5 Interview Smells To Watch Out For

As I’m going through the interviewing process again after leaving my last job, I’m finally doing it in a position where I have the savings to be very picky about my next position.  So rather than just taking what seems to be the best career option, I’ve started analyzing the things that make me, an autistic individual (so your mileage may vary), worried about working somewhere just from the interview steps.

I’m terming these “interview smells”, in the vein of a “code smell”, a bad coding practice that will cause more work down the line.  If I smell an interview smell, I’ve been very vocal about it, to the point of ending the interview process if the company remains adamant about letting that smell fly.  Thankfully, we’re in a labor shortage here in the tech industry, meaning that once you’re in, you can be picky, and you have real power.

While I’ve run into too many of these to count, here are my top five to watch out for, as a developer, DevOps engineer, SRE and the like:

1.  The skills test does not match the job description

If you’re asking to have your candidate do things that they won’t be doing in the job description as part of the interview process, we’re going to wonder why.  If I’m asked to build a linked list or a search tree or something like that from scratch, and my job isn’t “write a new programming language”, then you’re asking me to do something that is costly and should never be approved by management when libraries can be used instead.  Your interview process is the hello to the candidate that tells them what you find important.  If frivolous CS trivia is what you want to optimize for, then that’s what you’ll get.

Speaking of which…

2.  Whiteboard skills tests with no resources

There’s a good reason that this smell is thankfully falling out of favor with many companies.  Skills tests are great!  However, they need to be both relevant to the work and done in the closest thing to the work environment…which includes access to Google, StackExchange, documentation about the tools/language in question, and so on.

Not providing these resources to a candidate in an already stressful situation is, again, not going to optimize for what the day to day workflow is at your company, and instead optimizes for memorization and repetition rather than assessing how the employee actually works and whether their workflow is compatible with your company’s goals.

3.  Free dinner

Wait!  Isn’t this a perk?

Not really.  Companies don’t offer free dinner unless they expect you to be around working to eat it (or you’re Google/FB and can make it rain).  Having free dinner makes it clear that working late enough to take advantage of it happens enough to offer it as a “perk”.

This is different from free lunch, which is a perk for those of us who don’t want to break our concentration to go get something and instead can just take it back to our desk and finish out the task requiring concentration.  Yes, it benefits the employer, but it also benefits the employee.

4.  Stinginess on small salary differences

If I’ve asked for, let’s say, $190k/yr, and I get hemming and hawing and a counteroffer of something like $180k, that’s a HUGE smell.  This tells me the company is willing to let talent that generates or saves 7 figures a year walk away over 5 small figures.  And if this is happening to the recruitment budget, just think how badly the pennies get pinched elsewhere in the company.

To be clear, this is different from a situation where your expectation is way above the employer’s — frankly, I’d rather be countered with $160k than $180k on a $190k offer, because that’s enough of a gap that doesn’t indicate being cheap — so long as you’re a startup that has a good reason to pinch the pennies and is a good enough risk to take alternate compensation (a 4 day week, a relevant amount of options at a cheap strike price) in lieu of market rate, rather than a mature firm that spends over 10k to organize a large meeting.

Plus, now the cheapskate business has folk like me that have made a name for themselves in our professional communities telling others how cheap they are, and now that company just wasted the six figures their talent acquisition team spent on burnishing the company image.

5.  “Negging” during the salary negotiation process

Surprised to see this one?  It happens a ton during the salary negotiation portion, and it’s done by employers for the same reason pick up artists do it — to try to get the target to settle for less by pointing out the target’s flaws or insecurities.

So what counts as “negging” during the interview?

  • Being asked to “prove yourself” and take a lesser role than you are qualified for in hopes you get a “promotion” back to where you are now.
  • Pointing out weaknesses you may have told them about yourself in an attempt at honesty and using those to make you feel like they’re “giving you a chance.”  Nice Guy Managers love to do this to underrepresented genders and ethnicity in the field.  Hits us disabled folk pretty hard as well, especially if we don’t have a visible disability the company can show off.
  • Any other action made to devalue your previous accomplishments in the field, especially relevant work experiences and technologies.  They knew all of these from your profile or resume, and still brought you in the room.  Remind them of that as you leave the room.

In conclusion…

Companies are here to make money, and so are you.  How they treat you, as a candidate for an engineering role in a market where there’s not enough of us to go around, is them putting on their best face, just as we candidates put on our best face and behavior for an interview.  Any issues raised in the interview process will only be worse once you’re family instead of a guest.  So speak up for yourself, be opinionated about why you won’t interview somewhere or continue an interview when it goes awry.

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