2.1 Understanding the interviewers’ mindset
To understand the interview process, it’s important to see it from the employers’ perspective. Not only candidates hate the hiring process. Employers hate it too. It’s expensive for companies, stressful for hiring managers, and boring for interviewers.
While a handful of well-known organizations are swamped with resumes, lesser-known companies struggle to attract talent. I keep hearing from small companies that it’s near impossible to compete with offers made by tech giants. After weeks of pulling out all the stops to court a candidate, the company makes an offer only to find out that FAAAM has outbid them. Companies often contract talent agencies that might charge 20-30% first year’s salary for a hire, which easily translates to $50K for an entry-level engineering hire.
The competition for talent is especially brutal in Silicon Valley where the high number of companies per capita makes the odds in candidates’ favor. Recruiters, even those from companies that receive millions of resumes every year like Google17, aggressively court potential candidates even if these candidates aren’t looking. The majority of people who took a new job in 2018 weren’t searching for one18.
Some candidates express a mild annoyance at recruiters’ unsolicited contact. This attitude is often misguided because recruiters are your biggest ally: they work to get you hired. As a candidate, you want to have enough visibility so that recruiters reach out to you.
Every company says that they want to hire the best people. That’s not true. Companies want to hire the best people who can do a reasonable job within time and monetary constraints. If it takes a month and $10K to find candidate A who can do 93% of the job but six months and $50K to find candidate B who can do 96% of the job, most companies will go with candidate A. The best engineers can still be overlooked if they don’t highlight the skills that recruiters value.
You’d think that when companies hire, they know exactly what they want their new hires to do. Unless it’s an established team with routine tasks, hiring managers can seldom predict with perfect clarity what tasks need to get done or what skills are needed. Sometimes, companies can’t even be sure that they’ll need that person. Sam Altman, chairman of the startup accelerator Y Combinator and co-chairman of OpenAI, advises companies that, in the beginning, “you should only hire when you desperately need to.”
However, because hiring is so competitive and time-consuming, companies can’t afford to wait until they’re desperate. A desperate hire is likely to be a bad one. Sarah Catanzaro, a partner focusing on AI at Amplify Partners, advises her portfolio companies to start hiring when they’re 50% sure that they need someone.
Imagine a startup that has just raised several million dollars and decided that they want to turn their logs into useful features. They think ML can help them, but don’t know how it’d be done. When the recruiter asks them for a job description, they whip up a list of generic ML-related skills and experiences they think might be necessary. Requirements such as “5 years of experience” or “degrees in related fields” are arbitrary and might prevent them from hiring the right candidate.
🌳 Tip 🌳
Job descriptions are for reference. Apply for jobs you like even if you don't have all the skills and experiences in the job descriptions. Chances are you don't need them for those jobs.
Engineers start interviewing candidates after one to six months at a new company. New hires begin by shadowing more senior interviewers for a few interviews before doing it on their own, and that’s often all the training they get. Interviewers might have been in your shoes just months ago, and like you, they don’t know everything. Even after years of conducting interviews, I still worry that I’ll make a fool of myself in front of candidates and give them a bad impression of my company.
This lack of training means that even within the same company, interviewers may have different interviewing techniques and different ideas of what a good interview looks like. Rubrics to grade candidates -- if in existence at all -- are qualitative instead of quantitative (e.g. “candidates show good debugging skills'”).
Hiring managers also aggregate feedback from interviewers differently. Some hiring managers rely on the average feedback from all interviewers. Some rely on the best feedback -- they’d prefer a candidate that at least one interviewer is really excited to work with to someone whose general feedback is good but no one is crazy about. Google is an example of a company that values enthusiastic endorsements over uniformly lukewarm reviews.
Some companies, in their aggressive expansion, might hire anyone as long as there’s no reason not to hire them. Other companies might only hire someone if there’s a great reason to hire them.
If you think one interview goes poorly, don’t despair. There are many random variables other than your actual performance that influence the outcome of an interview: the questions asked, other candidates the interviewer has seen before you, after you, the interviewer’s expectation, even the interviewer’s mood. It is, in no way, a reflection of your ability or your self-worth. Companies know that too, and it’s a common practice for companies to invite rejected candidates to interview again after a year or so.