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further random questions from the newly-unemployed

   Date: Sun, 17 Nov 2002 11:14:09 -0500
   From: Derek Martin <blu at>

   At some point hitherto, Robert L Krawitz hath spake thusly:
   > "behavioral" or "behavior-based" interviewing.  It's a somewhat
   > high-falutin' name for a very straightforward concept, which is based
   > on the theory that the best predictor of how someone will do in the
   > future is to examine how they've done in the same situation in the
   > past.

   The problem with this approach is that it overlooks two very important

    - a candidate may not have ever experienced X, but still might be
      very knowledgeable about it and  handle it better than any of your
      other candidates
    - The candidate has learned from past mistakes

   The second one is the one that concerns me the most.  EVERYONE
   makes mistakes.  If the description the candidate gives sounds
   negative to the interviewer, this will (in general) strongly
   influence their opinion against the candidate, often regardless of
   the candidate having shown that they have learned from the

In which case I expect the candidate understands that s/he made
mistakes the first time around and to be able to explain them.  I
don't hold mistakes against a candidate; I do take points off for not
recognizing that mistakes were made and how to correct them.  If
someone's unwilling to admit to a mistake in an interview (especially
when I make it clear that that's the line I want to pursue), I'm going
to be very concerned about their ability to admit to a mistake when it

Most good candidates have been very forthright: "When I looked at it
later, I realized I should have done Y".

   The first one, however, can also dissuade the interviewer, and often
   does.  With these two factors working against essentially all
   candidates, it's a wonder to me sometimes that anyone gets hired at
   all, especially in this economic climate.

Of course, it's important to ask for the right relevant experience.
For example, if I ask "Describe for me a printer driver that you
wrote" I'm likely to reject a lot of candidates out of hand if I'm not
prepared with a fallback.  If my fallback is something like "Tell me
about a piece of software that you wrote that controlled a hardware
device" or the like, I'll get a few more answers.  Of course, it's
important for the interviewer to have a clear picture of the skills
that really are needed.

If the candidate has never experienced anything even remotely like
what I'm looking for, it's unlikely -- possible, but not very likely
-- that he'll really understand the situation very well.  He may be
able to recite formulas from books, but that doesn't mean he'll be
able to put it into practice very well.  However, it may be possible
to ask about a situation in which the candidate was thrown into a
completely new situation, but that takes some care.

What's more likely to happen is that the candidate will stop and think
and say "I've never done precisely that, but let me describe something
I wrote to monitor something over the network".  That gives you
insight into the candidate's ability to apply general principles to a
new situation.

Another variant that I've tried more than once was to ask candidates
who proclaim very good teamwork skills about a situation in which
there were strong differences between team members such that the team
could not reach consensus.  My theory here is that there are always
going to be situations in which members of the team have trouble
reaching agreement, and it's exceedingly unlikely that someone's such
a good mediator that he can always bring everyone together (and if
someone is like that, it's likely that important differences are being
papered over).  It's very enlightening to see how someone has handled
situations that are not in accord with how they prefer to work.

Usually, I find that strong candidates handle this kind of questioning
very well.  It's simply a lot easier to talk about something that has
really happened than to brainstorm on the fly about a hypothetical
situation that's never clearly defined.

Behavior-based interviewing is a general approach, not a formula.

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