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Engineering interviews are stressful, but there are some ways to mitigate the level of stress you are putting on candidates through this process.

Technical interviews are stressful, to put it mildly. Ask a roomful of software engineers about their worst interview experiences, and each will have their own horror story – from rude interviewers, to arbitrary riddles, to handwriting long programs on a whiteboard.

Some of that stress is unavoidable; after all, the stakes are high when you’re trying to land your dream job. But hiring managers and interviewers are responsible for creating a space where candidates can show what they’re truly capable of.

Here are a few common pitfalls to avoid to help cut out any unnecessary noise and create a positive experience for candidates, while getting a strong signal of their skills. 


1. Not setting expectations with the candidate

Being evaluated is anxiety-inducing, but not knowing what you’re being evaluated on is worse.

For candidates, not understanding what the interviewer is looking for can heighten anxiety. Worse, the candidate might assume that the interviewer cares about one thing, while the interviewer really cares about something else – leading them to focus on the wrong thing and fail the interview, even if they could have passed it with clearer expectations.

Minimize surprises and set the candidate up for success by clearly communicating the interview format ahead of time. At the beginning of the interview, set expectations by letting the candidate know (roughly) what you’re looking for. You don’t have to give away the rubric, just give some guidance. For example, let them know whether you’re mostly interested in hearing their thought process, or conversely whether you’re looking for a complete solution with working code. This will help the candidate prioritize their time, and it will give you the best opportunity to evaluate them effectively.

Remember that you can’t set expectations for the candidate if you don’t understand your own expectations. Invest in developing a rubric for your questions ahead of time.

2. Copying another company’s interview process

Different teams have different needs. The skills required to be successful as an engineer at Google are different from the skills required to be successful within a thirty-person startup. Yet, interview processes across the industry often look remarkably similar. Hiring teams tend to mirror interview processes they’ve seen elsewhere, without always taking the time to reflect on the context.

For hiring teams, replicating interviews from another company can lead to measuring the wrong skills, resulting in both false positives (advancing unqualified candidates) and false negatives (rejecting qualified candidates). For candidates, the interview experience will be more pleasant the more it’s perceived as being relevant for the role – a phenomenon known as face validity.

Instead of reusing the same classic interview questions you found online, or the questions you asked from your last company, sit down with your team and map out the skills required to be successful in the role you’re hiring for. You have a limited amount of time with the candidate; don’t waste time evaluating skills that can be learned on the job or that don’t contribute to success in this particular role. Instead, spend that time digging into the most relevant skills. 

While you can look to other interview processes or past experiences as inspiration, consider the context and make sure the experience is tuned for your unique culture, stack, and role. You’ll reach a more confident verdict, and the candidate will get a better sense of what the role entails.

3. Asking riddles

Most of us have been in an interview where we felt like there was a “trick” that the interviewer wanted us to figure out in order to solve the problem. When we see the trick, it’s a eureka moment. But when we don’t, it’s frustrating and painful.

These are riddles: questions that require a large leap of intuition to answer. These lead to binary, all-or-nothing outcomes. If the candidate doesn’t see the trick, they won’t be able to demonstrate their thought process or technical skills.

It’s okay for questions to involve logical leaps of intuition. However, the leaps shouldn’t be too large. A well-designed question allows the candidate to solve it in progressive, smaller steps to systematically demonstrate their reasoning. These smaller steps are also more conductive to providing hints or nudges, letting you get them unstuck and back on the right track.

4. Not calibrating your interview questions

It’s easy to expect more of our candidates than we would of ourselves. Even with the best intentions, we can’t escape the curse of knowledge – in other words, we forget what it’s like to see the question for the first time. As a result, our expectations for speed and accuracy are not always realistic.

To avoid this, it’s important to calibrate interview questions with your team. Every interviewer should try to solve each interview question they’ll ask on their own, without looking at the solution or hints, before asking it to a candidate. Yes, this is stressful – but it’s even more stressful for the candidate, which is all the more reason to build empathy and go through with the exercise. Test new questions in a mock interview setting to build and refine your rubric.

Remind your team that the goal of calibration isn’t to evaluate them, but to evaluate the questions and build their intuition for how a candidate should perform. Think of it as running a beta for your product to iron out any issues ahead of launch.

5. Not empathizing with the candidate

All of us have been candidates at some point, and we will be candidates again in the future. Don’t forget what it’s like, and that candidates are also evaluating you. Prioritizing empathy throughout the process demonstrates your team culture to the candidate.

Interviewing is inherently a stressful experience, and candidates may be afraid to ask for things because they don’t want to seem difficult. Make a point of checking in on them and understanding their preferences and needs. For example, when scheduling interviews, consider whether they prefer to schedule everything back-to-back or to break it up. Remember that four hours of being interrogated can be exhausting, and candidates are human, too. Build in time for breaks to get water, go to the bathroom, or just take a few deep breaths.

End interviews on a high note. If they’re struggling, don’t introduce a complex new requirement that you know they won’t have time to solve. If they’re almost there, try to nudge them along with an eye on the clock or hints if appropriate. Even if they are struggling, respect their time and stay engaged – you want them to maintain their confidence for future interviews. Your interview might be the only one they didn’t ace; you don’t want to put them into a tailspin by obviously disengaging and signaling that they have failed. Once you’ve helped them find a stopping point, transition smoothly to the question and answer phase and let them end on a constructive note.

Final thoughts

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can provide a stellar candidate experience that minimizes unnecessary stress and pain. Invest the time to intentionally design your process, set expectations, and treat candidates as humans. Your candidates will thank you – and more importantly, they’re more likely to join your team.