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Technically Human

How to Understand Engineer Motivation for Interviews

David Kyle Choe
May 31, 2021

How to Uncover Engineer Motivation During the Interview Process

Eric Gong, former VP of Engineering and technical recruiter and I discuss key insights into recruiting and interview for culture fit and how understanding motivation is a key piece of that process. Here are the 4 top takeaways:

  1. Define the culture: In order to accurately assess a candidate, hiring managers need to first know what to look for in candidates. This requires understanding, writing down, and codifying the culture of the company and the team. Know what you want
  2. Use the "Magic Wand" question: Ask the candidate, "if you had a magic wand, describe for me how you'd create your next role". This question will quickly uncover motivations behind why a candidate is looking for new opportunities and what's on the top of their list of requirements.
  3. Peel back the onion: Once a candidate gives an answer, make sure you're digging into the answer. Ask for specific examples or situations they were in that illustrate their answers and contextualize them. You're looking for pieces of the puzzle, and the only to find them is to ask.
  4. Know your red flags: Whether it be talking poorly about previous companies or coming off as arrogant and ego-centric - be on the lookout for potential red flags and determine in advance your team's non-negotiables

Full Episode Transcript

David Choe: Awesome. Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of technically human. We are so happy to be here again. I hope everybody had a great weekend. I know on both coasts, it seemed like the weather was really nice. It was amazing for my side over here in Portland and Eric just told me it was awesome in New York as well.

So. Well, we hope you guys enjoyed that as well. We have some pretty interesting topics today. We want to talk about recruiting. I know this is a big, word in most engineering managers and leaders lives and heads, and, you know, Probably the one thing that takes up most of your head space and time, especially if you're, you know, at early stage or growing companies.

So we want to hear from Eric around his experience in recruiting, we want to get into, you know, like kind of the nitty-gritty like things around interview questions or, you know, what, what really. In your experience has made candidates stand out or, you know, what are you really looking for other than technical expertise, obviously, you know, what are those stand out qualities or responses or anything like that.

So yeah, let's dive right in. Eric would love to kind of hear your perspective on recruiting.

Eric Gong: Yeah. Obviously this is my favorite topic. Because I had a team built up a pretty big team at a startup. And now I work with startups to help them hire engineers. So I think it's really broad. Right. So I'd be curious.

What, what, what are the main questions that you're hearing out there? Or what, what w which area are recruiting you want me to dive into first?

David Choe: Yeah, I think we can dive into Let's talk about interview questions and, and maybe not just questions, but the whole process and kind of moments that are really important for you to understand whether a candidate really is qualified, not just for the role, but also about culture.

I would love to hear how you sort for culture fit and how you think about helping managers do that in their teams.

Eric Gong: All right. Great, great one. So what we're talking from the perspective of the hiring team hiring manager, right? Yes. So I think it's super important. I think most so we're coming from the perspective of startups, by the way, I think most hiring managers just don't put in the work.

I'm just really sorry to say, but like what, what do you really want? Hmm out of someone in this role, like, have you written it down at all? So I'm guilty in the beginning. I was still like, Oh, let's just hire some people. Let's just write like interview some people we need some rails and react engineers.

And over time you kind of realize like, Doesn't work. Yeah. There's more to it. Right. I think it's really key to get a written on paper like you as a hiring manager, like what do you really want in terms of like culture fit? Right. Technical ability teamwork ability things of that nature. Right.

And just put it all on paper right first and then get the, the hiring team, like the people on the team in a room and start talking about it and start gaining perspectives.

David Choe: no, I was going to ask how do you, you know, especially because we're coming from the standpoint of a startup or, you know, early growth stage companies, maybe they don't have that kind of culture language or those things, you know, written down on paper.

How, how do they go about doing that? Especially when they want it, you know, have a little bit more of a formal structure around this.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, I think it's about putting in the work and I'd say even for ideally the values and the culture actually start from the leadership of the organization. I had been part of organizations that didn't put it down on paper and kind of you know, never had thought about it or I never wrote it out or never discussed it.

It's kinda up to the team to kind of figure it out. And those, yeah. Generally don't yield very good results. So I'd say ideally at the, at the organizational level to have that in terms of like, where are their values and what is the culture. And I say within engineering, you kind of have that too. So I think there's a subculture usually within engineering.

And I'd say at some companies engineering blends into the rest of the organization and other organs, other companies engineering is kind of like the special snowflake of a team off in a corner, doing whatever they want. But I think it it's super important to at least acknowledge. What that's like, right.

Because it is going to have an effect on who you're looking for. So for example, if the software development lifecycle in your company is engineers that are like sitting in a corner and handing out specs, like the kind of engineer that you'd Probably going to want to find is someone who would adapt well in that culture.

Right? Sure. Yeah. And if you don't look for that and, you know, communicate that, they're going to be very surprised when they come in and the opposite end if you have a product engineering, heavy culture, where you work a lot with the product team design team, You know, the, the business teams analytics you're gonna have to say like, Hey, this kind of person that we're looking for, right.

Someone that could work really well with others. So at least formalizing an understanding what is the culture of your company and then formalizing it.

David Choe: That's great. do you have like questions that you ask as a re. Relates to culture that you really have found to produce some good answers or thoughtful answers.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So this is my favorite question. If I gave you a magic wand, describe for me your ideal next role. I usually find that it works really well because the way that I look at hiring. People I'd say people fit quote-unquote culture fit, and that might be a question for another time.

Is the most important part, like how would they work within your team? How would they fit? And will there be friction when this person comes in or will they fit in seamlessly? Will they raise up the level of their team? As a human being here. So I think that's what I have looked for in the past.

That's that's even more important than technical skills, so I'll definitely be happy to find a really good people fit and less of a technical fit because we feel like we could train the technical but training the people side of is a little bit harder. So I'd like the magic wand question, because this shows motivations.

Mm. Right.

David Choe: And give an example of how, like, how did somebody answer that showed those motivations?

Eric Gong: Yeah. So if I had a magic wand in my next role, I will be interacting with a product team a lot more because I want to influence product decisions. I ran a product engineering team, so I like that answer.

Right. Another one could be in my ideal, if I had a magic wand in my next role, I'd be growing. Engineers' careers, right? Where in, you know, in my previous company I had that opportunity, but the management structure was too heavy at the level that it was right. So it kind of like shows me what, like, what is motivating them to get out of their previous role and into this role and kind of like what they want to do.

Right. And if. Where they want to go and what they want to do, kind of align with what you have there gotta be like, you know, there's a good chance they'll be successful. Right, right. But if they say like, Hey, you know, if I had magic wand, I'd sit in the corner and write code and not have to interact with people at all.

And I'm running a product engineering team that communication is really important. I mean, it's telling me something, right? So I think the key to that question is under understanding where someone's head is at  because that's what you don't know. And I, and it'd be right too many times in an interview, it's just like check boxing stuff.

And it's like, it's just like, I'm trying to figure out where their head is at. Right, so that I can understand what are their motivations.

David Choe: Sure. And are there any other questions that you ask that, get to that? Because, I mean, I think that is probably the toughest part because you can definitely, I mean, obviously code tests and those types of things in interviews are helpful for technical stuff, but it's really hard to gauge a person and their fit.

Like you said, two things that stood out to me, one was will this person. Add or reduce friction on the team and will this person elevate the team by joining? how do you kind of unearth that in an interview?

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, you, you just said the answer, right? So you start with the surface level question and then you just peel back the layers of the onion.

Right. So you understand like a person's ability to work with others kind of based on how they've decided to work with others. So you can decide like, Hey, they're actually like not proactive in building relationships, or you can also decide like, Hey, you know, they're just like they try, but they're in like a pretty crappy environment.

So for example so start starting with a magic one question, right? So let's say they come out with something like, in my ideal, next role I will want to interact with the product, what the other team's a bit more. Right. So, okay. So that's the first layer. So if we're peeling back the layers of the onion, Then I'll dig into that.

Right. And I'll say, okay, that's great. Tell me about like how you interacted with the team at your current company. And you're getting really tactical about like what they've done. So they might say like, Hey, we have a product engineering team. But you know like we do work well or we don't work well.

And then let's say, they say, Hey, you know, we have a product engineering team at my current company and, you know, we interact with, you know, product and design and whatnot and I'll say, okay, so what, what are the challenges that you're facing at your current team that you hope. won't be challenges in your, in your future company.

Right? So they might give me one answer or the other, they might say, Hey, we have this, you know, there's this product manager and they're, they're not, you know, they're not the best product manager. And you know, they cause a lot of friction I'll say, Oh, like that's some I wanna dig into. Right. So I try to figure out like, What's it really like, and where are the challenges and how to handle it?

So I say, Oh, you know, tell me about that. Like give me a scenario where they were like really difficult to work with. And they might like give me a scenario. And then based on that scenario, I'll understand how they handle conflict resolution. Mm, right. So is it, are they the kind of person that says like, Oh, like I don't like this person I'm out, do they handle situations like that.

I think maybe for earlier stage engineers, like that might be okay as they get more mature and their experience like maybe that's less. Okay. For a manager, these are questions. Let's say I'm hiring engineering managers or directors. I want to understand conflict resolution. What shitty situations have they been put in that they've gone gotten out of?

You know, resolving those conflicts in a manner that the whole place doesn't burn down. Right. So like the going back to your question, it's like, okay however, they answer, I'll find a way to dig in to understand how they handle situations. And you do that both kind of like at a people level, which I like to do.

And then you could do at a code level as well.

David Choe: Hmm. Are there any other kind of questions that you ask or maybe answers that signal red flags for you? What are, what would be those red flags be in terms of this person might, may or may not be a good fit on these levels?

Eric Gong: Yeah, I think the number one thing is like talking shit about your previous team.

Like just blatant, trash talking. So, I mean, I can understand like toxic situations, but I say like it's funny, it seems really obvious, but I you'd be surprised there are people that would just be like, my previous boss was a shithead.

David Choe: I mean, I think everyone's heard that Why is it such a red flag because, or I guess what I'm asking is what, what happens if you do hire somebody that was really good. Technically that was kind of, well-rounded all. You know, except that one piece, what, what happened to that team that this person entered?

Eric Gong: Yeah, you'll fuck up the culture in number one, rule don't fuck up the culture and engineering.

And you know, I'm saying here with a bit of passion, but like, I gotta be honest. Like, there's been so many times in my career where. Like early in my career, like, Oh God, I heard that rocks were when rockstars and ninjas was the appropriate term. It was like, yeah, we got hired this rock star and they'll solve all our technical problems.

I think The more I learned about management is like software is a people problem. And like, I don't think we're building like rocket ships or anything. Like, you know granted my background is in web application, so we're not building the most, you know, like genius algorithms, isn't gonna solve our problem.

It's like collective. Teamwork to deliver a robust and delightful product to market. So I'd say like every time, every time we hired that, Brilliant jerk. It's come back to bite us in the ass. So I say that ruin, you know, rule number one for us was like, if that person is a jerk, don't hire them.

There's been lots of examples where we lived up to that. And you know, it could be a time where someone comes in and it's just like, Not nice to the administrative assistant. And like, it's just like, well, we're not going to hire that person because that person came in and like came off as a jerk or, and that's why it's like some people feel like it's okay.

I think, especially in engineering, some. Engineers feel like it's okay to be arrogant. Like, Hey, like I'm a special engineer I have four other job offers and you need to like kiss my ass and give me the best one. And. Maybe for some companies. That's great. But for like the way that I think, nah.

David Choe: Yeah. that's probably a really hard place that managers find themselves in often, especially in early stage companies where they don't feel like they have quite the selection or they don't have a broad range of candidates because they are early stage and it's, you know, obviously more of a risk for people to join or, you know, whatever.

So they might go ahead with a brilliant jerk just because they don't have as many candidates to pick from, what kind of advice would you give to somebody in that situation?

Eric Gong: Yeah, I mean, I'd say for maybe for like inexperienced managers, they like kind of like try to take what they can get.

I'd say, I mean, I'd say like, if you're, I mean, I guess if you're desperate startup. I mean, I guess I could see a world where like, you have to like, go with that. If you have some capitalization at your startup and you can pay engineers is like, they're kind of, they're going to mess you up bad. Right? Like if you hire a brilliant jerk and they go and sit, sit in the corner and like, just write code, like no one else know is gonna know what the code does right.

Right. If it's a product engineering team, you're, you're building products, right. And you need to know that end user. It's not about like getting shipped designs and product specs and go and building the thing and coming back. So the culture piece is really important. You need to know what it is, right?

You need to know what your culture is. You need to know how your, what you expect of your team members. And if you could get it. As early into interview process as possible even written down in the job description, I think that's really, really helpful. I think actually that's a key thing that I've done recently.

That helps out a lot, like just writing down, what are you looking for and why, what the expectations of the role are putting out as early as possible.

David Choe: Got it. No, I think that's great. when I, when I hear somebody say, talk about your culture, start with your culture and hire for your culture.

I think it's easy to assume like, or broaden what culture is like, we're collaborative or we're. You know, helpful to each other. We put the team first or kindness first, you know, don't be an asshole. I feel like a lot of these things are repeated, but not necessarily unique to a particular team. Do you have any ways that you can help teams like actually.

Dial in on what makes their particular team culture unique? Like, because, because I think everybody can say like, quote unquote, culture, buzzwords, but it doesn't really help candidates truly understand the culture of the team.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So, so let's like take out the word, like if you can use the word culture, which is probably a good one, like, what do you do?

So like, I think what's even better is like, what is it like to work there? Right. Like, so like, why don't we just use that? Like, what is it, what is it like to work here at your company? Like what, and why do you work there? Use that, right? Like why, why do I work? Why do I work here? I work here because really smart people, really kind people that really help each other out.

Right. Like, that's a great reason. Right? Right. I mean, that's a great substitute for the word culture. Right. So If you can really define what your culture is, like, use that word. Why do you work there? And like the common thing at four on my team is like, why do you work on this team?

Everyone always says same answer. The people that people, the people actually use to use that as a value prop. when I used to like, just go and ask the engineer to him, like, Hey, while you work it, as I always do people and they always say like, Hey, we actually say that in interviews.

I was like, Oh really? Oh, that's a great one. And then I just, as a VPE who has a manager, I would say like, Hey, you know, like the number one reason people work here, it's the people. Yeah. And I'd like to think for engineers, it's like, that's very close to the top.

David Choe: Yeah, I think that's great. I mean, I would love to hear just maybe one more question you like to ask around the people part, like, is there anything, you know, other than how have you worked with previous teams or, you know, the magic wand question?

How can you really tell. That sort of person, you know of a candidate is I think that's just a hard thing to do in an hour or, you know, meeting somebody four times or whatever. How do you really figure out?

Eric Gong: Yeah, I mean, that's deep question. I'd say, like, I get a sense. So my, my interview process usually is.

Let's say I have a recruiter, a recruiter sends over to me, I'm the hiring manager. I need to find that out in the first 15, in like 15 minutes, I usually do so I'm well-practiced because I've interviewed a lot of people. Right. So I say the magic wand question is really important. And then you'll kind of like peel back the layers, finding out someone's motivation is key.

Finding out someone's motivation is game finding out someone's motivation is key, right? So the magic, why? And I think is a really good question. And another question, and like, these are not kind of like. Maybe not original to me. I can't remember at this point, let's assume I just stole these from the internet.

The other one that I liked is really good. So let's say you join your next ideal company, right? By the time you're done at that company, whether it's two years or five years, what do you hope to have accomplished? And I really liked that question because it helps me understand their motivation, right.

the first one or two things that come out of their mouth, like it shows motivation. Hey, I would really liked to deliver a very large product to market. And then maybe I'll dig into that. Right? Like they never deliver large products in the market. I would like to build a team or multiple teams underneath me of engineering managers. Right, right. Like, so in my mind, like, have they, like, what have they done on that end? Like why do they struggle on the end? Right. Or what, what, what, what are they really good at on that end, right. Or they say like, Hey, you know, I want to be at a startup that IPO'ed.

Hmm, that's something or I want to double my income. Yeah. Like that's another thing. Right. every single person's different. I've got so many different answers. That's actually why I like interviewing people as crazy as that sounds. It shows people the motivation. So, yeah. I like those questions.

I like to magic wand question now, like the by the time you're done question.

David Choe: No, I love it. I think these are really helpful. And I think, you know, your point about getting to the motivation quickly. I think that that's probably gonna unlock a lot of value for managers that are listening now because it's really easy to start with other kinds of questions.

Right. It's easy to start, you know, with maybe more low hanging fruit, like what's your experience? What are you looking for and getting into kind of these nitty-gritty things within, like you said, within the first 15 minutes, I think is probably going to be, be huge. So yeah.

Eric Gong: You got to know what you want.

That's how, tell me about yourself on both sides. Yeah. On both sides. So, right. Like, yeah. You know, tell me about yourself that you, that could lead to some stuff, but I think you got an know, know what you want and able to draw it out of someone. Totally. And that's what makes you a good leader, right? Yeah.


David Choe: No, this is, this has been great. I think we can do actually a few more episodes on this. I think this is a really meaty, juicy topic, so thank you again, Eric. Please check out Eric Gong &  Company and everything Eric is doing. He actually produces a lot of content with other folks too. So I'll link out to some of those things.

Also, please check out Staat. We're still bringing on beta users. So. Check us out as well. Stay tuned. We have weekly episodes, so we'll always have content available. Thank you all. Take care. Thanks David. Thanks. All right. Bye-bye.

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