January 16, 2011

Separating the sheep from the goats during an interview (part 1 - Learnability)

I previously talked about the perfect CV and how an applicant can survive an interview. Although both posts are more oriented towards candidates, they are also useful for employers. When you receive a CV that is written as it should be and when a candidate can act normal without suffering too much from stress, you are already halfway in evaluating the candidate. In this post, I want to go deeper in what -in my opinion-  a company should look for in an ideal employee and how to test this during a one hour interview.

How can you actually evaluate a candidate in one hour?

During the interview, I always let the candidate elaborate on his latest job/function and only explain the content of the job at the end of the interview if he is actually a worthy candidate. Most of the times I already interrupt him during the first few minutes to steer the candidate towards the things I want to know that are important for the job and to look for the 3 major qualities I look for in the ideal candidate.

1. Learnability
2. Responsibility
3. Social

In this post I will elaborate on the first quality: learnability. In next posts, I'll go deeper into the other two qualities.


Learnability is all about being smart and the willingness to learn. Being smart is not enough by itself. I rather check the learnability as a whole of the candidates. They should be smart to be able to actually understand things AND should also be willing to learn.

How do you test smartness? I always have a question in my sleeve that can easily be answered at first sight, but which will be used as a trigger for a lot of follow up questions. If they know the answers, good for them, they'll get the next question that builds upon the first question and the answer they gave. So far, we probably are testing their encyclopedic knowledge, things they know already anyway.

It really gets interesting when they do not know the answer immediately. This is where you go beyond encyclopedic knowledge and can see if they really understand what they are talking about. Just give them the answer yourself, explain it in detail and look if they can follow. You may explicitly ask them if they understood the answer. Then you can hit them with another question that builds upon your own answer. Look at their reaction. Have they really understood everything you said? Do they ask questions themselves to follow your reasoning? Can they reason with you? Can they actually answer the new question or do they blank out? Even if they can not answer again, do the same again, give the answer yourself, explain it in detail and hit them with the next question. See how far you can go. If you can see that they stick with you until the end and they don't get frustrated or completely blank out, you got a smart person in front of you.

Don't try to be too smart with your questions though, you could end up like Google expecting an answer which is in fact wrong on a question they ask during interviews:
Just choose something quirky or not so obvious you encountered in your own experience.

Being smart does not mean they are actually willing to learn new things though. To test their willingness, I ask what they do at home to stay up to date, are they reading articles, blogs, sites, books, etc... in their free time? Even if they only do this during their daytime job, reading a blog or article does not take a lot of time and keeps them sufficiently informed of what is happening in their domain of expertise. If they do stay up to date, I always ask them to tell me something about the things they've read and what they like or don't like about it. What are the evolutions? What do they think what the future brings?

Learnability might be a knife that cuts on both sides. If you have a lot of people with high learnability, they might never get things done, because they are always looking for the next best thing and never finish their actual work. You might not always need people who want to learn all the time. Sometimes it is sufficient that they are smart enough to understand the task at hand and make sure there is a smooth continuation of existing tasks. More on this when I talk about responsibility.

I generally reserve 20-30 minutes for this part during a one hour interview, because I think this is really important.

In a next post I'll go deeper into responsibility. If you think you're learnability is high, you are already one step closer to working for us.

No comments:

Post a Comment