Phone Screening Junior Candidates

Phone screening junior candidates is hard. With 20+ years of experience I find it hard to evaluate someone who’s new to the field or worked less than 6 months. What I’m looking for is potential, but I can’t fall back on traditional measures where I ask for evidence of a skill. Sure they might have a beginning grasp of some language or the ability to put together a bare bones web site or iPhone app, but I really can’t drill them on OO, Domain Driven Design, or functional programming.

My approach has been to touch on some real basics to determine they’ve at least been exposed to subjects they claim on a recipe. Then I dig for stories of how they picked things up, what they learned from mistakes

Step one, is read the resume. They tend to actually be one page! Note anything I should ask them about such as basic language syntax or their explanation of TDD. Second, is take a look at any open source code you can find, often github. Ignore that it’s sloppy or untested and just take a good look at it. Then if you have time you can do some Googling and see what kind of data you can find about their participation in the community or even just questions on forums or Stack Overflow.

Next comes the actual phone screen itself. I have a stable of questions I use, a few I always use and many that I sample based on the interviewee’s experience:

  • What have you done in 2 minutes or less? (I’ll let this go over 2 minutes if I’m getting good information, but sometimes you just have to tell people you need to move onto the next question.)
  • I usually warm up with a question about the disadvantages of inheritance. This often throws junior candidates, but you can get a pretty good sense of how much OO they really understand this early in a career.
  • As I’m a die-hard TDD/BDD type I always ask them to describe how they’d write a test in their current unit test framework. A surprising number of resumes that claim to practice TDD can’t explain the syntax behind writing a rspec or Junit test.
  • I’ll often ask a question about a situation where they didn’t have enough information to complete an assignment and how they handled that. Sometimes this sort of behavioral question throws junior developers and I have to reiterate that I’m not looking for a theoretical answer.
  • Then I’ll jump around from behavioral questions to technical questions. I might ask about what an index is or what they find most challenging about their current project.
  • Almost always I include a question on how they come up to speed on new technologies. I’m looking here for anything they learned that wasn’t just presented to them in a class or at their job.
  • Finally I wrap up with a few standard questions:

  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • Is there anything else I should ask you?
  • What questions do you have for me?

Every few months I come through the questions and usually add a few and remove the ones I never ask. I still wish I had a better process, but the most common theme to come out of junior phone screens is that they’re enthusiastic and they know at least what they claim on the resume.