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Phone screens, redux

It’s not so often that I read something I so totally identify with, but Joel Spolsky’s recent article on “Phone Screening” really hit the nail on the head for me as well.

I’ve just gone through a hiring process recently for my own company—several times—and finally I have made a single hire, after having gone through at least 100 résumés over the course of months of recruiting. (In a previous position, I was also required to recruit for sysadmin positions, and was frequently called in to also do interviews on developer candidates, having made a reputation for myself of being able to shake out solid candidates from weak ones.)

Like Joel, I have found that in the sheer number of applicants into the funnel requires a winnowing process, mine is several steps:

  1. I have applicants submit their information to me in a specific format. I specify in the job advertisement that their CV (or whatever) needs to be in plain text or HTML (these being formats that are amenable to being searched in a straightforward fashion in my email client). Moreover, a candidate needs to submit some kind of cover letter. Anyone who submits a Word document or PDF goes right into a folder that remains unread. Those who submit documents with an email containing a single word “here” or “I am applying for your position” gets likewise filed. I have found that this cuts out about 66% of the first group of applicants. If someone can’t be bothered to read instructions on a job page, they’re unlikely to be able to follow directions well later on, which means that they’re also unlikely to be able to think independently given customer constraints. (Three Phase Computing is a professional services company, our bread-and-butter is doing what the customer wants, and if he doesn’t know what he wants, helping him figure it out.)
  2. I then go through a phone screen with the applicant. I used to have a nice standard list of questions that I would ask candidates, but I had to revise that strongly after recruiters started preparing the bodies they shipped to me with the answers to my frequently-asked questions. Like Joel, I have found the phone screen to be a great way of avoiding wasted time on the part of all involved.
    1. The candidate doesn’t have to get dressed up and shlep out to the office (which is somewhat off the beaten path here in NYC),
    2. I don’t have to drag other people in to help me vet the prospective, and I get the benefit of immediately seeing how much the candidate can tell me.
    3. I get to find out immediately what those little time gaps on are in the resume.
    4. I get to ask a standard set of field-of-knowledge questions. I use these not so much to weed a candidate out (and I am forthright in telling them this up front, so as not to make them too nervous) but merely to find out what skills a candidate brings immediately—in other words, will the candidate hit the ground running, walking, or with a splat! (I will learn about how well he or she will continue moving in the next series of questions.)
    5. The most important things I find out, however, are how much of what the candidate puts on the CV actually matches what he or she possesses between the ears. Quite frequently I’ll see a CV littered with a line item like “Technologies:” followed by a stream of three- and four-letter acronyms. So I’ll ask them a question like “Oh, I see you list here that you know LDAP. What is that, after all?” (Yes, I have had candidates try to search on Google during a phone screen; and you can’t mask all sounds over a telephone.) I’ll get to find out if they know more than what the acronym expands into. “Where did you use it? What do you use that type of technology for? Where did you deploy it? What problems did you encounter using it?” If the candidate can give acceptable answers to this question, that’s an excellent sign!
    6. After that, I work back in reverse chronological order over the employment history, asking them specific questions about what they wrote. (I almost never go more than 3 years back, since it is unlikely that they’re going to be able to speak well about things that far distant, and it isn’t likely that anything further back than that is likely to apply immediately to any current problem. If he or she wants to talk about it, however, or bring it up as “well at XXX place we did YYY”, I’m happy to listen.) If they wrote, “deployed ZZZ technology”, I ask things like, “Well, what does that mean? Did you just install a server? Were you in charge of the project, managing others, or did you do the down-and-dirty work yourself? What did you learn from that experience?” Typically after one or two questions like that, I’ll have all the information I need to make a decision as to whether or not this candidate merits an in-person interview.
    7. After all this, I’ll ask the candidate if he or she has any questions to ask me. (I excuse them if they don’t know much; places like Craigslist will mask your identity for you, and that works well for me. I understand Joel’s job board requires people to take off their masks, and maybe for my next opening I’ll go that route.) and I explain who we are, what we do, and where I want to take the company.
    By this point, I have knocked at least another 75% off the remaining; we now have gone to a less than one-in-ten yield on our advertisement.
  3. If the candidate makes it this far, I call him or her in for an in-person interview. At the in-person, I’ll usually ask some more technical questions—more exposition on things I missed before, and maybe a few of my favorite questions. (I like to ask some SQL questions in particular about Cartesian products, after having one hapless developer do something like


    where tables A and B had over a million rows; I’m just glad that that query was run on the test database, and not the production one...

    In addition, I like to ask a few questions about the things we currently do. Usually I’ll take a problem that we just solved, and ask the candidate how he or she would have solved the same problem. (This is one of the best ways, I have found, of determining how a candidate actually thinks.) In addition, I’ll usually have the candidate write a small script just to see how fluent he or she is with the tools we use every day: this is mostly a follow-up to the “can he/she hit the ground running or splatting” question. Also, since the office we work in currently is small, it gives the candidate a good idea of where he or she would be working, and trying out the daily commute.

(In regards that last part: as luck would have it, our newest employee has been spending most of her time out at client sites in the three weeks since she started. She barely has really gotten to break in her new PC, although we did spend the better part of the day one day last week getting a new Cisco IP phone hooked up and talking to our asterisk install.)


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well this has nothing to do with your last post but i figured ild put in my own random rant:
This just in:

A major research institution has just announced the discovery of the densest element yet known to science. The new element has been named ?..Bushcronium.?.? Bushcronium has one neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons and 224 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 311. These particles are held together by dark forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. The symbol of Bushcronium is ?..W?.?. Bushcronium?..s mass actually increases over time, as morons randomly interact with various elements in the atmosphere and become assistant deputy neutrons in a Bushcronium molecule, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some scientists to believe that Bushcronium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as ?..Critical Morass.?.? When catalyzed with money, Bushcronium activates Foxnewsium, an element that radiates orders of magnitude more energy, albeit as incoherent noise, since it has 1/2 as many peons but twice as many morons.

Sender accepts no responsibility for these unverified assertions