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Interview Circuit: A Modern Hiring Playbook

How to hire well, fairly, and quickly

(v.2023-03) March 9, 2023

Front Matter

The Interview Circuit Playbook ↓ is a Pareto-optimal approach for building high-growth, high-trust, high-impact teams with minimal cost, pain, and risk for both employers and candidates.

While the following approach is tuned for early/growth-stage companies hiring for full-time technical individual contributors, it can readily adapt for other role types (e.g., people managers), functions (e.g., marketing), and labor types (e.g., contractors). Additionally, it can be trimmed for smaller organizations and expanded for enterprises.

In this form, it is written to be vendor and tool agnostic. (Batteries not included.) However, company-specific Playbooks should absolutely include direct procedures and links to tools/training within theirs.

I strongly recommend reading Why Modern Hiring Processes Work if you find yourself scratching your head or disagreeing with any of the following material.

If you end up adopting my interview circuit playbook for your own organization or team (or need help) do write me—I’d love to hear how about it!

Interview Circuit Playbook

High-level, the Interview Circuit depends on the bolded stages of a structured hiring pipeline below. Candidate Selection, Skills Assessment, and Fidelity Check (the starred* items) are its core components:

  1. Need Identification
  2. Role Definition
  3. Applicant Sourcing
  4. Candidate Selection *
  5. Skills Assessment *
  6. Fidelity Check *
  7. Offer
  8. Onboarding
  9. Retrospective
  10. Close

I will focus on the bolded/starred stages and, for completeness, lightly touch on the others.

1. Need Identification

The team, led by a designated lead and/or hiring manager, will periodically assess its current and future needs to determine which capabilities would best fit. In the case of unexpected backfill, they should resist the temptation to find a “direct replacement,” as human capital is not perfectly fungible. Sometimes, additional headcount may not be needed after all. Alternatively, needs might be better met by a vendor, tool, or contractor.

However, if the company has a need, an allocable budget, and a hiring manager who is directly responsible for owning this outcome, proceed on.

2. Role Definition

This stage takes significant effort. As it should: while good hires are expensive, bad hires are even more expensive.

In the spirit of “measure twice, cut once”, the hiring manager should produce the following materials before sourcing candidates. Much of this work informs the Interview Circuit’s construction.

Role Definition Checklist

  1. Role Description
    1. Skill and Behavioral Preferences and Requirements
    2. Experience Preferences and Requirements
    3. Activity Decomposition (by time/effort)
    4. Application Instructions
  2. Compensation Structure with Pay Ranges
  3. Title and Leveling
  4. Reporting Structure
  5. Definition of Role Success
  6. Growth Opportunities and Pathways
  7. Sourcing Plan and Budget
    1. Relocation Budget
    2. On-site Interview and Travel Budget
    3. Role Marketing Budget (sometimes you need to get creative)
  8. Interview Plan
    1. Interviewer Selection (make sure interviewers are trained!)
    2. Skills and Behavioral Assessment Plan
      1. Planned Interview Questions
      2. Work Product Requirements
    3. Reference Requirements
      1. Outreach Plan (who should be tapped as references)
      2. Key Questions for the Role (past performance inquiry)
  9. Desired Start Date
  10. Logistics Options
    1. Location (on-site, remote, or hybrid)
    2. Accepted Working hours (with time zones)
  11. Onboarding Plan (an outline is sufficient at this stage, largely informed by this checklist)

Depending on the company size and maturity, the hiring manager may need to do this work themselves and/or with the People Operations team (née Human Resources). Generally, the latter will supply:

  1. The Company Pitch (why candidates should accept potential offers)
    1. History and Mission
    2. Benefits Packages
    3. Time-off and Absence Policies
  2. Workspace availability
  3. Compliance Requirements (e.g., Background Check, Drug Test)
  4. A review of interview questions for legality
  5. Offer Approval Plan

The hiring manager can consolidate this information in a single document, linking out where appropriate. I recommend putting this into a shared, versioned, protected workspace (e.g., Google Drive, Atlassian Confluence) for later tweaking, templating, and reference.

Additionally, hiring managers may want to note:

  1. Queued projects/work that may be helpful for a candidate to produce (as a paid engagement) where existing work product can’t be evaluated
  2. Available budget for the same
  3. Adjacent roles with similar skill requirements – Sometimes, candidates may be better fit for other roles within… which means skill evaluation can be reused! This is also a great way to build partnership across the company.

Finalists could interview with multiple teams to see if there’s a better fit than the role they initially applied for, and to make it easier to move them in the future should need arise.

3. Applicant Sourcing

The hiring manager should also pay attention to how many humans might be nearby who are also capable of filling the role. In many markets, talent availability is a struggle.

Hiring managers may find limited applicants (or too many!) for their posted jobs and should continually evaluate whether applicants seem to meet the desired criteria, and if those applicant pools are meeting DEIB goals. In most cases, the hiring manager will need to revisit the job posting and/or engage outside recruiting/sourcing facilities to ensure the top-of-funnel is in good working order.

If the applicant pool is demographically reflective of the company’s customers and constituencies, this is a good indication that the sourcing plan is sound. If not reflective, there may be unconscious bias in the job description and/or posting, or it is something else that’s limiting or skewing the candidate pool.

Additionally, should the hiring manager or anyone else on the team receive candidates out-of-band (via e-mail, LinkedIn, direct outreach, or whatever), direct all applications through the normal application process. (Companies might consider adding a “how did you hear about this role?” field in an application form to allow for candidates to flag themselves as having been redirected, and for referrals to confirm their referral. Referral bonuses optional.)

4. Candidate Selection

This is the stage where a hiring manager (often aided by the recruiting team) selects who moves on to the Interview Circuit.

This work is incredibly taxing for hiring managers: their bosses push them to “fill the seat”, their teams want relief, the people ops team have board-reported time-to-fill SLAs to meet, and good candidates want resolution on their candidacy against competing offers. However, every candidate who passes through this gate requires significant resources, capacity, and opportunity costs to perform a skills assessment.

This stage should be a bottleneck, a control gate for all applicants prior to reaching the next stage. To manage it effectively requires meaningful time from the hiring manager and, often, the recruiting team.

To alleviate some of the pipeline pressure, I like to employ two candidate prompts that greatly aide in the filtering process. In the “To Apply” section within a job description, I request:

  1. in lieu of a cover letter, write a “50-words or less” note introducing themselves and why this role is interesting to them; and
  2. that they complete a small challenge that should take a qualified candidate a trivial amount of their time.

The first prompt checks to ensure they’ve both read the job description, are able to communicate succinctly, and can follow guidelines. Applications where that prompt comes back blank or is well over 50 words are easy to dismiss. The remainder applications are generally of high-quality, and represent less than 10% of the total applicant pool. It’s a good ROI.

The second prompt dives in to a role’s particular specialty, kind of like an extended CAPTCHA. Examples have included (paraphrased for brevity and role-type):

  1. For a product owner: What’s wrong with your favorite product. If the answer is “nothing, it’s perfect”, what’s the smallest tweak that would change that opinion for you?
  2. For a data analyst: create a graph that prints the letter/character frequency in your resume; provide your source file(s).
  3. For a quality engineer: provide code that checks format for a single cell reference from a spreadsheet. Ignore casing and other punctuation (for example: A1 and BH-323 would match, but 9C, R2C4, A:A would not.)
  4. For a software developer: write an http endpoint that converts pounds (lbs) to kilograms (kgs); provide your source file(s). (1 kg = 2.2046226218 lbs)

Insist candidates not to over-think (or over-engineer) their answers as it is not a paid engagement. These prompts should be about as taxing as writing a brief e-mail is for a generic professional. If any prompt seems above a trifle, candidates tend to self-select out… or they attempt to impress with an over-worked submission. (I’ve rarely seen an elegant or even working solution for the latter, which makes for easy screening and/or redirection to another available role.)

Historically, for those who complete those who short challenge, most get a phone screen. Less that half of those remaining make it through to Skills Assessment.

I recommend selecting applicants among the pile thusly:

Candidate Selection Checklist

(Funnel benchmarks based on real-world data included)

  1. Triage inbounds
    1. Ignore everything except the 50-word note. If it’s left blank or goes beyond 50(ish) words, or is a clear copy/paste, reject the application. (Only ~15% of applications make it through this step. Surprising, no?)
    2. Next, review challenge prompt. If empty, wrong, or obviously inaccurate, reject the application. (~75% of the remainder make it through.)
    3. Advance the candidate and move on to the next applicant immediately. Ignore everything else—name, resume, portfolio—for now.
  2. Create a Short List for Phone Screens
    1. Review complete application.
    2. Weight applicants who have demonstrable skills/experience, particularly those who submitted portfolios and/or work product.
    3. Budget call screening time accordingly (~90% are offered a screening calls of which 80% accept one)
  3. Phone Screen with Hiring Manager (95% show rate as 5% are no-shows)
    1. Introductions (if hiring manager is the candidate’s future boss, identify as such)
    2. Keep calls short, but unhurried. (~20 minutes usually suffices)
    3. Keep calls unstructured, but prioritize discovering:
      1. Candidate’s understanding of the job and company. (Almost all understand the role, far fewer understand the company at this point, and that’s ok. Job searches are grueling, remember?)
      2. Candidate’s appetite to do the job. (~70% seem to have the will to do the job – I have another piece queued on how to measure this. Stay tuned.)
    4. Set expectations and confirm:
      1. Interview and Hiring Decision Timelines
        1. Explain Skills Assessment and its goals
        2. Emphasize that Hiring Manager’s function at this point of the process is to ensure both sides get what they need in order to make a go-forward decision; and, for the hiring manager, to ensure candidates are evaluated accurately and fairly.
      2. Compensation Range and Composition
      3. Work Location/Availability, Work Eligibility, and Expected Start Dates
    5. Leave time for questions
      1. Before candidates ask their first questions, provide a method for candidates to write-in should they think of any questions later or run out of time now, and make available additional resources about the company and the role.
    6. Thank the candidate for their time and let them know when and how they should expect to hear back.

What’s left is a short-listed group of candidates for the Skills Assessment. Deciding how many to send through to Skills Assessment should be a business decision considering the need for the role to be filled against the need for the team to produce output as a function of timeliness. But, as a starting point, for every 1,000 inbound applicants at the top of the funnel, only 75 receive a phone screen. If that’s still too many to consider, application screeners can apply more strict filtering on the 50-word note and challenge. If not enough, revisit Stage 3.

If, during the expectation-setting portion of the phone screen, the hiring manager or screener can’t provide answers to the questions around decision timelines and goals, it’s a sign that the Interview Circuit isn’t fully baked and should be revisited.

The next stage is the most expensive as it requires a tremendous time and dollar investment from the team. However, when executed well, it also leads to speedy and confident decision making while creating a great candidate experience… which is why investing in the work up-front is so important.

5. Skills Assessment

The primary goal of this stage is to assess candidates’ skills in real-world scenarios. Additionally, it aims to understand a candidate’s potential (and appetite) to learn new skills.

This series of interviews forms the core of the Interview Circuit, and it is where this Modern Hiring Playbook derives its name. The skills evaluated throughout these interviews should, collectively, be proportional to the role’s responsibility set and assessed in various ways, multiple times. However, they should not be evaluated in the same way multiple times. (Fidelity checks come later.)

The Interview Circuit (or, Circuit) calls for a mashup of the following interview types:

These interviews may be combined or reproduced in any order; but, for best results, each interview should be performed by a different interviewer.

A note the “Bar Raiser” interview type

Amazon is known for implementing this interview type, in which specially trained Amazon employees (“Bar Raisers”) ensure that all new hires meet Amazon’s definition of excellence. This interview aims to address hiring risk (i.e., preventing the wrong hire) by allowing the Bar Raiser to veto a hire regardless of the hiring manager’s decision. This interview is bolted on to the end of their hiring loop.

As I have no direct experience here, I won’t speak to its efficacy. For my part, though, I would hope that we’ve equipped the hiring manager and the people ops team with sufficient training and empowerment to “bar raise” in Stage 4, not at the end, and not after having wasted company time and resources on a candidate who would ultimately be rejected. If the upfront screen produced a false positive, that failure should be revealed during the rest of the process.

(But I’m not a $1,000,000,000,000 company, so what do I know?)

A (Simplified) Interview Plan for a Data Analyst

Interview Type Interviewer(s) Skills Assessed (Simplified)
Behavioral April Entry (20%)
Integrity (20%)
Analysis (50%)
Storage (10%)
Case Study Bruno Visualization (30%)
SQL (50%)
Integrity (20%)
Work Product Review Cici
Visualization (20%)
SQL (60%)
Analysis (20%)
Case Study Edgar Entry (50%)
Storage (40%)
SQL (10%)

A few observations to note:

  1. Skills are measured more than once, but measured differently.
  2. There’s a different interviewer for each, and ok to have multiple interviewers. (Useful for training.)

Immediately following each interview, each interviewer should submit a written evaluation that breaks out content by measured skills. (Note, Cici and Doug each submit their own review without discussing how it went amongst themselves. Let’s look at Doug’s.)

A (Simplified) Candidate Review

Interview: Work Product Review
Candidate: Michael E. Gruen
Role: Data Analyst
Reviewer: Doug

Scenario: Candidate provided an analysis of motor-vehicle collisions involving pedestrians.

On Data Visualization: Candidate produced a pie chart to represent the percentage of fatal automobile collisions based on a sample data set. When asked how one might show fatality percentage over time, candidate suggested a 100% stacked area graph with time on the X-axis, aggregated by month. Answer sufficed.

On SQL: Candidate produced legible SQL for motor-vehicle accidents, properly using filters and aggregates. Stylistically poor, candidate mixed UPPER and lowercase commands (e.g., SELECT count(*) from Collisions;). Impressive use of window functions, but could have been more easily produced with an intermediate common table expression. Candidate did not offer why one approach would be better/worse than another; when prompted, did not offer much.

On Analysis: Candidate used national highway traffic data as dataset, pulled from a .gov resource. Candidate demonstrated that while traffic fatalities were overall on the decline, traffic fatalities involving pedestrians were on the incline. Candidate broke down pedestrian fatalities based on vehicle type, highlighting how pedestrian collisions involving trucks were directly correlated to their front-hood height, with Dodge Ram pickup trucks having the highest number of incidents of accidents and fatalities… by a wide margin. Candidate did not provide data on whether Dodge Rams represented a greater number of trucks on the road to account for their disproportionately high collision rate; candidate responded, “While Ford F150s are the best-selling trucks in America, further inquiry is required to understand if best-selling also means most-driven, which might contribute to these datum… but anecdotally, Dodge Ram drivers live up to the truck’s namesake.”

Hire Recommendation: Moderate Yes.

Each interviewer should render a decision on the candidates’ skills in the form of a Hire Recommendation that answers the question, “did this candidate demonstrate the requisite skills to do the job?” While styles differ on how much scalar value one should place on the Yes or No question, any interview in which the interviewer responds with “I’m not sure” wastes the interview and provides the hiring manager with no useful information. As such, the job of interviewers is to arrive at Yes or No decisions.

Once the candidate has completed all Skills Assessment interviews, they move on to the next stage. (Depending on timing, interviewers may not have finished their reviews. Moving past Fidelity Check does require those reviews to be completed; and, depending on how the Fidelity Check goes, the process may back up a stage.)

6. Fidelity Check

Immediately following the Skills Assessment, Hiring Managers should have a follow-up conversation with the candidate (whose brain is probably quite fried by this point). The purpose of this conversation is to ensure that the interviews and evaluations within the Skills Assessment were properly conducted and that the incoming reviews can be relied upon.

Some questions to ask (and why I suggest on asking):

  1. How did the interviews go? Try to understand 1) how confident the candidate feels about their performance, 2) how confident the candidate is in the team, and 3) how excited the candidate is about the opportunity.
  2. Was there any interview that didn’t go the way you wanted? Candidates know that hiring managers will receive written feedback from the perspective of the interviewers (or at least they should) and tend to be candid about where things went well or not. Usually, follow-up questions such as, “How would you have approached the interview differently?” often reveal that the candidate actually knows the material, but was distracted by the interview construct. Depending on interviewer notes, hiring managers may elect to re-do an interview or find another method to measure the skill. Sometimes, it’s a signal to the hiring manager that the interviewers themselves may not have conducted the best interview, or had sufficient command of the subject to conduct it solo. Either way, it demonstrates that management is committed to continuously improving their business and processes.
  3. Are there any unknowns that fall under the category of “I don’t know at this point I’m too afraid to ask”? When I ask this question, I usually reference this meme. It usually disarms candidates, creating space for them to revise or revisit some earlier statements about their willingness or ability to do the role; or (helpfully) it confirms an assumption they made about the opportunity without having asked for it to be made explicit.
  4. Have your expectations on the role or opportunity changed in any way following your interviews? Candidates who are more excited will often say so (but not always). It’s a good question in that it usually prompts candidates to zoom back out to why they applied in the first place and if they’re still interested in the role, providing an additional and high-impact opportunity for the hiring manager to re-sell the role and to ensure a good fit. Sometimes, it leads to a compensation ranging conversation.
  5. Do you think we properly evaluated the skills you’ll need to be successful in this role? Sometimes this will trigger a follow-on “what does success look like?” question from the candidate; but, the intent of this question isn’t only to ensure the candidate knows what they’re getting themselves into, it’s to glean if the candidate wants to apply those skills in their role. (Just because people have the skill to do a job doesn’t mean they have the will to do it well.)

Fidelity Interview Checklist

  1. Ask a series of questions (from the suggestions above) to ensure interview integrity
    1. Record candidate’s response.
    2. Compare against interviewers’ reviews. If an interviewer notes are unavailable, compare later.
  2. Address any outstanding questions.
  3. Set expectations on the next steps of the process.
  4. Encourage candidate to reach out if there’s anything else they wish to address, discuss, or know.

If an interviewer’s review and a candidate’s experience differ significantly, either one (or both) of them may be incorrect. More often than not, the candidate does not understand their own skill gap. However, not always. In those less-common cases, it helps to identify a professional development opportunity to coach existing team members on their interviewing methods while also allowing the team not to miss out on adding a great new member.

The next step could be an offer, an interview redo, a rejection, or a trial period. Either way, completion of this stage signifies the end of the Interview Circuit.

It’s decision time.

7. Offer

The hiring manager makes their selection among the currently available candidates and extends offers accordingly. (I am avoiding using the phrase “best candidate” as the term “best” is subjective, at best.)

ProTip™: I confirm compensation, benefits, start-date, offer expiration date, and other candidate expectations prior to extending the offer verbally. Where there’s hesitation, I don’t send a written offer until I’m confident the answer will be a “yes” or the start of an earnest compensation negotiation.

8. Onboarding

The hiring manager champions the onboarding process, its importance betrayed by this relatively short section.

It’s critical that new joiners feel welcomed and productive as quickly as possible or they will leave, negating the team’s dutiful efforts prior to this stage.

The onboarding process should commence immediately following offer acceptance, prior to start date. The candidate should know what to expect between them signing the offer, and their first few months in their new role. While there’s no (and should be no) expectation that the candidate start work prior to the start date, working through logistics and compliance checklists is a good way to verify the candidate has mentally started their transition to joining the team. Some helpful, non-work projects during this period are employment verification, equipment procurement selection, and some scheduling/calendaring for their first few weeks so the new joiner doesn’t feel like they need to put their life on hold until they know “what their schedule is”.

Managers should check in with their new hires more frequently than their established reports to ensure the transition is going smoothly.

Despite the team’s best efforts, sometimes candidates punch out after their first week or so. This could be due to a better/dream offer they’ve received late, or (more likely) a mismatched set of expectations. The former is more difficult to control for than the latter.

9. Retrospective

Feedback loops ensure continuous improvement.

To that end, not all new hires work out. Managers and People Ops should do an early evaluation (outside of the company’s standard evaluation cadence) of their new hires to ensure both the new hire and the company got the fit right. In cases where there’s friction, there might be a coaching opportunity, or perhaps the new hire is in the incorrect role. There could be a better fit elsewhere in the company… or outside of the company. While the Interview Circuit helps minimize this, there are no guarantees.

10. Close

In Stage 1: Need Identification, the team periodically discusses their hiring needs. This discussion includes whether it’s time to close the Circuit for a particular role.

The decision to close is a result of this discussion, not because the role has been hired for. As discussed above, new hires don’t always work out, and sometimes the hiring need is greater than anticipated. I recommend closing out once there’s a high degree of confidence that the need is filled, which is different than when roles are filled. (I would, however, take down the public job listing for key/singular roles that are filled once the chosen candidates have started, such as named leadership roles – e.g., “The” VP of Something versus than “a” VP of Something.)


Why is it called an Interview Circuit?

Companies call their interview processes all sorts of things. I’ve seen “Recruitment Process”, “Interview Loop”, “Talent Acquisition Strategy” all used interchangeably.

I chose to call this thing “The Interview Circuit” because:

  1. I like electrical circuit diagrams.
  2. Loops infer closure, whereas circuits can remain open.
  3. Loops infer singular paths, whereas circuits can include redundancy and feedback loops within.
  4. Circuits can be short-circuited, re-routed, and rebuilt. I think of it like placing interchangeable components on a breadboard where the Interviews are placed for system efficiency and output. Parts can we swapped out, but the circuit exists.
  5. “Circuit” sounds a lot like “circus”; and, like the circus, a well-executed Circuit is a thing of joy. (Also, the internet tells me that while they are both Latin in origin, they are etymologically distinct. This is neat.)
  6. Strategy and Execution are different; circuits are execution-focused and can be adapted to a strategy.
  7. It’s what first came to mind and I haven’t found something I like better.

Can you help me build an Interview Circuit for my company?

Happy to help where I can. Feel free to write.

Can you explain some of the theories behind this?

Have done so here.

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