How Bringing Empathy to Technical Interviews Improves Hiring

two persons in screens

Like many people at CrowdStrike, I didn’t follow a conventional path to the tech industry. I’m a web development bootcamp graduate, and many of the people I know in this industry similarly don’t have traditional computer science backgrounds, so I’ve spent a lot of time mentoring people who are trying to make it in tech.

One theme that comes up in our conversations repeatedly is the terrible experiences they’ve had when interviewing for tech roles. From a candidate perspective, it’s easy to pinpoint what makes a bad interview — your interviewer might be cold or unfriendly, they ask you obscure questions you didn’t prepare for, or they write off the skills you’re most proud of. While my time at CrowdStrike has proven this isn’t always the case, I’ve heard my share of horror stories.

So what can hiring managers do to facilitate a better experience? It’s hard to get better at something if you don’t know what “better” looks like, so it’s important to talk about what goes into a good technical interview. 

I recently spoke at EmberConf 2021 — a top conference for the community of contributors and users helping shape the future of Ember — about a radical concept: “Technical Interviews Don’t Have to Suck.” Over the past three years, my team of front-end engineers has grown from 10 people to 70, and as a CrowdStrike Senior Engineer, I’ve spent a lot of time conducting technical interviews with candidates. One key thing I’ve learned about how to make engineering interviews more welcoming, more fun and more likely to result in solid hires is this: Be human.

Interviewing Tips

Here are my tips for creating a positive technical interview experience for you, your team and your candidates.

Try to put candidates at ease. It’s easier to accurately evaluate tech candidates if they feel empowered to be authentic, which means being less nervous. You can help them relax by being intentional about your body language, your facial expressions and your tone of voice. It’s even OK to say something like, “I know interviews can be nerve-wracking, and I want you to feel as comfortable as possible.” Spend a minute helping candidates understand what to expect from the interview, because knowing what’s coming will help them feel more confident.

Coach candidates through questions as much as necessary for a productive conversation. It’s not about getting a textbook answer, it’s about what skills they demonstrate along the way. It can help to focus on determining what level of experience someone has, rather than on whether you’ll hire them or not. It leaves more room for people to surprise you, and candidates aren’t always great at assessing themselves against your company’s internal standards for a particular level.

If the candidate is struggling to answer a question, help them by:

  • Providing a concrete example. If you started with, “What do you know about accessibility on the web?” you could then ask, “If we’re going to build a table with interactive controls, what things should we be thinking about in order to make sure the table is accessible?”
  • Asking specific follow-up questions. If a candidate answers with only part of what you’re looking for, ask them directly about what they’ve left out. 
  • Pivoting to a different skill. If it’s clear that someone has limited experience with a particular item, move on and let them demonstrate a different skill. For someone with little accessibility experience, you could ask, “What if making this accessible required design changes — how would you approach that with a designer or product manager?” 

Finally, keep an open mind. The thing about engineering roles is we’re supposed to always be learning. Many skills go into being a good engineer, such as having empathy for users or being able to manage projects well. Make sure you’re paying attention to these skills, not just specific technical knowledge. It may take five minutes to get someone up to speed on a particular technology, but it takes a lot longer to teach someone how to be a good team player. The candidates I have been most excited about haven’t always been the candidates who look most qualified on paper, but in speaking with them, I’ve seen how many skills they have that are hard to capture on a resume. It’s been great to see people who, when given the chance, become a huge asset to our team.

Compassion is Key 

The bottom line is that being compassionate helps level the playing field for candidates because it enables them to be themselves, no matter their background or placement in their career journey. Plus, conducting more empathetic and intentional interviews gives us more candidates to choose from in the long run because candidates remember how we made them feel. Whether or not someone accepts your offer, you want them to walk away from the interview excited about the company. You never know who might be your next brand ambassador.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed someone who was clearly very nervous. The other interviewer and I took the time to slow down and make sure she was comfortable, made sure she understood each question and provided feedback in real time. We made a human connection with her, which ultimately facilitated a more productive conversation for all of us.

So when we got to the end of the interview, the first thing she said was, “How are you guys so awesome? This is so much better than any other interview I’ve been in.” It was a reminder that being empathic in a stressful process like an interview can have a huge impact and can bring a little more humanity to the engineering community.

Learn more about CrowdStrike’s people and culture and how we bring empathy to the hiring process.

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