The Interview Schedule

This is part 3 of a series on interviewing.  Check here for part 1 on setting up an interviewing team.

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It’s important that every candidate be treated like you’d treat a VIP customer.  Even if you don’t wind up making an offer, they will have a deeper interaction with your company and your staff than the vast majority of the general public, and you want them to go away wishing they’d gotten an offer.  They are going to tell people about their experience with your company, and you want the story they tell to be about how awesome a place it seems to be, rather than how they dodged a bullet by not getting an offer!

There are a long set of interactions which happen prior to a candidate coming in for an interview loop which I’ll talk about in other posts.  Here, I want to focus on the in-house interview.  For that, he first step of that is to make sure the candidate has a full  schedule of their visit.  This should be delivered to them along with all the initial travel arrangements.  Ideally, it should include:

  • an initial meet & greet / tour segment
  • a list of each person they’re going to meet along with their role and email
  • a schedule of when important events are happening throughout the day (e.g., each interview, lunch, happy hour, etc.)

The first part, the meet & greet, serves two important purposes.  First, it’s important to always bear in mind that most people find interviews extremely nerve-wracking.  A short tour of the office, and a chance to chit-chat with a few people helps the candidate unwind a bit.  Second, it gives you a time buffer to absorb any unexpected delays in the candidate’s travels.  Whether it’s traffic, parking, a flat tire, a late subway train… whatever.  It’s easy enough to just cut this period a bit short so the candidate can get started on time, and you can avoid messing up the rest of the day’s schedule.

The second point, giving a list of interviewers, deserves a bit more explanation.  For a mediocre candidate, this information won’t matter.  However, for an exceptional candidate, it’s an opportunity for them to show their enthusiasm and their diligence.  Really exceptional candidates will do some homework on their interviewers, and will often have some interesting question, anecdote, or topic to discuss with each interviewer.  Such candidates will also generally avail themselves of the opportunity to individually follow up with each interviewer to thank them for their time.

Finally, providing a schedule allows the candidate to mentally (and perhaps physically) prepare themselves for the expected duration and expectations for the full day.  I’ve had a number of candidates comment to me over the years at how unexpectedly rigorous / lengthy an interview was.  I’ve also had experiences as a candidate where I wasn’t able to make some other commitment because the full extent of my time commitment wasn’t clear.

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At the end of the day, you want your candidate to walk away thinking well of your company, the people they met, and how they were treated as a guest at your office.  One of the easiest things you can do to ensure that happens is to avoid surprising them, and by giving them a chance to do their homework up front.  And, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your best candidates when they actually do.

Avoiding Us vs. Them in Problem Solving

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen two people trying to solve a technical problem where the real conflict is anything but technical.  Often, this starts when one person brings an idea to the table, and is trying to promote it to the group.  Then, someone else proposes a different idea.  Each goes back and forth trying to shoot down the other person’s idea and promote their own.  Perhaps there was a pre-existing rivalry, or some political maneuvering, or private agenda.  Whatever.  Sides form, and before long, the debate isn’t really about a technical solution anymore… it’s about who’s going to “win”.

Of course, no one “wins” such a contest.  It’s stressful to be part of.  It’s stressful to watch. And, worst of all, it kills the collaboration which could have produced a better solution than either “side” was proposing.  Fortunately, I’ve run across an excellent way to avoid the problem nearly 100% of the time.

The Technique in Theory

The key is to get everyone involved in the process to bring multiple ideas to the table.  This seems too simplistic to possibly work, but it does.  It could be that they come with these ideas ahead of time, or that they come up with them in a meeting.  That part doesn’t matter.  What matters is that each person comes up with more than one.  The reasons this works have a lot to do with how it forces people to approach the whole brainstorming / problem-solving process.

The Opened Mind

The first thing that happens if you insist on each person bringing multiple solutions is that it opens up each person’s mind to the possibility of there being multiple solutions.  If you, yourself, brought three different approaches to the table, it’s very hard to imagine there’s only one way to do it.  And, if you’ve already formed favorites among your own ideas, you’ve probably started to develop some criteria / principles to apply to making that judgement.  At that point, it becomes a lot easier to weight the pros & cons of another idea you didn’t originate, and fit it into the proper place among the rest of the ideas.

Breaking Up False Dichotomies

The second useful trait of this approach is that the decision is no longer an either-or decision (a “dichotomy”).  Instead, you, yourself, have already thought up a few different approaches, and your thought partners probably came with a bunch of their own.  With that many potential solutions on the table (even if some of them are obviously very bad) it becomes a lot easier to see the complexities of the problem, and how there are a whole range of ways solve it to a better or worse degree: or even solve parts of it to a better or worse degree in a whole variety of combinations.

Cross-Breeding Solutions

Another handy aspect of having a lot of potential solutions, and seeing the many different aspects of the problem they tackle, is being able to mix and match.  Perhaps you grab a chunk of your solution, throw in a little bit of someone else’s, and then add in a piece which neither of you thought of ahead of time.  And again: but with a different mix.  And again… and again.  Before long, you’ve all moved past the original set of ideas, and have generated a whole bunch of new ones which are each better than anything in the original set.  At this point, the question of “us vs. them” is impossible to even identify clearly.  And… you’ve got a much better solution than anyone generated alone.

Goodwill Deposits

In my last post about “goodwill accounting“, I talked about how fun experiences strengthen relationships.  The process of brainstorming with an eager partner who isn’t defensive, and who is eager to help is extremely exciting and fun.  This makes substantial “deposits” for the future.

 

The Technique in Action

In practice, the technique is dead simple.  Guide your problem solving with three questions:

  • How many ways could we do this?
  • What does a good solution look like?
  • How do these potential solutions stack up?

 

When I find myself in a brainstorming / problem solving context, I’ll often start out by literally saying: “Okay… so how many ways could we do this?”  Then, I’ll start to rattle off, as quickly as I can, every different solution I can imagine: even really obviously bad ones.  Sometimes, I’ve come with a few I already thought of, but very often not.  Others soon join in, tossing out more ideas.  I keep pushing everyone (especially myself) until everyone has given 2–3 solutions.  At this point, we really do want all the possible ways: even the ludicrous or impossible ones.

Once everyone is mute & contemplative, I’ll echo back all the ideas.  At this point, the order is so jumbled, it’s impossible to tell who added which.  Then I’ll ask: “So, what does a good solution look like?”  Now that we’ve had a chance to see some proposed solutions, it’s a lot easier to figure out what we like about some and not others.  This rapidly crystalizes into a set of criteria we can use to rank the various options.

At this point, I start pointing out how various solutions match up with our criteria.  Some get crossed off right away, and others take some discussion and even research.  We might even loop back to re-consider our criteria.  The major difference is that everyone is focused on the problem, and not on the personalities or politics.

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I use this technique a lot.  Early in my career, I was (embarrassingly) often one of the pig-headed people at the table insisting on getting my own way.  Now, I jump in with my “how many ways…” question, and I’m almost never even tempted.  My own relationships with my teammates are better, and I’m often able to use this technique to help smooth over difficulties between other members of my team.  I find it invaluable, and I think you will, too.

Staying Productive Working from Home

When I was a solo founder, and I would tell people what I do, their first response would nearly always be: “Oh, I could never do that.  I’d goof off all day.  How do you keep from getting distracted?”  The answer I generally give is that I’ve developed a routine which works for me, and I’ve made it a habit to stick to it.  When you think about it, it’s really not that different from what most people do in their 9–5 jobs, except as a solo founder, you need to be disciplined enough to set up your habits yourself.  And, now that I’m back to working at a company again, I find that I really benefit from all of these things: especially when I’m working from home.

However, it would be a lie to say it wasn’t hard at first.  There are a few things which changed when I started both working from home, and working for myself.

 

I needed an office

This is for two reasons.  First, and most obvious, is that I needed a quiet place to work and talk with my colleagues.  It just isn’t reasonable to expect even the most accommodating family to keep silent all day while you work.

Second, I needed a gentle way to let my family know when I was working and didn’t want to be disturbed.  It’s hard on everyone if you’re constantly saying: “Not now, I’m working” all the time: especially for kids.  Even my wife, though with the best of intentions, found it irresistible to ask for my attention far too often for my ability to concentrate.

Having a separate room with a door gave me a clear signal that I’m working now.  It made it possible for me, then, to come out and interact with the rest of the family when it was a good time for a break.  It also gives me a clear distinction between being “at work” or “at home”, which is indescribably necessary when you spend nearly 100% of your time in the same building.

 

I needed a schedule

Of course, long hours are startups are proverbial.  However, that’s not my problem.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Without a schedule, I find that I feel relentlessly increasing pressure to work more and more hours.  And, after a few weeks or months, I completely burn out and lose all motivation for two weeks.

For me, the schedule is about being deliberate about the use of my time.  If I grant myself a certain amount of working hours for a given day, then I can feel good about having finished what I could reasonable do and giving myself a break.  On the other hand, on days where I’m distracted (e.g., a dentist appointment), I know when I need to work a bit later to get the job done.

 

I needed a organizational system

It feels like, as a solo founder, my job jumps back and forth between long stretches where I’m pounding the keyboard building my product, and briefer stretches where I’ve got ten thousand little things to check off (e.g., incorporation papers, creating bank accounts, finding an accountant, etc.).

I’ve long been a strong proponent of the Getting Things Done methodology and the Things or OmniFocus products as a way to implement it.

Suffice to say, having a place to record all those little things is invaluable for two main reasons.  First, it’s a way to keep me from forgetting them.  Whenever something pops into my head which need to get done, I stick it in Things.  Second, it it’s a way to let me forget them.  Once they’re in my system, I absolutely trust that I’ll get back to them when appropriate, and I can simply stop thinking about them.  This makes it possible to focus on something else without getting stressed when there are too many things to keep track of all at once.

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Between those three things, I feel like my job kept the same structure built into it that most people’s jobs do. I get up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, do some more work, and then go home. I just didn’t have to commute.

Landing on Both Feet in a New Industry

I recently started a new job in the aerospace industry at Boom Supersonic as a Software Engineer.  For those who don’t know, we’re trying to revive supersonic passenger travel (i.e., think: a modern Concorde).  Before starting at Boom, I’d never worked in aerospace, never worked with mechanical or aerodynamic engineers, and pretty much knew next to nothing about what the company has to do in order to be successful.  Given that, you’d have to think me a bit crazy, and the folks who hired me even more crazy.  Except, everything has gone great; let me elaborate on why.

The first part has to do with the company I joined.  Boom specifically looks for people who are excellent at their specialty, and are good at explaining it to other people.  This means that a new person has a ton of people around who are very happy to answer questions at length, and don’t consider any question a stupid one.  This has made making the jump a lot easier, but, of course, not everyone will be so lucky.

The second part is to deliberately study materials which provide an introduction to the field, and never gloss over anything.  Since there’s so much I didn’t recognize even in the introductory material, the temptation to allow it to just wash over me was constant.  However, allowing that to happen means that nearly everything I would learn afterward would be “floating”; that is, I wouldn’t be able to really explain it all the way back to something I could see and touch.  The difficulty, is that avoiding that trap is a ton of work.  As I progressed through that particular gauntlet, there were a number of techniques I used to help.

First, each time I ran across a term I didn’t understand, I paused in my reading to look it up.  As I was reading the explanation, if I saw another team I didn’t recognize, I’d pause again, and look that one up.  In getting into the aerospace industry, it would be common for me to get 3–4 layers deep before I’d get back to the original topic.  The benefit here is that by the time I did get back to the original subject, I’d be in a position for the reading to actually register with real understanding, instead of a vague notion of having seen certain words before.

There were a lot of times when even that didn’t help, because the term as used in the aerospace world was buried by search results of how the term is used outside the aerospace world.  In those cases, I needed to fall back to my second trick: write down questions as I go along. Then, when I’d finished a section of reading, I’d find someone (often multiple someones) who could answer my questions.  And, as before, I didn’t let their answers swim past me.  I’d challenge them to explain in terms I could deeply understand.  Not surprisingly, some people were better at this than others, and I quickly picked out the people who I found I could learn most easily from.  Then, as they were explaining, I’d try to echo their answers back my own words so that they could correct any misconceptions I had, or areas where I was fuzzy on certain ideas.

Finally, as I was going along, I’d write down the things I’d been learning in a document aimed at my fellow novices.  This extra pass through the material is where all the hard work of learning really got cemented.  First, it required me to go broad on what I’d learned in order to organize it into some coherent form.  Then, it required me to go deep into each of the subjects I’d been learning about to explain it clearly.  Since it’s a written document, I could take time to look things up again to refresh my memory on those things I’d forgotten, or never did completely understand.  I then went back to the same people of whom I’d asked my questions in the first place, and asked them look over my document.  This allowed them to clarify any points I’d gotten wrong and/or add extra details I had forgotten.  In the end, I’d created a resource for all my fellow aviation newbs who will followed in my footsteps.

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At Boom, I followed this advice and created a combined glossary of aerospace terms and FAQ about general aerospace topics.  Not only did this help me rapidly get up to speed on this difficult and complex new industry, but I’ve gotten complimented—from both novices and veterans alike—that the document was very helpful in learning something new.  Best of all, the document has since been added to by nearly every new person who’s joined the company from outside the aerospace industry.