Strong opinions, weakly held

Interviewing over Skype

This week I did a phone screen interview over Skype, with video. I was so pleased with how it went that I never want to do a regular phone screen again. I am not a big fan of interviewing people over the phone or being interviewed over the phone.

The biggest problem with doing technical interviews over the phone is that when you ask hard questions, the subject of the interview has to think about their answer, and may even need to write things down to get their answer together. When you’re talking on the phone, nothing is conveyed. There’s an awkward silence punctuated by the interviewer letting the interviewee know that it’s OK that they’re not talking while they think about it. People get more nervous, and I think it hurts the quality of their answers.

When you have video up and running during the interview, the visual contact makes pauses seem less awkward. That’s a plus.

The other problem that Skype solves is that it provides text chat as well. Some questions are a lot easier to ask when you can paste some code into the chat window and ask the person you’re interviewing to look at it. On phone screens, I’ve been known to email things to the other person during the interview, but having the text chat running alongside the Skype call is really useful.

And finally, when you have video you can get a sense of the other person’s body language. I find I really miss that in regular phone screens.

The Skype interview went so well that I’m going to suggest it for all of my phone screens in the future. Using the phone for phone screens seems archaic.


  1. I participated in my first Skype interview just yesterday, or rather, what started as a Skype interview. At first things seemed to be going well enough– camera positioning and lighting conditions were difficult to get right, but come showtime everything seemed to come together nicely. The experience is a little unsettling, a little claustrophobic; staring out someones webcam you have no periphery. It feels unnervingly close to how I image a horse feels with blinders. And yet, this little video portal was still a great way to feel real connection to the other side. It may be a cramped world you are inhabiting, but by George it got me better than half way there.

    Unfortunately, my laptop lost power and reset itself. Video conferencing did not come up gracefully the second time, with Skype behaving rather erratically. Rather than go through triage cycles we moved to a different set of mediums.

    We did a coding exercise, talking on the phone while live coding in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet. Overall it was a great experience, and what foibles there were– the things that would’ve gone seamlessly face to face– were, i think, felt as cutely-quirky and personable, rather than problematic or distancing. Notes got passed around in the margin and went unseen, we had to rough it without indentation, the cursor latency seemed to follow explicitly non-deterministic rules, but overall I believe both parties felt connected and that it was a great experience worth doing again. (((Thanks Joel for the idea, and thanks in turn whomever your Google buddy was that mentioned the idea to you.)))

    For a point of contrast, I want to call out screen sharing. There’s a lot of technical “show me” uses for screen sharing that I think work great, but any kind of discussion or requests for clarification very rapidly shows the limits of the technology. This becomes really manifest when you have multiple people trying to collaborate on a document. One case that seems to play out again and again is doing requirements reviews, having to verbalize to the editor a series of locations and issues within a document that generated an inherent conflict, and then trying to orderly & collectively talk through solutions. Everyone needs to drive, needs to be able to raise issues, and having to navigate complex issues orally is sub-optimal. Its cases like this where realtime collaborative software is really important, where Google Docs and Infinote and EtherPad and MPX are going to be instrumental.

  2. It hadn’t occurred to me to use Google Docs to collaborate during an interview, but that’s great as well. I’m already working on creating an alternate version of my phone screen interview that incorporates the possibility to share text during the interview, and the potential to use Google Docs beats text chat by a mile. Thanks!

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