Over the past five years, I’ve conducted over a thousand interviews. Most of these interviews had a behavioral component and tested engineering, product, or design competencies. To master this craft, I’ve been painstakingly reflective and systematic because interviews are the highest leverage activity any operator can undertake. Inspired by Ben Horowitz’s timeless post about what distinguishes good product managers from those that are bad, here’s what I believe separates good and bad interviewers.
Good interviewers understand that interviewing is as much about identifying talent as it is about attracting talent — they’re talent scouts and talent magnets. On the one hand, they accurately assess whether they want to work with the candidate. On the other hand, they make the candidate want to work with them. Good interviewers know that failing to close an excellent candidate is a silent company killer.
Bad interviewers think interviewing is a waste of time. A bad interviewer asks for additional compensation for the time they spend interviewing. Bad interviewers consider the task a favor. “I could be coding.” “I’d rather think about our design system.” “Why can’t someone else do this interview?” Bad interviewers don’t understand that interviewing is the mother of all second-derivative activities.
Bad interviewers aren’t inquisitive. A bad interviewer doesn’t know when to ask a follow-up question because they’re not genuinely interested in learning. Bad interviewers ask questions verbatim off a script so that they can tick them off. A bad interviewer transacts. A good interviewer interacts. Bad interviewers don’t recognize the value of depth. Good interviewers are constantly looking for opportunities to go deep. A good interviewer drives the interview intentionally, pivoting along the way and updating their working hypothesis about the candidate as the interview goes on. Bad interviewers over-index on the literal statements the candidate makes. Good interviewers look for the truth behind the statements. Good interviewers empathise with the candidate’s future teammates. Bad interviewers empathise with the candidate.
Good interviewers are consistent. They evolve their methods intentionally and carefully. Good interviewers periodically insist on being shadowed because they’re paranoid about becoming inconsistent or slipping into destructive habits. A good interviewer appreciates that interviewing is a human interaction resulting in human judgment. Bad interviewers think interviewing is math.
Good interviewers give a shit. They help other interviewers. A good interviewer regularly offers to reverse-shadow their peers. When a good interviewer senses the quality of the interviewing machine degrading, they pull the Andon Cord — they consider themselves responsible for fixing it.
Bad interviewers go into an interview not knowing who they’re interviewing. A bad interviewer hasn’t tried to figure out the candidate’s name, they’re not sure what role they’re interviewing for, and they don’t know the candidate’s interviewing schedule for the day with their company. A bad interviewer asks, “do you have a hard stop after this?” even though the candidate has an interview with one of their colleagues after. Bad interviewers don’t prepare.
Good interviewers wish they could run an interview again because they could do better having reflected on it. When an interview doesn’t go smoothly or feels awkward, bad interviewers blame the candidate and are glad the interview is over. Good interviewers know it’s their fault and are annoyed that they don’t have the chance to go back in time and try harder.
Good interviewers write thorough feedback about candidates. Bad interviewers never have time for that. A good interviewer offers an opinion instead of just a neutral summary. They support their judgment with concrete examples. A bad interviewer supports their judgment with hubris. Good interviewers indicate which of their opinions might be impacted by bias. Bad interviewers think they have no bias. Good interviewers know they are contributing to a hiring decision. Bad interviewers believe they are making a hiring decision.
A good interviewer is mentally fatigued by the end of an interview.