This is one of the more difficult columns I have ever written, and one that I know will bring with it a considerable amount of disagreement and controversy. GOOD! (I warn you it is long, but totally insightful).
While writing this article, my thoughts kept blooming, in essence germinating, from years of listening to both sides, (company/candidate) of the pre and post interview results. It became incredibly apparent that someone needed to address the pitfalls associated with interviewing, because “clearly”, the problem seems to be so widespread, especially in EDA. The sprouting of the problem comes from virtually every company thinking they are perfect at conducting interviews, and thus the concluding yea or nay-ultimate decisions resulting therein. Quite simply, bad questions, poor communication and engagement in, bad results and poor conclusions out! That is simply, the reality, and why good guys are sometimes judged unfairly.
I felt compelled to write this column because I am firmly convinced that the good pairing of candidates with companies, is substantially reduced because of inaccurate summations, and way too quick judgments. Simply put, I think an inconsistent criterion is all too often applied when making decisions on hiring a candidate. Let me explain (and just for the record, I am not talking about clearly unqualified candidates here).
My goal in writing this article is to focus some serious attention on the hiring/interviewing process. It is incredibly clear to me that a serious disconnect exists in how companies interview, and thus the conclusions made as a result of their supposed findings. I know companies can do better qualifying candidates, thus giving them the proper chance to prove their worthiness and abilities.
So, how about if we start the interviewing process with a different attitude; perhaps a new perspective? Instead of doing all you can to “NOT” qualify a candidate, try doing all you can to “HELP” the candidate qualify them self. Just think about how different the interview process and ambiance would be, and hopefully the results as well. In the end you would still have the needed detailed information to make a worthy decision, less the intimidation, and stress. Simply by changing your approach, the information would be even more qualified due to your engaging, rather than (what some might call) interrogating. Even the frequent feeling of a contest between interviewer and interviewee both diminishes. Keep this thought in mind as you read on.
I am doing EDA recruiting a long time (last year alone counts as 3 years). Over the past MANY years, I have conducted hundreds, probably thousands of both pre and post interviews. I am known for being very thorough, with both company and candidate, always trying to attain the best information I can about how the interview (or even the resume review) was perceived. I always want to hear the two sides thoughts, impressions, and conclusions following the interview. During that time, I have heard almost every response imaginable.
Further, I have heard companies “pre-summations” made from simply reviewing a resume (which is why I write so much about how important it is to have a strong resume), and their determinations made therein. Point is too many decisions often made from too little or inaccurate information.
So, I make the following claims below after listening clearly to what both sides say, and then use a complex mathematical formula with specific proprietary algorithms I have developed to extrapolate some kind of reality. (Program will be for sale as soon as I HIRE the right “developers.” Problem is, none have passed the muster (my criteria and expectations) thus far. Hence that leads to my point. If I wait for the absolute perfect candidate, I may never get my product released.
OK, I know it is never good to generalize, or say everyone in a certain group of people is a particular way…I would never, or would I? When it comes to all you technical folks, I can honestly tell you that more often than not, qualified engineers do not get the call back because of the way they present, or should I say misrepresent themselves. All too often they think their experience should speak for itself, and long explanations “proving” their knowledge is not all that necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth! Never take for granted what you THINK someone should know about what you have done, NEVER! Another common misnomer is cultural; the way people from different cultures present themselves. Interpretations of folks from different backgrounds can vary widely, and thusly, wrong conclusions can easily be drawn.
Time after time, regardless of how good a background the candidate has, regardless how good he/she THINKS he/she did, the company feedback is usually similar. The usual recant is some derivative of …”when we asked certain questions he/she should know, they hesitated and did not seem sure of the answer”. (Geez, so please explain how this person lasted in the domain for 5 years, not knowing the basics, does not make sense). The candidates, when discussing how it went, usually tell me (of course) quite the opposite; everything from “I thought I answered all their questions and did fairly well”, to “they asked questions that I thought I answered quite correctly, but they seemed to not agree”, or “they expected me to know answers in line with what they were doing, and how could I know how they do what do, or the way they do”, and of course, everything in-between.
Frequently (and I know that few candidates believe they did poorly) I am left wondering, was it the candidate who did not answer the questions sufficiently, or was it the interviewers expecting answers to questions that a reasonable candidate would not know? Was it perhaps that the particular interviewer approaches the problem from a totally different perspective; I never really know for sure. Now remember there are always two sides to what happened; but one must ask, was it the result of the wrong kinds of questions, or perhaps the wrong expectations from the questions asked, and the answers given?
Before I go on, consider the following, which I think helps make my points. It is a quote from my respected friend Carol Hallett (VP of WW Sales and Marketing for Formal Verification Company Real Intent). Carol said something I found quite profound, yet so simple that I had to repeat it….She said, “to be able to ask a question clearly is 2/3 of the way to getting it answered (clearly)”. Interviewers must take note to this simple suggestion if they want good answers.
You see my friends, sometimes I think that what a company expects a candidate to know is sometimes unfair, (hear me out before you jump) and even worse, often based so much on “the particular company product, and the internal way “it/they” work. Clearly most of you are very smart and I am not suggesting this always happens, but I know it happens enough to merit attention to the problem. Now I hear many of you saying, “of course, why would we expect anything different, we have that right”, and to that I say true, but not true. (I am such a politician). You have a right to expect them to know the domain, not the way you interpret the domain!
So lets start with the telephone phone screen, and how unfair I think the telephone pre-screen can be, especially for foreigners. I make my living talking to people that I often understand barely half of what they say…(”just being real here”). On asking simple questions, I have to FREQUENTLY repeat the question using different syntax so it is more easily understood, and I am not asking overly technical questions. You do not want to know how often I have to ask them to repeat what they said as well. So now imagine a “technical” PHONE interview (most of the times on a cell, and we all know how challenging simple cell conversations can be) and we can see how this can compound the frustration. Now add trying to figure out answers to complex questions, language misunderstandings, and difficulties etc. well, certainly anyone can see how unfair this is to both parties. The candidate is already so nervous, and not having the ability to look at the person to help FEEL the questions, puts them at a major disadvantage. Now again, I am not stupid…I get that phone screens are necessary, but clearly they should be short and consolidated. The telephone screen should be a preliminary screen. The talk should be more about what the candidate has done, perhaps some talk about the position, and even the expectations of that position from both sides. A phone screen should lay the groundwork for the follow up “in person interview”. It is a basic pre-qualifier, and nothing more. A PHONE SCREEN SHOULD (ALMOST) NEVER BE USED FOR TECHNICAL SCREENINGS OF CANDIDATES. There are certainly a few reasonable exceptions, like perhaps, when the candidate is out of town. Clearly it is then necessary to further qualify the candidate before taking on the expense of bringing them in. Sure (in both cases) you cover the basics, sure you ask a few relevant questions but after that, bring the person in and give them a fair, IN PERSON, EYE TO EYE chance. What you see when you talk to someone can change everything. And how about when these guys are asked questions that merit a white board to answer, is that fair to ask on the phone? NO!
I have one quick comment about bringing folks in as well, and the process thereof. All too often they arrive (expectedly nervous as hell) and walk in a room of 3-6 people, all with eyes deadlocked, all prepared with questions. Those in the room are all colleagues; all know how each other works, and all concerned with the hierarchy sitting with them. How about bringing people in separately, to help calm the candidate and make them more comfortable, or maybe a pair? As the day progresses and the candidate becomes more confident and has formed at least a minimal relationship with some, then bring in the troops. I think you will get far more, and individually each will know what they learned privately as well.
You see, MOST technical engineers can present their project, but do a horrible job presenting themselves. Contrarily companies often have unrealistic expectations from interviewing a candidate, and of course the subsequent judgments, that follow. So, I think it is time to look at both sides of the interviewing table, and for companies to re-think the interviewing process. Everyone responsible for interviewing needs not only to be qualified but needs to understand their objective as well. Herein lies the problem, a company in say Formal Verification for example, has the absolute right to expect a candidate to have knowledge of say, (take this example in broad strokes) Verilog, VHDL, and maybe a c and/or c++. Additionally there can be other verification languages, as well as perhaps scripting languages. Certainly System Verilog might be nice, knowledge of Synthesis would be required, and shall we say a few other skills as well. Now I get that there are various proficiencies in each area, and knowledge and skills can vary widely. BUT MY FIRIENDS, frequently the questions, no the answers are expected to be in accordance to the way that company does Formal (or whatever area the tool covers), and therefore the answers would only be “really” known, (not generally known, but specifically) by someone in/from that company. That is where, so often, I feel the problem comes in. The expectations of the specific skill sets are close but not EXACT to what that company is doing. I cannot tell you how often I hear that the only way to really answer the interviewers questions was to have worked specifically for that company. Once again, I hear that all the time. Trust me, I know there are plenty of candidates that simply did not know what they needed to, or did not fit the culture, I get that, but often it is from really top-notch engineers that really do know the domain!
Before any of my candidates get their fist interview, albeit telephone or in person, I spend a lot of time getting them prepared. I want to make sure they (at a bare minimum) do not make the most basic of mistakes. I call it Interview Preparation 101! I know this helps, and I specifically teach them how to make their points, but all too often I still hear the same post response, so there has to be something there.
Let me emphatically state as clearly as possible that I am well aware that there are plenty of really good interviews conducted, and a heck of a lot of hires resulting from them. We do not need to discuss the successful issues; we do need to talk about the problematic issues. You see every company thinks they do the best job of interviewing. Every company thinks that the way they handle the process is better than any one else's. I hear almost those exact words from almost every company, all the time. The fact is, all too often they pass on really reasonable candidates that could make a significant contribution in no time at all.
Companies need to do a better job interviewing...
One of things I have learned is that even the best interviewing will not always yield the correct or intended results. So here are a few minor interviewing suggestions that companies can incorporate, that in my opinion will effectuate better and even more promising results from the interview. First, companies have to realize that (ESPECIALLY IN EDA) interviewing (ESPECIALLY) engineers, who for the most part are from different cultures, may very well know the subject matter but have issues in conveying them to a new and unfamiliar group, (or individual). Phone interviews like I said, are the worst. Foreigners can be incredibly difficult to understand, and for them to understand you, or even perhaps another foreigner…well certainly you can understand how preliminarily this can add difficulty and frustration to both sides. Trust me, I deal with it everyday; communication sometimes is not so easy, and that is asking basics. Comprehensive phone interviews frequently rule out candidates that would do much better one on one. In person interviews have to be in a comfortable environment, and language barriers must always be considered, and more important, addressed.
Next, companies need to be very careful not to ask questions about qualifications and expect answers fashioned that reflect the work the company is presently engaged in. Candidates can be expected to have knowledge in a particular domain for sure, but it is not fair for the candidate to be up to speed or express answers relating to your particular tool or methodology. The bottom line here is to make sure that all that conduct interviews, know how to interview. So many companies wear their rejections like a badge of honor, saying we have such high standards that when we finally pull the trigger it will be the best of the best. And while that is all well and good, it should be clearly understood that even when you think you have the best of the best, they are not always.
Today companies want the “needle in the haystack candidate” and even after they think they find him/her, they are put through such rigorous interviewing that even then when a blemish is found (on the needle) …rather than try to polish the needle, the needle is tossed, meaning (in case you missed the analogy) that rather than hiring the 90+% candidate, they keep interviewing, frequently for many more months to find that seemingly PERFECT fit. I say, polish the blemish; make the 90% guy perfect by providing the right guidance and training.
So a quick sports analogy will fit well here. First round picks are not always your best player. Fact is most will agree that many first round picks turn out to be big disappointments. Frequently someone picked in later rounds, and nurtured, turn out to have the best work ethic, and surprisingly good performance. They try harder to be the best they can be, and really appreciate being given the shot: meaning; consider the candidate that meets a majority of your criteria and ask the question, “rather than spend countless more hours looking and months without, is this a guy that with reasonable training can do the job”? That should be your real criteria, and it will save you a lot of time and money and allow your company to fill a needed position. I am not asking you to SETTLE for a lesser candidate, just to consider someone that is not a first rounder sometimes. If you think the person can really step up and do the job, then step-up and help him succeed.
Now quickly, I know the other side of the argument, trust me. We do not have the time to train; (yet you have the time to take 3-6 people through countless meetings, interviewing and interviewing, with all kinds of follow up discussions about each candidate…I honestly never got that. Clearly I get that no company should hire someone not right for the company, but when you get someone that is so almost there, how about pulling the trigger, get them on board and teach them to be what you want. I have companies that interview dozens and dozens of candidates, taking so many valuable hours, when their future quarterback was sitting right in front of them. Bottom line, if you are looking, theoretically you have a need. If you have a need, get someone good on board to help accomplish your agenda sooner rather than later.
Lastly, (damn this was a long column) what do I expect to hear at DVCON...
Let me say that I am so looking forward to DVCON. This will be my first trip to the valley this year. (By now it is usually my second). DVCON seems to be getting a lot more attention and buzz, as VERIFICATION seems to be the hot frontier. I know several of the companies personally that have fought through the hard times and are still around as strong as ever. Real Intent continues their ongoing fight picking up market share and steadily surviving for more than 10 years. New comers Breker is moving nicely forward; EVE, well not enough can be said about their continued accomplishments as a leader in Emulation; Springsoft (who will they buy next) (which is a future column about how to strengthen EDA, by doing more of what they have done); and of course east coast FPGA Verification company GateRocket; another ongoing Formal Verification success Jasper; and forever strong Denali; all will be showing with lots of other companies, that I cannot wait to talk to. Last but not least, my good friends from EDACafe are showing; everyone should have EDACafe delivered to their desktop everyday! See you guys (and gals) all there, and will let all of you know what I heard and learned in my next column.