The Art of Interviewing People or How to Identify Senior Talent

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This session explores the art of interviewing beyond traditional assessments, focusing on cultivating soft skills, mentorship, and recognizing senior talent. Covering strategies to build rapport, assess soft skills effectively, and shift the interview dynamic towards mentorship, the talk emphasizes the importance of cultivating a supportive environment for candidates. Additionally, it delves into identifying seniority traits beyond technical expertise, promoting diversity, and continuous improvement through feedback. Participants will gain insights to transform interviews into meaningful engagements that find talent and potential future leaders.

Krasimir Tsonev
Krasimir Tsonev
22 min
15 Jun, 2024

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Video Summary and Transcription

In interviewing senior talent, it's important to find the intersection between the candidate's knowledge and the company's requirements. Traditional assessments have shifted focus from technical skills to soft skills. Problem-solving approach, ownership, independence, and emotional intelligence are key traits to assess in senior candidates. Evaluating mindset, career stage, and judgment based on feelings can provide insights into a candidate's characteristics and progression.

1. Introduction to Interviewing Senior Talent

Short description:

In interviewing senior talent, it's important to find the intersection between the candidate's knowledge and the company's requirements. Understanding the context and checking the candidate's CV before the interview can help ensure a smooth process.

Hey, everyone. Thank you for coming. I'll be talking about interviewing people or how to identify senior talent. My name is Kirsimirdis Onev. I'm from Bulgaria. I have roughly 20 years of experience in the web field. I wrote some books. Actually, the first two don't make sense anymore, so don't buy them. The other two, they're kind of a good fit now.

So what's the goal? We have on one side, we have no one, and on the other side, we have our future colleague. This person comes to us at the interview with some luggage. They have some knowledge. They know stuff. On the other side, we have our requirements. We have some idea what kind of person we need. The interview is basically the process where we have to find the intersection between the two. It's almost never a full match. The luggage is never really matching all the requirements that we have. We have to start the interview with this in mind that the person probably doesn't really know everything that we want to see.

Every time I start with some sort of preparation, I know that most of this stuff are obvious, but still when I'm doing interviews and when someone interviews me, I'm still seeing that this stuff are kind of missing. The very first thing is the context to find out if you're doing this for your company or for some other company. You have to really understand the context, what kind of person the company needs. I know that this sounds really obvious. It's probably the first thing that you have to do, but sometimes people don't really pay attention to all the details. Is this going to be just filling a gap in the team? Do we need more of people management? Do we need more of technical skills? It's good to define the context. I strongly recommend that you check the CV of the person before the interview. Again, this seems like an obvious thing, but what I'm doing is very often I'm reading the CV just before the interview, like 15 minutes before that. Of course, I check the resume upfront a couple of days before when I'm kind of scanning the candidates, but I'm double checking everything before the interview. When you're reading a lot of stuff for a lot of people, you can't really remember everything. Just a quick refresh 15 minutes before the chat with the person, it's kind of making everything a bit more smooth and you kind of give a good impression to the other side.

2. Evolving Assessment and Identifying Senior People

Short description:

Having a plan for interviews is important as it helps cover all areas of discussion. Traditional assessments have shifted focus from technical skills to soft skills. Communication, leadership, mentoring, and teaching are now highly valued. It is necessary to identify desired characteristics in candidates upfront and ask questions that reveal these traits.

At the end, I always have a list of topics, questions. I'm not always going to this kind of a plan, but it's a good idea to have this list because sometimes you kind of run out of questions. Sometimes you really need to cover some areas. So it's possible that you miss something and yeah, it's good to have a plan.

So how the traditional assessment looks like so far? To be honest, it's kind of changed the last five, five to maybe six, seven years. Back in the days when I started doing interviews with people, everything was about the technical skills. So for junior people, they should know something. Then when you go up into the medium and senior roles, you expect that the person knows more and more and more stuff. But this was always a kind of focus on the technical skills on the stack of the company, whether the person is able to to fix things quickly, to develop things quickly.

Nowadays, everything is changed a lot because most of the companies, if not all of them, care about the soft skills of the person, especially now, nowadays when we have AI everywhere. And you could pretty much solve most of the technical problems just by doing a short research about the problem. So the companies and I personally focus a bit more on the communication skills, on the leadership skills, on mentoring, on teaching, just in general communication with the people. When you go higher and higher, you expect more from the candidates, from this angle. So the things changed. Now, it's not enough that you know how to write Python, for example. You have to be, you have to communicate better, basically, and you have to develop these soft skills. If you want to kind of pass the bar to the next level.

It's easy. I really like this meme. It's kind of stuck in my mind every time when someone said, oh, you just do the interview, you just talk with the person and you find out. You draw two circles and then you draw the O. The thing is that it's not easy. I mean, from the outside, it looks it doesn't look that hard. And in such moments, in such situations, I basically rely on kind of more pragmatic approach on the process. And the process for me is to identify up front all the characteristics that I want to see in this person and then prepare questions which are revealing these characteristics. They are identifying if the person is if the person has these characteristics or not. And the rest of the presentation is basically me sharing with you my my favorite topics, my favorite characteristics of the senior people. And on this slide, I kind of lay out most of the things that we're going to talk about. And yeah, the first thing is that the senior people, they really like aggressive objectives. They don't like how to's, meaning that they like to receive the problem.

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What would be your three tips for engineers to level up their career? 
First, be patient. I often see posts on Twitter or LinkedIn about developers who were promoted to a senior position after a year. And while this is wonderful, I think we forget that each company has a different standard for what constitutes a senior developer, and everyone's journey will be different.
Second, don't be afraid to ask questions. If you try your best to solve a problem or answer a question you have, but you can't figure it out after a reasonable amount of time, ask a team member or mentor for help.
And lastly, invest in the right resources for learning. When I started my journey, I didn't know which platforms worked for me to learn. Now, I have a few trusted platforms such as Frontend Masters, Free Code Camp, or Level Up Tutorials that I go to when I need to learn a new skill.
You're currently working as a software engineer at Spotify. What does a typical day of yours look like there?
I begin my day answering emails. Then we have a team breakfast and a standup remotely as we're all still remote at Spotify. After that, we might have a web tech sync with the other squads in our business unit. The day usually includes some form of pair or mob programming, depending on the work stream. 
My team always has Fika, a traditional Swedish coffee break, scheduled every afternoon. Every couple of Fridays, we have team games planned to release some stress. 
Also, I tend to have a lot of free time to focus, which is nice but makes for a boring answer to this question!
Do you have some rituals or tools that keep you focused and goal-oriented?
I'll admit that I've been struggling with staying motivated in the time of remote work. I've been remote with Spotify since onboarding a year ago, but my team is wonderful, and they help me when I'm down.
Apart from that, I use Todoist to keep track of my tasks, and, naturally, I listen to Spotify while working. But other than that, not really. Maybe I should adopt some new tools to keep me on track!
My current favorite Spotify playlist is Brand New Chill: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX6uQnoHESB3u?si=380263b3c853442e
I also love Chillout Daily: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7ozIozDp260fjNOZy1yzRG?si=66d6c839ec9b458a
You wrote a book called De-coding the Technical Interview. What was the impulse to do it?
I wanted to give the community a manual of the essentials of computer science knowledge to ace the technical interviews. The book covers data structures like stacks, queues, or linked lists, tackles algorithms, and deals with systems design. You'll also learn about the interview process from start to finish, get tips on how to submit an amazing take-home project, or understand how to problem solve. You'll also gain knowledge on the frontend coding skills needed to excel at a frontend interview.

If you could stress one piece of advice on surviving a technical interview, which would it be?
Do not lie your way through an interview. If you don't know the answer to something, just admit it. There's no shame in admitting you don't know the answer to something. There is shame in faking it and pretending like you do know the answer.
What's the single best practice everyone who writes code should follow?
Remember that while you are technically writing code for computers, you're also writing it for humans. Your code should be readable and have as little complexity as possible without sacrificing accessibility or performance.
In addition to the book, you co-host the Ladybug Podcast. What inspired you to enter this field, and what are the podcast's main topics?
We talk about everything tech and career on the podcast, from Java and GraphQL to how to start a business and cross-cultural communication. The podcast is a way for me and my co-hosts to share our experiences in tech, having taken different paths. And I'm really glad for doing it — it has allowed me to meet so many incredible people, learn many new things, and support my dream of teaching.
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My technical interview book was a huge feat for me as well as my courses with LinkedIn Learning on building a tech resume. I enjoy creating things that help other people advance their careers, so I'm also proud of my courses with Frontend Masters on design systems and CSS.
***
Follow Emma on Twitter
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Committing to creating high-quality content. That might sound obvious because I'm a full-time educator now, but I would not have gotten my job at PayPal if I hadn't been so active with my blog. In fact, lots of my jobs came out of me being involved in the community around meetups, conferences, or open-source projects. 
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Second, it's just as important to decide what you are not going to learn as it is to decide what you are going to learn. You could jump into countless things — and there are successful people who are polyglot programmers, but I can't speak to that a whole lot. All I can tell you is that in my experience, focusing on specific things that I want to be truly good at has worked out great for my career. That doesn't mean that I closed myself off to other things. With my website rewrite, I have been doing a lot of dev ops-related work and a lot of back-end stuff that I've typically not been involved in. You want to keep your head up on what's going on outside of what you're doing so that you know what direction to go in when you come across problems you need to solve. However, finding a focus on what you want to be good at has helped me a lot. That way, you feel a little less stressed.
And the third one? 
Learn how to learn effectively. It's a three-step process: you consume, build, and teach. The consumption of newsletters and Twitter and whatever inspires you, but you don't want to spend too much time doing that — implementing it into actually building something matters. This happens naturally if you work at a company, but maybe you're not making the things you want to learn, so you may want to start a side project. The building phase is where you get experience, but you also want to solidify that experience. How? You start teaching. You don't necessarily have to teach it to people, it could be stuffed animals. The goal of the teaching is to retain in your mind what you've learned through the building process.
What are you working on right now? 
The big thing I'm working on right now is a rewrite of my website. It'll be much more than just a developer portfolio — I'll have user accounts, and there'll be fun things that you can do with it. And because it's more than just a website, I'm using Remix, a new cool framework in the React ecosystem. I'm also working on updating my material on TestingJavaScript.com and a TypeScript course as well. 
So, whatever I'm working on, it ends up resulting in lots of opportunities for content.


Do you have some rituals that keep you focused and goal-oriented? 
I have a notepad where I keep all of my notes of what I'm going to do for the day so that when I'm checking things off, I'm not distracted notifications. I've tried apps for that, and that does not work well for me. 
I also am a firm believer in inbox zero. I have my work inbox and my personal inbox, and I keep them both at zero. And I kind of use that as a to-do list. 
And if I'm not feeling excited about working for some reason, I will often hop on my Onewheel, which is an electric skateboard that only has one giant wheel in the middle. It's just a total blast, and I'll hop on that with my backpack and a charger, and I'll go to a Starbucks or a park just to declutter my mind.
What things in the React universe are you excited about right now?
React version 18 is coming out soon. The experimental version is out there, and it's fun to play with. I'm just really thrilled that it's no longer a concurrent mode but concurrent features that you can opt into. Cool things like that will enable React server components in the future. 
But the biggest thing I'm excited about is Remix. That's huge. It eliminates a lot of problems that are solved well other tools, but when I'm using Remix, I don't have those problems, so I don't need those clusters.
You already said that teaching is an integral part of the learning process, and you stand your word since you're also a full-time educator. What inspired you to enter this field?
I have been a teacher for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a church where you talk in front of your peers from a very young age, and my mom was an elementary school teacher, so teaching has just always been a part of me. 
I really just enjoy sharing what I'm learning with others. As far as teaching technical topics, I gave my first workshop when I was still a student at Brigham Young University. With my fellow, we taught how to use AngularJS, and I got Firebase to sponsor pizza so they would show up, and that was pretty fun.
Then I started teaching on the side at egghead.io right after I'd graduated. That was when I first got a paycheck for teaching. And I realized that teaching could be quite lucrative and support my family and me as a full-time endeavor. So I did it — I quit my job. I'm a very risk-averse person, so I'd done teaching as a side hustle for four years just to verify that I could make this work.
When TestingJavaScript was released, and I got that paycheck, I realized that I didn't need my PayPal salary anymore. I could just focus my daytime on teaching and give my evenings back to my family, which was a nice trait.


Apart from that, how has teaching impacted your career? 
Earlier I mentioned that pretty much all of my jobs came because I was perceived as an expert. After the first job, where I was an intern and then converted into full-time, I never applied to another. I worked for four different companies, and they wouldn't have recruited me if they didn't know who I was and what I was doing. My content is how they knew who I was — I just made it easy for them to find me. Teaching made that impact. It made my career. 
We talked about React and Remix. Are there any other open-source projects that you'd recommend keeping an eye on or contributing to?
I have some myself. React Testing Library is probably the biggest one that people are familiar with. And if React isn't your jam, then other framework versions of the testing library. 
React Query is also really popular. If you're using Remix, you don't need it, but if you're not, I strongly advise using React Query cause it's a stellar, fantastic library, and Tanner Linsley, the creator, is a stellar and fantastic person. 
What pieces of your work are you most proud of? 
Probably the biggest thing I've ever done is EpicReact.Dev. It has helped tens of thousands of people get really good at React, improve their careers and make the world a better place with the skills that they develop. My whole mission is to make the world a better place through quality software, and I feel like I've done that best with Epic React. 
There are things that I've built at other companies that are still in use, and I'm proud of those cause they've stood the test of time, at least these last few years. But of everything, I think Epic React has made the biggest impact.
***
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What led you to software engineering?My background is in digital marketing, so I started my career as a project manager in advertising agencies. After a couple of years of doing that, I realized that I wasn't learning and growing as much as I wanted to. I was interested in learning more about building websites, so I quit my job and signed up for an intensive coding boot camp called General Assembly. I absolutely loved it and started my career in tech from there.
 What is the most impactful thing you ever did to boost your career?I think it might be public speaking. Going on stage to share knowledge about things I learned while building my side projects gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the industry, learn a ton from watching other people's talks and, for lack of better words, build a personal brand.
 What would be your three tips for engineers to level up their career?Practice your communication skills. I can't stress enough how important it is to be able to explain things in a way anyone can understand, but also communicate in a way that's inclusive and creates an environment where team members feel safe and welcome to contribute ideas, ask questions, and give feedback. In addition, build some expertise in a specific area. I'm a huge fan of learning and experimenting with lots of technologies but as you grow in your career, there comes a time where you need to pick an area to focus on to build more profound knowledge. This could be in a specific language like JavaScript or Python or in a practice like accessibility or web performance. It doesn't mean you shouldn't keep in touch with anything else that's going on in the industry, but it means that you focus on an area you want to have more expertise in. If you could be the "go-to" person for something, what would you want it to be? 
 And lastly, be intentional about how you spend your time and effort. Saying yes to everything isn't always helpful if it doesn't serve your goals. No matter the job, there are always projects and tasks that will help you reach your goals and some that won't. If you can, try to focus on the tasks that will grow the skills you want to grow or help you get the next job you'd like to have.
 What are you working on right now?Recently I've taken a pretty big break from side projects, but the next one I'd like to work on is a prototype of a tool that would allow hands-free coding using gaze detection. 
 Do you have some rituals that keep you focused and goal-oriented?Usually, when I come up with a side project idea I'm really excited about, that excitement is enough to keep me motivated. That's why I tend to avoid spending time on things I'm not genuinely interested in. Otherwise, breaking down projects into smaller chunks allows me to fit them better in my schedule. I make sure to take enough breaks, so I maintain a certain level of energy and motivation to finish what I have in mind.
 You wrote a book called Practical Machine Learning in JavaScript. What got you so excited about the connection between JavaScript and ML?The release of TensorFlow.js opened up the world of ML to frontend devs, and this is what really got me excited. I had machine learning on my list of things I wanted to learn for a few years, but I didn't start looking into it before because I knew I'd have to learn another language as well, like Python, for example. As soon as I realized it was now available in JS, that removed a big barrier and made it a lot more approachable. Considering that you can use JavaScript to build lots of different applications, including augmented reality, virtual reality, and IoT, and combine them with machine learning as well as some fun web APIs felt super exciting to me.


Where do you see the fields going together in the future, near or far? I'd love to see more AI-powered web applications in the future, especially as machine learning models get smaller and more performant. However, it seems like the adoption of ML in JS is still rather low. Considering the amount of content we post online, there could be great opportunities to build tools that assist you in writing blog posts or that can automatically edit podcasts and videos. There are lots of tasks we do that feel cumbersome that could be made a bit easier with the help of machine learning.
 You are a frequent conference speaker. You have your own blog and even a newsletter. What made you start with content creation?I realized that I love learning new things because I love teaching. I think that if I kept what I know to myself, it would be pretty boring. If I'm excited about something, I want to share the knowledge I gained, and I'd like other people to feel the same excitement I feel. That's definitely what motivated me to start creating content.
 How has content affected your career?I don't track any metrics on my blog or likes and follows on Twitter, so I don't know what created different opportunities. Creating content to share something you built improves the chances of people stumbling upon it and learning more about you and what you like to do, but this is not something that's guaranteed. I think over time, I accumulated enough projects, blog posts, and conference talks that some conferences now invite me, so I don't always apply anymore. I sometimes get invited on podcasts and asked if I want to create video content and things like that. Having a backlog of content helps people better understand who you are and quickly decide if you're the right person for an opportunity.What pieces of your work are you most proud of?It is probably that I've managed to develop a mindset where I set myself hard challenges on my side project, and I'm not scared to fail and push the boundaries of what I think is possible. I don't prefer a particular project, it's more around the creative thinking I've developed over the years that I believe has become a big strength of mine.***Follow Charlie on Twitter

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