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March 19, 2006

The Art of Recruiting, Part II

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I received an email from Craig James that contained superb insights into the art of recruiting. With Craig's permission, I provide it below. As the chief technology officer of eMolecules, Craig is responsible for the design and development of the www.chmoogle.com chemistry search engine. Craig worked with chemistry, chemists and chemical databases his entire career, including management of a low-cost (<$50K) mass spectrometer project while at HP Scientific Instruments (now Agilent) and as director of core engineering for Accelrys. He can be reached at cjames@moonviewscientific.com.


I had the pleasure of being on the recruiting team at Hewlett Packard that had the highest success rate in the company, measured by the retention rate and the eventual performance of the people we hired. Our team leader taught me something that you don't mention at all in your chapter on recruiting.

Interviewing is a highly-specialized skill, and some people are MUCH better at it than others. Identify the good interviewers, the ones who seem to have a second sense, and intuition, about others. Make a team of these people, and have them do ALL of your interviewing.

In your book, you discuss what you're trying to learn, but not HOW to go about learning it. That's the real art of recruiting. We treated the interview like any other project. There was a team leader, and each person specialized in a particular task. Every interview followed the same “project plan.”

1. Host. This person's job is to greet the candidate, welcome them, give a tour of the facility (if appropriate), explain the interview process and the other people the candidate will be meeting, and answer initial questions. 20-30 minutes.

2. Technical #1. This person's job is to grill, HARD, on technical topics. This is the toughest interview of the day, and is designed to find out if the candidate is technically competent. Problems, often real-life that the team is currently facing, are presented and the interviewee must show competence in answering. The candidate must answer basic questions about his field, for example an electrical engineer must be able to solve circuit problems, find flaws in a circuit diagram, etc. This interview usually leaves the candidate rather rattled. 1 hour.

3. Project Manager. The hiring manager gives a non-technical interview, but with focus on the specific job: Does the candidate seem suited? Is the candidate interested? The candidate can ask questions about the project, etc. 45 minutes to 1 hour.

4. Lunch. Project manager, plus one project team member. Informal, chit-chat, ask about candidate's background, school, etc.

5. Human Resources. HR presents company benefits, etc., asks for references, answers candidates questions about the company, and so on. 30 minutes.

6. Technical Interview #2. Like Technical #1, but usually less intense. Delve more into candidate's specific accomplishments, ask about candidate's best achievements and most dismal failures. Ask the candidate to describe one project in detail, and “deep dive” into the candidate's explanation. This puts the candidate on his own territory, where he should shine. 1 hour.

7. Host (reprise). Follow up questions, explain what's next, thank the candidate. 15-20 minutes.

We also arranged interviews so that for one job opening, all candidates would be interviewed in as short a time span as possible (usually in a single week). That gave us a good comparison of each candidate to the others, and also allowed us to give the candidates our final decision in a short time.

At the end of the interview day, there was a required team meeting. The leader would go around one time, each team member would give his/her findings and opinion. Then a discussion. It was remarkable how a concensus would almost always emerge -- I can't remember a time when it wasn't obvious whether to offer the job or not. Almost universally, if one interviewer said “no”, that was it.

It's critical that you keep the same members on your interview team. They get better and better at it, they get to know each other, and their shared experience gives them perspective, a set of common reference points for discussions. If one of your team isn't good at it, get rid of him and find someone else that has the intuition needed to be on your team. And just because you're the boss doesn't mean YOU should be on the interview team!

A curious thing about our interviews: We were VERY hard on the candidates (particularly the Tech interviews), but instead of resenting it, the candidates uniformly were impressed and wanted to work for us. They knew that if they joined, they'd be joining a top-notch R&D group.

I have been a candidate on interviews where it seemed like my interviewers didn't even know each other, their questions overlapped, they missed entire areas of stuff they should have asked me and so on. I turned down their offers.



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Great post...

It seems that blogs can be a good tool for tapping the passive job seeker, as well as help ensure a better corporate fit.

Another Point Of View

It has become a fashion to badger candidates in the name of Technical interviews - in the present day scenario -
Most interviews which I face stretching into two/three rounds seem a meaningless waste of time and effort because of the people sitting on the interview panel - especially from such companies -
For Example - one Developer asked me some question which would not just be naive but infact reflect more on his own lack of technical knowledge and skill - as much as I explained why my approach was selected - this guy realised where it was leading to and rather started adding meaningless scenarios which would never be found in a present day world. Infact the gentleman in question did not even have the basic knowledge of a difference between an operating system and a database !
Faced with a growing number of such harassments in the name of Technical Interviews -it has become a mute point as to if these companies actually focus so much on getting a meaningful exchange.
How many companies actually specify the people on the panel and the designation of those people , their role ?
Interviews are a means of hiring people who have good knowledge and communication as well as interpersonal skills.
Do these so called professional companies give any thought to the candidate's time and it's importance ?
Candidates are not given any due respect in the entire hiring process and it is a shame considering that the companies then expect the same guy to come and perform for them !
May be it's time to give a deep and HONEST look into the entire process of hiring again - instead of simply telling how tough the procedure has been made !
I can also point out that was when I was being considered for a position of a Weblogic Administrator - this lady from Hewlett Packard who did not know the difference between Weblogic Server and IBM Websphere barged in asking meaningless questions about Unix Environment !
Case in point - companies should first of all have relevant people ask relevant questions in the first place.
Now I do understand the significance of having a knowledge of UNIX vs HP-UNIX - but isn't it extremely futile to have these people talk about such irrelevant questions and ignore the correct answers just because their ego doesn't accept the truth ?
Companies should have professional specifically dedicated to the job of hiring - not some hi-fi managers coming in and awasting everyone's time - even if the company is as big as HP.

Great post... however I thought I might just skip all the hard work and become a successful Evil Overlord instead.. no need to be recruited for that :)

Hello ! This is very [url=http://www.google.com/bb497]good[/url] site !!

Microsoft's interviews are legendary. Of course, so are Microsoft's problems. Go figure.

The interview for my current job was taken on a lark as a "warm up" for getting back into the job market. They grilled me very hard, and I knew I had to be part of the team. Turns out, they are just as smart and engaged as they seemed in the interview.

It's possible to take this too far, though. I have a friend who just interviewed at ITA Software. After submitting a programming problem just to get an interview, they grilled him for 4 hours, then had him write another 3 hours of code at the end of the day. Finally, they decided not to offer him a position because he wasn't "passionate enough" about programming. I know of top notch people who have been scared off of ITA by his story. I hope ITA realizes what this does to their applicant pool. It's good to make people prove they've got the goods, but it's just abusive to pound on them beyond that point.

Over the last 10 years I've gotten extremely good at executing projects, but my real strength is that I'm a creative visionary who comes at things very differently from most people.

For example, I just launched www.findkevinajob.com with my resumes, case studies and work samples and am offering a $200 prize to whomever helps me find my next marketing/product management gig.

While I'd love to be paid just to come up with new marketing, business and product ideas, the reality is in most jobs that is only 5% of the work and 95% is about executing.

My question is, how do I find a position that leverages my creativity to a greater extent - or is the 5% inspiration/95% perspiration an inflexible equation?

Power shift; the art of the interview, at least the good ones, have done their homework, and have a list of people THEY would like to interview or meet (they may not have the exact name of the person, but they have an idea of the functional area or role.
Lunch; #4 in the list, as important as any part of the process; unscripted, free form, with different people than those involved in the interview process.

In the lifecycle of recruiting model, the pre-screening process is more critical than ever. Generally speaking, the people you want aren't looking and an informal "meet and greet" with a star employee sometimes gets the ball rolling.

I don't want to be the lone naysayer here. Most of the advice is good, but it is hard to take somebody seriously that is developing something called chmoogle. Luckily, he didn't send an email about how to hire marketing people. I think it is also safe to assume he isn't writing any essays on the value of original thinking.

It is nice post. I like it.


Ahh, I get it. Thanks for the flattering comments!


Hello Guy -

Regarding post on Corporate Freeloaders http://www.digitaldigressions.net/digital_digressions/2006/03/how_to_spot_cor.html
No I'm not saying you are one at all! In fact I would like to say I hugely enjoy reading your blog because you are NOT one of those - what your post highlighted is in fact how few companies have mastered the art of recruitment and interviewing people properly, which means they end up with the Corporate Freeloaders who can slip through and not get noticed until it is often too late. You are a beacon of insight and sanity in a sea of sameness -

Keep it going,


Great post!
I would add that I prefer Saturday interviews.
You want the best.
Don't ask the best to sneak around on their current employer.
A weekend interview signals professionalism and respect.
After hours?
Well, the best will have given their best during the day.
Your interview, as a result, only gets the remnants of what's left.

Thanks for the great post guy. I hire mostly technical people, and we learned very early on that it paid dividends to ask a candidate what they do with their free time.

We have found that the best technical people keep doing what they love to do whether or not they are "on the clock."

One of the best computer technicians we ever hired was actually a fly-fishing salesman. When I asked in his interview what he liked to do with his free time, he described the most fascinating homemade computer lab in which he tinkered incessantly.

I knew I had to have him, and he was our best hire ever.

Oops. that Hirevue link didn't work.
This one does.


This is a huge expenditure of resources and time. I would suggest to anyone that they utilize technology to eliminate the 'leg work' and wasted time. The technical interview described above could be totally removed by being conducted remotely, remove those who couldn't pass.

Hirevue (http://www.hirevue.com) allows businesses to pre-screen candidates using a remote-interview. Then, the last few applicants can be brought in for personal interviews.

Seems like a deal to me.

(I have no business relationship with Hirevue.)

That's quite interesting.

For technical jobs, we normally give someone a task and an hour or two for them to complete it. The better it is and the less bugs we find, the better they do.

For other jobs, we do something similar (real life application tests) and it really gives us a good way to judge what the person is capable of doing.

We do the typical interview questions as well, but the test is the main way we judge how well they'll work. So far, it's worked out great.

Laissez les bon temps rouller.

I was a recipient of this kind of interview fifteen years ago - in addition to being successful at evaluating a candidate, it makes an impact on the recruit.

But I'll offer another twist - at the end of the day, I was scheduled to return to the HR manager. At that time he said: "Steve, we'd like you to come work for us, here is our offer." As a potential employee I was shocked that they were not going to subject me to rounds of interviews - that after one (full) day they knew that I was a good fit.

I couldn't answer them that day, and they understood, but I did say yes, and had a great eight years with the company.

Later on I found out that each person checked in through the day and they had that group meeting while I was in my second to last interview. (and the last interviewer gives a thumbs up or down signal when leaving the candidate with HR) If any person had said no, there would be no job offer, but when they all are in agreement, it works out and the timing has a positive effect on good candidates.

Regarding the 2 last paragraphs of the post, I remembered a story of a friend of mine, software developer and team leader working at a 'bozo' software company.

Their interviewing process, was just plain simple: technial interview (conducted by my friend) and general interview (conducted by project manager).

My friend was very passionate about what he was doing, so even he was not pleased working at that particular company, he was doing his best in all the tasks.

One of the candidates, that finally get hired, presented his resignation after 1 month of employment. When my friend asked him 'why', the employee admited, that he accepted the offer only because of the technical interview.
He was so impressed with the way the interview was conducted, so he thought "What a marvelous company to work for, if a simple team leader knows so much, and does such a good job as interviewer".

It took him less then one month to discover that the truth was different. He left the company, and also my friend left that company in the following months.

An excellent insight into the recruiting process. The Art of Rectruiting - 1 was more focussed on recruiting for Startups but this one throws light on the structured process in more established corporations.

I just finished my rounds of recruiting after graduating 6 months back. This post gives me a perspective the planning involved at the other end.

Thanks for sharing the mail Guy.

Great post... however I thought I might just skip all the hard work and become a successful Evil Overlord instead.. no need to be recruited for that :)


I'm not clear if this is the beginning of the process but I think this is better suited to a second round process. Quite often though someone may fit the bill on paper/phone/ recruitment co/ sometimes you can tell the person doesn't fit the bill pretty quick. A 1/2 hr 1st interview is a good filter and saves everyones time, not least the candidates. Then they can be brought back for the grilling. But sounds good organised recruiting team at HP.

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