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How we hire - part 3: The interview

January 11, 2017 / no comments / in Blog, hiring, interview, jobs, process

In previous posts in this series, I gave an overview of how we hire and the job advert. So, the advert’s been out for a while and we’re getting lots of interest and applications. It’s time to select some of those people for interview.

The selection process

Often we have a lot of good applications, so we need some criteria for filtering them down initially. Looking for skill matches is an obvious one, but it doesn’t have to be a 100% match - remember, hire for potential, not for experience.
One thing that can really make a difference is the cover letter. We ask for one as part of the application, and I’ve found that there’s a pretty strong correlation between the quality of the candidate and the quality of the cover letter they write.

The phone screen

The first stage of the process is a phone screen (although we usually use Skype). The purpose of this is to see if it’s worth everyone’s time for us to invite the candidate for a face-to-face interview. Typically the Skype call will take about half an hour, and we’ll ask some introductory background and technical questions. In such a short time we can’t go in to too much detail, but in general we find it’s long enough to decide.

After the phone interview, if the person has scored well enough, we invite them for a face-to-face interview. On average about half of the people we phone interview progress to the face-to-face interview stage.

The technical test

For people we invite to interview, we also have a technical test which they do at home. We give them access to a GitHub repo containing the instructions, and guidance on how to complete the challenge. The challenge is intended to be similar to the type of work the person would be doing day-to-day if they worked here; we actually have several, one for each type of role we hire for.
It means people can write code using the development environment they’re used to, in their own time. We’ve found that this works far better than onsite coding tests or artificial “coding on a whiteboard” exercises which are unrealistic and potentially misleading.

Typically we ask people to spend two or three hours on this test - we want them to spend enough time so that we get an idea of how good they are, but not to impose too much of a burden on them.


Face-to-face interview

Candidates are invited to our offices on the Wellcome Genome Campus, near Cambridge. When setting up the interview, little things are important - making sure that interviewees know how to get here, that they are booked in with Campus Security, how to get from the main gate to our building, and so on. These may seem trivial but I want candidates to arrive on-time, relaxed and ready to give the best account of themselves, not rushed and stressed out because they couldn’t find a parking space and ended up being late!

The interview itself takes about two hours and is divided into three sections.

  1. General background, why is the candidate interested in Eagle and this job in particular?
  2. Technical questions - these will vary according to the post we’re hiring for, but we make sure to ask the same questions to all candidates for a particular post, so that we can make objective comparisons. Workable’s interview kits and scorecards make it really easy to set up and track responses.
  3. A set of questions aimed at finding out how well the candidate works with others, addresses problems, deals with uncertainty and so on.

Then there’s an opportunity for the candidate to ask us questions. I find the sorts of questions asked here to be very revealing about what the candidate is thinking and the concerns that they have, which may carry over into the first few weeks of the job if we make them an offer.

After that, the interview’s over. If the candidate has time, we like them to spend some time chatting over a coffee with some of the members of the team they’d be working with, but who weren’t part of the actual interview. This is intended to give the candidate an impression of who they’d be working with, and what Eagle is like, outside the constraints of a formal interview.

After the interview

That’s usually it. In some cases, if we really can’t decide after the first round of interviews, we’ll invite candidates in for a second interview, possibly with different Eagle people. These tend to focus on areas we have concerns about, or where we suspect there may be a defining separation between the two (or more) possible people we’re second-interviewing.

Then we’ll have a discussion between all of the people who interviewed the candidates, to decide who to make an offer to, based on what value they could bring to the company. Sometimes we may decide that none of the candidates is right for a role, and that we need to re-advertise the position. I think it’s critical that we are prepared to do this; hiring the wrong person for a role is bad for the person and for the company. This really is role-specific though; in the past we’ve interviewed someone for a particular role, decided they weren’t suitable for it, but later on hired them for a different role where they’ve done very well.

When we do make an offer, it’s important to get it to the candidate as quickly as possible; we are in a competitive job market so we have to move fast.

Assuming they accept, it’s a case of answering any questions the potential employee may have, then sorting out the logistics of notice periods, references and start dates. Then we look forward to a new person joining the ever-growing Eagle team!

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Glenn Proctor

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