What 2,500 interviews taught me about engineering a great candidate experience


Senior Interview Engineer, Heath Dill, talks about how to uplevel the technical interview candidate experience

At Karat our mission is to make every interview predictive, fair, and enjoyable. As a company, we spend a lot of time talking about how to make interviews more predictive. We also spend a lot of time sharing how we’re making hiring more fair and inclusive. But what makes a candidate experience “enjoyable”?

We have an incredible team of dedicated Interview Engineers whose jobs are to do exactly that, and we invited one of our Senior Interview Engineers, Heath Dill, to share some of his best practices.

Heath, take it away!

Thanks, team. You know, they say that the first 2,500 technical interviews are the hardest.

Having passed that mark a few weeks ago, I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about how to give our candidates the best chance to show their abilities.

Technical interviewing is fundamentally hard to do well. Karat Interview Engineers wear many hats – presenter and clarifier, coach, amateur shrink, ride-along debugger, speaker of over a dozen computer languages, writer, and occasional verbal punching bag. We have to pay attention to the candidate’s mood, progress, and intentions (expressed or not). This gives candidates the best chance to succeed, and it gives clients the most accurate representation of the candidate’s technical abilities. And Interview Engineers do all of this while remaining neutral observers.

Karat standards stress some central concepts – consistency being an important one. I’d like to talk here about some concepts that I don’t think get discussed enough. Happily enough, they all, through clever choice, also all begin with the letter C. They are Clarity, Comfort(Zone), and Compassion. I’ll talk about them with some examples and some anecdotes.

Clarity

Clearly explaining questions and setting expectations is key to delivering a great candidate experience. And yet, it’s one of our biggest challenges as Interview Engineers. Some questions have nuances that make a huge difference, and it’s hard to ensure that they come across fully in the time-scarce environment in which we work. So, what helps us make questions come across more clearly?

Remember that reading isn’t the same as speaking. You never hear a great Ted Talk that sounds the same as a great audiobook – the phrasing is different, and that’s for a reason! Once you’ve mastered the text of a coding question, start to learn how to introduce it without reading the text itself! You can learn which pieces of the text are most important to present, which do not need to be mentioned aloud, and which need to be reinforced by restating them in different ways.

Once you’ve mastered your verbal delivery, practice your visual presentation of the question – including what text you paste into the window and when, as well as what you highlight to draw attention [editor’s note: as someone who struggles to toggle screen share windows in most Zoom meetings, this is amazing advice]. Most candidates do best when they’re not reading and listening at the same time. Presenting the inputs as you explain them, then the text later as a reminder/resource near the end of your presentation can help.

Remember your audience. Karat has a global footprint and English is not the first language of all of our candidates. Whenever I have one, I think “How would I want people to choose their vocabulary if I were interviewing for a job in French?” It’s just as easy to say “click data” as it is “ad impressions”, but the nuance of “impressions” in that context may be harder to grok for a non-native speaker who hasn’t worked in that space! So, choose the more familiar wording when necessary.

The presentations are yours – tweak them and work on them constantly! Every interviewer ends up with their own style. Find yours, and focus on making everything as clear and compact as possible, so that the candidate has the absolute best chance of understanding it on the first try.

Comfort(Zone)

I have been, on occasion, known to make a joke here and there. This usually makes the candidate feel as if this is less of a formal, stiff “job interview, harumph harumph” and more of a conversation where they can just be themselves.

Candidate personalities come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no one approach that makes them all comfortable. Here are a few anecdotes and tips from interviews of mine that I found illustrative of how to maximize their comfort level in what is inherently a stress-inducing environment.

Make ’em laugh! Donald O’Connor’s iconic song and dance sequence from ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘ features one of the best mottos of all time. But how does that relate to delivering an enjoyable candidate experience? My introduction sequence for the interview features a few chuckles that invite the candidate to laugh along – even a lighthearted tone when saying “Obviously we’re not [the client’s] entire interview process…” (since obviously, we couldn’t be) invites the candidate to laugh along. A few other examples:

  • A candidate says “May I think about this?” I love this one. Every time, I reply “Yes, we even encourage thinking in these interviews! Love to see it!” or some variation of that. Candidates eat that up.
  • What if a candidate writes their function but runs it without calling it? “Well, you haven’t called your function yet, but on the other hand, right now it has blazing fast execution time!”
  • Choosing a coding language: “Pick whatever language you feel absolute most comfortable coding in from that drop-down… though I cannot recommend Markdown. It doesn’t run very fast.”

There are certainly off-the-cuff opportunities or ways of breaking awkward silences, and as with all things, your practice will perfect your ability to lighten a mood!

Make ’em feel comfortable. It’s an inherently stressful place, the interview chair. Candidates like to feel like you’re here to help, and like they’re coding in their usual style, even if they’re working within an unfamiliar environment in Karat Studio. Everyone has their own coding habits and thought processes, and comfort levels in how they explain their thoughts. Let them be themselves as much as possible!

  • A lot of candidates ask “Do you want me to talk as I code or just write?” My response, every single time, is “Whatever you’re absolutely the most comfortable with!” Same goes for their choice of language, as I mentioned above.
  • When introducing the rules of the coding exercise, I say “You can look up any APIs, language references – just like you would while you’re coding normally”. This not only encourages them to do so (you may need to remind them of that later) but also makes them feel more like a normal work environment which brings out their best.
  • Again, in general, but particularly for ESL candidates, never feel shy to ask if they have any questions or if anything was less than clear. After all, we are assessing technical competencies, not English language proficiency.

The more conversational and less stiff the conversation is, the more comfortable the candidate will feel, and the better the overall candidate experience will be. It levels the playing field and allows Karat to get more accurate data!

Compassion

For a lot of candidates, this can be a rough day. I’ve had candidates cry (I swear it wasn’t my fault!), get angry, and freak out. While there’s only so much you can do in some cases, it’s essential that we smooth the candidate experience for people who are struggling with the emotional load of the interview. What are some ways we can do this?

  • For candidates who are struggling with code and are visibly stressed about it, there are ways to divert them from thinking that they have to write the next line of code. Ask them to talk about how they can break the problem into pieces? Let them figure out the next steps later. Focus on a single step – create a single data structure, or parse an input! Remind them that they can bounce ideas off of you, and invite them to do it.
  • For candidates who are nervous, jokes sometimes help, but you can also invite them to take a deep breath, get a drink of water – anything to buy a few seconds where they can destress and clear their heads. Ask them to take a step back and talk through their code again once they’re back in the game.
  • One person I interviewed was looking visibly shaken just a few minutes into the first coding question. Eventually, the video cut out, and I called her. When she picked up, she was crying. I took a minute to say “I know, this is really unfamiliar territory. But I really do think you’ve got this. If you want, just email your contact here and we can set up a redo now that you know the format.” I have no idea if she took the redo or not, but she thanked me and seemed to be comforted that I called and asked if she was okay, and took the time to reassure her.

Conclusion

It’s a bit odd to think back to five years ago before I became an Interview Engineer at Karat. I had been working as a fairly dissatisfied, bored, software engineering contractor, flitting from gig to gig. And while programming full-time certainly has its merits, I knew that I, personally, had something more to offer.

By making interview engineering my profession, I’ve gotten to be a part of changing the game for candidates who were just like me. Setting the stage for candidates to showcase their skills through clarity, comfort, and compassion is rewarding especially when backed by a platform that enables consistent and fair results. Remember, it’s all about the human touch!

Bonus: here’s what a great candidate experience feels like!

On behalf of the entire Karat team, thank you for sharing your interviewing wisdom, and for your warmth and skilled approach with candidates, Heath! But enough from us, here’s what some of Heath’s actual interview candidates said:

“This was the best interview experience I’ve had, by far. Heath is in a league of his own. He was so supportive, funny and did everything in his power to make me feel comfortable solving the problem. Thank you, Heath!”

 

“Heath was the man. I really enjoyed his humor. It relaxed my nerves so I could do my best!”

 

“Heath was truly amazing – I loved chatting with him. He made the entire process super convenient and not at all like any formal interview! Please do this for other companies too! As a candidate, these interviews are MUCH more pleasant than other (scarier) ones I’ve had to sit through! Thank you for making the interview process a fun and engaging one! Being able to have a pleasant conversation while coding out a solution to a problem made it so much easier to demonstrate my abilities, even under a time constraint!”

 

“The Interview Engineer was funny, made jokes, and made me feel comfortable. This was the FIRST technical interview that allowed me to be FREE to be a developer like in the real world. Search to find a solution and do it. So many interviews rely on memorization… this was FUN! THANK YOU! BRAVO ZULU!”

 

“I enjoyed my interview with Heath. His warm welcome made me feel very at ease. He was also mindful of my disability and gave me room to take pauses/breaks when necessary. Also, he was extremely patient when I was silently writing my coding solutions. He provided excellent hints when I encountered bugs to point me in the right direction.”

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