Trust Your Instinct

Joel recently posted “The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing” on his site, and it describes almost perfectly the whys and wherefores of my own interview process. This isn’t too surprising, since Joel and I both started at Microsoft a few years apart and in teams that were not so distant, so we probably both got very similar kinds of indoctrination. I don’t follow every point that he outlines, but it’s pretty close.

I’d have to say that even after eleven years at Microsoft one of the hardest, hardest, hardest things to do is follow his dictum to Make A Decision. Most people at Microsoft are generally nice people who want people to feel good about themselves, so even at a company renowned for its hard-headed competitiveness people are sometimes very reluctant to say “no hire” about someone if they managed to seem not totally unqualified. Case in point, at the beginning of the summer we did a round of interviews for summer interns, and one of the interviewees was a very nice guy who seemed pretty smart but wasn’t so strong that he just jumped out as an obvious intern hire. For various reasons I had to call the recruiter before I had the chance to write up feedback in email and they asked, “So, is it hire or no hire?” And my immediate reply? “Well, I think he’s kind of a weak ‘hire’.” The recruiter was good enough to shoot back, “What does that mean?” and I came to my senses and said “Oh, yeah, right. Sorry. He’s a no hire.” As they say about pregnancy, you can’t hire somebody “just a little bit.” Either they’re working for you or they’re not. There’s no in-between.

Any time I start to get mushy on this point, I just remind myself of an experience I had a long time ago, back when I had done only a few interviews and was very insecure about making hire/no hire calls. My group at the time was interviewing for a position that had opened up on our team, and we interviewed this guy I’ll call Fred. Fred’s resume looked good, with lots of relevant experience. He sailed through the coding question, no problem. However, during the interview something nagged at me about him, something that was just not right, something that made me doubt that he was going to be a good hire for the team. Being young and insecure, I overrode my concerns and gave him a ‘hire’ recommendation. Everyone else on the team who interviewed him gave him a similar recommendation, and he was hired.

As it turns out, Fred was a disaster. I realized later that my nagging doubts had probably been caused by some subtle negativity on his part towards his current management during the interview. Once he was on the team, this subtle negativity blossomed into a full-blown bad attitude towards authority in general. As far as I could tell, Fred didn’t really give a crap what other people thought he should be doing or how they felt about what he was doing. As you might imagine, this made the quality of his work wildly uneven and also made him a generally unpleasant person to work with a lot of the time. Somehow this had worked out OK on his previous team, but it didn’t fly so well on my more functional team. Fred’s tenure with the team was not that long, thankfully, and after he left the team most of his code ended up being tossed out of the product and completely rewritten (much of it by me).

In the end, no permanent damage was done, but it was a very valuable learning experience for me personally. The experience taught me that the most important thing you can do in an interview is Trust Your Instinct. Had I listened to my instinct, I could have perhaps questioned Fred more closely about his views on management. Or I could have raised red flags that later interviewers could have honed in on. But I didn’t, and I (and the rest of the team) ended up paying the price. So now when I interview people, I look at the resume, I look at the coding question, I look at all the other factors Joel outlines, and then I do a gut check: is this someone I can see working closely with for the next three years? If they fail the gut check, that’s usually a pretty good indicator of a “no hire” recommendation.

13 thoughts on “Trust Your Instinct

    1. paulvick

      Oops, thanks for pointing that out! I was originally using "Jim" as my pseduonym, but then I realized that many years later I worked with someone name Jim (who was *not* a disaster and who is still on the team). Didn’t want any innocent confusion…

  1. Someone

    How do you distinguish between person who has had to change the job in big behemoth (yes MS) becuase the teams themselves got folded twice within 2-3 months. Then another 1 year team was floundering for direction as the leader was clueless about technology/very defenesive taking the feedback/insecure. Obviously if you are strong headed person you will take up the issues with him directly since he projects the accessible exterior. But then you find out he was never good at earlier places too (little too late). Mosto fht other team members quietly go out without getting in trouble, but the outspokenness and frnakness gets you in bad book. Should this person not ever talk about the manager (although this is the first time in life of 12+ years of experience this has happened).

    1. paulvick

      I guess the point of my story wasn’t so much that you should never say negative things about past managers — I think honesty and frankness is a good thing — but that when it comes up, it should definitely be explored. There’s no questions that good people get stuck in bad situations and if that was the case, it’s an excellent opportunity to explore how the candidate deals with adversity. I don’t think there’s ever a "wrong" thing to say in an interview (within reason, of course), as long as you give things a thorough exploration.

      I would also agree that we all need to guard against preconcieved notions and prejudices. I implied but didn’t say explicitly that checking in with your instinct is only one part of the decision making process. To pick a more neutral example, you may not like the particular work style of a potential candidate, but as long as that work style isn’t going to negatively impact anything, it really shouldn’t matter. Instinct certainly isn’t perfect, and you shouldn’t shut off your reasoning in favor of it. It’s more a question of striking a good balance between the two, which can be hard to do.

  2. john

    "fail the gut check" could just mean they don’t fit because they are not like you(race, sex …). That would not be I good thing.

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  4. Avonelle

    I worked with an HR person once who said she used the "Christmas party" rule when hiring. If she decided that she would not want to sit next to the candidate at the annual company Christmas party, then she would not recommend hiring the person. At the time, I thought she was being dumb about it – she was the owner’s daughter, and I didn’t take much of what she said seriously. Later, I realized she was probably right, in a way. She recommended that we NOT hire someone she didn’t care for, but we were anxious to bring someone in, and the candidate seemed to be qualified. Later, we realized he was a real jerk, and was much less skilled and experienced than we realized. I think trusting your gut reaction is probably valid.

  5. Joe Friend

    Paul, you and Joel are spot on. I too had trouble making the hire/no hire call during my years at MS (93 – late 96). I hope to be returning to MS soon and I know that I need to really focus on honing my interview skills and stiffen my backbone.

  6. Adam Barr

    I wrote more in a comment at Scoble’s link to this:

    but the summary is, I would not be too confident in Microsoft’s way of interviewing. Being firm about "no hire" could mean you are not being soft, or it could mean you are turning down too many candidates.

    I used to think so what, Microsoft isn’t required to hire everybody. But it could be worse than that. It could be that candidates who will engender a firm "hire" in Microsoft interviewers are ones that project arrogance and attitude. And that it’s the "no hires" who, if hired, would have prevented some of the arrogance Microsoft has recently displayed in public (DOJ foibles, scoffing at Linux, ignoring importance of security).

    Think about that next time you discuss the "Microsoft way" of interviewing.

    – adam

  7. Tommy Bowen

    The worst thing is having to tell someone weeks or months after you’ve hired them "Sorry, you just can’t cut it." and fire them. It means you failed in your hiring process, and have caused havoc, embarrasment and pain in the life of the employee, his wife and children. That’s happened a few times and I always lose considerable sleep over it. That’s the pits.

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