"Hey, I have to interview someone in 30 minutes. Give me a crash course."
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Recently, a colleague who’s been in the industry forever - but never involved in the hiring process - came to me with a conundrum. It went something like this:
Colleague: “Hey I have to interview someone in 30 minutes. Give me a crash course.”
I’m currently managing the hiring process to expand the FTX Games team at our HQ in San Diego, so this topic was top of mind for me. I’ve been similarly responsible for staffing game development teams for the past decade so it would be safe to say I have a lot of thoughts on the matter.
We chatted on Slack for the next ~28 minutes and the subsequent interview went great. What follows is a summary and slight expansion of what we talked about. I hope you’ll find it useful and if you ever find yourself across the interview table from me, I hope you will use this information for good, not evil.
Frame - Provide the agenda so you both know what to expect.
Listen - Learn their history, find out what’s important to them, understand their skills and capacities.
Pitch - Give a from-the-heart pitch on where your company aligns with those goals.
Drill Down - Find their red flags and knowledge gaps. Find out what will keep them from getting hired.
Two-Way Q&A - Have a conversation. Pay attention to the conversational habits of the candidate.
So that’s the structure! Frame the conversation, get the information you want, pitch the hell out of your company, find out why this person won’t make it through the hiring funnel, then tie up loose ends while making sure you represent your organization well.
I’ve used this format - or slight variations on it - for the better part of the past ten years, and it’s generally led to great results. This particular flavor of interview structure is well suited to initial phone calls or in-person conversations - the ones where you’re trying to get a high level understanding of a candidate’s skills, passions, talent and personality. More technical interviews or detailed conversations to discuss specific projects or changing parameters are great follow-ups to this format.
Alright! Let’s dive into the details:
In general, I like to provide the agenda for the conversation right up front:
“I’d like to get some more information and context on your background, provide some information about FTX, and then we can dive into any questions. Sound good?”
This accomplishes a few things:
- It puts the candidate more at ease. A big thing you’ll be fighting throughout the process is uncovering the true nature of a person. The more relaxed they are, the more honest they’ll be, and the higher a correlation you’ll find between the person they're presenting to you and the person they’ll actually be when you work together.
- It helps the candidate prepare meaningful questions and content for you to review. You only have a few minutes with this candidate before you have to make a critical decision. Make sure you’re utilizing them to the absolute fullest extent.
- It makes sure you don’t skip steps. Saying this stuff out loud at the beginning of the conversation provides natural pivot points and refreshes in your meeting-addled mind (“Wait, which call is this?!”) the specific points that you need to hit.
It’s like the old business saying:
“Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
This is the first “Tell ‘em” part.
Once you’ve used the opening stanza to try to get your candidate settled in, let them talk. Get their history ("So, tell me a little bit more about your experience in the games industry."), but focus on the stuff that’s not in their resume.
Early in this section of the conversation, you want to communicate your interests - what hard decisions did they have to make? What are their technical competencies? What are the gaps in their experience? - so feel free to redirect an early topic to those details. For example, “Oh that’s super interesting! Tell me more about your time at [company].” is a great way to communicate that you’re interested in drilling down deeper than the surface level. Smart candidates will note this and be sure to provide this level of detail throughout their history.
Again, you want to be putting candidates at ease throughout the process (more on this later) so if you hear something interesting, exciting, or thoughtful, let the candidate know. A personal favorite tactic of mine is to highlight games of theirs I’ve played. Nothing feels better in an interview that the interviewer saying something to the effect of “Ohhhh I’m like 200 hours in on [game series].” for a game you poured years of your life into.
Build that confidence up and get closer to the ground truth at every moment you can.
Before this next step, confront the harsh truth - is this candidate an obvious No? If so, end the interview here. You’ll save time for both parties and ultimately this case shouldn't come up often if you’re vetting aggressively on the front end.
If the candidate seems promising, now is the time to pitch them hard on your company so they're super excited to come work with you. Match all the things that they're looking for with opportunities the company provides ("So, you mentioned that you’d like to be working on games at scale. That’s perfect, as we generally maintain large player counts…” etc.). Feel free to get excited here, because if you’re finding correlations between candidate wants/skills and company offers/needs, that means you’re getting closer to a successful hire!
Ultimately, you need to be upfront here with your candidate, because the truth will come out in the end. If you aren't completely forthright, that can negatively impact your reputation and the company’s reputation - a complete disaster scenario. You don’t need to go into an unprofessional level of detail (for example, the fact that Bob keeps microwaving fish at lunch), but the more you can get ahead of the weak points of your company (and there are *always* weak points, for every company), the more effectively you can communicate mitigations to those problems.
To provide context at this phase, I like to focus on the strengths of the company while offering context for the weaknesses. For example, a statement like “So, there are a lot of great parts to working at a big company but we do tend to move slowly in the hiring process. We’ll do everything we can to move quickly through the parts that are in our control, but I just want to level set with you so that you’re not surprised later on.” can build a lot of trust with a candidate and give you more credibility throughout the conversation.
It’s helpful to be positive, excited and high-energy here, because candidates are interviewing the company through you. If they get the sense that you’re not excited to be there, or that the company is a grind, or that the culture isn’t a good one, that translates to a lower hit rate for highly desirable employees - the ones that you want most AND the ones that also have the most options - and it translates to a higher cost.
Ultimately, you should be open and transparent. Don’t falsely represent the company. The goal of the initial interview is FIT. If the role is incredibly demanding, make that clear. If the role is turning widgets with little autonomy, make that clear. This is a long term relationship and there shouldn't be any surprises on either side after a successful hire.
Now that your candidate is super excited about the position and the company, and you are excited about continuing the conversation, inquire about any areas you're really concerned about. This is the due diligence phase of the interview and finding the “ground truth” is essential. Ask tough questions. Focus on areas of their candidacy that you’re concerned about. You’re talking to this candidate because they have a high value skill to bring to the table, but now is the time to set those aside and make sure that the candidate is a good fit for the position you’re hiring for.
If you’ve had a positive and professional conversation thus far, you should have a good rapport with the candidate and a level of trust established. This can lead to a more honest, more productive conversation on both sides.
This process can take some getting used to, because it feels - to lack a better term - mean. Just remember that you’re there to help find out if that candidate can be a successful part of the company. If they can’t and you can identify that before they potentially fly across the world for a grueling day-long interview, you’ve saved the candidate and the company, time, money and stress. Further, in the best interviews, these tough questions often feel like a lively conversation, since you’re seeking information that good candidates are really excited to share.
Most interviewers focus on specific work experiences ("So, tell me a time you had to make a tough product call with incomplete data.") and I’m no different. There’s nothing more revealing than seeing how a candidate handled a specific situation in the real world, especially a challenging one.
Don’t be afraid to ask for more information, specifically asking for situations that were tough or that were failures, if they’re not being offered up organically. The more you can drill down on tough situations in the past, the more you can learn about how a candidate will operate if they become part of your organization.
Did they panic when they were in a tough spot? Do they blame others for failures? Do they focus on solutions and retrospective analysis or do they complain about why it was so unfair?
Because you have a positive rapport and you’ve offered up weaknesses on the company, the context of a give-and-take conversation is clearly established, and tough questions won’t feel so out of the blue.
There are some interview schools of thought that put a premium on basically being a jerk to candidates in order to trick them into saying something damaging. I think this is the microwaved fish of interview strategies. It’ll get the job done, but it stinks, Bob. It just stinks.
If things ever get a little bit intense, I like to pivot back to a few light hearted questions to reset the conversation. Here are a few of my favorites:
- What games are you playing?
- What’s your favorite project?
- What shows are you watching this season?
- What films are you excited about?
- What question do you wish I would ask you?
- What did you do before you got into games?
Asking these questions with a smile on your face can work to get the conversation back to a positive place.
This might seem like fluff, but this can be the most critical phase of the interview for both parties.
There’s an old business trick where you ask the hardest question right at the end, when the meeting feels like it’s over. The classic example of this is a potential Venture Capitalist asking a startup founder “So, what are you going to do if this doesn't work out.” If the answer is anything other than “I don’t know. This has to work out.” the deal is off (at least as the legend goes).
Q&A is a perfect time to ask probing questions that you haven’t been able to find a place for in the conversation. Framing it as “Oh, before I forget” can help you casually pivot back to a critical question and oftentimes you’ll get the most honest, forthcoming answers at the end of the conversation.
At the same time, Q&A is also an important time to make sure that you answer any questions that may be preventing the candidate from being completely comfortable with your company. I like to keep a doozy question in the back of my pocket for rock star candidates who I’m confident we’ll extend an offer to - an offer that will most likely be competing with offers from multiple other companies:
“Let’s say we make you an offer. Why wouldn't you accept it?”
This is a bold question, but one that can yield great results. Candidates will often provide an honest answer to which you can provide mitigating information. This can leave an impression with candidates where the last thought in their mind at the end of a conversation is “Wow, these guys really thought about [mitigation you just presented].” as opposed to “I don’t think I would accept an offer from them unless [question they would have just asked you].”
Ultimately, Q&A is the last possible moment for real-time omnidirectional conversation. If you need to pause the conversation to make sure you’ve covered everything, do it. If you need to ask them a question about their local weather to give yourself a moment to organize your thoughts, do it.
This is the last stop before you make a determination about this candidate, so make sure you utilize the Q&A section to its fullest.
WARNING: DO NOT DO THESE THINGS
Before you do your first interview, be sure to know what you can and can’t say. “Job Interview Questions That Are Illegal” from The Balance Careers does an elegant job of illustrating what you cannot ask during an interview. It’s also always good idea to check with HR on your company’s specific policies.
I’ve found that if you do a half dozen practice interviews, while keeping these restrictions firmly in your mind, you can internalize them well. Just borrow a friend and interview them for the same job like 6 times and owe them a beer and you’ll be good.
Ultimately, when in doubt, don’t ask probing questions about their personal life or defer to HR if you have a concern that doesn't revolve around their core professional qualifications.
Another potential gotcha is the NDA. Just make sure you know whether they’ve signed one or not before you start the call, so that you don’t accidentally disclose any sensitive information.
Everyone interviews differently, but this is generally my approach. I find it enjoyable, productive, and it almost always leaves everyone with a positive impression of each other, while surfacing critical information.
Always remember that as an interviewer, you are the public face of your organization. Your first goal is to represent your organization in a positive, professional light. Being honest, friendly and conversational with candidates goes a long way towards that goal, but always keep in mind that an interview is a two-way pitch.
I’d love to hear other strategies for interviewing, so I’ll keep an eye on the comments. Alternately, if we ever end up in an interview together, please feel free to include them in the Q&A phase!
-- Coray Seifert is a Senior Producer at FTX Games, where he heads up hiring and developer relations. If you're interested in publishing your game with FTX or joining the core publishing team, he's your guy! A veteran producer and designer on 25+ games over 15+ years across mobile, console, PC, and VR/AR for companies like THQ, Slingo, and Autodesk, Coray has also lectured at leading institutions like Rutgers, Penn, and NYU. Coray was elected to the International Game Developers Association Board in 2007 at the age of 27; the youngest board member in IGDA history.