Inside Even

5 responsibilities of an interviewer

When building your interview practices, remember to think like a candidate.
A puzzle with multicolored pieces, and a hand placing the final piece in place

My interviews to join Even were some of the first interviews I ever enjoyed. Without realizing it, I had come to expect that my experience as a candidate was always going to be bad. That I would always feel completely in the dark as to why a question was being asked; that whether or not I performed well would always be equal parts luck and skill.

In my interviews with Even, however, it was clear the team was not relying on normal interview tactics. They were able to break things down to first principles and explain what they needed from me in the role. One of the main ways they did this was by taking lots and lots of time. My first interview with Jon, Even's CEO, lasted three hours. The second was about the same. The company was still in the luxurious phase of being tiny and pre-product-launch, so Eveners had almost no meetings and deadlines were rare and weeks in the future.

So, when I took over the recruiting team, I wanted desperately to maintain for future candidates, the feeling that our interviews were not black boxes. But once we launched our product and entered the meeting-full, deadline-full world of a growing startup, I knew we couldn't achieve it in the same way. So I sat down and wrote a few responsibilities that I wanted every interviewer at Even to keep in mind. Some principles to guide us, even when interviewing is the 100th thing on our priority list. In the years I've been running the team, we've changed almost everything about how we recruit, but these principles have not changed. They still ring as true today as they did when I first wrote them, probably because we are most in tune to our responsibilities as interviewers when we've recently been a candidate.

1. Interview teams should be putting in more prep time than candidates

As hiring managers, we don’t always think enough about what a candidate deserves. Interviewing candidate after candidate can feel mind-numbing, and it can be easy to forget that we’re responsible for helping someone determine how they will spend a significant portion of their waking hours and how they will provide for themselves and their family.

We plan out the entire interview loop, question by question, ensuring that we can draw a line from each question to the corresponding criteria.

Have you ever interviewed for a job where the job description wasn't all that clear, and the interview itself didn't make things any better? One way we avoid this at Even is by doing a lot of planning before we speak to a single candidate. The first thing hiring managers complete is a “mandates and outcomes” document, detailing the key responsibilities the person will have at Even and how we’ll measure their success in their first three, six, and nine months. Only after this document is completed by the hiring manager do we write a job description.

We then plan out the entire interview loop, question by question, ensuring that we can draw a line from each question to the corresponding criteria. This helps us create precise questions that actually screen for what we need. During an interview at Even we won’t repeatedly ask you to “walk us through your resume” and we avoid general questions like “what is your greatest weakness?” Interviews should not feel like casual meanderings through your career —they should feel like pointed fact finding missions.

A downside we’ve grappled with is that this can make our interviews feel more intense, but candidates consistently share that this downside is balanced by their appreciation for the obvious preparation put into the interview, and the fact that every question was relevant (and none were repeated).

2. Assess candidates for their fit with your values, not your culture

As mentioned, one of the reasons I joined Even was my impression that Eveners knew how to break things down to first principles and didn’t over rely on the normal way of doing things. Only 1 interaction threatened that impression and that was when I went through the “culture-fit” interview.

You hear a lot in Silicon Valley about attempting to hang on to the culture started by the early team — but we wanted to do the opposite.

I went to lunch with a cofounder and the conversation swirled around topics like what neighborhood I lived in or whether I knew so-and-so from my previous company. Great fodder for a cocktail party. Terrible predictor of whether I would be any good in the role. In fact, the only thing that interview is good for is hiring a team of people who are exactly the same.

Fortunately, after I joined, Jon and Quinten made it clear that they did not want to hire a team of Jons, Quintens, and Jennys. And I joined the company very early, so we were able to make this change before hiring most of our current team. You hear a lot in Silicon Valley about attempting to hang on to the culture started by the early team — but we wanted to do the opposite. The way we saw it, our job was to hire people who were both smarter than us and different from us. Because you need a diverse team of intelligent individuals to build a truly innovative company, the kind of company that can actually make a dent in the difficult, macro-level problem we’re tackling.

But we had to replace the culture fit interview with something because you can’t just hire for skill fit. Some people contribute to an environment of trust and respect on a team and some people erode it. So, we decided to define the values we thought were necessary for building a culture of trust and respect, then build a rigorous interview to screen for them. Every single person who interviews at Even completes this interview, so we’ve been able to perfect it over the years. The day before candidates have this interview we send them a blog article about our values and a list of the questions we plan to ask. We do this to demystify the interview, a practice which relates to the next responsibility in the list.

3. Don’t expect candidates to read your mind

Often as a candidate, you hear a question and wonder why it’s being asked. “Should I give them a story about my collaboration skills or a story of when I was decisive? I guess I’ll just pick one and pray!”

In most interviews I tell candidates exactly why I’m asking the question.

I hate the idea of having the right candidate in front of me but missing it because they didn’t understand the question. So, I emphasize to all of our interviewers that they are responsible for steering candidates down the right path. If you’re screening someone for collaboration and they’re telling you about their decision making power, don’t let them go on! Don’t let them drive down a dead end with an empty tank of gas. Redirect them! Interrupt (politely) if you must! Time in an interview is so limited.

Personally, I take this to the extreme. In most interviews I tell candidates exactly why I’m asking the question: “This role will require a lot of cross-functional collaboration, the next two questions are designed to help me understand how well you do that.” Some of my peers question this logic, asking “Won’t the candidate just lie and tell you what you want to hear”? Some may, but after thousands of interviews, I just don’t think that many people lie. And even if one in ten lie, why would I make my interview significantly worse for the other nine?

4. Remember that possessing a skill or value doesn’t mean you know how to screen for it

Because of this, we put all interviewers through a lot of training. Most of our interviewers are done in pairs with one person leading and the other person learning. The focuses in our training are:

  1. Training interviewers to back up their assessments with direct quotes and examples provided by the candidate. It’s common to walk out of an interview with a gut feeling of whether someone has the skill you were screening for. We don’t want interviewers to over rely on that gut feeling; we want them to really analyze how they arrived at that feeling and put it down on paper. Many interviewers change their scores for a candidate after taking the time to process and read the notes.
  2. Training interviewers to identify a skill or value in someone even when it shows up in a new way. Take Even’s value “hunger for improvement.” I might show my hunger for improvement by reading industry blogs and attending events where I hope to learn from smart people. If a candidate doesn’t do the same, it would be wrong for me to assume they don’t have a hunger for improvement. They might just show it in a different way.

5. Don't put too much weight on resumes — they tend to suck

When was the last time the resume was updated? People are writing resumes the same way, with the same formatting as they did when I first learned what a resume was! And we’ve all seen resumes that overstate someone’s accomplishments and resumes that understate them. So, all of Even’s interview loops include an exercise where we ask the candidate to show or complete a work sample — something representative of the actual work we need them to do. This has been a regular practice in technical interviews for a long time, and we’ve brought it into all of our non-technical interviews as well.

Getting it right is worthwhile

Hiring is one of the most important things we do as a company. So we need to approach it with the same level of diligence and thoughtfulness with which we approach other critical business activities like developing a product or closing a big sale. At the same time, hiring is a business activity that impacts existing Eveners’ jobs, candidates’ personal and professional lives, and has a small but important impact on diversity in tech. None of these things are to be taken lightly, so we’ll continue to look for ways to improve our process and make the best experiences — and outcomes — for everyone involved. The best ideas come from our candidates, so, if you’ve been one, let us know!

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