The First Interview

Learn about the steps and preparation needed for the first interview with the candidate.

This stage is where you begin to spend some real-time with the candidate. If the candidate is located within commuting distance to your office and you are not a remote company, it’s good to meet them in person because it’s easier to make a more human connection that way. A first interview can be done in an hour, and it should ideally consist of the hiring manager (that’s you!) and somebody else who will be working with them on the team. Don’t have more than two people in the interview as more can be intimidating.

Guidelines for the candidate

Before the candidate is invited, make it clear what they should expect from the interview, so they feel as comfortable as possible. Tell them what to wear. For example, candidates turning up in a suit to a casual-clothes company will make them feel embarrassed. Also, tell them roughly what you’re going to go through. For example, you could tell them that:

  • The interview will be one hour.

  • It will be with the hiring manager and one current employee on the team.

  • It will consist of some conversation for each party to get to know the other and to find out more about their past roles and experience.

  • There will be some technical exercises that will be done collaboratively.

  • There will be plenty of opportunities for them to ask questions about the company, the team, and the role.

The more transparent you are, the more you put the candidate at ease and the more you’re implicitly saying to the candidate that you want them to have the best opportunity to succeed.


Once the candidate has been booked into the interview, do your preparation. Both you and the other interviewer should take the time to read the candidate’s application with the following questions in mind:

  • What are the candidate’s main strengths?

  • How many years of experience do they have and where have they gained them?

  • Do they have any unique skills and knowledge that will be valuable to the team?

  • Have they worked anywhere that may have solved similar problems to the ones that you work on? For example, are they also working at a SaaS company on their data ingestion and storage, or were they working on something entirely different?

  • Do they have experience working in a manner similar to you, for example, in a cross-functional agile team?

Think about the sorts of questions that you want to ask them in the interview after reviewing their resume. Is there anything that you have any concerns about, such as them having a decade of experience in a formal corporate company when you work at a messy startup or vice versa? Note them down and share your thoughts with your fellow interviewer.

Being a great interviewer

At this point, you’ve already learned and practiced all of the necessary skills that you need to be able to interview well. The communication skills in the Interfacing with Humans chapter cover everything that you need, including balancing your spoken and nonverbal communication, managing your energy, listening more than you speak, and remembering that the interview is primarily about the candidate, not yourself.

However, bear in mind a number of interview-specific tips. Let’s go through them.

  • Prepare: Read their application and highlight parts that are interesting to you. Make notes of questions you can ask. Have them in front of you while you talk to them to refer to. Show that you’ve taken the time to read and digest the application that they spent time putting together for you.

  • Make the candidate comfortable: Little gestures go a long way. Greet them at reception and walk with them to the room rather than sitting in there waiting for them to enter. Offer them a drink. Put them at ease by asking about how their day has been or how their journey was.

  • Be yourself: The most important thing, as with life, is to be yourself. You don’t need to be a hyperinflated version of yourself or more serious than you usually are, just be you. After all, this person is going to be reporting to you, and it’s your duty for them to see as much of the real picture of their future manager as possible. Accepting a job offer is a two-way process, and they need to choose you as well.

  • Describe what you do before you do it: Given that interviews are stressful, outline what you’re going to be doing before you do it. This applies to the beginning of the interview where you can describe the different parts of the interview that are coming up, but also at each individual stage. Over-describe what they should expect. For example, you could say, “We’re going to do an exercise on the whiteboard now. There’s no right or wrong answer, and we’re going to try and figure it out together.” This is much less scary than handing them a pen and asking them to stand up there before they know what they have to do.

  • Allow for nerves: Remember that there’s a likely chance that your candidates are feeling nervous, especially those that are younger or less experienced with interviewing for technical roles. Being warm and kind goes a long way here. However, since your candidate is probably not thinking as straight as they would if they were sitting at their computer listening to their favorite music while programming, allow for mistakes, don’t fuss over small incorrect details that contribute to fluster, and help out when necessary with examples and additional explanation.

  • Detect silence and intervene: If you have asked a candidate a question and they’re struggling in silence, then intervene. Ask whether they need more explanation or would like to work it through with you out loud together. If they’re getting really stuck, divert and ask an alternative question. Be flexible with your approach.

  • Invite questions and conversation: The best interviews are two-way transactional exchanges. Make this clear by asking lots of questions and keeping the conversation flowing. Invite opportunities for them to teach you something. For example, you can say, “Tell me about how you built that system; it sounds really interesting!” This allows them to continue to build their confidence during the interview process via contribution.

  • Make notes: If you’re doing a lot of interviews over the course of a day or a week, it’s easy to forget the specifics of your conversations with each of the candidates. Jot down reminders to yourself throughout the interviews so you can give objective feedback without having to rely on your memory.

  • Be aware of your own unconscious biases: We all like people who are like us. Unconscious bias is natural and unintended. As a hiring manager, you need to build a body of evidence that supports your hiring decisions. Note down the candidates’ answers to questions rather than your own judgments. Don’t rush your decisions and say “They were amazing! Let’s hire them now!” Instead, put space between interviews and decisions and consult with your fellow interviewers at each step.

  • Find other veteran interviewers and ask for advice: Don’t trust this course alone. Go and find other people that you know and ask for their tips on interviewing. What do they advise?

The interview

The purpose of the first interview isn’t meant to be a thorough technical grilling of a candidate. After all, an interview doesn’t provide the natural conditions under which engineers do their work, day to day. Instead, this first interview is about finding out whether the candidate is someone that you can see you and your team working with and whether they are the same as, or even better than, they presented themselves on the application.

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