Ask an expert: How do you interview an engineer?

CircleCI’s director of engineering shares ideas for promoting positivity and inclusion—and shifting away from “culture fit.”
Part of
Issue 11 November 2019


Hiring is vital for every company, and doing it well is a challenge. I’ve seen many organizations learn this the hard way: over-indexing on technical skills while neglecting other core skills; screening thoroughly but failing to hire great talent quickly in a tight hiring market; and hiring the same kinds of candidates over and over, while watching promising candidates fall through the cracks.

I’ve personally interviewed over 200 engineers in the course of my career, and I’ve overseen the interview processes of many more—over 500 engineers at CircleCI in this last year alone. Along the way, I’ve tried to create a fair, equitable, and effective interview process for engineers, and to help my teams do the same. Three important but often overlooked aspects are key to this work:

  • Ensuring a positive experience for both your candidates and your team.

  • Creating an inclusive interview environment (and circumventing the most pervasive biases).

  • Changing your own thinking about what types of candidates you’re looking for.

An interview should be a positive experience

The interview experience is a powerful snapshot of your company: It not only reflects what the world thinks of your team and culture, but it also extends to your product and business practices. Providing a positive experience starts with how you find your candidates, or how they find you. It’s important to handle every stage of this process with care; even when a candidate is rejected, they may come back again later, or share with friends and colleagues their good (or bad) experience with your company. Remember, as an interviewer, you may meet 100 people, but the people you interview only get one opportunity to experience you and your team close up. Each and every encounter is important.

Here are some of the guidelines that I give the teams I manage, and that we have incorporated into our internal interviewer-training materials:

  • Be prepared. Don’t make the candidate walk you through their experience—instead, build on what they’ve already shared, and dig deeper.

  • Show up on time.

  • If you’re not sure how to pronounce the candidate’s name, ask. (And leave a note for other interviewers.) Use the candidate’s preferred pronouns. We include a question—response optional—about candidate pronouns in our application form.

  • Try to connect. This can be difficult to do remotely, and remoteness can exacerbate differences in personalities. Be aware that just because you’re not “clicking” during your conversation, it doesn’t mean that they’re not qualified.

  • Make the candidate feel safe. Many candidates are very nervous during interviews—help them shine by being understanding and empathetic.

  • Eliminate distractions. Your focus should be 100 percent on the candidate. Remove anything distracting from your screen, and be sure to silence all notifications on your computer and phone.

At CircleCI, we don’t do whiteboard interviews at all, since they don’t appropriately reflect the day-to-day work of our engineers and the complexity and scale of our systems. Instead, we’ve designed our interviews to include a take-home coding challenge in the candidate’s programming language of choice. We also include a pair-programming activity, a discussion about architecture, and conversations about process, product, and problem-solving. This helps us better understand a candidate’s thinking, perspective, and problem-solving approaches, and more closely reflects the actual work of our engineers.

Earlier this year, I took time with my teams to improve the part of the hiring process that’s often the hardest: rejecting candidates. Our goal was to make the candidate rejections as human as possible. All rejection emails are now sent by the hiring manager for each role, and include specific feedback, highlighting what candidates did well and how they can improve. Feedback is especially important for members of traditionally underrepresented groups in our industry, as they often have less access to opportunities from which to gain experience. Based on responses gathered from candidates informally in person as well as formally in email surveys, this approach significantly improves their interviewing experience compared to other companies, even during the most difficult part of the process.

Another important element of a working—and sustainable—interview process is taking care of the interviewers. To do that, I strive to ensure that my hiring managers’ and team members’ time is accounted for appropriately, so that interviewing doesn’t become second-shift labor, and to leave buffer time around interviews for context-switching. Interviews require a substantial amount of emotional labor, which is why, in my organization, all our interviewers volunteer for the role and are trained to interview. I’m also a big proponent of group interviews to help us move faster and distribute this type of work. In addition, several perspectives on the same experience with a candidate can bring to light what might otherwise be overlooked, and they help even out biases.

An interview should be an inclusive experience

There’s another thing that can be done to ensure fair candidate evaluations, and it starts before the candidate applies for the job: a standardized process. A large portion of my work with maturing startups has been creating consistent interview procedures, which entail clear, standardized questions, exercises, and evaluation criteria. I like to start every new hiring process with a kickoff meeting between the hiring manager, recruiters, and all those who’ll be interviewing candidates, in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Making certain that diverse viewpoints are represented on all interview panels is also critical. Do not tokenize your interviewers: All should be active participants in the process and have a voice in the decision-making.

As I set up job postings, I use our engineering competency matrix to align our search criteria with our evaluation criteria for each interview. This not only helps us evaluate engineers according to a system that reflects our core values as an organization, but it also levels candidates within our existing system of career paths. Technical skills are only one portion of what I’m interested in when hiring engineers; the candidates’ communication, collaboration, leadership, and user-value delivery skills are equally important. Especially for the distributed teams that I lead, these core skills are vital for engineers’ success.

During evaluations, protecting against biases like groupthink is critical. This is why, at CircleCI, each interviewer rates each candidate in private within 24 hours after the interview. After these individual evaluations, group discussions are useful. We begin our meeting hearing from the interviewers who said, “No, we shouldn’t hire this person.” Often, they will surface information that would not have come up in a more general conversation. It’s a productive starting point for discussion and decision-making.

Organizations should be open-minded

Now, let’s talk about one of the most pervasive biases in the tech industry: similarity-attraction bias, often referred to as “culture fit.” Making hiring decisions based on culture fit is problematic for many reasons. It perpetuates a lack of diversity, exacerbates network effects, and is often, as an undefined term, used to easily disregard someone or their experience. It can mask all manner of interviewer biases.

I encourage my teams to seek culture-or-values add, instead of culture-or-values fit. Hiring for culture-or-values add means looking to increase and diversify the kinds of perspectives and ideas that get into the company, the ways in which teams collaborate, and the possible outcomes of those teams’ work. Seeking culture-or-values add will also increase the challenges that come with moving from homogeneous teams to diverse ones, but this is a good thing. I want people in my organization who challenge me. I like (respectful) disagreement. Adding cultural and contextual perspectives that aren’t already present within an organization will help you make better decisions as a company and become better at what you do.

Interviewing is difficult. Creating an inclusive process, and building frameworks that allow me and my teams to make fair decisions, is rewarding but challenging work. As a company that believes deeply in testing, feedback loops, and continual growth, CircleCI is nothing if not iterative in all its processes. Our future team will be better for it.

About the author

Lena Reinhard helps distributed engineering organizations scale quickly, learn steadily, and deliver great products in inclusive teams. She’s director of engineering at CircleCI.


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