems, deliver in a timely fashion, and scale
  • C) Be honest and ethical

Unless I’m missing something, the questions these “hardest places to interview” ask don’t correlate particularly well to A, B or C (some examples on these links).

At Moz, we’ve been working on our interviewing process across a number of teams. Since I’ve personally been doing a bit of interviewing, I’ve had the opportunity to craft my own process, too, and I like to keep it very strategic and very TAGFEE. Here’s a few questions I like to ask along with the reasoning/goal behind it:

If you had to stack-rank TAGFEE (Transparency, Authenticity, Generosity, Fun, Empathy, Exceptionalism), what would you put where and why?

A lot of candidates who come to us talk about TAGFEE, which is awesome. I’m humbled and excited that it’s something that attracts people to the team (sadly, that wasn’t really the case 2-3 years ago – the folks we brought onto the team fit the values, but it wasn’t a unique differentiator or attractor of applicants). But just talking through things they’ve done that show these values or about them more generally isn’t especially valuable and doesn’t show what they consider important and why. The stack ranking question does this job efficiently and leaves a lot of room for great discussion about conflicts between values, underlying cultural traits that make someone put one thing or another at the top/bottom of the list, etc.

Can you walk me through your professional history – where you’ve been, what you’ve done, why you moved on, and how you got to where you’re at today?

This often takes a good 10-15 minutes of an hour interview, and I’ll interject and ask lots of detail questions. Broadly, it’s a great way to compare a candidate’s answer to what’s on their LinkedIn or in their resume. You get to see what they consider important/unimportant in their job history (or what they’d rather not talk about), and it opens up natural conversation about responsibilities, tasks, feelings toward managers and co-workers, company lifecycles, and lots of other good stuff that gets at the core questions of fit and skill.

What parts of this job do you think will be easy and what do you think will be hard?

Candidates who’ve thought through the position emerge pretty quickly, and this is a good litmus test to make sure the interviewee really understands the demands of the role and what they’ll need to do. There’s usually a quick, easy version of the answer to this and a harder, more in-depth one. The latter’s a good sign that the candidate’s serious about the job and able to analyze a complex, unclear problem in a real life situation adroitly.

Tell me what you’ve learned about Moz as a company and about our products and business model

In my experience, folks who’ve learned a lot about the company, spent time on the website, reading blog posts, following links, taking Open Site Explorer or Followerwonk or the Mozbar for a spin are authentically passionate about the company and the space. Sometimes, I’ll find great candidates who haven’t done these but might still be a match, but it’s a clear signal about their ability to follow an obvious unwritten rule (research the company you apply for) and when they do know a lot, diving into the areas of passion, even if they don’t quite understand it all can give a great sense of cultural/personality fit and integrity. I’m often most impressed when a candidate admits to not understanding aspects of what we do and we spend time diving into that.

What do you know about SEO and web marketing?

For some reason, this one does a great job of separating OK candidates from great ones, and it often reveals BS that folks will sometimes give in prior responses (e.g. about what they’ve done in prior roles around web marketing, tough vs. easy parts of the job, their research into Moz, etc). Obviously, an exec admin candidate or a big data engineer don’t particularly need to have in-depth SEO/marketing knowledge, but it’s not about how much they know and much more about the conversation around it.

What are three things that really bother you but that most people don’t seem to mind? AND What are three things that you love and take great pleasure in that most people don’t like?

It’s sometimes hard to break out of the formality of an interview, but these two questions often do the trick. It’s a great test of authenticity and of honesty, too. I’ve had a number of candidates reveal things about themselves that wonderfully back up their values fit, I’ve had fun conversations as a result that helped assess issues of chemistry. It’s a surprisingly good one.

In addition to these, there’s some other questions I like and am considering adding to my list:

  • You are a spy tracking an individual who is staying in a high end hotel. You need to record all audio from his room for the duration of his stay. You have his name but you do not know which room is his. What do you do?
    I discovered this one via Quora. I like how this brings out fun, creativity, and a chance to compare high-vs-low tech solutions. It also tests the moral flexibility someone has when placed in a potentially amoral circumstance.
  • What other companies would you most want to work for and why?
    The early-stage vs. scaling startup vs. bigco issue is one that can be addressed with this, but it also gives insight into what the person cares about in a job, what problems they find interesting, what motivates them, and whether things like geography, industry, or stage are limiting factors.
  • Tell me about the most interesting thing you’ve read or watched recently
    I used to have this one on my list, both because it helped to identify good storytellers, which tended to be good marketers (back when I hired primarily consultants). I’m thinking of bringing it back because it occasionally surfaces great stuff – it can just be a little inconsistent.

Finally, I tried an interview process last week that I’m thinking about using more frequently, but I’m weirdly nervous about it. I had asked a candidate why they believed empathy was the most important part of TAGFEE in the stack-rank question above. They replied that it had always been important to them and they’d valued it in previous jobs and in their personal life, but I was left feeling like I got an “interview” answer, so I dug deeper. I said (something to the effect of):

“Here’s what I mean. When I was a kid, I often didn’t tell the truth. I’d tell little white lies to get out of a situation, to keep things from one parent or another, to make myself seem more impressive to my friends – that kind of thing. I was usually smart enough to keep the lies straight, but occasionally I’d get caught in one and I remember hating that feeling. For a long time as I got older, I had one or two bigger lies that I constantly lived in fear of having discovered.

As a 20-something, that big lie was hiding the massive debt we’d acquired trying to get Moz off the ground from my Dad. It sucked. I hated it. It made me sick inside. And that sickness is what pushed me to hold transparency as a core value. Regret made me want to be transparent, so that I’d never have to face that shitty situation again.

That’s what I mean when I say ‘tell me why you believe in empathy so much.’ Do you feel comfortable talking about that?”

It was a little tough to tell that story to a stranger I’d just met, but it helped the interview go from a little boring to really interesting. It changed the entire tone of the meeting. After that, the candidate was massively more open. We had a conversation, not an interview. It felt really good. I want more interviews to work that way, but I’m not sure whether I can find a balance where both I and the interviewee can feel good doing it.

I don’t know… Maybe I should use it as a litmus test – if I feel comfortable enough to open up that way, we’ve got a rapport and if not, maybe it’s not a match (at least for someone who I’ll be working with very directly/closely). Or maybe I’m being too demanding of self-analysis that could lead to serious awkwardness or discomfort. It’s something I’m going to keep working on.

For the comments in this post, it would mean a lot to me if you could share your own favorite interview questions and the strategy behind them. And if your questions aren’t meeting your company’s/team’s strategic needs around people, I might urge you to question why you’re asking them.