I can write code
Andrew Rondeau

Interviewing for a job over teleconference (During the COVID-19 Pandemic)

Published: Sun Mar 29 2020 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

Highlights:

  • Make sure your sound works within 3 minutes. If there are problems, switch to your phone immediately
  • Your background is more important than what you wear
  • A good computer often sounds better than a cheap headset. What's important is that you're in a quiet space.
  • Use good listening skills when performing tasks
  • If you have a thick accent, hearing issues, or certain learning disabilities, discuss these ahead of time. Otherwise, you may perform poorly over teleconference when you would do well face-to-face
  • Don't cheat

With many offices closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of interviews are moving to teleconference. I've interviewed many candidates through teleconference. Here is what I expected, as a software engineer, interviewing global software engineering candidates.

Other industries, locations, and interviewers, will have different expectations than I do. Finally, take all career advice with a grain of salt and use your best judgement.

Demonstrate that you can use teleconference software

On my team, we conducted all of our meetings through teleconference. This was necessary because we were a global team. It also meant that basic proficiency with teleconference software was a requirement for the job.

Frequently, candidates had difficulties with sound. In these situations, I would always suggest that the candidate call in with their phone. Still, many candidates were inconsiderate and forced me to wait while they debugged their computer.

In a teleconference, it is unprofessional to make someone wait longer than three minutes while you fix sound. Almost all teleconference software will call you on the phone if you have problems. Never make an interviewer wait while you try to fix your sound.

Some people suggest doing a test-run with teleconference software the night before. One staffing firm that we worked with started their teleconferences early so the candidate could fix technical problems before I joined the call.

Another infrequent mistake was a candidate joining the teleconference from their phone, and not having a computer ready. These candidates appeared unprepared. When an interview is by teleconference, assume that you will have to share your screen and perform a basic task, just like on a face-to-face interview.

Don't get obsessed with a headset

A good computer, like a Macbook, works extremely well without a headset. In my experience, the Macbook's speakers and microphone work better than headsets.

Furthermore, a problem with USB and Bluetooth headsets is that the teleconference software now needs to pick which speakers and microphone to use, which can be confusing, especially when a bluetooth headset shows up as “BT 543XYZ.”

In my opinion, the best way to do a teleconference is with a quality laptop, in a quiet room, without a headset.

Pay close attention to what's behind you

Software engineering is a casual field, so I never paid close attention to what candidates wore. What I did pay attention to was what was behind the candidate: Paint colors, furniture, cabinets, views out the window.

Candidates in a video teleconference interview should sit at a desk, with the camera aimed so their face is centered in the camera. Make sure the background is something you'd be comfortable showing a guest.

I've seen advice that candidates should stand for teleconference interviews, or wear a suit. I never saw candidates do that, and I personally think it would be awkward.

Anticipate and discuss teleconference format difficulties ahead of time (Like hearing loss)

Teleconferences are much harder for non-native language speakers, people with heavy accents, people with hearing difficulties, and people with some learning challenges. Someone who might be perfectly fine working in a face-to-face situation may do poorly on a teleconference for any variety of reasons.

In our case, where we worked through teleconference daily, the ability to handle teleconference was a basic requirement. In some cases, we wondered if a candidate who performed poorly would make a great employee in a face-to-face situation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, if you're interviewing for a job that's going to be primarily face-to-face, and the interview is through teleconference; and you have some kind of an issue where the teleconference will work against you, it's best to discuss this with HR before the interview. You might need to make other arrangements so you can "put your best foot forward." The last thing you want to do is lose a golden opportunity because you have a little bit of hearing loss that normally isn't an issue when you're with someone face-to-face.

Use Your Best Listening Skills

When I asked candidates to perform small coding tasks in a teleconference, I would bend over backwards to explain the task:

  • I'd show a written description of the task in the teleconference
  • I'd go through the task point-by-point
  • I'd give the candidate plenty of opportunity for questions
  • I'd paste the task into the chat window

Some candidates would just get stuck in a circular pattern of asking the same clarifications over and over again, as if they couldn't understand the premise of the question. These were the "I can explain it to you [the candidate], but I can't understand it for you [the candidate]" situations.

In most of these cases, the candidate demonstrated exceptionally poor listening skills. I never knew if these candidates were truly capable of doing the job in a face-to-face situation, but merely had trouble understanding me through the teleconference. It didn't matter, in this case, because the job required daily interaction through teleconference.

Now, you might wonder why I didn't give someone who needed a little extra attention a chance. I always did. To put it differently, there's only so many hours in the day. I can either work with one engineer who needs extensive handholding, or eight engineers who can work independently. Demonstrate that you don't need extensive handholding.

Finally: Don't Cheat

When I interviewed a candidate, I tried to fairly assess their ability to do the job.

Once, a candidate gave me a memorized, well-rehearsed answer to one of my questions. Their answer was almost sing-song, as if making it through my interview was a mere formality, or a speech they had to memorize in order to pass a class at school.

I then made up a short question on the spot and the candidate gave me the "this wasn't supposed to be on the test" tone of voice. Then the candidate couldn't answer the question, either because they panicked or just didn't know the answer.

I suspected that someone covertly recorded an interview with me and then sent it to their buddy. We rejected the candidate.

It's not worth cheating: Hires who do well on the interview, but poorly on the job, don't last long. You don't want to be the person on the team who can't do their part.

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