RE: First time interviewer!

Subject: RE: First time interviewer!
From: "Sella Rush" <srush -at- MusicNet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2002 12:47:13 -0700

I just went through my first peer interviewer experience, when we were looking for a junior (level II) writer. At the time it was just me and the lead writer (hiring manager).

For a newbie interviewer, keep in mind two things: (1) people, especially juniors, often have a distorted view of the scope of a subject, they think they know a lot more than they really do. So don't get all hot under the collar when they tell you they're an expert on procedure writing but a few pointed questions tells you they're not--they're not being dishonest, merely incorrect. (2) juniors tend to be more rigid in their adherence to process and tech comm theory--and are prone to quoting chapter and verse for all situations. Some interviewers would see this as a good thing; others, like me, who prefer a little more flexibility and "real-world" perspective need to take this into account.

Re gathering questions, here are some places to start:

1. Get info from HR on "legal" interviewing. They probably have a nice little cheatsheet. These legalities can turn into pitfalls if you do any informal conversing; for example, you can't ask any questions about marital/family status. HR probably also has lists of interview questions and other resources.

2. Find out what kinds of questions your supervisor asks. Some topics you won't need to cover; your manager will certainly be looking for how the interviewee meets the minimum requirements including tools, how he/she deals with authority, etc., and you can probably focus in other areas. In some cases you will want to avoid duplicating, but in other cases it might be interesting to see how the answer differs when talking to manager versus talking to peer.

In one case, I noticed that the interviewee never admitted a subject-matter weakness or failing, but I later discovered that the person had been extremely forthcoming about their limitations to the other, management-level interviewers. This suggested to me that a certain amount of competition would be likely, that the interviewee considered her/himself equal or superior to me. However, this perception didn't end up factoring into my decision.

3. Do some serious soul-searching about how you work and what kind of relationship you want with the new writer. This is probably one of the most valuable aspects of being in on the interview cycle--making sure that you can actually work with the person. Are you a collaborative person, or do you prefer to "own" projects and work independently?

Also look at your own strengths and weaknesses, and consider whether an interviewee complements you or not. This can be a difficult thing to do, and brings up an aspect of peer interviewing that I personally found challenging. You need to recognize that, unless you're a saint or some kind of superhero, you will have concerns about the new hire coming in and showing you up, or at least inserting an uncomfortable element of competition. This is a very human reaction, the important thing is that you recognize how it's influencing your decisions.

My approach was first--to accept that a little competition can be an energizing influence and a learning experience, and second--to look for strengths in areas where I was weak *and* had little interest in getting stronger. The last point is important, not just to deflect competition, but because it is important for the team and your relationship that the new hire be empowered in some area--that they are contributing something specific to the team.

4. Be sure to reference the interviewee's specific experience. Was there something that interested you, some situation you want to know how they handled?

5. Think about the work environment. As peer, you probably have the clearest perception of what the new writer will need to successfully interact with developers, QA, and other departments. Asking questions about their approach to research, tech review, etc., will tell you whether their style will fit. Also look for corporate culture issues, especially if you're the only non-management interviewer--you can often give the interviewee a more realistic perspective of the culture.

Here are some of the questions I asked. Some I got from HR, others I made up myself:

Describe a high-morale group you've worked in. What were the reasons for the high morale? (suggests what kind of environment they like, how aware they were of team dynamics)

Give an example of a situation in which you were asked to write about a topic that's still in flux? (indicates whether the person is flexible, how they would work in our very "fluxing" environment)

Describe a situation in which you had to take a stand on a decision you made, even if it made you unpopular. (indicates whether they are stubborn or committed, flexible or weak)

Give an example of when you participated in a team writing project, what you liked about it, what you didn't.

How do you think your coworkers would characterize you?

Job market realities aside, what type of environment are you looking for in your next job--your career directions? (indicates whether the person and job are a good fit, also suggests what opportunities and areas of growth they'll be looking for in the job)

When you find an error in a colleague's document, how do you handle it? (I was looking for someone who would simply shoot off an email about it. I wanted to avoid someone who was overly sensitive.)

Do you have any pet peeves or other strong feelings about style and formatting? (looking for potential conflicts, or in my case I was looking for flexibility and cooperativeness rather than rigid demands)

How do you go about learning a new technical subject?

Describe a job situation in which you initiated a new technology with regard to documentation, training, usability, etc.

What's your style when new on the job for getting to know your colleagues, particularly those you need to get information from such as developers and QA testers?

How do you deal with a source who is immediately dismissive and negative toward you?

If you do get off on the wrong foot with someone, what do you do to repair the relationship? What if the conflict isn't your fault? (I was looking for honesty and straightforwardness rather than manipulation.)

Describe a situation in which people have really tried your patience.

BTW--a better approach to the whole "weaknesses" issues is to identify a real weakness--which demonstrates your integrity, but be sure to talk about how you deal with this weakness, your plans for improvement or work habits that counteract the weakness.

Sella Rush
Tech Writer III
MusicNet....the preferred premium online music service
(206) 269-6115 Direct
srush -at- musicnet -dot- com

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