Shop Talk: A new version of the technical interview

How do you interview a developer? How can you tell if they are skilled at their craft without hiring them and working with them?

Traditional methods are:

I’d like to suggest a third option, which is a strange informal version all. I refer to it in my own mind as shop talk.

Shop Talk

After a phone screen, you have the candidate walk through a project that they have worked on. They get some time (20 minutes at least) to show the project’s code and walk you through its structure and anything they want to highlight. The project could be what they are working on now at their current job, it could be an open source project they worked on, it could be something they wrote on their own time. For people that don’t have time, or for people earlier in their career, the project could be something they did in a bootcamp or university.

Ideally, the candidate can show source code on their machine within their IDE, tools, etc. In a lesser version of this, they draw out how the system works on a whiteboard and provide pseudocode for a key part of the application.

Because you don’t give them much structure and let them talk for a while, it is up to them to guide how they show and tell. This has some advantages for them: they get to highlight the parts they want to, they can prepare, and because they are talking for a bit it reduces interview anxiety. It has some advantages for the company as well: because they are forced to explain the system, it tests their technical acumen while also showing their communication skills.

After they are done showing, and/or throughout, the team gets to ask them questions about the project. The team should be coached on how to do this well. The point of this exercise is not a code review in the traditional sense, but more of a conversation. Shop talk.

The discussion has to reach a point at which the candidate has explained the project well enough that the team understands it to ask good questions. If that hasn’t happened, then there is a problem.

Disadvantages

Advantages

There is another advantage that is harder to express, and it is the reason I call this approach Shop Talk rather than Show & Tell or Project Review or something more corporate. It puts developers, on both sides of the table, back into their normal mode. An interview is an atypical situation in which you try to talk about technical challenges away from a real world scenario. Even a toy project presentation puts everyone in a more natural setting. It’s just a group of people, talking about some code. After it’s over, both sides have an idea what it would be like to do that full-time, and isn’t that the point of an interview?

In summary:

Shop Talk

Try it out and adjust; it has worked well for me in the past.

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