Phone Screens

The most recent trend in interviewing developer candidates is the normal phone screen, but with a live window in which you can type and the interviewer can see what you’ve typed. Something as simple as Skype with a chat window open, or a more complex website like collabedit which gives nice syntax highlighting and auto-indentation, etc. (but not VIM key bindings, grr). I’ve noticed with this new method the questions are more difficult, closer to standard whiteboard questions than standard phone screen questions where you do not share a code editor. I’ve also noticed with this new method that I’m suddenly doing much worse on interviews than when they were phone only and/or in person on a whiteboard but I think I’ve finally figured out why.

Human behavior is complex and determined by lots of factors. All kinds of things can bias your decision making and your performance on tasks like this. I think the specific bug that’s being triggered is something called priming

Priming is when something (usually unnoticed) in your environment changes your perception and thus your behavior.  When psychologists were testing to see if irrelevant details affected our behavior, it turned out they do.  The most famous example is that people who are holding hot cups (coffee) have a more favorable opinion of an interview candidate (hey, maybe  should ask my phone screeners to grab a cup of coffee before we begin ;)) as compared to those who had no beverage.  The exact opposite happens when people are holding cold beverages, they have a more negative view of a candidate.

I think the fact that I’m sitting in front of a computer with a text editor open is affecting the way I think about problems.  I type very quickly, and normally when I have my editor up I already know how to solve the problem I’m attempting to solve because I’ve already white boarded it with a colleague.  Basically my instinct in this environment is to code, not think (if that makes sense), and this is hurting me.  When I’m at a whiteboard, I know that hand writing out the code is going to be slow and so I want to make sure that what I’m going to be writing out is already the near optimal solution before I start writing. This isn’t the case with the text editor open, my unconscious instinct is to start coding something that works quickly, and optimize later. 

Hopefully now that I recognize what’s happening, I’ll be able to override my unconscious instincts and behave more like I’m in front of a white board, because I don’t think my request to not code live will go over so well 😉

One Reply to “Phone Screens”

  1. For me, having a paper in front of me and a pencil in my hand makes it much easier to think through a problem. I’d guess this is due to four years of solving problems with paper and pencil in college. I did a dozen phone screens when I was looking for internships and jobs, almost all of them with an online text editor. At my first one, which was incidentally the hardest, I wasn’t prepared with paper and pencil, and partway through the interview I needed to think hard and in the moment of desperation, I told the interviewer I needed to go get some paper to try and work the problem out. He apparently didn’t mind. I went and got my paper, and then spent at least fifteen minutes (I was watching the clock nervously) figuring it out. I was quite nervous here, I assumed I had bombed the interview by going silent for so long, how would he know I wasn’t looking up a solution online? Anyway, I did figure it out and apparently passed the interview since I went to the onsite after that.

    I still keep paper and pencil at my desk when I’m working, and when I need to figure out a tricky problem I reach for it — it triggers my thinking. I often don’t even need to use it, I just need to have it in my hand and my thought process starts working. It’s interesting. There might be similar environmental aspects that have the same effect on others.

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