Moishe Lettvin

I love coffee, bicycles, cameras and code. I mainly write about technical interviewing here.

Remote Interviewing

16 March 2020

First, let me get this out of the way: I’m having trouble writing about anything practical or work-related with everything happening with COVID-19. I’m worried about my family, I’m worried about my friends, I’m worried about neighbors and anyone vulnerable. But this seems like a small, topical thing I can contribute to that might make a narrow sliver of people’s lives a tiny bit easier.

I’ve been working remote – out of my home or a rented office – for a little over 7 years now. During that time I’ve conducted a fair number of interviews over Zoom or Google Hangouts. It seems like doing this might become the norm for lots of us for a while. I thought it might be useful to share some things I’ve learned.

General Stuff

Interviews are stressful. They’re stressful for candidates and for interviewers. I’ve been a candidate probably a couple of dozen or so times and I have never, ever not been nervous as a candidate. I’ve been an interviewer hundreds of times, and guess what: I’ve never, ever not been nervous as an interviewer.

When you’re an in-person interviewer, there are ways to notice and attenuate the nervousness of the candidate. Eye contact (or not), the volume and speed at which you talk, knowing when to interrupt and knowing when to leave a silence, how you sit in your chair or where you stand if you’re working on a whiteboard – most of us use these tools to set the tone of an interview subconsciously. After a few interviews, you become comfortable using these tools to increase the candidate’s comfort, which helps the candidate show their best selves and helps you learn what you need to know about the candidate.

The same is true as a candidate: being interviewed is a skill, and much of that skill is about being a great communicator. You’ll use similar tools as the interviewer when you’re being interviewed to put yourself and the interviewer at ease.

When you’re interviewing over Zoom (or whatever), many of your communication tools are gone. Eye contact is weird – you can look at the camera, and to the person on the other side of the VC it’ll sorta seem like you’re looking at them, but then you’re not actually seeing the candidate. Volume is hard to control, and subtle vocal cues might go missing. Your posture might be unnoticed or exaggerated. If there are more than two people in the interview (eg. Mailchimp does pair interviews, two interviewers per candidate per interview slot) all this becomes even more complex. You can’t make it obvious when you’re changing your attention from one person to another. You can’t see who the other person’s looking at or directing their answer towards. Lag makes interruptions or multiple people talking at once even worse.

So what can you do about this?

First, make sure your video setup is right: can the other people on the video see you and is what they see reasonable? For hints about this, please refer to Alice Goldfuss’s Work in the Time of Corona article.

Being aware of how you present yourself is even more important in an interview because of the all the participants’ heightened sensitivity to non-verbal cues and the “first impression” dynamic. Note again: the non-verbal and presentation pieces of this should never be part of your evaluation of a candidate, of course, but as an interviewer it’s your job to make it as easy as possible for a candidate to do well. And it’s easier for them to do well if they can see you well.

Before the interview starts, use Zoom’s audio and video check to double-check that your video and audio are working. At my office, I use a USB connection to an external amp to listen to music, and switching from that to headphone audio for video calls works about 90% of the time, which is almost worse than if it never worked. I’ve trained myself to double-check via Zoom’s drop-down links on the “audio” button in the meeting.

Acknowledge the strangeness and awkwardness. As an interviewer, part of your job is to make the candidate comfortable, and honesty goes a long way. Interviewing over video chat isn’t a thing we’re used to – just say that! Acknowledge that you’re also getting used to it, and that you’ll be patient with the weirdness of what’s happening, and you’ll get through it together. Let the candidate know that it’s okay if they tell you they can’t hear you, or if your video is lagging (you may not know), and tell them you’ll do the same for you. And do that! Your video quality almost certainly will become bad, you may miss something a candidate says, etc. Your job as an interviewer is not to let this rattle you and definitely not to let it reflect on your assessment of the candidate. Make that clear and everything will be much easier.

Once you’ve acknowledged the awkwardness and weirdness, be aware of your own actions (and if you’re part of a pair interview team, also be aware of your co-interviewer’s actions). For instance: I take notes by typing during interviews, and I’d (naïvely) assumed that my typing was inaudible to the candidate because I use a mic attached to my headphones. I had literally no way of knowing this was true or not, though, and during one of my first pairing interviews my co-interviewer gently let me know they could hear my keyboard. This was great! I literally never would have known, and because of this feedback I now know to mute when I’m not talking.

If the other participants’ video freezes, you may be tempted to make exaggerated movements to see if your video is frozen. If it’s not, the other people will see this, and I guarantee it’ll be distracting for the candidate. Rely on technology to diagnose your connection: I use PeakHour to keep an eye on my ping times and I also always have Zoom’s statistics window open (Settings -> Statistics -> Video) to watch frame rate and quality, so I know if my own video is lagging.

Also, have a backup plan – what happens if someone’s internet connection goes down? If there are two interviewers, you could decide that one carries on if the other drops off. Or, you could decide to fall back to a phone call. Or you could decide to try to reconnect for a certain amount of time and, if that fails, reschedule the call. But having a plan will both make things easier if something goes wrong, and offer some assurance to the candidate that you’re cognizant of the pitfalls of interviewing over video.

Have a backchannel where the interviewers and recruiter can communicate about the interview as it’s happening. At Mailchimp, we create a new private Slack channel for each candidate we interview. We can use this to signal other interviewers when one interview is wrapping up, to communicate between interviewers during the interview if something goes wrong.

Coding Interviews

Whiteboard coding interviews are bad and I would never recommend you do them. But sometimes you are obligated to, because it’s what the company you work at mandates. I have good news for you: remote interviews give you a great opportunity to not ask candidates to write code on a whiteboard and instead do something more akin to what we do every day, which is to write code on a keyboard. Using something like coderpad.io or even just screen-sharing in Zoom can work better, for many candidates, than coding on a whiteboard. If you do this, though, set the candidate up for success: tell them beforehand that they’ll be screensharing, if they will be, and give them clear directions in advance for how to do this. Ideally give them a way to practice it before the interview.

If you give candidates homework and then discuss it onsite, you can share your screen to ask questions and “drive” if the candidate asks you to navigate around the code.

In some ways, discussing code over video is a little easier than non-technical interviews over video. The code can anchor you, and you can communicate in code or text in addition to voice and video.

Concentrating on code could even let you forego video chat altogether. I have not tried audio-only coding interviews, but I’ve heard from others that they work well, and I can imagine that being the case. I would recommend giving candidates flexibility in this, and letting them give input on whether they want to use video or audio-only.

Design Interviews

I love design interviews. They’re fun and can be profoundly informative because they’re so open-ended, and great ones are collaborative and dynamic. Having a physical whiteboard makes these types of interviews tactile and interactive; interviewers and the candidate get to point at things, and erase things, and use colors and shapes and sizes to convey information. I haven’t done one of these interviews in person in years and I miss it.

There are a few ways to solve the lack of a physical whiteboard in a video interview. The first is to just have a discussion, with no drawing. This can work well for some candidates and some questions, but it requires both the candidate and the interviewer to take great notes or be very good at holding a lot of info in their heads.

Second, the candidate can just draw on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera. This is nice because it’s low tech and you don’t have to worry about another piece of software that could potentially not work. Some candidates think better with a real notebook and pen/pencil. It’s more reasonable to expect a candidate to have a notepad and pen/pencil than it is to expect them to have, for instance, an iPad. The downside is that this removes interactivity; the interviewer can see the diagram the candidate’s drawing but can’t contribute to it, or easily point to it. If you go this route, be sure the candidate knows they’ll need a notepad and pen/pencil. Some people don’t have notepads next to their computers all the time, and scrambling for one in the middle of an interview isn’t fun.

You can use a shared diagramming app. At Mailchimp, our conference rooms have “Jamboards”, so when I was interviewing candidates who were on campus when I was remote, I could use the Jamboard app on my iPad. It might be possible to share a Jamboard board with a candidate outside your org; if so, it’s a reasonable product for this application. Some other products: miro, A Web Whiteboard, invison

The advantage of an app is obviously the interactivity. The downside is that you need to be absolutely sure the candidate has an easy way to use the app and that they’re comfortable using it. If you’re going to use an app for this purpose, coordinate beforehand – ideally you can have a standard system so the recruiter can help the candidate get set up at the same time they schedule the interview, but if not, an interviewer or recruiter should reach out and ensure that the candidate is prepared. Also note that “drawing” with a mouse is not a great experience; if the candidate has a tablet they can use that will be a much better experience. Remember that the candidate’s experience is paramount here and that should generally outweigh other conveniences.

Practice practice practice

Finally: practice. This is the advice I give over and over again, for interviewers and candidates. Interviews are weird artificial environments – best case, you’re in a room with a stranger talking about computers and evaluating them or being evaluated. That’s not natural! Add the extra layer of complexity of a video call and it’s even weirder. If you’re an interviewer, find another interviewer and practice doing interviews of the kind you’ll be doing, over video. If you’re a candidate, find someone to practice with, perhaps someone who’s also looking for a job or a friend who interviews regularly – they might be thankful for the practice too. Use the software you expect to use in the interview. Things will go wrong that I haven’t discussed and you may discover things that work that I haven’t discussed.