THE Interview Question That Tells You (Almost) Everything
In Part 2 of this post, we looked mostly at the process for screening candidates. Sure, a consistent process will help ensure you’re fairly evaluating candidates and consistently capturing similar information. It doesn’t address how you interpret what you hear, nor does it necessarily prescribe what you’re listening for.
Make sure you’ve read Part I before you continue, we’ll be referring back to the examples there from time to time.
Understanding What You’ve Heard: Assessment Phase
Now, let’s turn our attention to our set of four criteria: aptitude & skills, motivation, passion, and a set of core values. The values in my case were personal accountability, personal growth, high candor, and the belief that leaders delegate & listen. Yours may vary. What are we listening for to evaluate candidates against these criteria?
Criteria #1: Aptitude & Skills (the former being far more important)
I remember clearly putting together training for our small team in early 2011 so that others could participate in our interview process and be listening for the right things. As part of that I’d assembled three example resumes. The goal was to determine who we’d want to follow up with. After the training, the team evaluated each. Without exception, there was one resume everyone agreed should be ignored. There were some formatting issues and he had very little experience — currently a sysadmin at a small company.
As it turns out, I was also once a sysadmin with very little experience at a small company. There aren’t a lot of resources around to help you, you’re understaffed, and if you don’t figure it out… nobody else will.
Pete Smith came on board in late 2010 and within four years was responsible for our entire network analysis practice. During his phone screen he spoke not only about his responsibilities at work, he also shared information about several side projects that he was using to grow his depth of knowledge. The initiative and thirst for knowledge is what convinced me he was what we were looking for.
At Mandiant in 2011, we were focused on a category of threat that up until that point only governments knew and cared about. At the time, it was called “The APT,” and referred specifically to state-sponsored threat actors out of China. I wasn’t going to be able to build the business by hiring people who had direct experience with this type of threat actor. Such candidates didn’t exist. Certainly not in the quantity I needed — so aptitude was essential.
Skills and experience are not unimportant, but they’re often over-emphasized. On most technical teams, a given level of technical skills only needs to align with your job role or seniority. How you strengthen those skills and how you build new skills speaks to your potential.
Criteria #2: Motivation (why does the candidate want this job?)
A candidate once told me, “I’ve been watching Mandiant for a while now but I didn’t think a consulting role was for me. When I saw this job description, I knew I had to apply.” Sold.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard “well I’ve always wanted to get into security,” I’ll cross your name off the list right there. If you’ve wanted to do it for so long, you’d have done something at work or on the side to demonstrate that commitment. Also “the security industry is really hot right now so I’m focusing my search here,” just tells me you haven’t figured out yet what you’re really interested in, so for the time being you’re being a little fickle.
Then there’s “this job came up in a search” or “a recruiter called me.” These responses don’t mean they’re not valid candidates, it just means their motivation to excel in this role is not as high as it could be. I hired people primarily who had heard of our small company already, were really interested in what we did as a business and had already demonstrated their commitment to learning based on their current job or activities outside of work.
Understanding a candidate’s motivation can help you determine whether they’re primarily running away from the job they have now (and literally anything else will do) or they’re running towards the job you’re offering. As a bonus, the candidate may be looking for a job specifically at your organization, rare as that may be.
Criteria #3: Passion (does the candidate love what they do?)
It was August 2014, and I was trying to fill a senior leadership role with significant autonomy, but also tremendous responsibility. One in which making customers happy was objective #1. Ed was walking me through his career history and there was one role he seemed to really remember fondly: managing security operations in Singapore.
When I had the opportunity to ask follow-up questions (Step #5), I wanted to understand better why he enjoyed it so much. I kept my question open-ended, as I always do: “Ed, think back to a time… a job role, a project, or even a particular day that you simply loved. You thought to yourself: ‘Self, if I could just do this every single day, it would be pure bliss.’ What was that situation and what about it made it so great?”
“I’ve had a lot of different roles and enjoyed all of them really. But there was this one time in particular — it wasn’t so much the role, but the trust that was placed in me. I was plunged into a project in Singapore. Customer satisfaction was very low. I was given free reign to improve the service… of course it’s not like I could unilaterally do anything I wanted. But I was given the mandate to make the changes I required as long as I could justify them. I could make decisions that made a difference that positively influenced the account. My key responsibility was to keep my manager aware.”
For some managers, and for some roles, this level of autonomy may have raised concerns. In my case, it was exactly what I was looking for. He’d love it here.
In contrast, in the middle of 2012 we were building out a Security Operations Center (SOC): an environment where security analysts working on a shift would review alerts that were generated by threat intelligence, investigate, and determine what needed to be reported to customers. At the time we were struggling internally because our security analysts weren’t able to effectively improve the upstream intelligence which resulted in a lot of wasted time.
I was interviewing “Paul,” who had security operations center experience and I asked him the second of my pair of passion-related questions.
“Paul, think back to a time when you were doing work and … well, it was awful. You thought to yourself… if I never have to do this ever again, it’ll be too soon. What were you doing and what made it unbearable?”
Without hesitation, Paul replied, “Ah. I was working in a Government SOC and the work could have been really interesting. Some of it was. But the amount of alerts I had to look at was enormous because the intelligence we were working with needed help. The problem is, my team had no ability to impact that, so we were stuck dealing with the same problem day after day. I couldn’t stand it.”
Whoops. Eventually we’d solve the intelligence problem — but what a disaster it would be for Paul if I brought him into the organization now.
Passion is about aligning what people love working on with what their job responsibilities actually entail. The greater the overlap and the stronger the candidate feels about the work, the higher engagement & productivity you’ll likely see. Hire enough people who are passionate about their work and put them in the same place and the energy will be palpable.
Criteria #4: Core Values (actions are guided by similar principles)
Evaluating against core values will obviously vary, as do the core values themselves. Yet, I’ve found over the years that the majority of evidence I needed came from candidate’s life story.
Candidates who demonstrate high personal accountability rarely point to others as the source of their problems. At worst, they may assign blame but caveat with “Even though I don’t think it was entirely my fault, there were a few things I’d do differently today.”
When looking for personal growth, the career story tells it all. Candidates who demonstrate strong aptitude & initiative (like Pete) are a shoe-in. I’ve also spoken with candidates who seem to leave their job consistently every 2–4 years citing “I had an opportunity to learn something new.” People changing jobs doesn’t scare me — if you can’t learn new things where you are and you want to move on, you’re someone I want on my team… for as long as I can find new things for you to learn.
Since the phone screen allows for a great deal of free-flowing narrative, high candor becomes trivial to spot. Candidates will unabashedly speak about things that went well and things that didn’t. And if you’re still having trouble assessing, ask follow-up questions. While some responses may have been rehearsed, many won’t be. Practice will help you figure out which is which.
Finally, when looking for leaders who know how to delegate & listen, I’ll invariably find examples of them succeeding in similar roles previously. Remember Ed? He moved to Singapore to solve significant customer satisfaction problems. The responsibility was significant and the autonomy was high. The fact that he spoke fondly of that situation meant he’d not only enjoy a similar environment, he’d foster that same freedom in his direct reports.
What Can I Do Differently?
Sahat Yalkabov recently shared his experiences interviewing with companies that cared substantially more about specific knowledge than anything described above. When you’re looking to hire for your next role, consider building your interview process around the candidate instead of jamming your candidate into your interview process.
There is no guarantee any approach will result in a perfect 100% hiring success rate. However, if you’re transparent about the kinds of people you’re looking for up front (humanizing your job descriptions), take the time to get to know your candidates (7-step phone screen), and look primarily for characteristics beyond mere knowledge (hiring for culture), you may just end up with as remarkable a team as I did.
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