Interviewing College Candidates

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about peoples interview processes and it inspired me to share my process for interviewing college candidates. I’ve been doing interviews at Microsoft for ~10 years now and developed this process over that time.  The format for the interviews are typically 1 hour with just me and the candidate.  Usually in my office or occasionally a conference room.  Unfortunately 1 hour is a very short amount of time in which to judge a candidate and I try to combat that by planning ahead and working with the below process. 

Note that this post is specifically about how I interview college candidates or candidates with a small number of years in the industry. I have a much different process for senior level developers (which is more of what I do these days).

Pre Interview Setup

The candidate deserves my undivided attention during the interview.  Before I go out to greet the candidate I turn my phone off and put it in my desk, close my email, turn off the speakers to my computer and lock the screen.  The only visible distraction I have is a clock to make sure I’m keeping the interview moving along. 

The Introduction

My very first goal in an interview is to make sure the candidate is comfortable in the environment. Interviewing is a nerve racking experience for some people (especially college candidates who are quite possibly doing this for the first time ever).  I’m rarely the first person on an interview loop and hence I often have to deal with candidates that are tired or perhaps rattled a bit by an interview earlier in the day.  I find people perform best when they are in a relaxed environment and I do my best to get them there.

One technique I’ve found that helps relax people is to get them talking about something they are passionate about.  I get every candidates resume a day or two before the interview and I look over it in detail.  I’m looking for anything that they have put significant time or effort into: a senior project, GitHub contributions, stack overflow, etc … 

Once I find that project I spend 30 minutes or so researching it myself.  My goal is to get enough of an understanding of the project that I can have a conversation about it.  I also write down some really easy questions about the project.  Presenting the candidate with questions on subjects they are passionate about is a good way to get the candidate relaxed and give them an early confidence boost.  It’s much better then starting them off with questions I’m passionate about

I usually start off with the standard small talk.  Who I am, how long I’ve been here and what groups I’ve worked in at Microsoft.  I ask them the same about themselves and then transition into the research I’ve done on them

I was looking over your resume and noticed your senior project on improving TCP startup.  Tell me about that. 

Some people are happy to go on at length here and some are a bit more reserved.  For the reserved I prompt them with the questions I’ve already written down.

Why is TCP intentionally slow at startup?

Your project focused on improving algorithm X, what was wrong with it?

Remember the goal here is to relax the candidate and increase their confidence.  Take their project, craft easy questions for it based on the work their project said they did.  Let them shine here. 

I generally reserve 10-15 minutes for this section of the interview

The Technical Interview

I start the technical portion off with a very easy and vaguely worded question.  My favorite question is the following

Write a function that takes a collection of letters and determines if there are any duplicate letters

The candidate is free to constrain this problem however they like

Can I use a hash table?  Sure

Can I assume the letters are all ASCII? Sure

Can I assume they come in sorted order? Sure

Can I sort them? Sure

Can I use something like bubble sort to check every combination? Sure

I do this for a couple of reason.  In part I want to keep the candidate comfortable and give them an easy win on the white board.  I don’t care how they solve it, just that they can solve it.  It’s a modified fizzbuzz problem that tells me they can at least write code in the language of their choosing.  The other reason I do this is because I’m curious to see what questions they will ask (if they ask any).  What they ask often reveals a good deal on how they approach coding.

After they get the solution correct and we walk through it I start taking things away. 

That hash table makes it easy doesn’t it?  How would you solve it without a hash table?

ASCII really makes the problem easy.  How would you solve it with Unicode characters?

Could you solve this without allocating any memory?

I make subtle changes to the question that make the solution incrementally harder and gauge how they react to the changes.  I do want to stress incrementally here.  I don’t go from easy to hard with a single twist.  Instead I add constraints to gradually and incrementally up the difficulty. 

It’s not critical that they solve every twist I give them.  Really what I’m after here is how they think about coding and whether or not they can adapt their solution to changing requirements (aka my life as a programmer).  I’m also curious how they react on a personal level to the changes.  Do they get angry, excited, etc …

Throughout this section of the interview there is one thing I’m constantly vigilant about

Do not ever let the interview session go stale for more than 5-10 seconds

There is 0 value in having an interview where me and the candidate are just staring at each other silently for several minutes.  If they get stuck on a problem it is my job as the interviewer is to help get them unstuck.  Ask them what they’re stuck on, what they’ve considered, get them to draw out sample input, anything that gets them talking or writing on the white board.

My time reservation for this section is 35-40 minutes but I’m a bit more flexible.  If the candidate is a clear hire I usually stop earlier and spend more time on selling, answering questions.  If a candidate is struggling I give them as much time as possible to get to a good solution. 

The Wrap Up Conversation

In general I let the interview wrap up be very candidate driven.  I open the floor for questions they have.  If they don’t have any I try and answer the most common questions

  • What is the environment in my group like
  • What are the ups and downs of my group
  • What is life in Seattle like
  • Why did I pick Microsoft over company X

It is really important in the wrap up to make sure the candidate leaves feeling good about the interview.  Even if the candidate completely and utterly screwed up the interview I try to make sure they leave feeling good about the session.  They could have just had a bad day, you may have just asked them the one question they couldn’t answer.  It’s very possible that you are the only “No Hire” they will get all day long.  Or maybe they’re not good enough now but a year from now they’ve gotten enough better that they nail the interview and you end up working with them. 

To sum it up in one statement … 

Never let a candidate leave feeling bad about themselves.