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6 Ways to Win at Technical Phone Screens

Phone Screening 17

Tips for finding out what a candidate really has to offer.

Many of our customers use a technical phone screen as an early step in their candidate assessment process. With resume in hand, a manager should be able to spend 20 to 25 minutes on the phone with a candidate and get a good sense of whether it’s worth the time to bring them in for face-to-face interviews. To be successful, the manager should have a strong technical background, should be more interested in listening than talking, and should be equally focused on technical skills and soft skills. Here are six keys to getting the most out of your potential new employee.

Be prepared.
Before calling the candidate, it’s imperative to do a quick review of their resume so that you have enough information to be able to tailor your questions: How long have they been in the workforce? What positions have they held, and for how long? What were some of their responsibilities in those positions? What are their salary expectations? How much should they know? What are some areas on their resume I can dig into? And for more junior candidates, do I need to ask questions about their studies?

Being prepared will help you look good and set a highly professional tone for your company – both important goals for interviewing today’s highly in-demand technical talent.

Set expectations.
You can save yourself a lot of headaches by being clear from the outset about what you are trying to accomplish in the phone screen. Explain how long the call will be, and make it clear that saying “I don’t know” is better than making something up. As you ask questions, it also helps to set expectations around the time they have for a response; for example, “Talk to me for a minute or two about some of the automated testing you’ve done in the last six months.”

Setting expectations will help protect your time (and the interview itself) from candidates who may spend too much time answering questions. Conversely, it can also challenge those who would otherwise be too brief to provide more details – so that you can truly gauge their understanding.

Dig deeper.
Perhaps the greatest piece of advice I have is to dig deeper with every question you ask. Say you ask a candidate to tell you about the model-view-controller (MVC) pattern, and they give you a simple textbook answer. Dig deeper. What are some best practices for using MVC? Why is it good to have a fat model and skinny controllers? Tell me about some MVC frameworks you’ve used. Are there other patterns for web applications that you are aware of or have used? Tell me some approaches you’ve used for authentication and authorization in your controllers. (You get the picture. Ask more questions.)

Now, you don’t want to spend forever on any one topic, but if a candidate tells you that they’re strong in a particular area, really get in there. Test the boundaries of their knowledge – how much real world experience they have, how good they are at communicating more complex concepts, and maybe even getting to a point where they say, “Yeah, that’s not an area I’ve spent much time on.”

Hear their best.
One of the best things to talk about with a candidate is their best work. Ask them about their greatest achievements. The work that they’re most proud of. Then listen to their story. What challenges did they face? Was it complicated? What impact did that achievement have on their company or customer? Once you know one or two of their best stories, you’ll be equipped to tell others about the candidate – and to be better able to gauge the impact they will have on your business.

Give feedback.
When a candidate doesn’t seem like a good fit, it can be tempting to end the call quickly and start thinking about the next interview. Instead, take a minute and give them some constructive feedback, like “Your best answer was (x), but I think you would really benefit from spending more time studying (y).” Candidates will appreciate any coaching you can give them on the content of their answers, communication styles, key soft skills they should communicate more strongly – anything that can help them fulfill their potential. Giving feedback also leaves room for a candidate to jump in and clarify something that may have been a miscommunication or misunderstanding, potentially clearing up an area that might actually change your perception of their suitability.

Sell them.
Finally, work on selling your company and the position to everyone you talk to. You should obviously never misrepresent anything, but you are a brand ambassador for your company – and technical talent is always in high demand. Get them excited to take the next step with your organization! It’s your job to communicate the things about your company that make it a great place to work, and to communicate why this position could be a great career move for your candidate.

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