Does Your Start-Up Know How to Interview?


Knowing how to effectively interview and evaluate candidates is critical to finding the right talent,  yet most companies don’t take the time to help their teams learn this important skill.  If you don’t train your teams to properly interview candidates you can end up hurting your ability to attract rock star talent.  The good news is that interviewing is a skill that can be taught.

With all of the advice about various types of technical interviews and the “right” way to interview a prospective candidate, how does a start up figure out what type of interviews are best for them? This was the focus of a recent panel event I moderated hosted by the folks over at RockIT Recruiting. The panel was a mix of engineering and recruiting leaders and founders. Here’s a recap of what we discussed.

Find Your Mojo

There is no one-size-fits all solution to figuring out what the right type of interviews are for your company. Be thoughtful about what’s right for your own circumstances and avoid automatically trying to emulate larger companies. Aline Lerner, engineer-turned-recruiter and founder of, pointed out that these larger companies may already have a strong brand which in many cases gives  them a larger supply of candidates. Start-ups need to view the interview as an opportunity to evangelize the company’s vision.

Define the Right Questions

When determining what actual interview questions to use, startups need to use challenging questions but not to make them so hard that no one can answer them. Jared Friedman, Co-founder and CTO of Scribd, suggested having questions that start simple and get progressively harder.  He doesn’t expect that the candidate will necessarily finish a lengthy question in the allotted time, but he likes to see how the candidate approaches it. Another tact is to ask average or slightly above average questions but then grade the candidate harder. If a candidate doesn’t do well on an average question, it tells you more than if they don’t do well on a very hard question.

Emil Ong, Principal Software Engineer and Engineering Lead from Lookout, described their practice of “Hackernoon Days” where people across the company participate in mock interviews with each other. This is a great way to evaluate new interview questions and engage employees as part of the process. Scribd built a wiki of interview questions that have been added to over time, largely from actual scenarios of problems they’ve dealt with over the years. They make a point to test market questions with Scribd’s actual engineers to understand how to qualify and rank a “good answer”.

Assess the Right Fit

An important consideration when hiring people is culture fit, but this is also an area many interview teams don’t know how to assess. Aline from looks at technical culture fit – is the culture pragmatic or academic? Does the team prefer to just get things out the door or do they believe in testing? A way to see if there is a match to your tech culture fit is to ask questions about their past engineering environments– what they liked, what they would do to improve it, what broke, and how it could have been prevented. You can also ask the candidate outright what defines a good set of best practices to see if it’s aligned with yours.

A critical part of being able to assess for culture fit is to understand what your culture is in the first place. Soham Mehta, who founded Interview Kickstart after spending six years at Box as an Engineering Director, advices companies to define their culture as simply as possible. Make sure employees know your culture and know how to describe it. Then you can evaluate against it.

The market is competitive and if start-ups don’t put the effort into knowing what is important to them – values, culture and technical skills – they will struggle to hire the right people. Your talent brand grows stronger as your company gets more skilled at interviewing, so it’s a good investment of time to put thought into your interviewing process in the early days.  Start off by defining your values because that is what everything in your business, especially the interview process, needs to reflect.