Tell Me a Story

As an engineering manager, it is my job to meet, interview and hire new members to the team, gauging their abilities and alignment to the group’s culture. There are many variables across engineering teams (I manage two, very different teams) that would allow someone to become a fit for the group but I want to talk about one of the tools I use when interviewing candidates to help gauge alignment, and that is the concept of “tell me a story.”

I get many candidates who have front-loaded (read: polluted) their resumes with tools and technologies they’ve worked with or touched in their current or previous employment. There are also many candidates who have focussed their efforts on attaining Certifications from various Cloud vendors and companies in hopes that having many certificates on the wall will help them in their efforts. Note: another post is pending on this subject – Certification versus Experience, so stay tuned!

While I am interested in seeing the requisite technologies and skills related to the job posting in question, I want to know what makes the person tick. I want to know what they’re like under pressure, how they deal with difficult situations, people (or both) and some of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome in their career.

With these questions, I’m interested to see what type of learner the candidate is. Being a software engineer requires a strong ability to constantly be learning new technology and concepts to solving problems with code.

Tell me a story:

  • How did you arrive at becoming a software engineer?
  • Where did you study?
  • What interested you in programming?
  • What are you learning right now?

With these questions, I’m interested in hearing about time-management, working under pressure and how a project might have been successfully delivered. Allowing the candidate to open up about success they’ve had can lead to wonderful discussions that branch off that subject.

Tell me a story:

  • Tell me about a time that you made a mistake and how you recovered from it
  • Tell me about a particularly difficult outage/degradation and steps taken to mitigate the issue
  • Tell me about how you might manage 3 competing priority tasks on different projects
  • Tell me about a project you lead and how you designed and delivered it successfully

While I do value a breadth of technology, typically listed on a resume under the “Skills” or “Technologies” section, it’s rare that an engineer with less than 10 years experience will have the experience across the (usually massive) list of tools in these sections. I’m to the point now that when I see a resume very heavily loaded with tools/language listings and the engineer has 3-5 years experience, it’s a pass. I’ve interviewed so many of these people that when I focus on a handful of those tools/languages the response is “I know about it, but haven’t used it.” Engineers take note, don’t overload your resume with fluff or keywords to fool a resume scanner.

This is not to say that engineers with 3-5 years experience aren’t always passed over. I have hired many folks in this category based on what they’ve been through, projects they’ve delivered or passion they show for the profession. These folks were able to tell me a story about what this career has done for them, what problems they’ve solved with code and obstacles they encountered and learned from in their day-to-day.

There are other characteristics I’m watching for while candidates discuss these subjects with me. I’m watching for triggers or sore-spots related to difficult projects/tasks and how the candidate dealt with the situation. Body language is especially important and understanding what someone’s emotional intelligence is (while quite difficult to gauge) can come out when asking questions about difficult situations. Is the person being truthful? Does the story make sense? Does the story jive with the education and experience listed on the resume?

Tell me a story. You never know where it might take you and your career.