Phone interviewing is becoming more and more of a popular choice for qualifying tech talent. Phone interviews can be conducted more quickly than in-person interviews, and can serve as both an effective screening tool and a time saver for employers and candidates alike.
Phone and video interviewing also allows candidates more flexibility in when and where they participate in the first step of your interview process, which is essential for candidates who will have to re-locate.
However, you can’t just pick the person with the nerdiest voice and call it a day. Qualifying tech talent requires checking a lot of information, and this starts in the phone interview. You want to ask questions that help you get to know candidates and their abilities, but you also want to be able to screen out a good chunk of your applicant pool at this stage.
In order to pare down your candidate pool before in-person interviews, your phone interview questions need to accurately reveal the skill levels of your candidates.
Essential Phone Interview Questions for Tech Candidates
Can you tell me about improvements that you made to a program in your current job?
This shows you what kind of impact this candidate has made for their current employer as well as the kind of work they’ve been entrusted with. It also shows you that a candidate has the ability to think broadly about the work they’re doing and has the ability to apply their insights in an effective, ingenuitive way.
If a candidate struggles to answer this question, it can mean that they weren’t in a position with creative autonomy, but it can also mean that they aren’t focused on that sort of thing. If a candidate wasn’t able to make an improvement, ask what kind of improvement they would make if they could. If they have an insightful answer, then they’re the kind of candidate you want. If they don’t, then you know that this candidate won’t be coming to you with any ground-breaking ideas while on the job.
Ingenuity isn’t required for all technology jobs, but it certainly helps to have a team full of active, broad thinkers instead of a bunch of people who can only follow directions.
What tools would you use to create a ________ program? Is this the best tool for the job or the best one that you know?
This question tests for technical prowess, but it also tests candidates for honesty.
Nobody likes to admit what they don’t know, especially in the job interview. But, if a candidate is able to admit that there is a better tool for the job than the one they’re used to, then you can count on them to be honest with you.
When tech talent isn’t honest about what they know and don’t know, then you can run into some serious trouble when they’re left to their work. They may attempt to hide their mistakes rather than bringing them to the attention of the team or spend months working in circles while insisting that everything is under control. If these mistakes are caught, it means that their team members will have to spend their time re-doing the work of your recent hire. If these mistakes aren’t caught, it can result in decreased product functionality, postponed release dates and a huge amount man-hours devoted to finding the mistakes that have been buried by the dishonest employee.
How would you improve upon our company’s product or that product’s functionality?
This question tests candidates to see if they’ve done their homework on your company and your product. If they have an impressive and/or well-thought-out answer, then it confirms that they have done extensive research and are ready for their in-person interveiw.
If they draw a blank, give them the opportunity to think about the question and get back to you with an answer. Not everyone thinks well on the spot and, though they may have researched your company extensively, they may not be able to give you a great answer during the phone interview. Some candidates will never get back to you, but the ones who take a day or two to give you a well-reasoned answer are still worth giving an in-person interview.
No matter how well established your product is, the tech industry has always run on innovation and you want tech talent that is always thinking about the next step. You also want to employ people who are comfortable pointing out challenges/problems with your product and who are able to propose effective solutions to these challenges/problems.
Are you Interviewing with any other companies at the moment?
Top tech candidates know that they have options and many interview with multiple companies at once. By asking this question, you are showing that you understand their value and that you understand the realities of hiring for tech talent.
If they say “yes,” then you should always make a note of this and ensure that they are followed up with as soon as possible following the phone interview. Additionally, you may consider putting them on an accelerated interview schedule so that you can extend an offer before your competitors.
If you are convinced that they are a top candidate by the end of the phone interview, chances are that their other interviewers are thinking the same thing. You have your work cut out for you with recruiting them, but knowing that you’re racing against the clock will help to prioritize interviewing these candidates and extending them an offer as quickly as possible.
Do you have time to code a _____ for me in the next few days?
Giving a candidate an open ended coding assignment lets you see which tools and computer languages they favor, as well as showing you their technical chops. Whatever you have them code, make sure that it won’t take more than an hour or two for someone with the right skills for the job.
Another thing, you should always give candidates a day or two to complete the problem, as they may already be employed and very busy. Additionally, waiting on the line while a candidate completes a practical problem just doesn’t make sense. It puts extra pressure on them and literally wastes your time. They aren’t going to be coding with a live audience and letting them do the problem on their own makes your interview process more relaxed and candidate-friendly.
Instead, talk with them about the coding assignment, ask when they’ll have time to complete it and how much time they think it will take. The time that it takes to code a particular program of function may be crucial to the role, and knowing a candidate’s estimate shows you their working speed as well as their ability to assess how long a project will take.
All that’s left to do is evaluate the work that your candidates send you and decide on who wrote the most impressive code.
How do you stay current with your technical knowledge/skillset and where could it be improved?
Learning continuously is highly important for anyone who wants to call themselves a tech expert and anyone who is committed to learning will be comfortable discussing where they need to improve.
This question will reveal how resourceful a candidate is and the steps that they take to remain on the cutting edge. Whether it’s through taking online courses or religiously following tech blogs, you always want to hire candidates who are taking steps to improve their skills.
Knowing where their knowledge could be improved requires having a complete understanding of that knowledge, which is not something that armatures are capable of. Be wary of candidates who say that they have complete knowledge on a subject, as this over-confidence will lead them to be out-of-date in no-time.
Always choose candidates who are interested in improving their skills. The only constant in the tech industry is change, and you want candidates who are able to roll with the punches instead of those who are stuck in their ways.
What has been the most difficult technical challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Nothing shows what you’re made of like adversity. Asking your tech candidates to discuss their greatest challenge is far more revealing than asking them about their greatest success. Your job isn’t going to do itself, and you want to find candidates who have faced complicated challenges or problems that didn’t seem to have solutions.
You also want to learn the outcome of their challenge. If they say they succeeded, ask them to walk you through the steps that led them to the solution. This will show you their reasoning and it will also reveal any holes in their knowledge of how this success was pulled off. These holes can indicate that they received outside help or that they were not as important in this success as they’d like you to think. If you do encounter holes or skipped steps, ask follow up questions about any help they received along the way and their exact role in each step of the problem solving process.
Failing to overcome the challenge shouldn’t disqualify the candidate, and you should still ask them to walk you through the process of attempting to fix the problem. This will reveal their troubleshooting/problem solving process as well as how systematic they are when approaching tech challenges. You want candidates who keep their head under pressure and who approach problems in a logical, systematic way.
Ronny Cheng is one of the Co-Founder’s of Digital Astronauts and has helped drive lead generation in the software industry for organizations of all sizes — from start-ups to Fortune 500’s. He helped build one of the first online software review websites, specializing in CRM, ERP, and HR software. He’s a nationally published author with extensive experience working with the HR/Recruiting industries largest brands. In his spare time, you can catch him on Instagram doing his best food blogger impersonation.