I love David Mamet. Acerbic, insightful, master of drama, and apparently, knows a thing or two about the art of the interview. Of course, Mamet is discussing the audition process, but there are many parallels with interviewing.
In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla, Mamet laments the interview process as “demeaning” and “damn near useless,” explaining that “the best way to determine the applicant’s skill is to watch his work.” In essence, “the ability to act (code, troubleshoot, etc) is not always paired with the ability to audition.”
As a hiring manager, I completely get what Mamet is saying. Yes, the interview process is not really a fair indicator of actual future performance. We can tease out that the applicant has a good understanding of technical concepts, and we can draw out assumptions that the person, in the past, has completed tasks that probably indicate he or she will be able to do the job they’re being screened for. At the end of a “good” interview though, all we can really conclude for sure is that the person interviews well.
There are some schools of thought (Spolsky, 37signals, etc.) that suggest a more auditionesque interview, where developer applicants actually write some code to solve a problem. I’ve done this with support positions, walking interviewees through a troubleshooting scenario to see how they attacked a problem and spoke to the client. These tests are sometimes helpful, but again, to Mamet’s point, they illuminate the applicants that are good at tests under jury conditions.
Having said all that, the truth of the matter is that the talking juried interview is the pervasive zeitgeist, and you’d better be, as they say in the entertainment industry, “good in the room,” because it’s the key skill that will push you over the top and secure the job offer.
Good in the room means that you interview well. To interview well, you have to be comfortable interacting with complete strangers that are judging you from the very first e-mail response or phone call. We’ll judge your resume. We’ll judge writing skill and etiquette. We’ll make assumptions based on what you wear to the interview and what time you show up. We’ll look for tell-tale signs of bullshit as you answer our questions. That’s the truth of it, so get comfortable with it, and get good at dealing with it.
I’ve written quite a bit about the “getting good” part of things on this blog, so plug in the way back machine and check out the links below.
— Chad Broadus
Broadus is a writer and tech professional living in the Pacific Northwest.