This week, after goodness knows how many years of being on the lesser-populated side of an interview table (i.e. being interviewed) and about 12 years after starting to be involved in interviewing, I’m the one running the interviews.
There are enough extra pressures already with this new role – getting the timing right, keeping the conversation flowing, introducing and wrapping things up – but I’ve also started really wondering about and analysing the questions that I’m asking.
Some are open-ended, where I don’t know where the candidate might go with their answer. They’re good for debate or general discussion and can sometimes help discover their views on something, for example. Maybe it’s their reasoning behind why they want to become a test engineer or how they approached a problem, but sometimes those answers can be quite short or simple and asking a follow-up question to such a response is tough.
Some are directed, where I’ve got a specific idea in mind. Where I’m looking for a specific answer or confirmation about something, those are fairly easy. I might instead be trying to guide the candidate towards an idea or maybe to start talking about a problem in a particular way, but I find I end up having to give more guidance and content in the question so that it’s either a closed question with just a really easy yes/no answer, or that it ends up being unclear or wordy.
A fair number are planned. I’ll always prepare some key questions in advance on things I really want to know. Maybe there are some omissions or ambiguities on the CV, or maybe there was a suggestion in a previous round that they have a preference for automation testing over manual. These can be more carefully scripted, but even then, they’re sometimes jarring as one-off questions that don’t fit as well into the natural flow of a conversation.
Most are spontaneous. Oftentimes my questions are as a result of other things that have come up during the interview, where I’m picking up on an interesting detail from what they have just said, or coming back to a testing approach from earlier on that relates to what we’re now discussing. Having thought through the purpose or intent of that question in advance is rare – I’m usually listening to the candidate talk, rather than tuning out and considering the “why” around the next thing I ask.
A rare few are wonderful. I remember a non-tester talking about working on some script and having to do some “trial and error” (a lovely lead into a question about testing). Those that illicit a deep intake of breath, followed by a thoughtful and genuinely intrigued “Now, that’s a good question…” are such nice ones. Even asking no question at all and leaving silence can sometimes be rewarding, as the candidate offers up new information or comes up with an even better solution to the previous problem. But they are a rare few, and I’m still striving to make them more common.
There are of course innumerable approaches out there for asking good questions, from STAR, to making sure you’ve got common terminology and clarified scope, listening more, asking tougher questions first in a sequence and getting the tone right. I’m well aware of them – it’s putting them into practice that’s the challenge.
While an interview is predominantly about judging the candidate (yes, they’re weighing up us and our company at the same time), Voltaire doesn’t entirely agree:
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
and I do feel like I’m there to be judged, too. It drives me to try harder and try to do better each time, even if sometimes I worry that the only really good question I’ve asked recently is the one in the title of this post.