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Learning by interviewing

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
4 min read
Learning by interviewing

Over the past few months, the VMware Design team continues to grow rapidly. This meant that a good portion of my time over the past few months has been dedicated to interviewing. With a few hundred interviews done in the past couple of quarters alone, I've done some reflection on how to improve interviewing, the candidate experience, and how to learn from candidates not just about them.

Typically in an interview, you're trying to learn about, and not from, the work experience and skills of the candidate in order to make a determination of their ability to be a fit for the specific role you're hiring for. I believe stopping there is a mistake and misses an opportunity. With hundreds of hours spent on interviewing, it is a waste not to use that same opportunity to learn from candidates.

There are many things you can learn if you ask the right questions and listen carefully.

The best qualities in a job

Interviewing allows you to talk to different types of candidates at different levels and years of experience. It gives you a wide spectrum of people to learn from. Given that, it is useful to learn about the qualities people appreciate in a job. This is especially true for the candidates you determine are good and you'd like to bring in to your organization.

You can either learn by listening carefully to the experiences candidates share and reading between the lines or by explicitly asking clear questions like:

  • What are the best qualities and opportunities in your current role?
  • What is the best role you've had throughout your career, and why?
  • What is making the decision to leave your current role difficult?
  • What is the longest you've stayed in a specific role or company, and what kept you there?

These types of questions give you a chance to clearly understand what people appreciate about a role.

Cultural contribution, in my opinion, is far more important than cultural fit. This means you need to continue to be in a search for ways to improve your current culture. You need to continue to be in search for ways to grow your culture not just bring people in who simply fit in.

... and the worst qualities in the job?

People are in the room with you interviewing for a job for a reason. They're thinking of leaving their current role.

Although sometimes this is simply an opportunity to learn and grow, many times it is because of a specific reason within the current environment they're in. Using similar questions and thoughts to the above, it is important to understand why people leave their roles and what would they appreciate most about their new possible role.

What are you looking for in your new role?

I ask this question in every single interview I have. Understanding what people appreciate and what are they looking for gives you a window into what they appreciate. It also gives you an opportunity to continue to understand the market for the roles you're hiring for and the core principles people need to find at your company or team.

Do you have any questions for me?

I learned the most from leaving the time to flip the table and let the candidate ask me questions.

I usually leave about 15% of an interview (10 minutes for an hour interview, 5 minutes for a 30 minute interview) for questions. I give the candidate the opportunity to ask any and all questions they'd like. No restrictions. Those questions have taught me a lot.

Smart candidates ask great questions that push you to dig deep on answers you think you know but have yet to articulate or formulate well. For example, a candidate could simply ask about your management style, what makes this team special, what are your worries and concerns at the moment, etc.

Some of these questions even push me to articulate answers that I end up sharing with my team to ensure we're all on the same page. They help create the "manual" on team culture.

All of these questions sound simple yet they require a well-articulated answer. New questions appear in every few interviews that push me to dig deep for true answers. They allow me to think about why is my team special? What is my management style? why should they choose my team over others? how do we measure and encourage leadership in this team? what's the biggest mistake my team has done in the past year or so and what have we learned from it? how to do we ensure that we operate as one team and remove silos? how do we train designers as tools and areas of design expand over the years? what was my plan this year and what is my plan to continue our transformation next year?

All of those are real questions I've been asked by candidates, many of whom we've hired, that pushed me to think deep about answers even after the interview was over. In fact, for a few, I even went back and provided a more in-depth answer via email after the interview.

These questions are also important because they give you an opportunity to get an understanding of the candidate and what they care about.

When a candidate says they don't have any questions for despite leaving a section of the interview for it, I question their interest in the role or their willingness to dig deeper beyond being qualified for the role.

Always take the time to listen

Regardless how, always take the time to listen to the candidates you are interviewing. Beyond simply learning about their experience to make a decision on hiring, you should use hiring and interviewing as an opportunity for you, the interviewer, to learn and grow.

Over the past year, I've probably learned as much about candidates as I learned from them. Many of those I learned the most from, work on the team today.