Worried about candidates googling during a phone screen? You’re doing it wrong.

Interviewing is time consuming, companies have a finite amount of time to dedicate to recruitment and inevitably some capable candidates are turned down at CV stage without ever having a chance to shine.

Phone screens are a great way to address this problem, they are typically shorter and often run solo. They allow a company to take more risks and consider candidates from further afield.

My company is still pretty new to phone screening, we’ve been trialling it out in cases where it is difficult for the candidate to attend in person – perhaps they are based overseas. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading on how best to construct a decent phone screen. By far the best writing I’ve found is Steve Yegge’s take. I’m not sure how practical it is to fit everything Yegge mentions into a 45 minute call, but I consider it an excellent resource.

A common fear I have seen in other discussions seems to be that candidates will use google to somehow game the system. If this is a genuine concern then one of two things has gone wrong. Either:-

  • The questions are purely fact based and will tell the interviewer nothing about how the candidate thinks.
  • Or, the questions are fine but the interviewer is focusing on the wrong part of the answer.

A question like ‘In Java what is the difference between finally, final and finalize’ will tell you very little about the candidate. Plenty of terrible programmers could answer that without problem and what’s worse, a talented but inexperienced developer might stumble. In short these type of quick fire questions add little value to the overall process.

Something like ‘How does a Hash Map work? How would you write a naive implementation?’ is more interesting, it’s open ended but forces the candidate to talk about a specific area of knowledge – even if they don’t know, you’ll learn how good they are at thinking things through from first principles. The only way that it can be gamed through googling is if the interviewer simply waiting to hear specific terms and is not asking free form follow ups.

I’ve just googled Hash Maps on wikipedia and could probably quickly extract ‘Associative array’, ‘key-value pair’, ‘Collision’ but really if that’s all the interviewer wants to hear then the question is of limited value.

So what I’m saying is that if you’re concerned about googling, then it’s probably the questions or desired answers that are the problem. Furthermore if one in a hundred people do manage to game the system you’ll pick them up in the face to face in an instant.

3 thoughts on “Worried about candidates googling during a phone screen? You’re doing it wrong.

  1. Also, the premise even seems a bit crazy. Developers use Google in their job (probably everyday). So using Google to answer questions seems fine to me. Yes, you want to know that they understand things, but if they don’t understand they are not going to be able to quickly Google and extract the sensible information for a good reply.


  2. @John Huner
    Agreed, though I can see value in providing a candidate with a task where there is insufficient information to solve straight away and expecting the candidate to puzzle through asking clarifying questions where needed, since this give an idea of problem solving process. However you’d still need a pure programming task to augment it.


  3. I was thinking about it a lot. And ended up with the opinion that googling during phone screen immediately renders the candidate a no-go. Yeah, I know employees do google all the time. But:

    – It’s a real-time conversation, where the partner is not focusing on you. It’s a basic ethical issue. Imagine yourself with the partner sitting around a table, and he/she’s being immersed in their phone.
    – The questions are not tuned to measure such situations. They’re not constructed in the expectation that the candidate will be googling it.
    – I don’t want to measure his/her googling ability. I want to get a snapshot of his current knowledge/mindset.

    BTW, I don’t see problems with fact-based questions. I usually mix them with open-ended questions as well. Mixing strategies is the best. I’m seeking gaps in not just lexical knowledge, but in consistencies as well.


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