How to make the most out of remote tech interviews


Remote tech interviews are becoming more prevalent as many workforces shift from on-premises to remote work. Learn some tips for interviewers and interviewees to get the best results.

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I work for an organization that recently made the decision to eliminate the local facility to which I once commuted. The result is that now we will be fully remote on a permanent basis. 

I recently covered the tech and operational aspects of closing a site and touched on the need to determine how new employee onboarding and provisioning will work. The first step of the process, of course, is figuring out how best to conduct remote interviews for the best possible results. I spoke with Mark Kinsella, VP of engineering at Opendoor, an online real estate site. Kinsella provided some advice for hiring managers and job seekers.

SEE: The future of work: Tools and strategies for the digital workplace (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Scott Matteson: How are companies faring with remote tech interviews during the pandemic?

Mark Kinsella: Over a year into the pandemic, remote interviews have become the new normal. We’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. One learning is to ensure that we factor in breaks throughout the interview process to allow candidates to step away from their computers and reset. Preparation is also key for ensuring a smooth interview process. We make sure candidates are prepped on the technical questions so they are properly set-up to write code. Lastly, sometimes the internet can lag and cause video calls to lag as well. Both the interviewer and the candidate should always have a backup option ready, like charged headphones and your phone nearby. 

Scott Matteson: How are prospective employees faring?

Mark Kinsella: Candidates are learning most of the standard interview best practices still apply—for example, be on time, come prepared, and be engaged. Similar to the fact that there can be hiccups during in-person interviews, like hitting traffic or not preparing for certain interview questions, issues can also arise in virtual interviews. That’s why it’s crucial for candidates to prepare ahead of time for the things they can control, like having the correct software downloaded and a solid internet connection, minimizing distractions and having a clear understanding of expectations and what the interview process will entail.

Scott Matteson: What are the challenges involved?

SEE: Hiring Kit: Video Game Programmer (TechRepublic Premium)

Mark Kinsella: One of the big challenges with virtual interviews is that soft skills, like important culture-added attributes, are much harder to assess remotely than in person. It’s harder to read body language and tone virtually. And for candidates, it can be challenging to get a feel for the company culture when you’re not walking through the company’s office and sitting down to chat in person. 

Another challenge for technical interviews is replicating the whiteboarding process we use. Writing out architecture diagrams in-person on a whiteboard is much easier and faster. Doing it virtually takes longer, leaves more room for errors, and it can be harder for candidates to communicate their thought processes.

Scott Matteson: What do you recommend to address the challenges?

Mark Kinsella: Companies should plan to have candidates meet with as many people across the company as possible. When I went through the interview process at Opendoor, I spoke with a variety of team members—from senior executives to people who would be my direct reports, to cross-functional partners. Meeting people across the company helped me gain a stronger sense of the culture. And my interviewers were able to get a better feel for what I’d add to the culture, as well. 

SEE: Coding interviews are terrible. Can we make them better? (TechRepublic)

For candidates, it’s important to prepare ahead of time as much as possible. Ask the recruiter what the interview process will be like, what video conferencing tool the company uses, and any external tools that will be incorporated. Remote interviews, especially for more technical roles, will likely use resources like pair-coding or whiteboard resources. Familiarize yourself with these details so you’re not fumbling around at the last minute. 

Scott Matteson: How are new employees being onboarded for remote work, and what recommendations do you have?

Mark Kinsella: At Opendoor, we are spending more time with the onboarding process than usual to ensure engineers ramp up as quickly as possible. New employees aren’t able to sit side-by-side with their teammates throughout the day, and so replicating that in-person learning is a challenge. Many of our teams have one-hour daily office-hour times with new hires to ensure they have time to ask questions and get advice. We have also leaned into written documentation to better support asynchronous learning. 

Scott Matteson: How are manager/new employee relationships functioning, and what recommendations do you have?

Mark Kinsella: There’s been some interesting talk among researchers about how remote work is impacting trust among managers and employees. Without the ability to work side-by-side and see each other every day, managers might find themselves with less visibility into a new team member’s workload. And without face-to-face time, either during meetings or hallway chats in the office, it can be difficult to connect with each other on a personal level. Building personal connections that go beyond your day-to-day work is critical to building trust.

SEE: Research: Video conferencing tools and cloud-based solutions dominate digital workspaces; VPN and VDI less popular with SMBs (TechRepublic Premium)

I also believe expectation setting on both sides is critical. Have conversations about your schedule and times you’ll be offline, as well as how you both prefer to communicate and collaborate. We often ask new team members to put together a “how to work with me” doc that addresses things like working hours, preferred communication methods, how you learn best, how you ask questions, and other topics. Managers should also schedule more frequent check-ins or even performance reviews to ensure feedback is delivered in a timely and direct manner. This is even more important while remote to ensure the employee has time to react to and respond to feedback.

Scott Matteson: How are new employee/peer relationships functioning and what recommendations do you have?

Mark Kinsella: Without the impromptu conversations and relationship-building that typically happen in a physical office, carving out time for team bonding is more important than ever. We are prioritizing our social team activities for 2021 to ensure teams have the appropriate support to build strong relationships. We’re also big fans of Gather, which builds virtual spaces for people to talk and collaborate. And, we’ve started doing what we call listening parties. Recently, the entire engineering org hopped on a video chat to listen to Opendoor’s first company earnings call together. It made the event feel special. 

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