wingolog

a new interview question

5 September 2017 1:09 PM (hiring | diversity | inclusion | interview questions)

I have a new interview question, and you can have it too:

"The industry has a gender balance problem. Why is this?" [ed: see postscript]

This question is designed to see if how a potential collaborator is going to fit into a diverse team. Are they going to behave well to their coworkers, or will they be a reason why people leave the group or the company?

You then follow up with a question about how you would go about improving gender balance, what the end result would look like, what's doable in what amount of time, and so on. Other versions of the question could talk about the composition of the industry (or of academia) in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on.

I haven't tried this test yet but am looking forward to it. I am hoping that it can shed some light on someone's ability to empathize with people from another group, and in that sense I think it's probably best to ask about a group that the candidate does not belong to (in as much as it's possible to know). The candidate will also show who they listen to and who they trust -- how do they know what they know? Do they repeat stories told about people of that group or by people of that group?

Some candidates will simply be weak in this area, and won't be able to say very much. The person would require more training, and after an eventual hire it would be expected that this person says more ignorant things. Unfortunately unlike ignorance about compilers, say, ignorance about the lived experience of women compiler writers, say, can lead to hurtful behavior, even if unintentional. For this reason, ignorance is a negative point about a candidate, though not a no-hire signal as such.

Obviously if you discover a person that thinks that gender imbalance is just the way it is and that nothing can or should be done about it, or that women don't program well, or the like, then that's a great result: clear no-hire. This person is likely to make life unpleasant for their female colleagues, and your company just avoided the problem. High fives, interview team!

Alternately, if you find a candidate who deeply understands the experience of a group that they aren't a part of and who can even identify measures to improve those peoples' experience in your company and industry, then you've found a gem. I think it can easily outweigh a less strong technical background, especially if the person has a history of being able to learn and train on the job (or on the open-source software project, or in the university course, etc).

Successfully pulling off this question looks tricky to me but I am hopeful. If you give it a go, let me know! Likewise if you know of other approaches that work at interview-time, they are very welcome :)

Postscript: The question is a template -- ideally you ask about a group the person is not in. A kind commenter correctly pointed out that the article looks like I would only interview men and that definitely wasn't what I was going for!

39 responses

  1. whitequark says:

    Will you ask this question to women and nonbinary people, too? At least, the entire post is written as if the only people you try to hire are men.

  2. Arthur A. Gleckler says:

    This is known as a political litmus test. I am sure that it will get you a team where your mindset will never be challenged, which appears to be the goal. I, for one, enjoy talking with people with whom I disagree, especially on important issues like this one.

  3. whitequark says:

    Arthur: No. This is known as a test on whether someone is able to put themselves in a position of a person in a situation quite unlike that they are in. (Some incorrectly call this "empathy"; it has more to do with intellectual honesty.)

    To illustrate, you appear to be unable to imagine yourself in a position of a person whose capability to productively engage in a profession is regularly 'debated' as some sort of abstract concept, and the consequences of such.

  4. Arthur A. Gleckler says:

    whitequark: Thank you for the ad hominem attack. Of course I can imagine what that's like, and the consequences. I've seen them in action.

    But do you really imagine that you and your fellow employees can ask a question like this during interviews and judge the answers in a way that is anything more than a litmus test? I have personally conducted hundreds of interviews and have been involved in thousands of hiring decisions based on interviews conducted by other people, and I can tell you that even interviewers with thorough interview training can't reliably judge candidates even on purely technical questions. Asking such a highly politicized, subjective question is only going to test how good candidates are at detecting which way the wind is blowing. And you're still going to have many of the people you worry about working for you, acting badly but parroting the lines you gave them.

    If you want to improve things, make sure that at least one woman employee interviews each candidate. The worst candidates will show their true selves in ways that are unmistakable, and you will have at least some diversity of opinion.

  5. Dave Neary says:

    What's your theory for why this is, Andy? There are many potential theories and contributing factors - what are you looking for?

    Dave.

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  7. Simon says:

    > Obviously if you discover a person that thinks that gender imbalance is just the way it is and that nothing can or should be done about it, or that women don't program well, or the like, then that's a great result: clear no-hire. This person is likely to make life unpleasant for their female colleagues, and your company just avoided the problem. High fives, interview team!

    See, this is where I think a question like this - and the thinking behind it - is dangerous.

    If someone thinks that women are no good at coding, then I agree, that's a clear no-hire... they've made it obvious that they have attitudes that are not going to fit well into a team.

    But you seem to be grouping that in with people who simply don't hold strong views on the subject, and that's where I think you're going too far with this. Remember, your goal is not to hire pro-diversity activists - it's to hire people who are good at their jobs, and who will work effectively within the team without causing conflict.

    I say this, because in my experience, it's frequently the liberals - supporting positive causes that I often agree with - who cause the most friction within a team, the ones causing disruption.

    Because my job is to write software, to work with everyone in the team, and on occasion, to help recruit new team members who'll do the same. My job isn't to spend time worrying about whether the gender balance is right... we're not choosing new staff on the basis of their plumbing...

  8. Luke Gorrie says:

    Andy, a blog post idea could be your take on the (dated, etc) "Redefining Professionalism for Software Engineers." http://philip.greenspun.com/ancient-history/professionalism-for-software-engineers

  9. Jonathan Wilkes says:

    As an interviewee, I would be happy to field questions like those. There is a lot of fascinating recent research published on the topic, as well as some groups in FLOSS who are doing a wonderful job giving guidance to both individual developers and FLOSS projects as a whole on fostering an inclusive development environment.

    On a separate level-- after reading your blog here I'd be wary of working for your company. The reason is that you have taken an extraordinarily important topic-- gender imbalance in technology-- and proposed a novel, speculative, and untested approach. There is no evidence in your blog entry that you have consulted with any experts in the field, nor even based your idea on any research whatsoever.

    Moreover, even as a "blank-slate" interviewee I would have no way to discern whether your questions were intended as a) a filter for people who aren't empathetic, or b) a filter for people who are unwilling to take on responsibilities outside of their area of expertise in order to benefit the company. (And the technology sector is *full* of companies that do this.) Are you similarly willing to experiment with untested ideas about pay periods, taxes, health care plans, etc.? If your answer is that you would never experiment in those areas and instead rely on the sound guidance of insurance/tax specialists, why is it any different for the equally important domain of gender imbalance in technology?

  10. Brad Winstone says:

    Before you or anyone includes this question during an interview, I would check with your legal counsel to be sure it doesn't violate any employment laws. Any hiring manager will be aware that you can't simply ask anything you want during an interview. This question is almost certainly not illegal, but it could be easily misunderstood and cause a lot of issues for your company.

    The other side of this is that tech talent is in demand and this is a fringe issue that has nothing to do with the job. This question will immediately put you on the "I don't want to work there" list. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. You would get the same reaction if you asked "How many guns do you own?" or "We cater lunch on Friday and like to keep it simple, do you have a problem eating meat?".

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  14. John Doe says:

    I agree with Simon, and actually would be more suspicious of a person who is confident in that they know the causes and the solutions: chances are that it would indeed be an activist, not merely a polite and nice person.

  15. Roh says:

    > My job isn't to spend time worrying about whether the gender balance is right..

    Then you are *precisely* the problem.

    And no, it's not "the liberals" who cause problems on teams. It's the "let's bury our head in the sand blah blah it's not my job to worry about treating people decently" folks.

    Yeah, and you special snowflakes who don't want to work at a place where questions like this get asked? Let MY company know up front - we'll save a lot of time in weeding you out and sending you back to the minor leagues.

  16. Aapje says:

    Roh, it very telling how you assume that other people are acting indecently towards women in the workplace, because they have different beliefs and/or disagree with your politics.

    Your belief that a person can't treat women the same without being concerned about gender ratios in the workplace is a very radical idea. Many people disagree.

  17. David says:

    I tried to post a longer response and got a 500 server error so I emailed Andy with details.

    For now, I'll just note that if, as described in the 'about' page, Andy lives in France (a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights), then they really should look up Redfearn v UK [2012] ECHR 1878 and consider the possibility that what they propose might be illegal in any ECHR signatory country (and, perhaps, some US states), and there are other reasons why this proposition might not be a good idea.

    If Andy fixes the server problem, maybe they will let me post my longer reply which explains why.

  18. John Star says:

    Terrible idea.

    You forget that the other side can do this. If we start excluding people who disagree with us on socio-political issues, then the other side can do the same, and will do the same if it becomes a norm.

    They can ask the exact same question as you, then just not hire marginalized people for the same answer you would give.

    Which is a better world for marginalized people? One where there is yet another barrier in their way? Or one where companies don't base who they hire on such questions?

    Yes, ideally a marginalized person wouldn't want to work for a company that would reject them using that question, but marginalized people are also marginalized economically and thus often do not have the luxury to spurn such jobs.

    In a more perfect world your idea might be a good one, but we don't live such a world.

  19. Good Luck says:

    It always amazes me how people from countries
    which never were under communism lack self awareness.

    This idea is not new. Weeding off people "suspect politically" is a standard operating procedure in any socialist dictatorship.

    > The person would require more training

    In the soviet block also known as "re-education", i.e. brainwashing for the purpose of producing the "correct" answers.

    > . I think it can easily outweigh a less strong technical background

    A here we have another soviet idea of "points for heritage", which prefers a less intelligent, but more politically certain person than very intelligent one but politically heterodox.

    Read history books people. Feelings are not enough.
    All your ideas has been tried and failed miserably.

    The communist china is a meritocratic oasis compared to what people are proposing here.

  20. Chris says:

    Hello from a communist country! (not any more, but that depends, we just exchanged one total moral system manifesto (lenin) for another (ayn rand) both derived from same literary fiction (Shto delat by Nikolai Czernyshevski (ayn was from russia and read that too!)))

    Points for heritage were actually quite good and were world's best affirmative action. They were used mostly (in fact I know of no other use) in univeristy admissions, which is 1/ quite far up in the social system already, 2/ totally different from Western system in that there were and are no built-in discrimination in the "soft skills" component: no reccomendation letters, CV, no interview (at most and very rarely an oral examination), all coming to a single number either from test or high school diploma. So what they did was few extra points for peasants case would they got 90% points for a highly competitive place, they'd be given extra 5% and actually get in.

    In addition there were invisible colleges and flying universities offering prep courses so the rural peasants stood better chance at of getting into universities.

    There was an ugly side of course, they now call it Jewish Problems https://arxiv.org/abs/1110.1556 However this is blow out of proportion as the examinations vere very hard for everyone, I got a coffin too, and most of course finals would have a coffin or two (instead of putting results on a curve they would give out coffins).

    MUCH larger effects than either affirmation or discrimination would happen because of corruption. It was absolutely normal to see someone not being admitted despite a perfect score and not for a lack of heritage or political points, but to bring them into dean's office with a complaint so they could be probed about how much are they willing to pay.

    At this point one can recall the origin of the notion of meritocracy. The word was coined in the 50's as a satire for UK's classist school system cutting poor off the education and giving undue but "meritocratic" advantage to the elite Etonians who "could better use opportunities" and such. So the historical reality of affirmative actions and meritocracy is they are the same mechanism of propping up, just directed at another preselected group of people.

    Which may be worthwhile to do actually, both systems had resounding success, academic oputput from elite schools was stellar, so it seem to be in fact a political decision in the end.

    I'd be very curious to find out about the broadly damaging negatives of the soviet points system apart from numerus nullus (Harvard had it too) and corruption, I am not aware of any serious critique that is not based on racist and biased American views on women and people of colour affirmative action.

  21. Mircea Popescu says:

    You are a fucking idiot ; go the fuck away.

  22. Good Luck says:

    Chris,

    You forgot to mention that people suspect politically
    were harassed, oftentimes denied admissions, and were practically barred for pursuing any programmes deemed important from the ideological purity perspective like history, law, social sciences.

    Oftentimes studying hard science was the only venue, and in fact many people opposing communist regimes usually ended studying engineering, math, physics and the like.

    > I'd be very curious to find out about the broadly

    Are you kidding me? To this day post-soviet countries universities are struggling.
    Save for STEM fields, social sciences are still recovering after being embedded in structures which promoted bias and the mediocre.

    Soviet academia was a joke save for strategically important hard-science fields, which in fact were effectively spared from "points for heritage" system.

    Also, we are not in 50' anymore. Meritocracy as commonly used refers to judging people solely on predefined technical criteria. Modern asiatic states such as China or Singapore use this system with great success, which is even more amazing considering China up to recently was driven by marxist thinking, which has now been largely relegated to the museum.

    @Mircea Popescu

    Appreciate your valuable input. You are free to be driven by your outrage :)

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  32. fnaf says:

    Rohh, it very telling how you assume that other people are acting indecently towards women in the workplace, because they have different beliefs and/or disagree with your politics.

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  37. Mark says:

    Such questions is the only thing which is going to make people leave the group of the company.

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