Detecting Great Testers Before the In-person Interview

© 2005 Johanna Rothman. This column was originally pubished on Stickyminds.com

Summary: Resumes only tell a portion of a candidate’s story just like caller ID doesn’t always reveal the caller’s complete identity. Screening candidates over the phone can help extract more of the person’s story if you ask the right questions. In this week’s column, Johanna Rothman shares phone-screening techniques she uses to detect great potential testers. This process of elimination saves her valuable time and ensures only qualified candidates make it to the in-person interview.

Some companies are starting to hire again, and that’s a sign of better economic times. But many of those companies are trying to be much more discriminating about the kinds of talents and skills they hire in their testers. So how can you tell if a candidate has the talents and skills from reading through a resume?

You can’t. Just reading a resume isn’t quite enough. You’ll need to develop a list of phone-screen questions, and possibly a pre-interview audition to separate the candidates who fit your needs from the candidates who just aren’t suitable for you.

Ask Questions about What’s Important to a Candidate’s Success

When I develop phone screens, I make sure to ask questions to determine if I need to eliminate candidates from consideration. Elimination questions can be about skills, recent work, a candidate’s ability to work long hours during release cycles, or travel—anything about the job that could eliminate a candidate from consideration.

Define Elimination Questions

Use elimination questions to quickly verify that the candidate has enough relevant background and expertise for you to consider for the open position. Maybe your company isn’t paying for relocation. In that case, you could say, “We’re not paying relocation expenses for this position. Are you still interested in the job?”

I tend to use technical elimination questions most of the time. If you want to make sure a tester knows about your kind of product, ask. If you’re working on a financial or insurance application, you could ask, “How much experience do you have with transaction processing systems?” People don’t always know the kinds of systems they work on, so you might need to modify the question a bit: “How long have you worked with systems where the database transactions were the tricky part?”

Once I was screening for a tester to write tests that could start upon the completion of another event. We used semaphores, an internally set flag to show the state of events. I first asked a candidate if he had ever used semaphores. He asked me what a semaphore was. I explained, and he said, “Oh yes,” and launched into the description. He was a smart guy who’d never heard of flags called semaphores. So, make sure when you develop elimination questions that your language doesn’t eliminate candidates.

Use Behavior-Description Questions to Learn about a Candidate’s Experience

Once you know the candidate has the bare minimum experience, ask a few behavior-description questions to see if the candidate could be successful in this job with your company’s culture.

Behavior-description questions ask the candidate to tell the story behind their work. Ask, “Tell me how you planned your testing on your last project.” Or ask, “On your last project, what did you learn from your exploratory testing?” If you’re talking to a test manager, you could ask (waiting between questions), “What metrics did you track on the last project? Did you publicize any? Which ones? How did you publicize them?”

Maybe your team is transitioning to a more agile lifecycle, and you want to know how the tester has decreased testing time. You could ask, “In which roles have you actively worked to decrease testing time? What did you do?”

Develop a Pre-Interview Audition

If you try a phone-screen audition, make sure the audition helps you understand the tester’s approach to testing. One colleague uses this question, “How would you test a stapler?” Yes, I realize a stapler is a common office device and not like the products your testers normally test. But when you ask this question, you’re asking the tester to explain his or her general approach to testing products.

An alternative is to describe your product. Then ask the tester about his or her approach to testing the product or a piece of the product. If you have the time, follow up with a behavior-description question, such as “Have you ever tested a product in this way before?” Follow the story of how the tester tested the product.

Wrap Up the Phone Screen

As soon as you know the candidate isn’t a good fit, say so. “You’re not a good fit for this position. Thank you for your time.”

But, if you have a candidate who fits, make sure you ask questions about the candidate’s time frame and willingness to interview. If you’re hiring someone fresh out of college, you may need to wait a while before he or she is available to start. Schedule the in-person interview at the end of the phone screen, or the next day.

Phone screens take more of the hiring manager’s time, but significantly less of the interviewing team’s time. Plus, you’ll know before the interview that you’re spending time with a candidate who is suitable for your position.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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