Anatomy of Julie's Job Search: Screening


This post is part of a series. See the introduction for additional context and disclaimers.

After sourcing potential opportunities, it is time for me and the associated organizations to evaluate if there is a potential fit. The core interviewing process is very time consuming for me and for their employees, so we only want to move forward if it is worth the effort.

Table of contents

My process

Filtering and prioritizing results

The methods I use for sourcing potential jobs tend to cast a wide net. This is awesome because it gets a bunch of opportunities in front of me, including interesting ones I would not have found on my own. The downside is that I also tend to get a bunch of roles that aren't a great fit, so I need to spend some time separating the signal from the noise.

Below are some examples of responses I tend to filter out. I do my best to send a polite "no thanks" email to people who took the time to send me these.

  • Ignores my dealbreakers (e.g. must relocate to San Francisco, crypto).
  • Not aligned with my skills and interests (e.g. backend-leaning, management).
  • Companies I really do not want to work for (e.g. Meta, Amazon, Coinbase).
  • Companies building a product I don't feel good about or would feel embarrassed telling my friends I work on.
  • Contacts from third-party recruiters I do not have a relationship with.

Once I filter out the jobs I'm definitely not interested in, I spend time researching the remaining roles to get a sense of how they align with what I'm looking for. I rate the roles to indicate my level of interest. This helps me prioritize the order I email people and start setting up calls to learn more. Those emails usually lead to screening conversations.

Recruiter screen

A phone or video call with a recruiter is frequently the first part of the screening process. These are usually shorter, low-key conversations. I learn more about the company and available opportunities. They learn more about me and my potential fit for those opportunities.

Sometimes the recruiter will ask some lighter behavioral interviewing questions to determine if it's worth passing me on to a hiring manager. This is totally reasonable.

Occasionally, they will ask technical questions from a list prepared by hiring managers or engineers. I dislike this because recruiters often do not have the technical context to answer clarifying questions or understand nuances in answers that don't quite match what's written down for them. It can go wrong in a bunch of unhelpful ways and isn't a great experience as a candidate. I also doubt it's fun for the recruiters.

Recruiter screenings usually do not give me enough signal to have strong feelings either way about a role. They are set up to answer general questions about the company and provide some details about the role and team, but usually don't get into the deeper details. Occasionally, a recruiter screen will make it clear an opportunity isn't a good fit, but most of the time, I move on to a screening with a hiring manager before making any decisions.

Manager screen

It's relatively common to have a screening video call with the hiring manager or someone in a leadership position, depending on the size and shape of the organization. For roles that were sourced through closer professional networking, this is sometimes my first call. Otherwise, it is often the second call if I pass the recruiter screen.

These tend to be a bit longer and a little more stressful than the recruiter screen, but not significantly so. At this point, I'm still early in the process and usually have other leads, so it feels more like a "getting to know each other and see if this is a fit" conversation than a very stressful interview I need to pass. It's rare for these to feel adversarial (unlike some technical screenings). Hiring is time consuming for managers, and they generally want you to succeed if you are a good fit.

These interviews are usually conversational. The manager will tell me about the role, ask questions about me, and may ask some behavioral interviewing questions. They will usually give me time to ask my own questions, which I prepare ahead of time using my interview template.

Similar to the recruiter screen, hiring managers will sometimes ask a few technical questions. This can be slightly better with an engineering manager because they may have a bit more technical context, but that's not a guarantee, and it still feels like a bad place for technical screening.

I usually get a decent signal from the manager about the company, the team, the role, and my potential new boss. If I come away feeling positively about those things and the manager likes me, I move forward with the process. If I am excited about the company, but not the particular role or team, I will see if they have other opportunities that might be a better fit. If I feel negatively about the company or overall, I will politely decline to move forward.

Take-home technical screen

Some companies will give you homework to prove that you can code. These can range from "fun little exercises I did in an hour" to "time consuming wastes of time that made me dislike your company." I had examples of both last time I looked for a job.

On the positive side, one of the companies gave me a simple exercise that was timeboxed to an hour. You got the instructions ahead of time, so you could prepare accordingly. The exercise felt reasonable to complete in the time allotted. The results of the exercise were used for a technical discussion in a future interview.

On the negative side, another company gave me a complex exercise that was relatively open-ended. Completing the requirements took me an entire weekend. I know other engineers who spent similar time on the exercise. The results were not discussed or used in any way after submitting them.

At least both of these examples touched on work I was comfortable doing based on my job. I have hit exercises in the past that required me to learn and work with a new-to-me technology, which made them even more time consuming.

In my opinion, take-home interviews should:

  1. Take no longer than 2 hours, including any learning time to work with the tools and technology.
  2. Be as close as possible to the kind of work you are being hired for.

It can be helpful to follow-up on the results in future interviews. For example, you can evaluate technical communication by discussing how the candidate approached the problem and what tradeoffs they made. You can have them extend the solution in a technical interview, so they can pick up with code they are comfortable with instead of trying to build something from scratch under pressure.

I prefer these over live technical screens when they fit my recommended parameters.

Live technical screen

Some companies will give you a live technical screen where you code with one or more engineers for 1-2 hours. The shape of these interviews varies wildly. My favorite format is a pair programming interview where I can set up my preferred environment ahead of time, and I collaborate with my interviewer(s) on a relatively simple problem in my wheelhouse. My least favorite is leetcode style questions in a third party tool I'm unfamiliar with while the interviewer quietly stares at me.

I prefer the take-home technical screen over these, especially if I'm going to be required to do live coding in future interviews.

Third-party technical screens

Some companies use third-party services for take-home and/or live technical screens. I have not experienced this personally, but I suspect I would not appreciate it. You already get so little time to interact with the people you'll be working with before before making a decision. Outsourcing interviewing makes that time even smaller and says something about organizational priorities.

Contracting technical screen

A small number of companies understand that it's not reasonable to ask people to do work for free in a technical screen and will instead pay them to do a small amount of contract work. This sounds nice, in theory, but it doesn't work well for many people in practice.

This is likely a great approach for people who are currently working as contractors because they are already set up to do this kind of work. It seems like a mess for everyone else. A lot of full time jobs have "no moonlighting" clauses in their contracts. Even without that risk, a lot of people with full time jobs do not have the capacity or interest in spending their personal time doing even more work.

Even as someone who is currently unemployed, I'm not interested in this approach. I am talking to multiple companies to find the right fit for me. It doesn't make sense to invest a disproportionate amount of time in one company. Also, as someone who doesn't do contract work, I imagine figuring out the taxes would be a headache.

Personality tests, puzzles, riddles, and other nonsense

These are a red flag for me, and I will generally choose not to participate in them and focus on other companies with better hiring processes. I thought they had gone out of fashion and haven't personally experienced them in a long time, but I've heard tell of them in the wild from people in my network.

I found a bizarre example of this while searching for interview questions the other day. Supposedly, at one point in time, a well known company would ask people, "if you were a gerbil, which gerbil would you be?" If you are asking software engineers questions like this to determine if they are a good fit for your company, you have completely lost the plot.

Why it works for me

I find recruiter and manager screens to be lower stress than may be the case for others because of my situation. There are not a ton of engineers at my level of experience, so there's usually less competition for roles, which can tip the balance of power more towards me than those doing the hiring. The size of my search means that if a particular call goes badly because I had an off day, I still have plenty of other opportunities available. I find these types of calls most stressful (leading to me performing worse at them) when they feel "all or nothing," so I try to avoid that feeling. It's part of the reason I do my job search the way I do.

I get to be picky about the types of screens I will participate in for the same reasons. I can say "sorry, no personality tests" because I have plenty of other companies to talk to that use hiring practices more aligned with the work I am being hired for.

My preferences for technical screens may be the opposite of what someone else likes. I've heard arguments for and against both live and take-home interviews. In an ideal world, maybe you'd let candidates pick the one they prefer. Actually, in an ideal world, you'd believe that people could code based on their resume and skip the technical screens entirely, but I think that's unlikely to happen any time soon. I don't have any easy answers besides "keep technical screens as short and as relevant to the work as possible."

Takeaways for job searchers

A lot of stress in early screening conversations can come from putting all your eggs in one basket. If you get invested in a single job as the one true job that you absolutely must get, it's really easy to psych yourself out. There are so many variables that impact getting a specific job. Even if you perform your very best, you might not get it, and you're not likely to perform your very best if you put too much stock in a single job.

Doing something with this information is easier said than done. I approach it by interviewing with several companies at the same time, which, as I have repeated ad nauseam, is not an option for most people. If you don't have the time and energy to look at multiple opportunities in parallel, you may have more success with working through a list of opportunities in serial, so that if a particular interview goes badly, you have more options to tee up next.

It's not just you. Nobody really likes technical screenings. It can be helpful to understand which common approaches you handle best. This can help you focus on interviewing at companies that use the techniques you are mostly likely to succeed at.

Takeaways for employers

General takeaways

Do not make recruiters ask technical trivia questions in interviews. It's a bad experience for candidates, and I doubt it's a pleasant experience for recruiters. Let them focus on what they are awesome at: identifying if the candidate might be a good fit for the role and getting them excited about it.

People do not enjoy technical screenings. Ask yourself if you really need them at this stage of the process for the role you are trying to fill. If you do need them, keep them short and focused on the work you are hiring for. The more time you expect from someone, the more you are selecting against criteria that have nothing to do with the role (e.g. people who are still employed, people who have busy lives outside of work).

Takeaways for people who want to hire me

I really enjoy chatting with hiring managers! Having a good relationship with my boss is important for both success and happiness at my job, so it's great to talk with them early in the process to assess a fit there. This also helps me suss out information about the team's goals, responsibilities, and ways of working to see if it might be right for me.

Please be respectful of my time when it comes to technical screenings. It's very clear from my resume that I know how to code, so I always find these frustrating. I do get why companies feel the need to give them, so I will be patient with a point. I have a strong preference for technical screens to be short and focused on the skills you are hiring me for.

If you ask me what kind of gerbil I want to be, I am ending the interview.