The key to effective interviews with candidates is understanding the fundamentals of their work. This is especially true if you recruit within the tech industry. As recruiters in the tech space, you have likely had a few conversations with technical people that felt like you were speaking two different languages. It doesn’t have to be that way, we’re here to help.
To get started, read our post on the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Having a basic grasp of how software is built and the process technical professionals follow lays the groundwork for effective and engaging interviews with technical candidates.
The Secret to Good Tech Interviews
A Contextual Interview is designed to get the interviewer into the context of the life of the interviewee. The goal is to gain a 360° view of that person– what they are doing, thinking and feeling on each stage of their work process. Whether you’re speaking with a candidate, hiring manager, or teammate this approach comes in handy.
Contextual Interviews differ from Behavioral Interviews because they focus in on a single work experience of a candidate. This provides us an understanding of how the person works, their process when problem solving, and what sort of technical projects they’ve worked on. Contextual Interviews provide a storytelling framework we can follow, no matter how technical the candidate is or how out of depth we might feel in the tech industry.
Behavioral Interviews, in contrast to Contextual Interviews, are predicated on the belief that past behavior will predict future behavior. By asking a series of questions around how a candidate dealt with conflict, success, failure, etc., the interviewer compiles vignettes of the candidate’s professional experience. Even in tech recruiting this is valuable information, but should be seen as complementary to assessing a candidate’s technical experience and fit with the open role. The more we understand and can speak to a candidate’s fit with a technical role, the more value we deliver to our hiring teams.
Contextual interviews are a staple of the user experience (UX) research process. They are a structured way to gain information from users of a product that will then inform how a product should be built. The contextual interview is a framework for in-depth conversations. It ensures that you get the full story of the interviewee’s experience every time. When combined with another key tool from the UX process, the Journey Map, it provides a framework that you can use to navigate any technical conversation.
What is a Journey Map?
A Contextual Interview template is built upon another critical UX tool – the Journey Map. Just like it sounds, it is a map of the journey someone takes to get from A to Z. Whether it’s a product experience, a goal they’re trying to accomplish, or the workflow of their job, you can use a Journey map to breakdown the process.
Technical Journey Maps
If you aren’t familiar with the fives stages of software development, take a few minutes and read this post:
Tech Recruitment Training: Introduction to the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC).
Now that we know the key stages of a candidate’s workflow, we can create our Contextual Interview template, in the model of a Journey Map. As interviewers, we are going to want to learn about what they are doing, thinking, and feeling throughout their process, with an emphasis on the doing & thinking aspects.
The Contextual Interview template for a technical candidate looks like this:
Facilitating a Contextual Interview
The goal of a Contextual Interview is to build empathy with our candidates and to get a 360° view of their work experience. The more we’re able to understand how they think, how they solve problems, who they collaborate with, and how they deliver their work, the better we will be able to assess if they are the right candidate for our open role.
This type of interview is especially helpful with tech interviews as it provides us with a framework for facilitating this conversation. It elevates us from the keyword panic we’re used to and provides us with a system to follow that helps establish our credibility. It tells us a story of the candidate’s experience to share with the hiring team.
When you begin to ask engineers questions about their entire process, the SDLC, you signal to them that you’re a recruiter that gets it.
To kick off a contextual interview, ask the anchor question:
“Walk me through a project you are most proud of or that was particularly challenging. What was the goal of the project and how did you go about completing it?”
Listen closely to the response. Most likely, the candidate will jump right into the build stage of the project they’re sharing. Your goal now is to ask follow up questions to get the full picture of their workflow. Don’t stop until you have at least one comment per stage.
Ask follow-ups with the 5 Ws question approach to help guide the candidate in filling the blanks of their story. It provides a natural way to continue the conversation. As we probe to complete our 360° view of the project, the candidate will open up and share more details about their experience. The candidate will realize that they’re speaking with a recruiter that actually understands them and their technical process.
Do you know about our Tech Recruiter Certification?
Our Tech Recruiter Certification Program is an online, on-demand 6-course program designed to help non-technical people build authentic relationships with technical clients, candidates and colleagues. Learn how you can start making better tech hires, faster with our program! Learn More Here.
Follow up questions
You can ask to get the full story of their experience across the stages of the SDLC:
Here are some follow-up questions you can ask to get the full story of the candidate’s experience across the stages of the SDLC:
- Walk me through your research process. Where did you start and what key things were you trying to understand?
- What research went into your design decisions?
- How did you know _______ was the right tool/language to use?
- Who did you reach out to when researching the requirements of the project?
- What dependencies did you need to consider when designing the solution?
- What was the primary use case for this project? Was there more than one use case you were designing for?
- Who did you collaborate with when designing the solution?
- Walk me through the coding process. Were you solo coding or pair programming?
- Were you building from scratch or was there existing code you were able to reuse?
- What was the release cycle you were working in?
- What was the Build & Test cycle like for this project?
- Were you using TDD or responsible for testing your own code?
- How was QA facilitated on your team?
- What was your involvement in the deployment stage?
- What sort of release cycle were you working with?
- Who was responsible for the code once it was live in production?
Getting the Full Picture: Additional Questions to Ask
- What did you enjoy most about this project?
- What stage of the process was most frustrating for you?
- What is something that you learned about yourself from this experience?
- What was a key takeaway from this project for you or the team?
Continue Your Learning
Now that you have a grasp of the Software Development Life Cycle, and how to facilitate a contextual interview based on that workflow, you are well on your way to having effective, even fun, interviews with technical candidates.
What we’ve just covered is merely the tip of the iceberg. To help you quickly level up your tech understanding, we’ve created a Tech Cheat Sheet– great for having by your side when interviewing a technical candidate.
About Recruiting Innovation
Recruiting Innovation is an industry-leading online tech recruitment training platform. Focused on teaching the technical concepts and key roles in the software development lifecycle to tech recruiters and sales teams, Recruiting Innovation’s online training programs help teams make better tech hires, faster.