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RailsConf 2019 - Interview Them Where They Are by Eric Weinstein

Eric Weinstein
Director of Engineering at ZipRecruiter
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RailsConf 2019
May 2, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
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About speaker

Eric Weinstein
Director of Engineering at ZipRecruiter

I'm an engineering leader focused on building performant, scalable, and easy-to-use distributed applications. My experience has primarily been in web development, SVOD, ad tech, and machine learning; specific technologies and frameworks are listed below.Front end: ClojureScript, JavaScript/React.Back end: Clojure, Go, Java, JavaScript/Node, Python, Ruby/Rails, SQL (MySQL, PostgreSQL).Machine learning: Java (Apache Spark, DL4J, WEKA), Python (NumPy, SciPy, Scikit-learn, TensorFlow), R.

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RailsConf 2019 - Interview Them Where They Are by Eric Weinstein


As engineers, we've spent years mastering the art of conducting technical interviews—or have we? Despite being on both sides of the table dozens of times, how often have we come away feeling that the interview didn't work as well as it could have? How many of our interviews have been just plain bad? How much time do we spend designing and improving our own interview processes, and what signals should we be looking for when it comes to making those improvements? In this talk, we'll examine the technical interview in depth, developing a framework for interviewing candidates "where they are" by focusing on answering two major questions: how can we ensure our interview process identifies the people and skillsets we need to grow our teams, and how can we interview candidates in an inclusive way that maximizes their ability to demonstrate their competencies? By the end, we'll have built out a rich new set of tools you can immediately apply to the hiring process in your own organization.

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So I think we'll get started. And I'd like to start. I told you a story the story. I've been on in my chest or rather left out some names. So as to protect companies that have interesting interview practices, but I do want to let you know ahead of time the story everything that happened in it is true. But I've stitched together multiple interview Loops into one for the sake of the story. So don't feel bad for me. I did not have one super awful day or everything went terribly wrong. But these are all

things that did happen to me in the course of interviewing at small companies large companies companies whose names, you know, Andre about the news and then companies. Maybe you don't So I drove to the company and I was very excited and I started my interview Loop by talking to the corrugator was running. It was super nice friendly restaurant water coffee and I go into the interview room and my first interviewer comes in and introduces himself. Pulled out a piece of paper. and starts asking me things like

what is a pipe? How do they work not? Why are they interesting not what are some Unix command line utilities that you think to use but literally just what is that? What is that character right there? So I said, okay and I gave them the Wikipedia definition and they said okay great. And then it said let's move on. Does Ajax return things other than XML? And I said sometimes I think and I talked about Jason and I talked about web standards and Xmas script

and is it okay to Duncan and continued on in this way for 35 minutes asking just kind of trivia questions that ranged back in front end command line utility things like that. and thanks for your time and. That was interesting and then I add another person come in. And they introduce themselves and said let me ask you a problem and they asked me you always kind of know right when someone ask you a question. That's something like how would you validate that this data structures, correct? You know it was like a secret follow up with the one I have the easy one first and then ask you something

like I would you generate ideas for sure. So I start doing all the things you're supposed to do, you know writing on the Whiteboard saying I need to make sure I understand the question. Let me make sure you know that I got this right and they interrupted me and said This isn't hard just write the code. And I don't know what that would do to you but that is very effective is throwing me off my game entirely. So I hadn't spent the next 35 minutes mumbling and sweating and breathing out in producing group or answer to that question is is right

and then say no and after a lot of poking and prodding on fine. I missed a semicolon or I had swapped to a disease look similar. So we are we didn't get to their favorite part and it became abundantly clear that they were very irritated and took a picture of the whiteboard in Latin. And that's a pretty bad but it was okay because now this was the lunch interview, right? This is the one where you go when you have food in the company cafeteria, and somebody tells you all

about ones like work their culture other people. And freaking was very nice little bit older had to leave the company for sometime told me about the culture what they like working on what they didn't and I don't I don't know if HR told them to think all they could think of to tout to me on Millenia who's interested in things like inclusivity, but it is a direct quote that we heard all about the unisexual bathrooms. The unisexual bathrooms non gender non-specific bathrooms. But

okay, let's let's let's continue. So good little girl scouts interview question. And if it does that make sense cuz I started running on the Whiteboard and they proceeded to ignore me entirely as though I were not there for 40 minutes. And I would say things like this make sense. Is this reasonable just the right approach and sometimes they would look at the Whiteboard and say yeah and sometimes they would just say yeah or nothing. And then they thank you for my time and took a picture of the whiteboard in the left. And finally, you know, I've been getting to the other day. I'm very

tired, but I know there's only one interview left. This is okay. And the end of your comes in also, very nice very friendly and ask me a question that it turns out. You cannot meaningfully answer. Unless you know what I did right sequence is. Which I did not. And what made me really mad about this is that the red sequences are super interesting mathematically, so I went home and looked at the idea, but I was mad that it came up in an interview when I didn't know the answer. So

that was that was one of the most of the trickiest one for me rather than otherwise we super cool. But I love you and I thank you and I went home. You think that they would have said no, but he didn't think it was said yes, but they didn't they say would you like to come in for some more interviews? And I said no, so I don't like the idea of comparing software developers to medical professionals or doctors. It is knowledge work like medicine. We are on call sometimes I think I

comparison is super fraud. I don't like pretending that you know, whether or not the web pages is up is is a good one to know these life-or-death situation. But I friends were doctors in this part resonates with me when I realized imagine if you like go in your interviewing as a doctor and they say your references. I'll check out your you know, well known professional clearly has a track record of success if you wouldn't mind sharing with me for just a brief exercise. This is what it makes me. Think of and then I don't like

that. I don't I don't like that interviewing makes me think of operation. So so interviewing is broken. I don't say that lightly. I don't like to say broken them aside and willing to continue because when someone says something is broken that immediately invites the question, how is a broken so I'm going to go through and I'm going to talk about how we can fix it. And that's the whole point of this talk. So stock is called interview them where they are, LOL counseling Minneapolis time. I'm delighted to be right ever been to Minnesota and a

supper consultant for the company called testable. If you're not familiar with Festival, we are a distributed remote consultancy that pairs with client teams to not only delivered somewhere but ensure that the team themselves are better as a result of having work with us. So if you are thinking about your current projects your car and you can do something that we could help but please don't hesitate to reach out to me America wanting on most things Twitter GitHub. You can reach out to me and Eric at

festival.com. If you are looking for your next adventure, we are hiring so I can talk a little bit about the interview process. And finally if you do want to talk more about interviewing and everything including topics are very important to me, and I'm always happy to chat. So please do come by me after the show. And a few years ago. I read a book to teach Ruby 2 8 9 and 10 year olds. Dojo points of interviewing in my mind to find the people that we need to grow our teams. Would you like is somewhat non-controversial I

think is not always talked about in one thing. I think it's critical optimizing for demonstrating competencies. Too often someone an interviewer intentionally or inadvertently views. The interview process is sort of a challenge like kind of a way to find something that the candidate doesn't know the probe for weaknesses and say this person really knows JavaScript really knows react doesn't understand active record doesn't understand databases etcetera, etcetera that really thinking too much about you. So I really

like Reading Counts test a lot. I usually do test-driven development and this is happened to me a lot in my career. But the first time it happened was very frustrating. I remember writing some code to write the test. So I wrote a test and it was read it which is great because that is the first step in writing your test in red green retractor, which nobody tells you initially is shorthand for red red red red. Red red, red green. Stop reading my texts. I'm I'm excited cuz it's hailing and I'll write the production code. Am I tested red?

So I start digging around trying to figure it out, running down the execution pass on paper staring at my code back to the paper back to the editor. Finally. I looked back at the test after wait too long. I realize that my test was wrong. and this is a thing that I think we don't think about often outside the context the reading code if you're interviewing someone and they have years of experience and all these great open source contributions, and they're very smart and very sharpened and they don't know the answer to some trivia question or they don't do well on a whiteboard and you decide

that so One thing I think a lot about is the way that we construct interviews in a lot of people think interview start when you walk into the room and the candidate there may be a couple weeks before when you get that calendar invite with the attached but it actually starts much money earlier months ahead of time. And this is a job description. I'm sure he's written several of them and written some really bad ones. I wrote this one before the doctor.

This is not one that I wrote for work. I won't read it to you. But this all seems familiar fright looking for some potential or we want a certain that experience certain Technologies. And bonus points, whatever that means. There are very particular stack. I don't think this is very good job description. And I think we can kind of take our inclination to refactor out of the realm of writing test and bring it to our job descriptions. So that's what we're going to do. Show me the brightness up into the four kind of pieces, you know, Prudential experience together languages bonus

points. Look at the first one. We're looking for someone with a bachelor's degree in computer science or equivalent. I don't think this is a valuable thing to put in a job description because most of the time you don't need it there some rules. Were you really a cigar. Sara Gerber is important and you may work in a place where you know for whatever reason HRS a day. We do need people to have for your degrees for next Monday reason, but I don't think a degree in computer science should be necessary for most of the work that we do. And I don't think anyone is ever explain

to me what equivalent means it's worth of content free statement, right? I recommend to get rid of it. So when we code basically we're not going to put this in. 1 2 3 years of experience this says to me that you're you're trying to find someone with a certain level of seniority. But what happens when you say 1 2 3 years experience as you want, it's an extremely broad. I was so different in my third year of writing software professional in my first but also there's

Such a broad range of experience if you start at a startup that's always on fire and you wearing multiple hats and do all these different things. You will have a much different set of skills. And if you do work for big bank and you write job after 3 years not to knock their backs, but maybe a little bit If I don't I don't think this is really very valuable with this is really asking is what what is a person know how to do. and so what I would say is looking for someone comfortable writing features and is looking to own in tire services or large swaths of the application if you

Can I get you closer to what you actually are looking for if it not some arbitrary number of years especially because you probably have work with people who have 3 years of experience. Moving on the script and relax and go with reasonable to change the least but I think it's kind of unclear where those weights line, but you're actually looking for so I would say something more like we prefer the candidates know JavaScript and react or go to make it from experience. It's it's fine if they don't want people to learn how to learn in some capacity.

Finally bonus points for you to put grass microservices communities. I also think this is kind of content freeze unclear to me what this means but I think when it's driving at is what here's what we do and my opinion is you should just say that on the back end loader go services are organized is microservices orchestrated. So that we can actually put you back together into a job description, but I feel much better about this feels relieved until I confirm it's not ideal. I don't think but I think it's really nice to say you're looking for do you know these things or how you done

these things? Are you looking for these things? we can have a conversation when thing people sometimes say in response to this is why I don't have specific anymore. Is it to Big? I don't have her degree requirement. I don't have information about how many years experience unqualified people opposite. I think when you have gatekeeping language, like degree number of years what happens is people self-select out, even when they are qualified for the role and this is disproportionately true of underrepresented minorities groups in Tech like in women in Tekken and folks who don't have what I

call the medium white man syndrome what time the meeting white man both in terms of my average capacity and my propensity to write things on medium. There is I feel like I feel like I should have Be the thing that doesn't happen is I'll do what I got like three of these five checkboxes. I'll just send in my resume. It's not something that happens, you know yesterday outside of my sphere of a privilege and be mindful of the fact that there are people who will

be keeping language around years and credentials. Do I think you know know what you're looking for before you interview and critically you have to know how you're going to measure success. Now I said that job description was an ideal. I would love job descriptions that include how we measure how the company thinks about, you know reviews and then what we want to see from you as a software developer. But if you don't put in the JD you at least need to think about it when you write it before you interview because you're

you're setting people up for failure. If you don't know how I feel about you ate them once they join your team. So now we have people in our pipeline. And modular people like me who don't listen and don't know how to stop us. We we have people who theoretically are who are looking for right which is we went over the problem of basic witches night. It's another question is how do we do nothing with him historically this is been done on the Whiteboard, which is a Blackboard because I'm limited by the available emojis and interviewing. I honestly think really was valuable at one point

back in the day. You had a certain amount of computer time you would schedule time to use the computer in the meantime you write down all your code on paper make sure it was right and then I could type it in as fast as you could and compile and see if it work. That is not the world that we live in anymore. And I think that whiteboarding interviews can have a place sort of it'll expand on that but probably is not a good proxy for writing code with other humans, which is what we do. We work on teams. We write code elaborately week and then spend time together and white boarding

by yourself on a board while somebody says yeah, that's right or no. That's not even if you're more engaged is not a good I could wait doing it. So there are some you know, what your programmers on the internet you also agree with me, I hoped I would I would feel to do that. I have failed to do this. I don't fear whiteboarding anymore. I used to be super friend boarding now. I just don't like it. It's because the the medium doesn't really make sense. And again the the content is not correct for what we're evaluating. We're trying to figure out. How do you

communicate? How do you take ambiguous requirements and turn them into a how do you Bright coat with other people have and this has been noted in Intex like programming interviews exposed where they kind of a wild beast on these constraints. You're not going to be asked any what real-world problems real-world problems are all that. So we're back here. What are some ways that we can actually get a signal and interview people in a way it's more inclusive get this better like a higher Fidelity signal around what they can do.

So, this is Kira. Ada is a fresh computer science graduate college. Baby has an internship or two but has not really written production code in a group in a company for everyone. What is going to be good at her strengths are algorithms, right sorting searching things like that. Things are taught in a traditional computer science. data structures and it may be also be stackoverflow, but I think everyone is well-versed in Sac overflow and kind of well-defined tightly to go

problems things that are kind of there's a right answer and this is maybe the only time I would still be okay with my boarding and this is absent You know project I get up profile internships things that demonstrate that collaborative nature of writing code together. You also want to make sure you're asking for things that are going to be so kind of like me going into a room in pairing. Flexing the interview in entering meeting people where they are the critical. Call you made to measure interviews kind of construct modules around

what you're looking to assess based on who you're looking for in the world and you can mix and match them a little bit. We can allow it to be used to select candidates to select what they want. They want to know. I really like to do I take home and Repair on it, right? That's one of the options almost like when you go and have dinner at like a wedding. You know, what it's like to fish with a chicken. No one yelled at you if you picked the wrong, what's the goats? No one like you didn't go to dinner if you like a different dinner than they had. No one gets you just like a garbage it says

here you go. Everyone gets the same play the garbage at the classic ideas. So this is what I would recommend. This has been been graduated from boot camp, maybe three or four years ago. So do not have a traditional PS background but has worked in history for a few years and ready modular easy to change in test code. Expects been could potentially be really good at parrying. We do a lot of parents have double. I know there are other companies that do a lot of pairing boot camps in exercise pairing. Probably good that

testing refactoring changing code preserving Behavior with the code Bassnectar. And I would expect him to be able to talk about the trade-offs involved in his language with Members Choice. deeper conversation So one thing I might have been to do was help me to lose a parent on a small and window down version of a real production thing, but maybe if you have the time you would take home and then we can pair on factoring ever had a new functionality afterwards. These are pieces that are actually used in the detestable

interview process. But here I'm advocating we often give them the choice is to hate being respectful of people's time cuz you know what their people are in your parents or have other obligations. Maybe they don't have time for both every loop with it and do it. Take home to pair. Ricky here is having that flexibility and looking for strength rather than prodding for weaknesses. Finally, this is Charlie. So Charlie did do a traditional computer science degree, but they graduated 10-12 years ago. So they have not spent a lot of time thinking about

Albert and related structures. They been thinking about you know, you know production problems. They've been thinking about keeping the lights on everything but the thing about fires management dealing with product stakeholders all the things that we do every day above and beyond to the sort of like underlying competition. Do you have expect Raleigh to be good at programming pairing? The guy might give them a store near parent has been in my gift to been something that's going to have more edge cases out expect Charlie to have evolved to the point where it's not it's

when things go wrong, but when things go wrong and then heading that mine said it like this will eventually fail. So what is the feel your mug? I would expect Charlie to a lot of strength in terms of one too many communication right maybe been out of expected to master one-to-one communication, but not to have mastered getting buy-in from a large or getting a common stock in kind of getting consensus from for the large number of people. So I would expect to be able to attend or get into buying from a group especially for that didn't report to your location to

you. I would look for service since it seems a little thinking and say, you know tell me about this big project Irani resume at work and we have a service XYZ at our company. How would you go about developing a service? And really you're not picking up proper weaknesses, but after clarification and say what was the trade-off, you know, what happened when you did this or what were you trying to avoid by adding this an architectural pattern? And it's kind of like I don't I don't like white boarding code necessarily on the wiper blades. Do you like Drive systems diagrams? It is super fun.

And so does having them right in the Whiteboard. Hey, you know the service talk to this one the services of this database cashiers are we don't hear the trade-offs involved things like that? That's what I was 4th. And I will take a minute to talk a little bit bug bias, right? People have asked me if you know a lot of us now because you have not everyone gets the same interview. Some people will be interviewed and these people be interviewed and it's a good question. There's two aspects to it one. Anyway, even though

you're already getting honest were human volatility depending on who And further, I think just because everything is the same doesn't mean it's right again, the test can be wrong and I think they understand that uniformity is not the same thing as being unbiased. You can have systemic bias. You can have it we do. This is a wedding present in all parts of the community and inhuman organizations at large. So this notion that because you Don't give it runs interview. You Know You Were Somehow people do some people in and other day. I didn't I think it's the opposite. If you don't flex

to someone interview style, if you don't help them to shine and into the make clear where they're really good or not. I think this is where we do two services. This is where we exclude people by not allowing them to demonstrate with a no because everyone get the same test and you have to pass the test that has nothing to do with the work. It's like the sat right? Absolutely nothing. Other than are you going to be at 84° and then you go you can say I have a four-year degree in computer science and ruin all that means you did well on standardized tests and if your

parents have enough money to send you somewhere nice. It's nothing to do with your building. Leaving Mater takeaways. I think our knowing who you wants and what you're looking for month before you interview when you get to that job description. Trying out black hole made to measure interviews again. It's not bespoke. Not everyone gets their own completely personalized interview, but they get to select where you can help Flex, you know in and give them the modules that are any valuable to them. Allow them to say hey, I really did apparently every

time during these are things going to be tested on. Looking for strengths and not their weaknesses. We don't spend a lot of time with our own peers saying hey, I think that you're Superbad XYZ and bothers me, right? We usually say hey, I know that we need to do XYZ and expertise and I'd like to go find them and saying, you know, this is this is what we're looking for and allowing people to go through that competency is critical. diving inclusive and positive energy pipeline Finally the interview bails the interviewee when that interview does not anticipate people like them

when someone is on a loop and it's for people with a certain amount of privilege which was certain set of programs with a certain amount of experience and it's just the way things are and everyone else is kind of top lock you out to figure out some way to to learn enough of this and you do when you by cracking the coding interview you by pretending everything's supposed to think like that. This is truly a tectonic. I think it is it to replace not only were interviews feel bad as I mentioned in my earlier story, but you don't get a good signal right there have been I've I've told stories

where people in the Super Bowl in the area, but I knew they were capable I worked with him before or they they came back into the second round in a trap different things and they completely differently. I know people who have been hired an organization who crushed the interview Lube And we're unsuccessful in a roll. And tell Dad that tells us that again, but the test is not meaningful lifted test is not testing what it supposed to be. Anyway, I am very happy to talk for 40 minutes forever and ever and ever have an unlimited amount of language but a limited amount of wisdom. So

that is all I've gotten. Thank you so much for coming to this talk.

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