Story: A lesson from the most disappointing interview.
There is a lesson in every story, especially when they don’t end up the way we would like them to…
I applied for a new role that sits perfectly within my area of expertise from the technology point of view and my leadership experience. Just perfect, or at least that’s what I thought. It sounded like I’m an excellent fit for the company and what they are looking for — they thought the same… but that’s not how it ended.
This was the most disappointing interview, and it had it all — it was very long, intensive, and had many red flags that I haven’t seen or unconsciously ignored. This post is not a form of ranting or venting but simply a reminder that things sometimes go differently than expected.
Stage 1: Initial interview with HR.
I started the interview process with an hour conversation with an HR representative to dig a little more into my past and potential future. I also learnt a little more about the role (not too much), and it gave me a good high-level understanding of what to expect from the company. Very positive in the end. The person I talked to was very positive and pushed me forward in the recruitment process. So far, so good.
Stage 2: Interview with VP of Engineering, my boss.
We had a good chat about the role, his expectations, future challenges, the structure of the team, and projects. I understood that they are looking for someone with a technical background in frontend engineering and many years of experience in leading people. Not a hands-on role at all as managing 15 engineers will be a lot of work.
Feedback from HR: Apparently, he liked me very much and thinks my experience in leadership is exactly what this team needs. He would like to move forward.
Next step: It was weird they didn’t know what the next step is going to be. A day later, they decided it will be technical homework. That was a surprise, as this role was supposed to be hands-off. Nevertheless, I decided to take the challenge.
- 🚩 The interview was short, and I couldn’t ask any questions.
- 🚩 This role will have around 15 engineers reporting directly. That’s a lot, and if I want to give them the attention they deserve, that’s already most of my time gone.
- 🚩 Why is the next step a technical interview which they never give to managers?
Stage 3: Unexpected homework
This role was supposed to be leading teams, not writing code, yet they asked me to do homework that required learning new things I never worked with.
The homework was a task to build a simple feature. Nothing complicated, but I haven’t written React for four years. I had to remind myself how to do it and learn Hooks that I have never used before (introduced two years ago). Eight hours of homework it’s quite a lot of time and investment. If I have a regular daily job, finding extra 4–8 hours would be very hard. I guess I was lucky to not be concerned about it at this stage.
Anyway, I’ve done it. In the end, it was fun as I still like to write code, and it was an opportunity to expand my knowledge a bit.
Feedback from HR: The coding went well (not perfect), and the team is happy with my hands-on skills. They would like to proceed to the next step. They apparently treated this step more as “just checking” rather than a significant part of the process.
Next step: Online workshop on a project with a large team.
- 🚩 This role is supposed to have nothing to do with coding. Why would they ask me to do coding homework?
- 🚩 It is very unfair to ask any candidate to do homework as big as this one. I would never ask myself any potential future employees to do that. Plus, I could easily cheat to get the job done (that’s a topic for a separate post).
Stage 4: Product review session
An extensive interview with eight people to go through a project challenge. Two days before, I received some details, and my job was to show “how I would approach this project from a product and technology perspective”. The product part of the conversation focused on ensuring we have all the requirements, set the right priorities, learn about a typical user and how it all might evolve in the future. The technology part covered performance metrics, the right technology for the frontend, testing, and DevOps requirements, including pipelines and automation.
We ended with a discussion about teams, the general leadership approach, managing teams and building relationships. The whole interview took nearly two hours.
Feedback from HR: They loved how I split the conversation into two topics — Product and Technology as it helped to focus the discussion around particular challenges. I was very methodical, well prepared and showed a great understanding of dissecting new challenging projects into small and manageable chunks of work. The team enjoyed the conversation, and they left the meeting assured that I know what I’m doing. Great feedback, especially that I thought in a few places I could have done better.
Next step: Chat with CTO (last stage). A day later, it changed!
- 🚩 Interview with eight people on a call is not something anybody should ever do.
- 🚩 I couldn’t ask almost any questions as the interview overrun, and there was no time left.
- 🚩 One more step of the interview suddenly changed to another three!
Stage 5: Interview with HR, culture fit.
As I mentioned earlier, this step has been added at the last moment, but I had a lovely chat and felt it is all going well. Good communication both ways, and we talked about soft skills mostly — How I deal with people, in challenging situations, managing high- and under-performers, etc. All the regular questions to see if I’m capable of working with a team on a daily basis (mostly).
Feedback from HR: All went well, and she enjoyed talking to me. It’s a definite “yes” for me. Excellent leadership skills and good team fit.
Next step: Part of the team from Stage 3 would like to talk to me againm but this time about my leadership skills as they feel that was missed in the interviews so far.
- 🚩 Another unexpected step was added. It’s already two in one interview process. It felt like I was the first person they interviewed for this position (likely?).
Stage 6: Leadership conversation with the team from Stage 3
Another unexpected step, but at least during this stage, I had plenty of time to ask questions, and the team confirmed that they are looking for someone who knows how to run the team, help them with career progression path, empower people, and help improve the hiring process. They also told me that I’m the right person that ticks all the boxes (yes, I asked). Perfect fit throughout the process.
Feedback from HR: The team liked you and thinks you have excellent leadership skills and would fit perfectly in the organisation. The feedback was a bit diluted here, and I didn’t receive specifics.
Next step: Talk to the CTO. The last stage.
- 🚩 A bit surprising the exact people needed to talk to me again. I spoke to them about a lot of stuff but almost not at all about leadership. I think they forgot about it.
Stage 7: Conversation with CTO
The last step, and this one, was a chat with their CTO. Again, it went very smooth, and it looked like we both enjoyed the conversation. I had enough time to ask questions and understand where this role might go in the future, what the company is focusing on now, and how I can help.
Feedback from HR: In general positive, and it’s a “yes”, but no details.
- 🚩 That’s too many stages already! And two were very intensive (4+ hours with preparation).
Surprised & disappointed
The HR person I was talking to throughout the process was very professional and helpful. I felt we have a good vibe and all our conversations were just fun. However, I think it was for her the worst moment of the week — to talk to me at the end of all the interviews and say they decided to go with someone else.
She reiterated that the team loved me throughout the whole process. I’ve got all the skills, and I would be an excellent fit for the team. But, in the end, they decided to go with a more technically oriented and hands-on because that’s what they need for the next 12–18 months. It was the first time I’ve heard about technical skills.
What I found weird is that the whole interview was very light on technology. The entire process was focused on “leading teams” in different shapes and flavours, and they did little to evaluate my hands-on skills correctly. The test wasn’t a reliable source of knowledge, as they knew from the beginning that I won’t shine writing React. I can do a lot more than that, though. I was the perfect candidate throughout the whole process, apparently, but they changed their mind and decided to go with a more technical person in the end.
Surprised & disappointed.
My final thoughts
- They didn’t know who they are looking for in the first place. As a result, the interview did not assess the right skills.
- I didn’t want to see some of the red flags and missed others.
- I’m happy I didn’t join in the end, as the whole process tells me something important about the culture and the company.
- I hope their preferred candidate knows what he’s doing, as he will have a lot on his plate!
TL;DR How not to hire software engineers. The ultimate guide.
Hiring poor software engineers is an actual skill, but some companies or on a mission to take it to another level…
I’ve learnt a lot throughout this interview, and I’m grateful I was given such an opportunity. Not the results I expected, but that’s OK.
What is the lesson here?
Soon after this event, I realised better things are ahead of me, and I’m happy this role was not meant to be. But, of course, I didn’t know that back then, nor felt good when I found out they decided to give the job to someone else.
I can be the best for the job and still not get it. The fact someone is unable to recognise that doesn’t mean I failed or did something wrong. I probably dodged the bullet. That’s luck and a lesson learnt.