How I Stopped Turning Social Security into an Exam: Assessing Hard and Soft Skills in One Interview

In the wake of the recent discussions on the topic of interviews, I want to ask the Habr audience a question: do you remember how you wrote in your resume: “sociable, proactive, I learn quickly”?

I – I remember, and I remember that I was terribly proud of how good I am. I remember reading these words on a candidate’s resume when I was in the role of a hiring manager for the first time in my life. I thought a lot, after which I was no longer so proud of myself.

So, my name is Alexey, I am the QA Lead of one of the teams in Plesk. I want to talk about how to increase the benefits of a technical interview, or what soft skills mean, and how they perform in real life.

Welcome to cat.

  1. About a typical technical social security

  2. And what are the hidden reserves in the technical social security?

  3. What if it could be even better?

  4. Model STAR (AR)

  5. What does all this give us in practice?

About a typical technical social security

Let’s start with what a technical interview is all about.

The most common version is for assessing technical skills. And with this, problems immediately begin. If you are looking for a not quite beginner June, then the required amount of knowledge and experience is almost impossible to fully assess in an hour and a half. But somehow it needs to be done, so the interview turns into a kind of exam with quick short questions and answers. I think that very few people, in principle, liked to take exams, and what if the examiner suddenly decides to recoup you for a tasteless morning coffee?

Surely, everyone has at least once got into a similar situation. The exam seemed acceptable during the years of study, but in adulthood it no longer looks like something normal. But it is expected that people sitting on opposite sides of the table at the social security interrogation will have to somehow work together later.

But there is also something good in this for the candidate: if at the interview you meet a corrosive and picky sadist examiner, who in the future should become your leader, make a decision not in favor of this company is very easy.

What can you get as a result of such an interview? What is the impression of the subject and such an examiner?

On the one hand, you are more likely to see an aggressive and uncommunicative person with a nervous tic; on the other hand, you will be considered a megalomaniac sadistic maniac. Psychotherapists, whose appointments are included in the health insurance program, rub their hands happily at this moment.

Typical interview at company "X"
Typical interview at company “X”

Let’s say, by some miracle, you were able to agree and find the one who will go beyond the technical interview – to the HR interview. I don’t know exactly what is happening there, but the HR verdict for an unprepared person looks like a short description of a traction horse:

  • moderately cheerful,

  • morally unstable

  • there is a reserve for leadership qualities,

  • we teach with proper stimulation,

  • whole teeth,

  • the look is mysterious.

What to do with this, how it should help to make a hiring decision, and most importantly, how these qualities will manifest themselves in the process of work – the questions remain open.

I think you get the main idea – an interview in the form of an exam does not help either the company or the candidate.

And what are the hidden reserves in the technical social security?

Let’s say you are looking for an engineer with experience in Linux administration, and the following skills will be enough for you:

  • work in the console (navigation commands, work with files);

  • be able to handle logs;

  • change the settings of standard system services.

Now let’s imagine that a candidate comes to your interview who claims that he can do all this. Naturally, you want to test this and ask questions starting with the most basic ones. What questions could these be?

  1. About the standard console commands for navigating and working with files (cd, mkdir, cp, mv…. Plus a joke on duty about how to exit vi);

  2. About where the logs of various services are located (syslog, error_log / error.log ….);

  3. About where the configuration files of different services are located (httpd.conf / apache2.conf, php.ini, my.cnf, etc.).

Thus, we learn that the candidate has at least theoretical knowledge of each item. At the same time, it is not a fact that knowledge is supported by practice, and he knows how to use it in real tasks. In some cases, this will be enough, but more often we expect knowledge from the candidate, supported by practical experience.

To connect theory and practice, you can go another, more applied way. Let’s try to give a problem, the solution of which will somehow demonstrate the necessary knowledge:

Users of your PHP project complain that they cannot upload a file larger than two megabytes. Tell us step by step how you will investigate the problem and fix it?

In response, you may hear something like:

I will enable the necessary options in the Error handling and logging section of the php.ini config file, and I will also look at the error_log option there to find where the logs are stored.

In the log, I will find an error that The uploaded file exceeds the upload_max_filesize directive in php.ini, after which I will correct the corresponding option in php.ini, setting the necessary reasonable limit.

Thus, the candidate has demonstrated that in addition to knowledge of individual issues, he is able to solve more complex problems.

It would seem that this is what you need! But…

What if it could be even better?

Let’s ask the candidate a question in the following way:

Tell us about a situation from your experience when you needed to investigate a problem and managed to fix it by changing the system services settings.

What was this situation? How did you formulate the task? How did you act and what result did you get?

Let’s fantasize what kind of story we could get in return.

Problem: The marketing department complained that they could not post a pdf with a brand book on the corporate website via a standard file upload form. Because of this, you have to split the pdf into separate images and load them one by one.

A task: Understand the cause of the problem with downloading pdf files, suggest a way to solve it.

Decision: By smoking the logs, our candidate found out that it was not the file format that was to blame, but its size. I sorted out the php.ini settings and came to the decision to set the upload_max_filesize = 20M and post_max_size = 20M directives. This fixed the problem. The candidate added the corrected settings to the instructions for deploying and setting up the production server.

With such an answer, the candidate not only showed the necessary knowledge and skills, but he also demonstrated a commendable concern for the problems of related departments.

We can conclude that he is able to find and fix the problem on his own, and, like the icing on the cake, the candidate showed concern for his colleagues, because kept valuable information in the documentation. And this will allow colleagues to solve a similar problem in the future.

Isn’t that a miracle?

At the same time, someone may rightly note that changing something on the production server without demand is a dubious initiative. In some situations, this can even be credited as being irresponsible.

Thus, in addition to confirming technical skills, we also touched on the candidate’s soft skills. The very same feedback from HRs “responsive, initiative, proactive” takes on meaning and quite real outlines. It becomes much easier to answer the question:

Do you want a person with such a set of knowledge, skills and qualities to work with you in a team?

Now let’s take a look at how we achieved this.

Model STAR (AR)

Let me remind you that the question to the candidate sounded like:

Tell us about a situation from your experience when you needed to investigate the problem and managed to fix it by changing the system services settings.

What was this situation? How did you formulate the task? How did you act and what result did you get?

For the question, we used the STAR (AR) model. This model consists of four (or five) important components:

  • Situation (situation).

  • Task (a task).

  • Actions (actions).

  • Results (results).

  • Alternative Results (alternative results).

The schema allows both to ask a clear question and offers a structure that helps the candidate provide a substantive answer.

But that’s not all! Invisible nuances – a question addressed to real experience is more likely to show how the candidate is used to acting in real life. And this is exactly what you will encounter when (and if) he moves from the “candidate” category to the “colleague” category.

An additional pleasant bonus is hidden in the paragraph Alternative Results… The question “how would you act in the same situation now?” can show what the candidate has learned since the situation described happened in his life. And this will already hint to you about the ability to rethink your experience, learn and draw conclusions, even if the original decision was sub-optimal, or even completely wrong.

Let’s imagine how our candidate could answer this question, let it be:

Now I would set the directive post_max_size = 60M, because the upload form itself allowed uploading up to 3 files at the same time.

Done, you are amazing! It looks like our candidate is right for us.

What does all this give us in practice?

Without losing the quality of the assessment of technical skills, we gain the opportunity to get to know the candidate closer precisely from the standpoint of personal qualities. In the examples, we examined mainly positive qualities, while the reality full of disappointments… Therefore, I advise you to think over your questions in such a way that you can find in the answers patterns of behavior that you would like to see in your future colleague (or, on the contrary, would not like).

Even if the candidate doesn’t explicitly show the pattern in their response, you get more context from the response about the candidate’s experience. And this allows you to ask the clarifying questions you need.

Bonus level

Having practiced to find markers of behavior in answers to technical questions, you will be able to purposefully ask questions aimed at certain soft skills of the candidate. It is worth mentioning that you should not trust or be disappointed with the first answer. Ideally, every pattern you see should be checked at least twice. Those. questions that reveal this or that behavior, it is worth preparing more in order to enable the candidate to consolidate his success in your eyes.

All this will give you a high-quality comprehensive assessment, which means that it will reduce the likelihood of an error when a technically competent specialist does not fit into your team simply because you expected some qualities from him, but received completely different ones.

How do you rate soft skills? What techniques or methods do you use for this?

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