02 January 2016
Many years ago, when I was new to interviewing, I did a lunch interview at Google in Kirkland with a guy I’ll call Andrew.
You know when things go weird, you remember all sorts of tiny details? I remember that this was in the old Google Kirkland, up higher on the hill, when the cafe was smaller, and when it was easy to hear people playing foosball in the game room. It was a day when we could see the Olympic mountains in all their glory from the cafe. I remember the desserts that were out on the special dessert table – some sort of pie with lots of whipped cream.
I also remember standing in line with Andrew-not-his-real-name, watching him look around, and hearing him say, “wow, there are a lot of HOT girls here, huh?”
Even though this weirded me out, I’ve never mentioned it until writing this post. I certainly never mentioned it to anyone involved in making a hiring decision about him. I don’t know if Andrew-not-his-real-name got hired or not, but I worry that he did and I worry about what effect that hiring decision might’ve had on his co-workers, especially his co-workers who were women.
A few years after that, I had an interview scheduled with a very senior engineer, who I’ll call Richard. This was a guy whose name was the first result when you Googled “architect of $SOME_IMPRESSIVE_TECH” and I walked in expecting a fun interview. The stuff he worked on had neat overlap with one of my favorite interview questions, and his resumé was super impressive, and I was on a streak of learning cool things from people smarter than me during interviews. Unfortunately, from the minute I walked in the door it was obvious Richard-not-his-real-name was emphatically not looking forward to our interview, and the more we talked the more obvious that became. I eventually switched to a mode of “I will be completely deferential now and let this guy be the asshole pedant he so clearly wants to be” which made the rest of the interview easier for both of us. When I wrote feedback I made the nature of our interaction abundantly clear: he did a great job technically, but he was an asshole about it.
I was in the hiring committee that reviewed Richard-not-his-real-name’s packet. I was the only one on the loop who mentioned an interaction like this – most of the rest of the feedback was fairly positive – and I was slightly nervous about being an outlier. When we started discussing his packet, though, Steve (maybe his real name, a super well-respected engineer and a guy who I really looked up to) said, “Oh. THIS guy! I worked with him at $COMPANY and he had a reputation as a complete asshole; in particular he was known for playing politics but doing it badly.” Obviously, we didn’t make him an offer.
I want to talk about the differences between these two scenarios, and I want to talk about why I think the first one is, regrettably, more common.
When I conducted the interview with Richard-not-his-real-name, I was already a seasoned interviewer. I’d been teaching interview classes for at least a year, and I’d been on hiring committee for at least two years. I’d seen a wide array of feedback from lots of different people, and I’d seen other people bring things up that were outside the strictly-technical realm. I knew how things worked, and I’d built enough credibility that I was confident that other people would listen to what I said if it made sense, and, relatedly, that if I occasionally brought up something that nobody else saw or was actively contradicted or even seemed specious, that wouldn’t reflect very badly on me and people would still respect me. To put it bluntly, even as one of the more junior-by-title members of hiring committee, I was in a position of (mild) power.
In contrast, when I interviewed Andrew-not-his-real-name, I was not in a position of power. I was fairly new to Google; I hadn’t built a reputation among my co-workers yet; I might’ve been on hiring committee but I was very new to it. There was also a weird dynamic in play, related to the kind of interview I was doing. At Google, lunch interviews are explicitly off the record, and I probably told Andrew-not-his-real-name this at the start of our interview. This is almost always a good thing: it gives the candidate a break, it gives them a chance to re-fuel both psychologically and physically, and it can be a nice time for the candidate to just be social. But in cases like this it introduces some extra friction to give feedback if the interviewer thinks it’s appropriate – there’s no default way to tell the recruiter and/or hiring committee if something makes you uncomfortable. Of course, you can always just email the recruiter, and I never had a bad experience doing so, but my point is that giving feedback isn’t an implicit part of doing the interview.
So these things conspired against me to convince me that I shouldn’t bother saying anything about Andrew-not-his-real-name’s remark. They also gave me some room to do some extra rationalization: like, sure, when I was in my 20s talking about attractive women was a not-uncommon topic of conversation with my friends, maybe this was just his way of being friendly, etc. etc. Of course that’s a shitty rationalization: not only were we at work, he was interviewing for a job – not filtering yourself in that situation is an obvious red flag. With hindsight bias, I wish I’d said something to the recruiter about the comment he made: I’d feel better having said something, and perhaps it would’ve resulted in a better environment at Google in Kirkland. When I read Cate Huston’s article about bystanders (sidenote: if you’re a guy, read that post) I thought to myself, oh crap, there I was, being a bystander.
Given all that, I have some things I’ve tried to do, and some things I request of you.
When you’re interviewing a candidate, stay alert for things that set off your Spidey-sense (as Lara Hogan calls it). If something feels weird or off, say something about it to someone involved in hiring. I realize this isn’t always easy and in fact it can be super uncomfortable. It might be easier for you to have conversations about this 1:1 – seek out someone (it doesn’t even have to be the hiring manager) to talk to about it. Don’t dismiss it and pretend it’s nothing. There’s a chance it was nothing, but there’s also a chance that other people saw it, and your act of saying something about it could be the seed that helps other people bring it up.
A hard thing about being an engineer who does interviews is that sometimes it’s easy to only look at the technical parts of the interview – if the candidate wrote code, is the algorithm O(n) or is it O(n^2)? Did they easily write list comprehension code? Did they free their pointers? Did they talk about testing? Etc., etc. These are, honestly, the easy things, and if you’re using them for their own sake, you are missing the point of the interview. The interviewer’s job is (with apologies to Ursula K. LeGuin) to ask in questions what can’t be asked in questions. This means assessing a candidate’s emotional maturity and empathy and curiosity. Asking technical questions is easy; deriving the actual interesting and useful signal is hard. The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned, but you have to actively practice it – think about what’s happening interpersonally between you and the candidate; think about how you would feel working with this person and think about how others on your team might feel about working with the candidate. Again: this is hard, and the only way to get good at it is to practice, but it’s vital.
If you’re a manager or recruiter or otherwise in a position of power in the interviewing process, do everything you can to give people room to talk about not only how the candidates performed on technical questions, but also the way candidates made them feel. Encourage people to do the hard work of learning how to dig deeper than technical knowledge in interviews. Provide training. Give feedback. Give people room and time to learn.
Remember that people who are not in positions of power in particular might have trouble bringing this sort of stuff up. Even more than that, remember that women and minorities are not only unfortunately used to this stuff happening to them more often, but almost certainly have a more finely-tuned sense for it happening than us white tech dudes do. Worst of all, given the landscape of diversity in tech right now, it’s sadly likely that women and minorities are already de facto not in positions of power in your organization. Don’t discount feedback of this nature when you hear it: that’s the best way to ensure you won’t hear it, and it’s a pretty great way to drive out employees who are women or minorities.
Do what you can, as often as you can, to build a culture where it’s okay to bring this stuff up. The nice thing is that there’s a built-in positive feedback loop here: making the interview process more sensitive to “bad behavior” will mean that the people you do hire are more inclusive and more sensitive, which will lead to a better workplace for everyone, which then leads to built-in higher sensitivity during interviews, which leads to a better workplace, and so on.
The older I get the more I realize that the single most important quality of a workplace is a pervasiveness of empathy, and sensitivity, and kindness. Two complementary parts of building a workplace like that are listening to that tiny voice in yourself that says someone you’re interviewing might impinge on that quality, and giving others room to say something when they hear that tiny voice.